Answers to Chapter Eight
Jack Crabtree has provided the following answers to the study questions from chapter eight of The Language of God.
In I Corinthians 9:9-10 Paul argues on the basis of the commandment in the Mosaic Covenant not to muzzle an ox while it is threshing. It is not Paul’s intention to offer a different, less-than-obvious interpretation of that commandment. The commandment to refrain from muzzling an ox while it is threshing is just that—namely, a prohibition against muzzling your ox while it is laboring to thresh grain for you. That this is the original intent of the commandment is inescapable, and in I Corinthians 9:9-10 Paul is not denying that. He is not offering a different interpretation of the command; neither is he offering another level of meaning for the command.
But if not, then why does Paul say, “God is not concerned about oxen, is he?” Is he not thereby denying that the commandment pertains to oxen—even though it appears to do so on the surface? That would be absurd. That is not what his rhetorical question is intended to suggest.
To understand what Paul is driving at by this rhetorical question—God is not concerned about oxen, is he?—we must realize that his point relates not to the MEANING of the commandment, but to the PURPOSE behind God’s issuing it. To understand Paul’s point, we must reflect on this question: WHY does God command the Jew not to muzzle his ox while it is threshing? Is it primarily because (a) God wants to protect oxen from being abused? Or is it primarily because (b) he wants the Jews to be compassionate, empathetic, and grateful people? That is, is it because (a) he is particularly concerned about the welfare of oxen? Or, is it because (b) he does not want his chosen people to be so consumed by greed that—against all compassion and decency—they are willing to treat their animals cruelly in order to maximize their harvest? Paul is answering this question: God’s primary concern is most certainly NOT (a)—the welfare of oxen. Commanding the Jews to be kind, decent, generous, and compassionate to their oxen is more about his concern for the Jews than it is about his concern for their oxen. In other words, it is more about minimizing cruelty among the Jews than it is about minimizing suffering among the oxen. Lions might cruelly and violently eat oxen. God has ordained it. He is not ultimately determined to prevent it. His desire, therefore, is not to make sure that oxen have the optimum experience in this world. Rather, his desire is that human beings have the maximum kindness, compassion, gratitude, and decency—even toward their animals.
How does this point contribute to his argument in I Corinthians 9? His argument runs something like this: if God, in the Law, commanded the people of Israel to be grateful and compassionate toward the oxen that were laboring on their behalf, does it not, therefore, make sense that God would also expect people to be grateful and compassionate toward the servants of God who labor on their behalf by teaching them the gospel? God expects the Jew to share his grain with the ox who labors for him that he might eat. Doesn’t it make even more sense that God would expect the believer to share his material bounty with the servant of the gospel who labors for him that he might enter into eternal life? Is there not something morally and spiritually wrong with a person who would receive the words of eternal life from a servant of the gospel and then begrudge him a share in his material bounty? Would he not be morally deficient in just the same way as a Jew who withheld his grain from the ox who threshed for him? This is the point Paul is trying to convey in I Corinthians 9:9-10.
I am supplying two sets of answers to this study question. I begin with a set of short answers to each of the sub-questions. Following the short answers is an extended discussion of certain features of the questions and the passage they pertain to.
a) No, read in its context, it makes no sense to construe Hosea 11:1 as a prediction of any sort. It was not intended as such.
b) No, it makes no sense to think that Matthew is construing Hosea 11:1 as a prediction of Jesus’ exile in Egypt. It would be a complete distortion of God’s intention in Hosea 11:1 if Matthew were construing it as such a prediction. Unless we are prepared to accuse Matthew of irresponsibly distorting the meaning of Hosea 11:1, we must reject the idea that Matthew is interpreting Hosea 11:1 in this way. As I argued in chapter 8 of The Language of God, there are several options for the meaning of the clause “the scriptures were fulfilled.” Whatever Matthew means, he cannot and does not mean to suggest that Hosea 11:1 is a prediction of Jesus’ exile in Egypt, for it is not a prediction of any sort.
c) Yes. If Jesus’ family had fled to Macedonia rather than Egypt, Matthew could, with equal validity, have claimed that this hypothetical historical event fulfilled Hosea 11:1. The logic behind Matthew’s connecting Hosea 11:1 and Jesus’ flight to Egypt is not dependent upon Egypt being a common element in both. Furthermore, Matthew chooses Hosea 11:1 with its reference to Egypt, not because Jesus’ exile was in Egypt, but because he is drawing a connection between the Exodus (which as it happens occurred in Egypt) and the rescue of Jesus from King Herod. It is an insignificant coincidence that Egypt was the place to which Jesus fled. If Matthew cites this passage—with its direct reference to Egypt—rather than some other equally clear reference to the Exodus and its significance because of this coincidence, then he does so in order to be clever and poetic as he makes his argument, not because it alters or enhances the force of his argument in any way.
d) The connection that Matthew is most likely seeing between Hosea 11:1 and Jesus’ escape to Egypt is this: to protect the possibility that his promises to the children of Abraham might ultimately be fulfilled, God supernaturally intervened to warn Jesus’ family of King Herod’s plot, sending them fleeing to safety in Egypt; correspondingly, God supernaturally intervened to bring Israel out of bondage to Pharaoh in Egypt in order to protect the possibility that his promises to the children of Abraham might ultimately be fulfilled. In both cases, God’s determination to intervene was to guarantee that a possibility remain of fulfilling all that had been promised to the children of Abraham.
So, by what line of reasoning does Matthew conclude that God’s supernaturally warning Jesus’ family of Herod’s plot was a “fulfillment” of Hosea 11:1? His reasoning seems to be something like this:
God made a promise to Abraham. He promised that Abraham’s descendents would be “his people” and that he would be “their God.” In order for that promise to come to pass, the descendents of Abraham would have to survive and become a distinct and identifiable people with the freedom to follow and serve God as they chose. The historical event of the Exodus was the time when the descendents of Abraham became just such a people. It was at the time of the Exodus that God came to the people of Israel and said, “I made a promise to your father Abraham. I have come to make good on it. Let’s go. I’m going to lead you out of your bondage in Egypt, take you to the land I promised, deliver it into your hands, and then you can become my people and serve me there.” Through a series of dramatic displays of divine power, God commenced to liberate the people of Israel from Pharaoh and began the process of making them “his people.” Hosea 11:1 is a reference to precisely this historical event. When Hosea records God as saying, “Out of Egypt I did call my son,” God is reminding Israel of the Exodus event—their beginning as a people called by God into a unique relationship with him. But it is a loaded description of that event. It is intended to allude to all that God supernaturally did to guarantee that an advance was made toward the fulfillment of all that he had promised Abraham and to protect the possibility that all that he promised could be fulfilled eventually. (If the line of Israel had ended under Pharaoh in Egypt, it would have become logically impossible for God’s promises ever to have been fulfilled. Extinction was not a remote or meaningless possibility; it was a real threat. See Exodus 1:8-22.) God went to great and dramatic lengths to guarantee that neither Pharaoh nor anything else would prevent God from accomplishing what he had purposed and promised. The Exodus event, therefore, displays the extent to which God is COMMITTED to fulfill his promises to Abraham.
In the time of David, God’s purposes with respect to the people of Israel are made even clearer. God’s promise to Abraham was that his descendents—Israel—would be his [God’s] people and that he would be their God. What God further revealed to David is that God’s rule over his people Israel would be embodied in the rule of an appointed King, the Messiah. God would impose a righteous rule in and through his Messiah over the children of Abraham. The Exodus event was just the beginning of progress toward such a goal. In the Exodus, God began to forge the people of Israel into a people intended for a unique relationship to God; but he had not yet prepared the Messiah to rule over them. The promise he made to Abraham would not be fulfilled until the Messiah was in place; for the people of Israel would not be “his [God’s] people” until they were prepared to be “his [the Messiah’s] people.” That is where Jesus comes in; for he is that appointed King, the Messiah. This is what Matthew recognizes; and it is this very fact that forms the core around which Matthew is making his point. His connection between the Exodus (as referenced in Hosea 11:1) and Jesus’ flight to safety seems to be based on something like what follows:
Two essential elements needed to be brought into being before the promise that God had made to Abraham could be fulfilled— (i) the people of Israel had to be brought into being as a distinctive people, free to enter into a covenant relationship with God; and (ii) the King who was to embody the rule of God over them had to exist. These were the two crucial pieces that needed to be there. The Exodus was the event wherein the first piece was put in place. Against a great obstacle—Pharaoh, the most powerful king in the world at that time—God supernaturally intervened to make sure that nothing prevented the birth of the people of God as a nation in covenant with God. The birth of Jesus (and his immediate rescue from purposed destruction) was that event where the second piece was put in place. Against another formidable obstacle—the heartless, cruel, and murderous envy of a paranoid King Herod—God again supernaturally intervened to make sure that nothing prevented the birth and survival of his appointed Messiah. These two events parallel one another. Both the Exodus and Jesus’ flight to safety involved God’s supernatural intervention to prevent his promise to Abraham from being hopelessly thwarted. Each event represented the faithfulness of God to fulfill his promise to Abraham with respect to one of the two essential elements of that promise, respectively.
How then does Jesus’ flight to safety in Egypt “fulfill” Hosea 11:1—”Out of Egypt I did call me son”? Here, I think, is what Matthew means: what God did—through a dramatic supernatural intervention—in order to BEGIN to fulfill his promise to Abraham, he did again, by protecting Jesus, to CONTINUE the advance towards fulfilling it. When, through supernatural intervention, God guaranteed the survival of his appointed Messiah (the second, more unique element of God’s promise to Abraham), he even more fully and clearly reveals his commitment to fulfill his promise. The events described in Matthew 2 “fulfill” what is reflected in Hosea 11:1, therefore, because the commitment of God to keep his promise to Abraham is even more fully, more specifically, and more dramatically seen in this preservation of his Messiah than it was earlier, in his calling Israel out of Egypt to begin with.
Matthew’s purpose in citing Hosea 11:1 here is to highlight the significance of Jesus’ rescue from Herod as another example of something that he is developing as a theme in this early portion of his gospel: namely, in Jesus we see the hesed of God—God’s faithfulness to see to it that his longstanding promises to Israel are fulfilled.
Extended Discussion of the Interpretation of Matthew 2:13-15
If we are to understand Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15, the place to begin is to go to chapter 11 of Hosea. One of the things that I would hope became clear through the perspectives we outlined in Language of God is the need to understand an Old Testament passage in its own right before we attempt to understand how a New Testament author is using it. One of the greatest obstacles to understanding how the New Testament authors view the Old Testament is an overly hasty judgment as to what the New Testament author intends to say when he cites an Old Testament text.
An operating assumption that I have—over time—come to adopt (and have seen repeatedly vindicated) is the assumption that the New Testament authors are intelligent, insightful men who have a good and profound grasp of both the meaning and significance of the Old Testament text they are citing. I assume that they are NOT playing silly, contrived, and meaningless word games with the Old Testament text; rather, I assume that they are reflecting on its real meaning and its real significance. But if this assumption is correct, then I cannot understand why a New Testament author cites an Old Testament reference without understanding what he understands the meaning and significance of that Old Testament text to be. And if I must understand what the New Testament author takes to be the meaning and significance of an Old Testament text, then it is absolutely essential that I arrive at my own independent judgment with respect to what that Old Testament text means and with respect to what its significance is. If I do not, I will not be in a position to see what the New Testament author sees. He can point to it; but I will not see it, for I will be too ill-informed and ignorant to do so. When the New Testament authors “point” to some important aspect of truth by citing an Old Testament text, they are assuming that I, the reader, am in a position to see that truth for myself in the language of the Old Testament text. Accordingly, we must always begin by seeking to understand the Old Testament text itself, in its original context in the Old Testament. Otherwise, we will be unable to understand the connection the New Testament author is making between the truth expressed in that Old Testament text and something in the life, teaching, or significance of Jesus.
As a digression, it is important to recognize how inadequately equipped most of us are to understand an Old Testament text. Most statements in the Old Testament assume, as their background, the entirety of the history of Israel as chronicled and explored in the Old Testament. Being, for the most part, illiterate in the literature of the Old Testament, we are at a huge disadvantage when it comes to the question of understanding any particular Old Testament citation. The New Testament authors did not have that disadvantage. They are well versed in the literature of the Old Testament. And they know that any particular verse in the Old Testament finds its meaning in relation to the whole Old Testament as its background. Therefore, ultimately, if we are to truly understand how the New Testament authors view and employ the text of the Old Testament, we must become careful students of the Old Testament and become as well-versed in the meaning and significance of its literature as they were. In any event, to understand Matthew 2:15 we must begin by seeking to understand Hosea 11:1-12.
What is the message of Hosea generally? Reading through the prophecies of Hosea, we discover that Hosea is proclaiming God’s warning to the Northern Kingdom. The Northern Kingdom has been disobedient to Yahweh. Yahweh (God) is about to judge them by bringing the Assyrians against them to destroy their land and take them into captivity. Hosea is sent by God to interpret the events that are about to take place and yet to offer them hope for the future. Israel (the Northern Kingdom) is about to be destroyed precisely because they have disregarded Yahweh, their God. But God has not forgotten the promises he has made to their fathers. Hence, they will not be destroyed. One day God will restore them and keep his promises to them.
So what is the specific message in Hosea 11:1-12? The message is simple enough. We could summarize what God is saying something like this:
When you were slaves in Egypt, I invited you to come out of Egypt in order to come and be my people. But the more I sent my prophets to extend my invitation to you, the more you disregarded me and served false gods instead. I did not ignore nor neglect you. I nurtured you, guided you, fed you, instructed you, and healed you. But you didn’t even notice that it was I who was doing such things. Because you have stubbornly disregarded my loving care and refused to serve me, I am going to judge you. I will not send you into bondage in Egypt again; rather I will send you to be subservient to the king of Assyria. But I cannot bring myself to forsake you. I cannot abandon you to total destruction. My heart is too committed to you to let you be destroyed. I will one day restore you to the land I have given you. I will call to you once again, and you will return to this land and you will serve me (“walk after the LORD”) in that day and I will make you prosper.
But to understand how Matthew is using Hosea 11:1—the opening verse of this particular prophecy by Hosea—we need to delve more deeply into the meaning of Hosea 11:1 in particular. Let us examine some specific questions:
1) The first question concerns the meaning of the clause “when Israel was a youth I loved him.” Who exactly is being denoted by the name Israel in this clause; in other words, who is being described as the object of God’s love? And, further, what does it mean to describe Israel as a “youth”?
There are two distinct possibilities for the denotation of the name “Israel”. It could be the man, Jacob (later renamed Israel)—the son of Isaac. Or, it could be the community of people who trace their lineage to Jacob. Which is being described by God as being the object of his “love”? Was it Jacob in his youth whom God loved? Or was it the people of Israel in their infancy that God loved?
While both are undoubtedly true, the latter seems to be what God is describing in Hosea 11:1. It seems highly likely that the two clauses of Hosea 11:1 are intended to work in parallel to one another, each helping to qualify and elucidate the other. If that is the case, the Israel that, while “young,” was “loved” by God is the one that was called out of Egypt. Certainly the man Jacob was not called out of Egypt; it was a community of people who were descended from him.
In what sense can it be said that Israel—a community of people—was “young” when they were called out of Egypt? There are two plausible possibilities I think. If we look at it from the standpoint of how long Israel—the descendents of Jacob—have had such an identity, they are quite young, for they are only a few generations removed from Jacob himself, their patriarch. When Hosea is proclaiming his prophecy, Israel is several more generations removed from Jacob than that community that experienced the Exodus. Hence, God can aptly describe Israel at the time of the Exodus as in its “youth” relative to the Israel that is receiving the prophetic word from Hosea. But there is another possible sense to the description as well: from the sense of the very statement that is being made in Hosea 11:1, there is a sense in which Israel, as a significant people, do not really come to BE, until the event of the Exodus. Until the Exodus, Israel is a group of people who trace their lineage to Jacob (Israel), their father. They have the memory and knowledge of a promise God made to their fathers; but except for the tradition of such a revelation, they have nothing else to show for their distinctiveness as a people. But after the Exodus, Israel has, in dramatic fashion, come face-to-face with the concrete possibility of existing as that people whom God had promised to make them. The people who experienced the Exodus, therefore, can in a very real sense be considered the very first generation of Israel—the people who were inaugurated into their status as God’s people. In that sense, therefore, the generation that experienced the Exodus could obviously be described as “young,” for they were newly born. From either perspective, then, God can aptly describe the people of Israel as a “youth” at the time of the Exodus.
2) The second question—still with respect to that same clause—is this: exactly what does God mean when he says that when Israel was a youth, he “loved” him? In the Old Testament, when God is said to “love” someone, it generally refers to the fact that God has purposed to do something for him that is good. God says through Malachi:
“I have loved you, says the LORD. But you say, “How have You loved us?” “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the LORD. “Yet I have loved Jacob; but I have hated Esau, and I have made his mountains a desolation and appointed his inheritance for the jackals of the wilderness.” [Mal. 1:2-3]
God is not speaking of his emotional experience. He is not saying that he is fond of Jacob, while he has animosity toward Esau. Rather, he is speaking of his resolve and purpose. He has purposed to script history in such a way that Jacob is blessed with blessings that Esau will not receive. Esau is being denied, Jacob is not. Jacob will receive good from the hand of God; Esau will not—at least not the same blessing. Hence, to be loved by God is to receive good from his hand. Correspondingly, to be hated by God is to not receive that same good. Therefore, when God says, “when Israel was a youth I loved him,” he is saying, “when Israel was in its infancy as a people, I manifest my resolve to bless them, to grant them a very good thing.” The very next clause—working in parallel with the first one—makes explicit what action God took on the basis of this resolve to bless Israel: namely, he summoned them to come out of Egypt in order that they might begin to relate to Him as his “son.” This was the beginning of God’s blessing of Israel—for to be God’s “son” was the substance of the blessing he had in store for them from the beginning.
3) The third question concerns the second clause, “out of Egypt I called my son.” The first question with regard to this clause is this: in what sense is Israel God’s “son”?
Here in the context of Hosea, “son” seems to designate a relationship of special favor with respect to God. The ancient promise to Abraham with respect to his “seed” was that He would be their God, and they would be his people. The seed of Abraham, Israel, was being promised a relationship to God wherein they would have special favor. In Hosea, God seems to employ the label “son” with respect to Israel to describe this same favored relationship. Hence, what elsewhere he means when he uses the description “my people,” in Hosea he describes by means of the label “son.”
It would be easy to misunderstand what God is saying here. When God (in Hosea) refers to Israel as his “son,” he is speaking from the standpoint of the promises that he had made to Abraham; he is speaking from the standpoint of His own resolve to accomplish his purposes; he is not speaking from the standpoint of an existing reality. Israel had not then and—from ancient times down through today—has never yet entered into an active relationship with God as his “son.” The promise made to Abraham in ages past has yet to be fulfilled. So Israel, in the time of the Exodus, was not God’s son in substance, only in promise. But they were God’s “son” in promise; so the designation is appropriate. But while they can appropriately be called God’s “son,” God’s “call” to Israel was to come out of Egypt in order to enter into a relationship with God where they would begin to act and behave as God’s son. God’s “call” or “summons” was, in this sense, an invitation to Israel to come and become God’s son. That is, an invitation to become in reality what they had only until then been in promise. In a sense God is saying, “Come out of Egypt and, by keeping the covenant that I will make with you, enter into a unique relationship with me wherein you could aptly be called “my son.”
Understood in this way, verse 2 follows meaningfully: “But the more they [the prophets (but it could be I, referring to God)] called Israel, the more they [the people of Israel] departed from them [the prophets (but it could be from me, referring to God)].” And consider what God says a few verses later: “Though they call them (him=Israel) to the one who is on high, no one at all exalts him.” [Hosea 11:7] This probably refers to the prophets of God “calling” [inviting] the people of Israel to be the people of God by serving him and him alone. If this is what it means, then the prophets, several generations past the Exodus, are still “calling” Israel to be God’s “son”. So, several generations after the Exodus, it has not yet happened. That is, Israel, in the time of Hosea, has not yet actually taken on any identity as a “son” to God. That is why they are about to be judged by God in the form of an Assyrian invasion. While God has invited them to enter into such a relationship, they have refused it. The “call” of God to be His people was repeatedly extended to the people of Israel throughout their generations by God’s prophets, but the more they—the people of God according to God’s promise and purpose—were invited to behave like the people of God they were destined to be, the more stubbornly they refused to act like such.
4) The fourth question is this: in the second clause, what does God mean by “out of Egypt I called my son”? The surface meaning of this statement is quite straightforward—namely, in the events surrounding the Exodus, God was summoning or inviting Israel to leave Egypt. Why? We know from the account in the book of Exodus that he wanted them to come out into the wilderness of Sinai in order to make a covenant with him and serve him as their God. But to fully understand all that God means to communicate in this statement, we must pay attention to its background. God’s summoning Israel out of Egypt was not a simple, quiet invitation. Indeed, it was one of the most dramatic displays of supernatural power and authority that has ever occurred in the entire history of humanity. God’s “call” to Israel was against the opposition of the most powerful human king in the world of that time—the Pharaoh of Egypt—whose own purposes opposed the purposes of God. In order to lead Israel out of Egypt, God demonstrated repeatedly his reality, his power, his supremacy, and the firmness of his resolve to accomplish his purposes with respect to Israel. God had made a promise. He had determined to begin the process whereby he would keep that promise. And no one was going to thwart his purposes—not even Pharaoh. So, while the show of supernatural power and the clear and manifest reality of God intervening in history is not explicit in the statement “out of Egypt I called my son,” yet it is unmistakably a prominent aspect of what God intends to communicate by that statement. Given the knowledge that Israel would have had of the events surrounding the Exodus, it is a statement loaded with allusions to the powerful and faithful resolve of God to do what he has promised—even against all opposition.
• • •
Having examined the meaning of Hosea 11:1, we can see that it gives succinct expression to a very profound and important theological truth: God has committed himself to making Israel his people and to making them acknowledge him as their God. This is the “love” that he has shown them—that is to say, that is the good thing he has resolved to do in their history. Specifically, God has committed himself to bringing about a wonderful reality in the history of those who identify themselves as Israel—he has committed himself to bringing it about that they will faithfully serve him and he will uniquely bless and protect them. The beginning of God’s acting in history to bring this reality about was at the time of the Exodus. In the events of the Exodus, God inaugurated his efforts to turn the people of Israel into the people of God. Before the Exodus, it was a promise God had made, but had never acted on. In the time of Moses, God began to act on that promise. Accordingly, in describing the Exodus, God puts it, “Out of Egypt, I summoned my son.”
It is at this point where the background of the rest of the Old Testament becomes crucial to understanding the significance of this passage:
First of all, what did it look like when God summoned his “son” out of Egypt? As already suggested, it was a spectacular event where the power, presence, and reality of God were made as manifest as ever it was in all of human history. There was no mistaking the fact that God was bringing Israel out of captivity to the Egyptians in order that his purposes—that Israel might serve him—might be accomplished. This is implicit in what Hosea is saying in Hosea 11:1. “Out of Egypt I called my son” is not a statement describing a simple, straightforward migration of a people. It was one of the most dramatic displays of divine power in the whole history of mankind. God supernaturally intervened to thwart the purpose and stubborn resolve of the most powerful man on the earth at that time [Pharaoh] in order to accomplish the purposes that he [God] had set out to accomplish. The statement—”out of Egypt I called my son”—is intended to allude to that reality. God worked mightily to bring it about that his people would be free to enter into a covenant relationship with him at Sinai.
Secondly, what will it look like when God finally brings it about that Israel is his people and he is their God? Further revelation by God’s prophets fills out the picture. God is going to rule over the people of Israel and exercise his authority over them in a particular way: through his appointed Messiah ruling on his behalf, exercising the very authority of God himself in God’s stead. Therefore, the very thing to which God was committing himself when he “called” Israel out of Egypt in the time of Moses cannot possibly be realized until God’s appointed Messiah enters into history. Without the Messiah, there can be no people of God, serving and obeying him; for it is the Messiah, by God’s own ordained plan, who will bring the righteous rule of God to Israel. The promise already implicit within the events of the Exodus, therefore, cannot be realized until the Messiah comes on the scene. But what if the Messiah has come, what then? Then, the invitation to Israel to behave like the “son” God has destined them to be is all the more urgent and compelling. It is all the more relevant; for, with the Messiah on the scene, God is poised—to an extent not previously true—to do what he had resolved to do in the time of Moses: to make Israel his people. The presence of the Messiah makes the invitation to Israel to be God’s “son” all the more urgent and compelling—for the time for it to happen is at hand, like it has never before been.
We are finally in a position to understand the connection Matthew is seeing between the birth of Jesus and Hosea 11:1. As a student of the promises of God to Abraham, Matthew understands that two things are logically required for God’s promises to Abraham to be fulfilled: (1) there must be an Israel to rule—that is, the people of Israel must exist as a distinct and identifiable people; and (2) there must be a King (a Messiah) to rule over Israel. There is, therefore, an interesting parallel between the Exodus event and the birth of Jesus. The Exodus event was, in a very real sense, the birth, the inauguration, of Israel—the first essential element to God’s promises being fulfilled; and the birth of Jesus was the birth, the inauguration, of the Messiah—the second essential element to God’s promises being fulfilled.
The parallel does not stop here. In both the Exodus event and the birth of Jesus, opponents of the purposes of God pose a significant threat to those purposes. If Pharaoh had succeeded in his purposes, there would have been no Israel left to BE the people of God. If Herod had succeeded in his purposes, there would have been no Messiah left to embody the rule of God over Israel. Both events embody significant and dramatic threats to the promises of God.
Related to that, in both events God demonstrates—clearly and dramatically—his resolve. He will bring about his purposes against any and all obstacles. Nothing will thwart him. In the Exodus event God intervened dramatically, through supernatural acts, to free the nation of Israel from their bondage in Egypt and, ultimately, to preserve them from eventual destruction. In the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, God intervened directly and dramatically to preserve his Messiah from destruction. In both events, the faithfulness and resolve of God is evident. He will keep his promises; his purposes will be fulfilled—even if it involves supernatural intervention to bring it about.
One of the most significant features shared by both the Exodus event and the events surrounding the birth of Jesus is the personification of a diabolic hostility to the purposes of God. Pharaoh embodies the opposition to God’s purposes in the Exodus event; King Herod embodies that same opposition in the birth-of-Jesus narrative. Pharaoh and King Herod are, in their own time, the personification of rebellious opposition to God and to the accomplishment of his purposes. Both events, accordingly, describe divine rescue in the face of the destructive purposes of those powerful forces who oppose God. God not only rescues specific people (Israel / Jesus); but—in so doing—he also rescues his own promises and purposes from being destroyed.
• • •
The parallel described above between the Exodus and Jesus’ flight to Egypt seems clear enough. But how does this make Jesus’ escape to Egypt a “fulfillment” of Hosea 11:1? Clearly, Matthew thinks that Hosea 11:1, in some sense, “says” something that is also “said” by Jesus’ being rescued from King Herod. Surely, only in this sense is what Hosea 11:1 “says” fleshed out (or, fulfilled) by the circumstances of Jesus escaping to Egypt. So what is it that is being “said” by, “Out of Egypt I called my son”? What is its point, its significance?
If I have rightly understood Hosea 11:1, the point that Matthew sees in Hosea 11:1 is this: in the Exodus event, God dramatically and powerfully revealed his commitment and resolve to see that his promise to Abraham would be fulfilled. God’s character and resolve—as manifest in the events of the Exodus—is such that he is completely committed to doing what he promised. He is completely committed to making of the descendents of Abraham a people that belong to him and that serve him as their God; he is completely committed to ruling over them in righteousness. Nothing will prevent him from keeping this promise; he will keep it against any and every obstacle or threat, even to the point of supernatural intervention.
In Matthew 2:15 it is likely, I think, that Matthew is saying something like this: what “Out of Egypt I called my son” conveys with respect to the character, purpose, and commitments of God is just as clearly manifest in God’s protection of his Son, Jesus, as it is in His protection of his people (his “son”) Israel. Indeed, what was revealed about God in the Exodus event was even more dramatically revealed in the rescue of Jesus from Herod. In this sense, therefore, Hosea 11:1 is “fulfilled” or “filled up” by the rescue of Jesus from King Herod.
In Jesus’ protection from the murderous plot of Herod, we see even more poignantly and dramatically than in the Exodus event that God is committed to seeing that his promises are fulfilled. He will allow no one and no thing to thwart him—even if he must supernaturally intervene. Arguably, God displayed more power and might in the Exodus event than he did in the preservation of the baby Jesus; but the latter event is more poignant and dramatic than the former, for in the latter the threat was more focused. In the plot to kill Jesus, the threat to the fulfillment of God’s purposes is more focused and in a sense, therefore, greater. The Messiah is a more vulnerable aspect of God’s purposes than is the existence of the people of Israel. If you destroy 99% of the people of Israel, there still remains the possibility of restoring them as a people. If you destroy the one and only Messiah sent by God, you have effectively eliminated any possibility of God fulfilling the specific promises to Israel as he had intended to fulfill them. Hence, saving the one-and-only Messiah from immediate, impending destruction is a more obvious and dramatic “save” than saving an entire populace from eventual destruction by freeing them from their bondage under Pharaoh. It is very likely, I think, that Matthew has this in mind when he says that the rescue of Jesus from the murderous aspirations of Herod “makes full” the words of Hosea, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” It makes it “full” in the sense that it fills out, more fully than even the original Exodus event, the resolve of God to protect and guarantee the fulfillment his promises to Israel. Both events do that, of course. And indeed, both events were essential to the fulfillment of his promises. But the latter event (the rescue of Jesus) more clearly, more manifestly, more dramatically, and more poignantly embodies God’s resolve to protect the fulfillment of his promises. It is not that the rescue of Jesus was more powerfully supernatural than the Exodus; it was not. But it was more dramatic in the sense that the threat was so much more obvious, immediate, specific, serious, and urgent than it was in the time of the Exodus.
In this early portion of his gospel, where Matthew narrates the events surrounding the birth of Jesus, he seeks to spell out the significance of Jesus’ birth. The points he makes in this regard are such that they would are meaningful only to a primarily Jewish audience. Exactly this is the case when he cites Hosea 11:1. The point he wants to make to the Jews is this: the birth of Jesus and the events surrounding his birth were a very remarkable event in the life of Israel. God’s promises to Israel included the promise of a king who would rule in righteousness over a righteous Israel. Jesus was that promised king. Jesus’ birth, therefore, was the beginning of God’s fulfillment of that particular element of his promise. Since Jesus, and only he, was destined to be the fulfillment of that particular element, Herod’s murderous plot to kill Jesus was a very significant threat to the fulfillment of God’s promise. Had Herod succeeded, God’s promises would have been irreversibly thwarted; their fulfillment rendered absolutely impossible. By supernaturally intervening to protect Jesus (thereby protecting the possibility of his promises being realized), God dramatically demonstrated his faithfulness and resolve to bring his promises to pass. This very point seems to be one of Matthew’s primary themes in chapter 2: to demonstrate how Jesus’ birth reveals God’s faithfulness (his hesed) with respect to his promises to his people Israel. Suggesting that God’s protection of Jesus paralleled God’s deliverance of his people from Egypt in the Exodus (as expressed in Hosea 11:1) advances this very theme.
a) Jeremiah 31:15 is a prediction; but it is not a prediction of the mourning of the mothers in Bethlehem shortly after the time of Jesus’ birth. Rather, it is a prediction of the mourning of the mothers in Judah when the Babylonians would overrun Judah, devastate their land, kill many, and take others captive.
b) Matthew did NOT understand Jeremiah 31:15 to be a prediction of the mourning of Bethlehem’s mothers shortly after the time of Jesus’ birth.
c). Jeremiah 31:15 describes the emotional trauma resulting to the people of Israel because of the concrete opposition to God and his purposes that exists within history. In Jeremiah 31:16, God tells Israel that—sometime after their captivity in Babylon—they will return “from the land of the enemy.” Revelation 12:4 attributes opposition to the purposes of God to the great dragon. The great dragon (either Satan himself or perhaps it could be a metaphor for all the evil opposition to God in the world)) is intent on thwarting God’s purposes by destroying the chosen people of God or by otherwise preventing God from keeping his promises to them. (It is arguable that Revelation 12:4 is a symbolic representation of the evil purpose behind this very event described here in Matthew 2:16-18—the purpose of Satan to destroy God’s appointed Messiah.) Satan’s purpose behind the Babylonians’ coming against Judah was to destroy them and prevent God from accomplishing what he had promised with respect to them. Exactly that same purpose lay behind Herod’s being incited to attempt to murder Jesus. Both events were emotionally devastating to a portion of the Jewish people. Hence, both the mourning of the mothers of Israel at the time of the Babylonian invasion and the mourning of the mothers of Bethlehem at the time of Herod’s slaughter were fallout from the abiding active opposition of Satan to God and his purposes. This is what Matthew is trying to communicate in Matthew 2:17. The weeping of the mothers in Bethlehem “fulfills” the words of Jeremiah in Jeremiah 31:15—referring to the Babylonian captivity—in the sense that the same historical dynamic that led to the weeping of “Rachel” in Jeremiah 31:15 has led once again to the weeping of “Rachel” in the slaughter of the innocent babies in Bethlehem. That is, the slaughter of the babies in Bethlehem fully embodies (=fulfills) the same historical dynamic that led to the violent destruction brought upon Judah by the Babylonians; namely, the opposition of Satan (or of the spirit of hostility to God in this world) to God’s accomplishing his purposes. Matthew’s purpose for including this in his gospel is most likely to make an indirect argument for the Messiahship of Jesus. If Satan’s abiding agenda to thwart God’s purpose leads to him incite Herod to seek to destroy Jesus, then what does that tell us about Jesus? Does it not suggest that Jesus is central to the purposes of God? That is consistent with all the other evidence that Jesus is the appointed Messiah.
I am supplying two sets of answers to this study question. I begin with a set of short answers to each of the sub-questions. Following the short answers is an extended discussion of certain features of the passage to which these questions pertain.
a) As the question informs us, “he shall be called a Nazarene” cannot be found anywhere in the Old Testament text. Accordingly, Matthew cannot mean that Jesus’ childhood in Nazareth is the fulfillment of some Old Testament prediction; there is no such prediction. More likely, Matthew is suggesting that something predicted about the Messiah in the Old Testament prophets is aptly captured by what “he shall be called a Nazarene” conveys to his intended audience. While it would be inappropriate for Matthew to claim that any prophet ever wrote the words “he shall be called a Nazarene”; it is completely appropriate to attribute such a claim to the prophets—if the substance of what such a claim would mean to Matthew’s readers was indeed a part of what the prophets had predicted. This latter, I believe, is what Matthew is asserting. He is saying that the substance of what the prophets predicted concerning the Messiah is accurately conveyed by the claim, “he shall be called a Nazarene.” The question, of course, is this: what would the assertion “he shall be called a Nazarene” convey to Matthew’s audience?
b) As maintained in the answer to (a) above, Matthew does no attribute the verbatim claim—”he shall be called a Nazarene”—to any of the prophets. Rather, Matthew is contending that the meaning and significance of what the words “he shall be called a Nazarene” convey is something that the Old Testament prophets taught concerning the Messiah. In other words, what the substance of those words would convey to Matthew’s audience, that is what the Old Testament prophets predicted with respect to the Messiah. (Note that Matthew attributes the prediction to “the prophets” [plural]. He does not name a particular prophet; neither does he refer to a singular unnamed prophet. He claims that the prophets [plural] predicted this. This is consistent with the contention that this is not a verbatim quote of any one prophet in particular.)
So, what would those words have conveyed to Matthew’s intended audience? In all likelihood, the words “he shall be called a Nazarene” would have meant something like “he will be a much despised and hated human being” So, when Matthew claims that the prophets predicted that Jesus would be “called a Nazarene,” he is not claiming that the prophets predicted that the label ‘Nazarene’ would be used of Jesus; rather, he is claiming that the prophets predicted that Jesus would BE what his audience knows of as ‘a Nazarene’. That is to say, the prophets predicted that the Messiah would be a much-despised person, rejected by his own people and treated with nothing but contempt.
c) As stated already, the Messiah’s childhood in Nazareth was not predicted by any Old Testament prophet. It makes no sense, therefore, to assume that Matthew believed it was. Clearly, Matthew is suggesting something else. In all likelihood, what Matthew has in mind as “what was spoken through the prophets” is this: the prophets’ prediction that the Messiah would be held in contempt by the people of his own generation.
Matthew seems to understand the label ‘Nazarene’ as a term of reproach. When someone is called a “Nazarene,” the very label itself conveys contempt for the one being so labeled. So, insofar as the Old Testament prophets predicted that the Messiah would be despised and rejected by his own generation, they were predicting that he would be (in the idiom of Matthew’s own readers) a “Nazarene.” Understood this way, it is not the fact that Jesus was raised in Nazareth that fulfills the predictions of the Old Testament prophets; rather, it is the fact that he was despised and rejected by his generation that fulfills these prophetic predictions. But if it is this rejection by his own generation and not the place of Jesus’ childhood that is the fulfillment of “he shall be called a Nazarene,” then why does Matthew seem to connect Jesus’ having his childhood in Nazareth with the prediction “he shall be called a Nazarene”? What correlation does Matthew see between the prediction and the place of Jesus’ childhood? Does he intend to connect Jesus’ being despised with his having his childhood in Nazareth? That is not likely. Rather, the connection Matthew is making is less direct: Jesus came to be called a “Nazarene” because he was from Nazareth. Jesus came to be held in contempt by the people of his generation—fulfilling what the prophets had predicted. Accordingly, the label “Nazarene” became a term of reproach. By the time Matthew wrote his gospel, “Nazarene” was so unambiguously a term of reproach (analogous to the term “fundamentalist” in today’s usage) that Matthew could describe the prediction that the Messiah would be treated with contempt by stating it as the prediction that “he would be called a Nazarene.”
For a more thorough discussion of exactly how Matthew intends to connect Jesus’ upbringing in Nazareth with the prophets’ prediction that he would be treated with contempt, see the extended discussion below.
Extended Discussion of the Interpretation of Matthew 2:19-23
To understand what Matthew is suggesting in this passage, we need to discern what significance Matthew attaches to Jesus’ being called a “Nazarene.” Is there any significance to that title—beyond having Nazareth for a home? Evidence within the Bible itself points to two possibilities:
(1) The first possibility is that to be called a Nazarene is to be called a “nobody.” In John 1, when Nathanael is told by Philip that they have discovered the One and that he is Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph, Nathanael responds, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Presumably, Nathanael was responding to the fact that Nazareth was such a small, insignificant place. How could anything as important as the Messiah is come from a place that was as unimportant as Nazareth is? (Nazareth was, in fact, a small insignificant village a few miles distant from Sephoris, the most important city of Galilee at that time.) It seemed implausible to Nathanael that the Messiah would come from Nazareth—a sleepy, unimportant village. So, the first possibility is that Jesus’ being called a “Nazarene” was significant insofar as it meant that Jesus would be a man of humble and unimportant roots and social standing. Do the prophets, in fact, make this claim about Jesus? Yes, I think so—in a number of places and in a number of different ways. But there is a problem with interpreting Matthew to be suggesting this. When Nathanael says, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth,” is it because it is Nazareth per se? Or would Nathanael have said the same thing had Jesus come from any of the scores of other insignificant Galilean villages? In other words, is it the name of Nazareth, specifically, that carries with it the meaning of unimportance and insignificance to Nathanael? Or is it simply the fact that the alleged One that Philip says he has found is someone from a place that Nathanael knows to be unimportant and insignificant. The latter option seems to be the more likely. We have no reason to think that Nazareth has some special and notable reputation for insignificance—not any more than any other village of Galilee. Nathanael’s remark is completely explicable simply in terms of the fact that Jesus is being said to hail from a small Galilean village. That, and that alone, is sufficient to provoke Nathanael’s remark. Therefore, I don’t think we can conclude that the title ‘Nazarene’ per se carried with it a connotation of unimportance and insignificance. While it would be possible that what Matthew had in mind was to point out that the prophets had predicted that Jesus would be of unimpressive and unimportant roots, I don’t think that is what Matthew is doing. He had something else in view—the second possibility below.
(2) The other possibility is that to be called a Nazarene is to be called something contemptuous—analogous to being called today (in the relevant context) a Nazi, a Fascist, a Communist, a Right-Winger, or a Fundamentalist. Every language and culture uses certain terms that automatically convey, in the very use of them, the contempt of the person employing the term. “Nazarene,” it would appear, came to be such a term in late first-century Palestinian Jewish culture. To call someone a “Nazarene” was, in the very use of the term, to heap contempt upon them. “He is a Nazarene” was tantamount to saying, “He is one of those despicable Nazarenes.” The fact that a Nazarene is a despicable person who should not be taken seriously simply became a taken-for-granted cultural assumption during that time. We have evidence for this in the book of Acts. After Paul was put in custody by the Roman centurion in Jerusalem, he was taken to the procurator’s residence in Caesarea to be tried by the procurator Felix. The Jewish leaders came to Caesarea to make their case against Paul. The Jewish leaders hired a rhetorician named Tertullus to present their case and to prosecute Paul. In the course of his addressing Felix and presenting the case against Paul, Tertullus accuses Paul of being a “ringleader of the faction of the Nazarenes.” [protostaten te tes ton Nazoraion haireseos — Acts 24:5] Two things are noteworthy about this accusation: (i) This is the only place in the whole New Testament where the term “Nazarene” is used to describe a disciple of Jesus. It is used a number of places to refer to the man Jesus himself (indeed, the most commonly used title for Jesus seems to have been “Jesus of Nazareth” or “Jesus the Nazarene”); but nowhere, except in this speech by Tertullus, is the term “Nazarenes” used to describe the disciples of Jesus. (2) Never do Christian believers call themselves “Nazarenes” in the pages of the New Testament. Here alone—in the mouth of a person seeking to turn Felix against Paul and convict him of a grave crime—do we have a follower of Jesus referred to as a “Nazarene.” These two facts do not constitute strong evidence; for the evidence is too scanty. But they certainly suggest an interesting possibility: namely, that, at this point in history, ‘faction of the Nazarenes’ was an inherently derogatory term, intended to suggest that such people were contemptible and, possibly, dangerous. When Tertullus states that Paul is a leading figure in the “faction of the Nazarenes,” he is intending—by the very words he has chosen to describe Paul—to prejudice Felix against Paul. This would only work if the term ‘Nazarene’ had an inherently negative connotation in that time and place. This seems likely to me. Tertullus’ describing Paul as a leader of the “faction of the Nazarenes” at that time would be like accusing Paul of being “a leading religious fundamentalist” in our day and age. It would be to automatically suggest that he was a dangerous and contemptible human being who does not deserve to live, let alone to be free to pursue his contemptible purposes.
If this is right, then, at the time Matthew is writing his gospel, to call someone a “Nazarene” is to express one’s contempt for the person. So, when Matthew implies that the prophets predicted of Jesus that he would be called a “Nazarene,” he means, I think, that the prophets had predicted of the Messiah that he would be despised, rejected by the very people he came to serve and to save. Certainly this is the prediction of the prophets. In a variety of ways and in a number of different places, the prophets predict with respect to the Messiah that he will be contemptuously rejected by the very people over whom God had appointed him King.
This much makes a great deal of sense. The problem that arises is when we try to understand exactly what Matthew is claiming in Matthew 2. The NASV translation reads: “…and [he] came and lived in a city called Nazareth. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.’” This translation would seem to suggest that Matthew is claiming that the fact that Jesus spent his childhood in Nazareth is a fulfillment of what the prophets had taught. Is that what Matthew is saying? Or, if not, then what?
There are other ways to translate Matthew’s words. The major English translations take hopos to mean something like “in order that” or “so that.” The translators seem to be interpreting Matthew to be saying that Jesus was taken to Nazareth for the very purpose of fulfilling what the prophets had predicted with respect to Jesus—namely, that he would be called a Nazarene. Or, perhaps that Jesus was taken to Nazareth with the net result being that what the prophets had predicted with respect to Jesus—that he would be called a Nazarene—would come to pass. Either way, the Greek of Matthew does not need to be construed this way. The word hopos—translated “that”—is not the Greek word that is typically used to convey the purpose or net result of some action. I would argue that Matthew is not using hopos to mean “that” or “in order that.” Rather, he is using it to draw a weaker connection with what precedes. He is not using it to introduce either the purpose or the result. I would suggest that it be translated something more like “even so” or—even better—”in connection with this” (where it begins a new thought, a new sentence).
To summarize: the majority of translations render this statement “he lived in Nazareth FOR THE PURPOSE OF fulfilling what was predicted by the prophets, namely, that he would be called a Nazarene.” Or, “he lived in Nazareth WITH THE RESULT THAT what was predicted by the prophets was fulfilled, namely, that he would be called a Nazarene.” But I submit that both of these misrepresent what Matthew is saying. Matthew is saying, rather, “he lived in Nazareth. IN CONNECTION WITH THIS FACT, what was predicted by the prophets came to be fulfilled … .” Or perhaps, “he lived in Nazareth. A propos of this, what was predicted by the prophets came to be fulfilled … .”
Accordingly, I think a better translation of Matthew’s statement would read: “In connection with this, what was spoken through the prophets was fulfilled… .” Or even better, I think, it would read: “In connection with this would what was spoken through the prophets come to be fulfilled… .” The latter translation takes the aorist tense of “fulfill” in a sense that grammarians would call an ingressive aorist. These are the first adjustments to be made to the translation of Matthew’s assertion.
There is a second set of adjustments we must make to the majority of English translations. The majority of English translations translate hoti as “that”—and, specifically, to be introducing what it is that the prophets “said” regarding the Messiah. Namely, what the prophets said was THAT [hoti] he would be called a Nazarene. But it is well-known that hoti can also mean “because.” If we take it as “because,” we have an alternative way to understand what Matthew is saying:
…and [he] came and lived in a city called Nazareth. In connection with this would what was spoken through the prophets come to be fulfilled because he will be called a Nazarene.
To understand what Matthew would mean by such a claim we must understand from what perspective Matthew is speaking when he says, “He will be called a Nazarene.” From what standpoint in time is Matthew speaking? When he states that, in the future, Jesus will be called a Nazarene, at what point in time is it in the future with respect to? The reader is tempted to think that he is speaking from a standpoint in time contemporary with the Old Testament prophets to whom he makes mention. But this is misleading, I think. Rather, Matthew is speaking from the standpoint of the events of Jesus’ birth itself. Hence, sometime in the future, relative to the time that Jesus went to Nazareth from Egypt, he would come to be called a Nazarene. If this is what Matthew is saying, then we could translate it so:
…and [he] came and lived in a city called Nazareth. Even so would what was spoken through the prophets be fulfilled, because he would come to be called a Nazarene.
A grammarian might call this use of the future tense an ingressive future. It indicates what will begin to be the case at some point in the future relative to the event being narrated—namely, the arrival of Jesus’ family in Nazareth. Only now do we have a translation of Matthew’s claim that represents what Matthew was actually meaning to assert. This is a significantly different translation from what one finds in the majority of English translations of this verse.
The claim Matthew is making in the verse seems problematic under the more traditional translation of his words. The traditional translation makes it sound like Matthew is saying that Jesus was taken to Nazareth for the purpose of making it so that Jesus would wear the label ‘Nazarene’. Or, perhaps, that the label of contempt attached to Jesus would be ‘Nazarene’. But the fact of the matter is that ‘Nazarene’ becomes a term of contempt precisely because Jesus is from Nazareth. If Jesus had come from New York, then ‘New Yorker’ would have become the term of contempt attached to Jesus and his followers. This strikes us as problematic because it sounds very strange and forced for Matthew to be claiming that Jesus was brought—-in the providence of God—to Nazareth so that he could be called by the derogatory name ‘Nazarene’. God could have taken him to any location on the planet and the corresponding label would have been the derogatory term that was used to convey the contempt for Jesus that the prophets’ had predicted. In what sense, therefore, was God’s taking him to Nazareth relevant to the prophets’ prediction?
Once we have acknowledged the possibility of translating Matthew’s claim in the alternative way proposed above, it is no longer a problematic assertion. Under our alternative translation, Matthew is making a very different claim. He is saying simply this—nothing more, and nothing less: Jesus would eventually come to be called a Nazarene, with all the derogatory implications that that label came to entail. Why was he called a Nazarene? Because he was from Nazareth. And why did the corresponding title—Nazarene—become a derogatory title, conveying nothing but contempt? Because it came to pass just as the prophets had predicted—he was rejected and seen as an object of widespread contempt by the very people he came to rescue. Matthew is not making the false, misleading, and specious claim that God providentially took Jesus to Nazareth so that ‘Nazarene’ would become the term of reproach, as the prophets predicted it would; for the prophets never predicted that ‘Nazarene’ would become a term of reproach. Neither is Matthew making the absurdly irrelevant connection that God took Jesus to Nazareth so that just what the prophets predicted would occur—namely, that he would be treated with contempt and, accordingly, his title would become a term of reproach. Instead, Matthew is making this simple and straightforward claim: God took Jesus to Nazareth. Accordingly, that is why Jesus eventually came to be called—as a matter of contempt and reproach—”the Nazarene. ” The prophets had predicted that he would be held in contempt by his own people. Therefore, it was in keeping with the prophetic predictions that his name ‘Nazarene’ would become a label of contempt.
I paraphrase Matthew’s statement to try to make clear what I think Matthew is trying to say:
…and [he] came and lived in a city called Nazareth. Because he grew up in Nazareth, ‘Nazarene’ became the term of reproach used to vilify him and his followers; and that fulfilled what the prophets had predicted—namely, that he would be treated with contempt by the people he came to save.
• • •
In all likelihood, what “he shall be called a Nazarene” conveyed to Matthew’s readers at the time can be understood by analogy to what “he will be a Nazi” would convey to us in the following scenario:
Suppose that the Old Testament prophets had predicted the rise of Adolph Hitler in Germany. They had not predicted a great number of details of his life; but one thing they did predict—he would be a man who, due to his insatiable lust for power and his breathtaking inhumanity, would be the very embodiment of callous cruelty and malice.
Thousands of years after the prophets, Adolph Hitler comes on the stage of history. He rises to power in the Nazi party. At its inception, the Nazi party did not have the reputation then that it has now to us. It is precisely through and because of Hitler’s notoriously cruel and inhumane exploits that the word “Nazi” has become for us today the derogatory term that it is. Those of us who live in the shadow of Hitler’s life understand the label “Nazi” as denoting the very embodiment of cruelty and malice. It has become a derogatory term for us precisely because of the nature and reality of Hitler’s life
Look back then at the aforementioned hypothetical predictions made by the Old Testament prophets. It would be perfectly understandable if I summarized their predictions thus: “the Old Testament prophets warned us that Adolph Hitler would be a Nazi.” If I expressed it this way, I would not be saying that the prophets predicted the name of his political party. Rather, using the language and idiom of my own time (and clearly not the idiom of the prophets themselves), I would be saying that the prophets predicted how cruel and malicious a man Adolph Hitler would turn out to be.
This, I think, is analogous to the situation we find in Matthew 2. The Old Testament prophets predicted that the Messiah would come into the world and would be rejected by his own people. He would be much despised—hated by those very people he came to save and to rule. (And this is exactly what happened. Jesus came into the world and was rejected and despised by his fellow countryman. They called for his crucifixion; they hated his followers; they pursued them, held them in contempt, and even tried to destroy them.) Now because Jesus was raised in Nazareth, he was typically called “Jesus of Nazareth” or “Jesus the Nazarene.” Correspondingly, Jesus’ followers were typically called “Nazarenes” as well. The prevailing attitude within late first-century Jewish culture was one of contempt for both Jesus and his followers. Accordingly, the term “Nazarene” became a term of reproach for them, designating someone as a hate-worthy, despicable creature who should be wiped off the face of the earth (or something like that).
Subsequent to its having become a notorious term of reproach, Matthew writes his gospel. So, using the idiom of his time and culture, he summarizes what the prophets had predicted many millennia before Jesus was born: he would be a “Nazarene.” He doesn’t mean that he would hail from Nazareth. Rather, he means that he would be a despised and hated person. And he uses the idiom of his day to convey his point. The prophets did not predict Jesus’ hometown; and Matthew is not suggesting that they did. Rather, the prophets predicted that he would be despised and rejected. So, in the idiom of Matthew’s day, they predicted that Jesus would be a “Nazarene” (spoken with a sneer of contempt). While they did not predict the label ‘Nazarene’ per se, the prophets did predict the contempt that that label—by the time Matthew is writing his gospel—had come to represent.
But why does Matthew connect this point—that the prophets had predicted the contempt in which Jesus would be held—to the fact that Jesus had his childhood in Nazareth? He doesn’t—as our alternative translation of Matthew 2:23 attempts to show. Matthew is not suggesting that it is because Jesus was from Nazareth that he was held in contempt. He is not suggesting that Nazareth had anything whatsoever to do with the contempt for Jesus and his followers. Rather, Matthew is simply trying to say this (to his original audience):
Because Jesus was from Nazareth, ‘Nazarene’ is the term that you and I today hear used as a term of reproach against Jesus and anyone who follows him. The prophets predicted that the Messiah would be hated. Accordingly, Jesus’ very title ‘Nazarene’— attributable to the place he called home—has become a term of reproach.
We could aptly translate Matthew 2:23 as follows: “…and [he] came and lived in a city called Nazareth. In connection with this fact, what was spoken by the prophets came to be fulfilled, because he would come to be called a Nazarene.”
And we could aptly paraphrase it like this: “…and [he] came and lived in a city called Nazareth. It is in the light of this fact that the contempt predicted by the prophets came to be fulfilled in the manner that it was, namely, by the fact that he would come to be called a Nazarene.”
Copyright January 2003 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.