Matthew pairs Jesus and Moses

Matthew spends a lot of time in his gospel presenting Jesus as the new Moses. It has not moses 1been lost on scholars, for instance, that in Matthew, Jesus’s first sustained teaching was on a mountain. Moses went up the the mountain (Sinai) the get “the Law” from God. Jesus went up a mountain to give a series of contrasts to that Law, each of which began, “You have heard how it was said to our ancestors…” and then continues, “But I say this to you…” [1]

This pattern of presenting Jesus as the New Israel can be seen all through Matthew’s gospel and is widely commented on. The structure of the gospel of Matthew is in five large “books”shapes his gospel—everything between the birth narrative at the beginning and the passion narrative at the end—into five large “books”—each containing a narrative of the ministry of Jesus and a discourse. Many scholars think that in structuring his gospel that way, he is suggesting that Jesus in not only the new Moses, but that the gospel is the new Pentateuch (five books).

moses 2This device of Matthew’s is, as I say, widely recognized in his gospel, but it is not widely recognized in his narrative about the birth of Jesus and it is noticeable there as well. You would think that a writer who thinks of himself as a teacher has a point to make, he would work it into every part of his writing, even the birth stories. And he does. Here are some examples.


The Birth Narrative

I argued in a previous essay on Matthew’s birth narrative (Was Joseph a Righteous Man?) that Matthew emphasizes the “righteousness” of Joseph as “scrupulous adherence to the Law of Moses” and that he could afford to do that because Joseph was just about to receive a “new commandment,” one that superseded the demands of the Law of Moses. It is the Old Law/New “Law” contrast that Matthew has in mind.

Today, I want to add to that pattern, the next dream Joseph gets. “Get up right away and collect your wife and your little boy and leave your comfy house in Bethlehem and go to Egypt. Now.” Why Egypt? Well, Egypt is close and safe. Today we would say that Egypt didn’t have a treaty of extradition with Judea, but for that time, we can just say that it is the kind of place people went to hide out. [2] So Egypt isn’t an implausible place for Joseph (et. al) to hide out.

But Matthew has more in mind. Matthew introduces that parallel by saying, “This was tomoses 3 fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: I called my son out of Egypt.” (Matt 2:13) So…what prophet is Matthew talking about? It is Hosea (11:1) where Hosea, in using the expression, “my son,” means Israel. And Matthew knows that Hosea meant Israel. So how does he manage to appropriate it so that it refers to Jesus?  I can argue all I want that in Matthew, Jesus would have been a little boy, but I can’t find any pictures in which he is not an infant.

The switch is perfectly clear. It could be put in language that is much too bald by attributing some sentiment of this sort to Matthew. “Hosea, in talking about “my son” meant the people, Israel, but to my mind, it is also true of His son, Jesus.” [3] But I think Matthew wants more than that. He wants us to see Jesus as “prefigured” in the scriptures and that is the way he brings it to us.

The mechanism that makes this change work is not “prophecy” in the predictive sense, as when I predict that it will rain tomorrow. It is more like what is called today “a cueing phenomenon.” One way to picture this is that the Egypt reference in Hosea draws a line on a blank page and then Matthew draws a parallel line referring to Jesus. This is not “fulfillment” in the sense of a prediction being fulfilled; rather, it our minds to an area where some new thing will be said. [4]

“Oh…right,” we say, “Israel, God’s son, came from Egypt at God’s call. I knew this thing moses 4about Jesus sounded familiar.” Placing Joseph’s family in Egypt allows Matthew to re-appropriate the scripture, “From Egypt, I have called my son.” For Matthew and/or for his readers, this is a sign of the providential working of God to bring us the Messiah just as he had promised.

The Slaughter of the Hebrew Children

Once in Egypt, the Israelites multiplied to the extent that the Pharoah was frightened at how many of them there were, so he ordered that the male babies be killed by the midwives. Moses was saved by prompt and providential intervention, but a lot of Hebrew babies were killed. This functions, again, as a prompt for the Jewish Christians in the church Matthew was writing to. The birth of Moses was accompanied by the death of many Hebrew babies.

moses 5This is the first line on the paper. Remember the “slaughter of the innocents by the Pharoah in Egypt?” And then the parallel line. Well, there was a slaughter of Israelites at the time of Jesus as well, this one engineered by Herod the Great. [5] And we say, “Oh, right. I knew that sounded familiar. This story of Jesus is so very much like the story of Moses.”[6]



In making these distinctions, I am following a different line of argument than Matthew is. It may well be that Matthew thought the events of Jesus’s life happened because they had been “predicted” in the sense that God had planned them. I don’t know how Matthew thought of them. It is quite clear, however, that Matthew, not just in the infancy stories but throughout his gospel, is drawing a parallel between the history of Israel and the life of Moses, on the one hand, and the story of Jesus on the other.

This parallel approach requires Matthew to use a lot of what are today called “scare quotes.” [7] So Matthew, in arranging these parallels says that “the Law” was brought from the mountain by Moses, but that Jesus gives a new “Law,” also on a mountain, which is about the renewing of God’s grace and favor.

[1] This particular phrasing is the New Jerusalem Bible.  The argument in general is based on Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah.
[2] In Stan Freberg’s History of the United States, Volume 1, he has Ben Franklin refusing to sign the Declaration of Independence because “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life ‘writing in Europe’.” The phrase “writing in Europe” was, at the time, a euphemism for banishment or even just a temporary escape from the Americas.
[3] Some say that Matthew believed that Hosea, filled with God’s Spirit, really meant to refer to “my Son, the Messiah” and didn’t realize it himself. That’s further than I can comfortably go. I would rather say that Matthew sees the powerful parallel and adapts Hosea’s text to his own message.
[4] This is a notion of “prophecy” I have never had before nor have I ever seen it before. So I’m really excited about it at the moment. Ordinarily, that means that tomorrow it will either be shown to be old hat among scholars or to have been decisively discarded years ago. Today, I really don’t care.
[5] The total of Israelite babies who would have been killed in Herod’s massacre is estimated by scholars to be somewhere around 20. That is based on the likely population of Bethlehem at or around 6 B.C. and the proportion of the population likely to be 2 years old or less
[6] And, in addition to that, there were apocryphal stories, which Matthew may very well have known, in which the Pharoah’s “wise men” understood that a deliverer of the Israelites was going to be born and that the prudent thing would be to kill all the male infants. This is an alternative rationale for the killing off of Hebrew boys in Israel and it is one much more like Herod’s killing off Jewish boys in Judea.
[7] The function of “scare quotes” is sometimes to indicate that the writer doesn’t believe the term is warranted. In this use, the quotes are the equivalent of the expression “so called.” But at other times, it is simply a marker that this word, which we are used to seeing one way, can, in fact, be used in another way.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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