Matthew 2:1-12


Foreshadowing the Destiny of Jesus

Matthew had covered sufficiently both the divine and the human agencies involved in Jesus’ origins. He would now speak of Jesus’ future impact on his world and of the opposition and violence he would encounter.

Matthew 2:1-12     The Visit of the Wise Men

1 In the time of King Herod, 
after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, 

For the first time in the narrative, Matthew situated Jesus’ birth in both place and time. The action had been happening in Bethlehem. It had occurred while Herod (the Great) was king.

Bethlehem was a small village, close to Jerusalem, in Judea. Though insignificant at the time of Jesus, it had been the birthplace of King David, and thus had been associated with royal origins.

Herod had secured his kingship under the Roman imperial power in the year 40 BC. He died in 4 BC. Herod was an Idumean, not a Jew, though his mother was Jewish. Jesus was born within that time frame, shortly before Herod’s death. As king under the tutelage of Rome, Herod administered his kingdom for the Romans, levied the necessary taxes from his subjects (which he duly paid to Rome), and supported himself and his courtiers from other taxes and levies imposed on the people. He had a reputation for brutality, and was super-sensitive to his own security.

… magi from the East arrived in Jerusalem. 

Magi were astrologers. They had held significant power in the courts of Persia in the past, but Persia’s glory had long gone. The general population tended to take notice of astrologers (and other fortune-tellers and seers). Some of the more sophisticated Roman writers regarded them as charlatans, and relegated them to the margins of society. As a general rule, Jews saw astrology and divination as incompatible with God’s sovereignty.

By choosing to place Magi in his storyline, Matthew highlighted the acceptance of Jesus by Gentiles, but by Gentiles who were unimportant and consigned to the edges (though they were able to secure an audience with Herod). Whether Matthew wished to emphasise the fact that they were Gentiles, or that they were marginal, was not clear. Possibly he intended both.

2 They asked: Where is the new-born king of the Jews?
We saw his star in the East and have come to pay homage to him".

Matthew had his Magi refer to the passage across the sky of a star (or of a comet). In the mindset of the time, comets were believed to forecast political change and instability. Matthew gifted the Magi with a dangerous naïveté – their question to Herod was, to say the least, unwise..

In line with a vision of the pagan seer Balaam, recorded in the Book of Numbers, Jewish tradition had associated a star with the birth of a new king:

I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near—
a star shall come out of Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise out of Israel [Numbers 24:17]

Balaam’s prophecy was adequately fulfilled by the advent of monarchy in Israel, first with Saul and, then, with the Davidic dynasty. With the destruction of the monarchy by the Babylonians, some Jews hoped for a new star to come out of Jacob.

3 When king Herod heard this, he was visibly shaken,
as was the whole of Jerusalem with him. 
4 He called together all the chief priests and scribes of the people,
and enquired from them where the Christ would be born. 

Given the credulity of the time, it was little wonder that Herod would feel insecure, and take steps to remove any possible opposition to his own status. Ominously, all Jerusalem was frightened along with him. (The Greek word frightened would be better translated as “terrified” [as later in 14.26]). “Jerusalem” symbolised the home of the political, religious, financial and power elites, whose interests were best served by the maintenance of the present status quo.

The Jewish Supreme Council, the Sanhedrin, was composed of the High Priest, other wealthy priestly families, lay aristocrats and scribes. (Theoretically there was only one High Priest, but at the time, a succession of priests had undertaken the role, and retired ones still exercised influence.) Scribes were the legal experts of the culture, the interpreters of the Jewish law, the Torah.

5 They answered him: In Bethlehem in Judaea, for it is written by the prophet:
6You, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, 
are by no means least of the important cities of Judah, 
for from you will come a leader, 
who will lead my people Israel."

Matthew painted the high priests and scribes as scripturally literate. They knew their Scriptures. Later he would condemn scribes (and Pharisees), accusing them for not living in line with what they knew. As the narrative unfolded, he would make clear that, in his mind, right action was more important than right knowledge [7:24-27].

Moreover, he chose to show the Jewish leadership acting in collaboration with (and contaminated by) the corrupt political regime of Herod – a response not unknown to other religious elites across the centuries.

Matthew had them quote from the prophet Micah (probably a later interpolation into the general corpus of Micah’s writings, and dating from the time after the exiles’ return from Babylon):

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel...
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. [Micah 5:2,4] 

Micah’s reference to Bethlehem as the birthplace of the future shepherd/ruler was based on the fact that David, the greatest of the kings of Israel and the founder of the Davidic dynasty, had been born there.

Though Micah had referred to one who would feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, the actual words inserted into Micah’s prophecy by Matthew came from 2 Samuel 5:2, and were addressed to David:

The LORD said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel,
you who shall be ruler over Israel.

The reference to the child’s shepherding God’s people resonated with prophecies of Ezekiel, criticising the actual shepherds of Israel, who neglected their flock:

As I live, says the Lord GOD, because my sheep have become a prey,
and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, 
since there was no shepherd; 
and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep,
but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep;
therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD:
Thus says the Lord GOD, I am against the shepherds; 
and I will demand my sheep at their hand,
and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; 
no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves.
I will rescue my sheep from their mouths,
so that they may not be food for them. [Ezekiel 34:8-10]

Matthew presented the chief priests and scribes as quite capable of informing Herod about the significance of Bethlehem, but incapable of seeing, or unwilling to see, their own complicity in the exploitation condemned by Ezekiel. Matthew contrasted the Magi, who knew no answers, but asked the questions, with the scribes who knew the answers, but sadly had no questions.

Matthew had misquoted Micah in Bethlehem’s favour. Micah had referred to Bethlehem as one of the little clans of Judah. Matthew called it by no means least of the important cities of Judah. He had , as well, emphasised its location in the land of Judah, in preference to Micah’s of Ephratha.

7 Then Herod secretly summoned the magi.  
He enquired from them the exact time when the star appeared. 
8 He then sent them to Bethlehem and said:
Go and ascertain carefully about the child;
and when you have found out, report back to me so that I too may go and pay him homage. 

Matthew highlighted Herod’s mischievous intent by emphasising his secret interview with the Magi.

9 After they had listened to the king, they went off.  
And just then, the star, which they had seen in the East, went before them
and finally stopped still over the spot where the child was. 
10 When they caught sight of the star, they were extremely joyful. 

The joyful reaction of the Magi served to contrast the fear of Herod and all Jerusalem. Their reaction was Matthew’s first indication of joy at the birth of Jesus.

11 They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother.  
Falling to the ground, they worshipped him.  
They opened their treasures, and offered him gifts:
gold and frankincense and myrrh.

The worship of men from the East, directed towards the new king of Israel (or Christ/Messiah), echoed other scriptural passages and alerted the readers to other meanings, particularly the salvation of the nations.

Speaking to a disheartened community of returned exiles, Third Isaiah had proclaimed of Jerusalem:

Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn. 
Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you...
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD. [Isaiah 60:3-6]

Psalm 72, a royal Psalm, had taken up a similar theme, speaking, rather, of a future Christ/Messiah than of a renewed Jerusalem:

May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute,
may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts.
May all kings fall down before him,
all nations give him service. 
For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy. [Psalm 72:10-13]

Mention of praise and service, of gifts, and of gold and frankincense, may have influenced Matthew’s listing of the Magis’ gifts. Myrrh was Matthew’s own addition. They gave what they had. (Gold coins would not be unusual for long-distance travellers. Small quantities of frankincense and myrrh could prove useful in the barter economy along the trade routes. Matthew was not necessarily portraying the Magi as men of wealth.) A later tradition, drawing on the imagery of Isaiah and of the Psalm, turned the Magi into kings, numbered them as three, and interpreted their gifts as symbolising Jesus’ future role as king and priest exercised within a context of suffering. (Myrrh was a spice sometimes used in burial rituals.) Later in the narrative [26.7], he would tell of an unnamed woman who would anoint Jesus’ head specifically with myrrh – a gesture that Jesus would connect with his burial.

Already in the infancy story, Matthew was intent on foreshadowing the eventual suffering and death of Jesus.

12 Warned in a dream not to go back to Herod,
they went back home to their own country by a different route.

Matthew’s story shone further light on his understanding of fulfilling prophecy. The prophets’ irrepressible hope in God’s faithful saving action was realised. Apart from certain verbal congruencies, however, the actual shape that God’s saving action took was strange and unexpected. Isaiah and the Psalmist dreamt in terms of a transformed Jerusalem and a renewed temple, to whose grandeur Gentile kings would be drawn, bearing the wealth of the nations on their multitude of camels. Instead, the non-descript village of Bethlehem replaced the glorious Jerusalem, and a small band of itinerant astrologers replaced the kings – though their response symbolised the future embrace of Christianity by the Gentile nations.