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IN MATTHEW 2:13-18


by Doug Ward

One major goal of the Gospel of Matthew is to convince readers that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah promised in the Hebrew scriptures. In order to achieve this goal, Matthew often makes connections between events in the life and ministry of Jesus and particular scriptural passages (e.g., Matt. 1:22-23; 2:5-6, 15, 17-18, 23; 3:3; 4:14-16; 8:17; 12:18-21; 13:35; 21:4-5; 27:9-10).

Some of Matthew's references to the Hebrew scriptures have been sources of controversy among biblical scholars. In the cases of Matt. 2:15 (which cites Hosea 11:1) and Matt. 2:18 (which quotes Jer. 31:15), Matthew has often been accused of reading things into the text which were not originally intended by the prophets themselves.

Christian believers might brush aside these charges on the basis of their belief in the divine inspiration of the New Testament scriptures. When Matthew, guided by the Holy Spirit, refers to a scriptural passage, it must mean what he says it means. After all, weren't Jesus' disciples personally taught by their Master the details of how His life, death and resurrection were foretold throughout the Tanakh1? (Luke 24:27, 44-45)

Still, it is important for Christians to be able to answer such questions, for at least two reasons. First, Matthew was not merely interested in encouraging those who already accepted Jesus as the Messiah. He also wanted to make a persuasive argument to those not initially inclined to believe the claims of Jesus and his followers. In order to understand Matthew's argument-and to answer modern skeptics-we should know as much as possible about the nature of his reasoning. Second, a study of these issues can yield insights into the way that the New Testament writers interpreted the Hebrew scriptures. An understanding of the hermeneutical principles that might have been employed by Matthew can help inform our own biblical interpretation.

Let us take a closer look, then, at Matthew's use of the words of the prophets in Matt. 2:13-18. When we take into account the larger contexts of Hosea 11:1 and Jer. 31:15, we will see that his use of these passages is indeed consistent with their original intended meanings.

Protecting God's Son in Egypt

In Matthew 2:13-14 we read that Joseph and Mary, following the instructions of an angel, fled with the young child Jesus from Bethlehem to Egypt. Matthew explains in verse 15 that these events ``fulfilled'' the words spoken by God through the prophet Hosea in the second half of Hosea 11:1: ``... out of Egypt I called my son.''

At first glance, though, the connection between Matthew 2:13-15 and Hosea 11:1 is not at all obvious. Two questions immediately come to mind:

(1) Since Hosea 11:1 looks backward in time to the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt, in what sense can it be said to look forward in time to an event in the life of Jesus?

(2) Since Hosea 11:1 speaks of Israel coming out of Egypt, why does Matthew associate it with the flight of Jesus and his parents into Egypt?

To answer these questions, we will need to take a closer look at Hosea's prophecy.

The book of Hosea is believed to have been written in the eighth century B.C., shortly before the time when the northern ten tribes of Israel went into Assyrian captivity. It contrasts Israel's lack of faithfulness to God with God's unwavering commitment to Israel.

The first three chapters of the book illustrate this contrast through the relationship between Hosea and his wife Gomer. Gomer, after the birth of their third child, left Hosea and lived in an adulterous relationship with another man. But later, following instructions from God, Hosea took Gomer back (see Hosea 3). Similarly, sinful Israel would become estranged from God, but the two would eventually be reunited (3:4-5).

The rest of the book can be divided into three sections [1], in which God brings three major charges against Israel (4:1):

(a) lack of knowledge of God (4:2-6:3);

(b) lack of covenantal love (6:4-11:11);

(c) lack of truth (11:12-14:9).

In each of these sections, a promise of hope for the future follows the presentation of the charges.

The verse quoted by Matthew, Hosea 11:1, comes toward the end of part (b) in the above outline. In this section of Hosea, Israel's love for God is described as fading away like the morning dew (6:4). Treachery (6:6-11), corruption (7:1-2), and conspiracy (7:3-7) pervaded the land, along with stupidity (7:8-13) and duplicity (7:14-16). With growing prosperity had come idolatry (10:1-2). It was time for the nation to repent and seek God (10:12).

Chapter 11 contrasts Israel's disloyalty with God's faithfulness. God had cared for the Israelites even as they turned from Him (vv. 2-4). In His great love for His people, He simply refused to abandon them (vv. 8-11). God had demonstrated that love by preserving Israel through the centuries. He had not forgotten them when they languished in Egyptian slavery (v. 1). In Hosea's time, they were on the verge of another ``Egypt''-i.e., another time of oppression-at the hands of the Assyrians (v. 5). But God would watch over them and eventually bring them back to the land (v. 11).

By looking at Hosea 11 in its context, we can see an important thematic connection between this chapter and Matt. 2:13-15. Hosea 11 describes God's past protection and preservation of His people and promises that God would always watch over Israel. Matthew 2:13-15 shows one further instance of God's faithfulness: the protection of the promised Messiah and his family from the attack of the evil King Herod.

But the theme of God's faithfulness, preservation, and protection is not the only link between Matthew 2 and Hosea 11. It is also important to note the description of Israel as God's son in Hosea 11:1 [1,2]. This designation for Israel first appears in Exodus 4:22-23, where God calls Israel ``my firstborn son.''

As a singular word used to denote a collection of people, ``son'' is similar to the word ``seed'' (Hebrew zera) in the book of Genesis. ``Seed'' is widely understood as a messianic title, referring both to a collection of descendants of Eve, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and to a special male descendant through whom blessing would come to all nations (Gen. 3:15; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14). 2 In particular, the apostle Paul presents this interpretation in Gal. 3:16.

In much the same way, ``son'' had also come to be regarded as a title for the Messiah by Matthew's time, on the basis of three scriptures-2 Sam 7:14, Ps. 2:7, and Ps. 89:26-27. The New Testament church viewed each of these passages as a reference to Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God (see Luke 1:32-33; Acts 13:33; Heb. 1:5-6; 5:5).

For Matthew, ``Son of God'' is a very important messianic appellation. He makes a special point of emphasizing that Jesus is the Son of God, including in his gospel the testimony of a number of witnesses to that effect (Matt. 3:17; 8:29; 11:27; 14:33; 16:16; 27:54).

When we take all of this into account, the full connection between Hosea 11 and Matthew 2:13-15 becomes clear. Hosea 11:1 states that God had protected His son, the nation of Israel, during its sojourn in Egypt. Matthew 2:13-15 shows God protecting His Son, the personification and representative of Israel and its mission, in Egypt. While Hosea 11 does not specifically mention the incident of Matt. 2:13-15, it does promise that God would never abandon Israel. For Matthew, the preservation of the young child Jesus from danger is part of the fulfillment of that promise.

Rachel's Weeping

Matthew records that Joseph and Mary escaped to Egypt in the nick of time. Sometime shortly thereafter, King Herod ordered the deaths of all boys in the Bethlehem area two years old and under. By this cruel strategy he tried to guarantee the killing of the young king of the Jews whom the Magi had come to worship (Matt. 2:16).

Matthew goes on to say in verses 17-18 that this incident fulfilled the words of Jer. 31:15:

``A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.''

Again, an examination of this verse in its context will elucidate the connection with Matthew 2.

There has been debate over the centuries about the exact location of Ramah and the tomb of Rachel [1, pp. 53-54]. Genesis 35:16-20; 48:7 says that Rachel's burial place was in the general vicinity of Bethlehem, while I Sam. 10:2 suggests a location in or near the territory of Benjamin. In any case, Ramah was a place where King Nebuchadnezzar, in the sixth century B.C., gathered Jewish captives before their deportation to Babylon (Jer. 40:1). Jeremiah 31:15 pictures Rachel weeping over the exiles from her nearby tomb.

However, there are indications in Jeremiah 31 that Rachel's weeping was not confined to that event or era. Old Testament scholar Walter C. Kaiser explains that the Hebrew in Jer. 31:15 suggests that the weeping is an ongoing activity [1, pp. 54-55]. During what time period, then, would it take place?

Jeremiah 31:15 is located in a section of Jeremiah's prophecy (chapters 30-33) that is often called the ``Book of Comfort.'' These chapters picture a time when the tribes of Israel are brought back from their exile to the Promised Land, where they will live in peace, safety and prosperity under the rule of the Messiah. In those days God will make a new covenant with Israel, writing His Torah on their minds and hearts (31:31-34). At that time, according to Jeremiah 31, Israel's mourning-and in particular, Rachel's weeping-will finally be replaced by rejoicing.

Since the days of Jeremiah, the descendants of Israel have faced persecution on numerous occasions. Viewing Jeremiah 31:15 in the overall context of the Book of Comfort, it does not seem at all unreasonable to suggest that Rachel's weeping has continued through all of Israel's trials, including the invasion of Antiochus Epiphanes in the second century B.C., the destruction of the second temple in 70 A.D., and even the Nazi Holocaust of the twentieth century A.D. Herod's murder of the babies of Bethelem is one incident from that larger story. Therefore it does, as Matthew claims, constitute a fulfillment of Jeremiah 31:15.


When the New Testament writers make reference to the Hebrew scriptures, their purpose is often to recall a context rather than to quote an isolated proof text. Matthew's citations of Hosea 11:1 and Jeremiah 31:15 are two examples of this phenomenon. 3 These and other New Testament allusions to the scriptures become clearer when we study them carefully in their historical, canonical, and prophetic contexts.


1. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., ``Respecting the Old Testament Context: Matthew's Use of Hosea and Jeremiah,'' pp. 43-57 in The Uses of the Old Testament in the New, Moody Press, Chicago, 1985.


2. Homer A. Kent, Jr., ``A Study in Hermeneutics: Matthew's Use of the Old Testament,'' Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 121 (1964), pp. 34-43.


1Tanakh is a Hebrew acronym for the threefold division of the Old Testament into the Torah (``Law''), the Nebi'im (``Prophets''), and the Ketubim (``Writings'').

2For a discussion of the messianic references in the book of Genesis, see the article ``The Gospel in Genesis'' in Issue 2 of Grace and Knowledge.

3Some examples from the teachings of Jesus are discussed in the article ``Jesus the Master Teacher'' in Issue 3 of Grace and Knowledge.



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