There is no more central figure to Judaism than Moses. He is originator of the nation of Israel, God’s chosen who led the people out of slavery in Egypt, gave them God’s law, and brought them to the Promised Land. If Jesus is the key figure in Christianity, and Muhammad the key in the Islam, Moses is the key to the Jewish faith.
Today’s segment of the Nativity has one purpose: to tie Jesus, who in Matthew’s eyes was the perfector of the Jewish faith, to Moses, the originator. With the slaughter of all the boy children, and the flight to and from Jesus, Matthew is clearly trying with these stories to firmly establish Jesus in his readers’ minds as the new Moses.
As we discussed at the beginning of this series, Matthew was writing to a specifically Jewish audience. Throughout his Gospel, we find fulfillments of Jewish prophecy, and references to the Hebrew Bible, and a focus on Jesus as the culmination of the Jewish faith. Matthew’s nativity is no different. We have already seen him tie Jesus to that other crucial Jewish figure, King David, by way of a genealogy and a purported birth in Bethlehem. Now, he is evoking the very formation of the Jewish nation, as he establishes where Jesus came from.
There are two elements to this story: Herod’s decree that all the male children in Israel be put to death, and Jesus’ family’s flight into Egypt as a result. Considering the situation we have established over the course of the last few blog posts, it is clear this is not a historical story again, and is instead a story meant to identify Jesus with the Jewish people.
If in fact Herod had ordered something as despicable and horrifying as the murder of all male children, we surely would have heard of it in contemporary writings. Yet neither Josephus, the premier Jewish historian of the time, nor the Romans, who sanctioned Herod’s rule and this were quite interested in his actions, ever mention such a thing. It is hard to imagine that if it had happened that no one would have mentioned it in any way.
So why did Matthew create such a story? He is clearly evoking the similar order by Pharaoh in Exodus to kill all the male Hebrew children. Again, Matthew’s readers would have been well aware that no such thing really happened. Such an event would be burned into the collective consciousness of the Jewish community. The point is to reference Jesus as taking up Moses’ mantle as the guide and savior of the Jewish nation.
The flight to Egypt does the same, by giving Jesus a link to the land that Israel came up out of, while also providing an explanation for Jesus’ escape from the decree. At God’s prompting, through an angelic messenger, Joseph is warned to flee to Egypt to save his son. With his return, again at the command of an angel of God, Matthew is able to fulfill another Hebrew prophecy, recounted in verse 2:15: “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” Just as God called Israel out of Egypt and into God’s protection, so Jesus was called. Jesus becomes a stand in for the entire nation.
The birth of a peasant boy in rural Galilee was an event of no special occasion. In a community that was largely illiterate, there would have been no time or energy wasted in remembering such details. The Nativity stories instead serve to orient Jesus as Matthew and Luke want him understood: as the Jewish messiah, as the bringer of a peaceful rule to God’s world. This was not history being written; it was myth pointing us towards Truth. As Tillich describes it,
Symbols of faith cannot be replaced by other symbols, such as artistic ones, and they cannot be removed by scientific criticism. They have a genuine standing in the human mind, just as science and art have. Their symbolic character is their truth and their power. Nothing less than symbols and myths can express our ultimate concern.