by Doug Ward

The Gospel of Matthew reports that when Jesus was an infant, his family was forced to leave Bethlehem and move to Egypt until after the death of King Herod. Herod, who was driven by paranoia to eliminate any potential rivals, had heard about the birth of a future king in Bethlehem, making it unsafe for Jesus to remain there (Matt 2:1-18).


In fleeing to Egypt, Joseph and Mary acted on instructions from an angel of God (v. 13). Egypt was a natural place to seek refuge because it was not far away, lay outside of Herod's realm, and had a sizeable Jewish population.


What happened to Jesus in Egypt, and what part did his family's experiences there play in preparing him for his ministry as an adult? The Bible does not address these questions, but it is interesting to speculate about the possibilities. For example, did Jesus learn the Greek language during this early period of his life? Were he and his family exposed to any scriptural truths that would enhance his teaching later?


Anne Rice, in her novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005)1, has the holy family staying for seven years in Alexandria, home to Egypt's largest Jewish community. There Jesus receives some formal instruction (conducted in Greek) and excels in his studies. The famous Jewish teacher Philo recognizes the boy's aptitude and tries to persuade Joseph and Mary to stay on longer in Egypt so that Jesus can study under him. Joseph respectfully declines Philo's offer, insisting that they must return to their homeland. Here Joseph again follows the words of an angel conveyed in a dream (see Matt 2:19-21).


Whatever Jesus experienced in Egypt, we know that he and his family returned safely and settled in Nazareth (v. 23). Matthew also tells us that Jesus' sojourn in Egypt served "to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, `Out of Egypt I called my son.' " (v. 15) The prophet to whom Matthew refers is Hosea, and the passage he quotes is Hosea 11:1: "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son."


Matthew's reference to Hosea 11:1 is puzzling at first. Hosea's words recall Israel's exodus from Egypt, an event from the past; they do not seem to look forward in time to the coming of the Messiah. Moreover, Matthew mentions Hosea's prophecy when discussing the holy family's escape to Egypt rather than their departure from it. To understand the connections that Matthew is making, we will need to take a closer look at the words of Hosea 11 in their scriptural context.


Hosea ministered to the northern tribes of Israel during the middle of the eighth century B.C., shortly before the northern kingdom was conquered by the Assyrian empire. The House of Israel had strayed far from God, and it was Hosea's task to expose the sins of the nation and warn that divine judgment, in the form of captivity and exile, was imminent unless the Israelites repented. Hosea also announced, however, that there was good news beyond the punishment of the immediate future. After captivity and exile would come hope and salvation, return and restoration.


In chapters 6 through 10 of his prophecy, Hosea highlights Israel's disregard for their covenant with God (6:4-7; 8:1). Forgetting the One who had delivered and blessed them, they had turned to idolatry (8:4-6; 10:5-6). Instead of placing their faith in God, they sought safety in political alliances (7:11; 8:9-10). The land was filled with immorality, injustice and political intrigue (7:1-7; 10:13).


Then in chapter 11, Hosea contrasts Israel's fickleness with God's love and faithfulness. The people had rebelled continually (11:2), but God had nurtured and protected them (vv. 1; 3-4). Although Israel would be punished (vv. 5-7), God could not bear to forsake them (vv. 8-9). Ultimately he would call them back and regather them from all the places to which they had been scattered (vv. 10-11).


We see, then, that the context of Hosea 11:1 includes the entire sweep of God's dealings with Israel through history, from the exodus to the eschaton. The coming of the Messiah is indeed a major part of this overall picture. But there are other prophecies that emphasize God's faithfulness and point to the messianic age. Why did Matthew choose this one?


The answer lies in Hosea's use of the language of divine sonship. The people of Israel collectively are described in the Bible as God's firstborn son, beginning in Exodus 4:22-23. (Hosea draws upon this imagery in Hosea 11:1.) Later, God promised to establish the dynasty of King David forever (2 Sam 7:8-16; Ps 89, 132). Members of this dynasty would be considered sons of God (2 Sam 7:14), and the ultimate ruler from the Davidic line would be the promised Messiah (Isa 11:1-5; Hosea 3:4-5, e.g.). The Messiah is also called a son of God in Ps 2:7.


Based on these scriptures, "son of God" came to be a name for the Messiah as King and representative of Israel. One of Matthew's goals is to demonstrate that Jesus is this Davidic king and son of God (see Matt 1:1; 3:17; 4:3,6; 8:29; 14:33; 26:63; 27:54), and he quotes Hosea 11:1 as a point in his argument.


Keeping in mind the context and language of Hosea 11:1, we now can explain how Jesus' sojourn in Egypt relates to this verse. The patriarch Jacob and his family had originally sought refuge in Egypt to survive a famine, according to God's plan (Gen 46:1-4). In Egypt God had preserved and nurtured the children of Israel, and they grew from an extended family to a nation. God then delivered Israel from Egypt, taught them in the wilderness, and brought them to the land he had promised to Abraham's descendants.


The nation had sometimes departed from God, leading to the punishment of exile. However, God is faithful to his people and will never abandon them. He would send his Son, a king from the line of David, to deliver Israel once again. This Son, a representative and personification of his son Israel, would lead a new exodus. Fittingly, as God had protected and prepared his son Israel in Egypt, so he would protect and prepare his Son the Messiah in Egypt.


These things are not stated explicitly in Hosea 11:1, but for Matthew they are implicit there as part of Hosea's overall message of God's faithfulness and plan for his people. Since God is faithful and consistent through history, what he has done in the past points to what he will do in the future. Along with Matthew, we too believe that the faithful God of Israel will continue to preserve his people and carry out his plan through Jesus Christ his Son.2


1The 2016 film The Young Messiah is based on this novel.


2For further discussion, see Chapter 3 of The Uses of the Old Testament in the New by Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. (Moody Press, 1985).

Issue 30


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On 19 Dec 2015, 23:44.