The Importance of Israel

the_inspiration_of_saint_matthew_by_caravaggioMatthew anchors the story of Jesus in Israel’s history. If we are unfamiliar with the Old Testament Scriptures and this history, we will miss important parts of the message. This is especially true in the prelude to Jesus’ public ministry in chapters 1-4. Richard Hays (Reading Backwards and Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels) explores these connections.

Matthew encourages the reader to see Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament precursors, particularly Moses, David, and Isaiah’s Servant figure. … Matthew’s language and imagery are from start to finish soaked in Scripture; He constantly presupposes the social and symbolic world rendered by the stories, songs, prophecies, laws, and wisdom teachings of Israel’s sacred texts. (p. 109)

Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s Scripture, he is the Messiah and he enacts Israel’s destiny the way it was intended. In the opening section there are at least seven passages where Matthew makes a direct statement or allusion to Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel’s Scripture.The fulfillment passages sometimes seem a reach, with 2:15 “And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” a good example. This quote is found in Hosea 11:1, which is decidedly not a messianic prophecy. This passage, and the rather simplistic assertions sometimes made about it in sermons and Christian literature, has long troubled me. It shouldn’t though. In order to understand Matthew’s point in including this citation, and others as well, we need to dig deeper than some index of prooftexts and look to the context of the passages.

Jesus enacts Israel’s destiny. In this post we will look at four specific passages: the flight to Egypt (2:13-15), Herod’s murder of the innocents (2:16-18), the baptism of Jesus by John (3:13-15), and the temptation (4:1-11). In all of these passages there is, according to Hays, “a typological identification of Jesus with Israel: Jesus becomes the one in whom the fate of Israel is embodied and enacted.” (p. 113)

(1) Out of Egypt I called my Son. 2:13-15 Hosea 11 starts with the identification of Israel as God’s son. This is a tradition that can be traced to Moses and the exodus. God instructs Moses to tell Pharaoh that “Israel is my firstborn son.” (Ex 4:22) But we should see in Matthew’s formula “And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet” not simply the bald misappropriation of Hosea 11:1, but a resonance with the context of Hosea 11 and with God’s love for and rescue of his people, Israel.

Matthew transfigures Hosea’s text by seeing how it prefigures an event in the life of Jesus. Matthew now sees the fate of God’s “son” Israel recapitulated in the story of God’s Son, Jesus: In both cases, the son is brought out of exile in Egypt and back into the land.

… Matthew cannot be unaware of the original contextual meaning of Hosea 11:1 as an expression of God’s love for Israel, a love that persists even through Israel’s subsequent unfaithfulness (Hos 11:8-9). Indeed, Matthew’s use of the quotation depends upon the reader’s recognition of its original sense: if Hosea’s words were severed from their reference to the original exodus story, the literary and theological effect of Matthew’s reading would be stifled. The fulfillment of the prophet’s words can be discerned only through an act of imagination that perceives the figural correspondence between the two stories of the exodus and the gospel. … the story of Jesus acquires the resonance of the story of Israel. (p. 113-114)

Matthew’s use of the quotation also names Jesus as God’s Son. This is not independent from, but part and parcel of the figural connection between Jesus and Israel.

(2) Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled 2:16-18. the words that are fulfilled involve lament – Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more. Jeremiah 31:15 and context is not a messianic prophecy, but it is another passage where God’s love for Israel, even in their unfaithfulness, becomes evident. Jeremiah continues: This is what the Lord says: “Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded,” declares the Lord. “They will return from the land of the enemy. So there is hope for your descendants,” declares the Lord. “Your children will return to their own land.”

Surely it is not merely coincidental that in consecutive formula quotations (Matt 2:15+Matt 2:17-18) Matthew has linked these two very similar passages from Hosea 11:1-11 and Jeremiah 31:15-20. Both prophetic texts speak of the exile and suffering of an unfaithful people, and both declare that God will reach out in mercy and bring the people back from exile. By evoking these two prophetic passages in the infancy narrative, Matthew connects both the history and the future destiny of Israel to the figure of Jesus, and he hints that in Jesus the restoration of Israel is at hand.

Matthew is not merely looking for random Old Testament prooftexts that Jesus might somehow fulfill (as is sometimes suggested); rather, he is thinking about the specific shape of Israel’s story and linking Jesus’ life with key passages that promise God’s unbreakable redemptive love for his people. (pp. 115-116)

(3) It is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness 3:15 The story of the baptism of Jesus by John is well known – a regular in both sermons and Sunday School. But we seldom stop to wonder why Jesus needed to be baptized by John and why it was “to fulfill all righteousness.” After all, John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance and there is certainly little support for the idea that Jesus needed to repent. Hays connects this to Jesus enacting Israel’s destiny.

I would propose that Jesus’ acceptance of a baptism of repentence, performed at the Jordan River, is meant to signify his symbolic identification with sinful Israel (the people whom he will “save from their sins”), and the figurative beginning of that new Israel’s entry into the land of promise. (p. 116)

640px-temptations_of_christ_san_marco(4) Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 4:1-11. Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights. Moses also fasted forty days and nights in the presence of God, first to receive the commandments and then, twice after, to intercede for the sins of the people (Deuteronomy 9). “I lay prostrate before the Lord those forty days and forty nights because the Lord had said he would destroy you. I prayed to the Lord and said, “Sovereign Lord, do not destroy your people, your own inheritance that you redeemed by your great power and brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand.” There is also, of course, a resonance with the forty years that Israel wandered in the wilderness as a result of their unfaithfulness. The three responses that Jesus gives have resonance with Israel’s wandering in the wilderness. (Hays points out that Matthew could have all of this in mind.)

When tempted to turn stones into bread Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” quoting Deut. 8:3. In this response we should be aware of the context:

Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. 8:2-3

Hays notes that in this response “God’s “son” passes the first test by obediently trusting God – just as Israel should have done, when so instructed by Moses.” (p. 118)

When the tempter suggests that Jesus should fling himself down to be rescued by angels Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” a quote from Deut. 6:16. Again we need to consider the context:

Do not put the Lord your God to the test as you did at Massah. Be sure to keep the commands of the Lord your God and the stipulations and decrees he has given you. Do what is right and good in the Lord’s sight, so that it may go well with you and you may go in and take over the good land the Lord promised on oath to your ancestors, thrusting out all your enemies before you, as the Lord said. (6:16-19)

Again Jesus passes the test.

Given Matthew’s presentation of Jesus as the Messiah who brings Israel’s exile to an end, this is a highly significant passage: by resisting temptation to aggrandize himself through a spectacular stunt, Jesus again reaffirms obedience and trust in God as the means by which Israel is to be brought at last into the land of promise. And his response as obedient Son exemplifies the role Israel is meant to take in the world: not to seek to force God’s hand through risky self-assertion but waiting faithfully and doing what is right. So God’s Son passes the second test by responding obediently, typologically invoking Moses’ instructions to Israel. (p. 119)

Again the devil tempts Jesus, this time asking for worship in exchange for power and dominion. Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” (Deut 6:13) Again we should turn to the context … do not follow other gods … for the Lord your God, who is among you, is a jealous God.

Once again, by allowing this Scripture to answer the devil’s temptation, Jesus identifies himself fully with/as Israel, heeding God’s commandment. With this final decisive rejoinder, Jesus has named the fundamental issue: Who is God, and whom are we to serve? His answer, scripturally voiced, is to declare his own allegiance to the one God of Israel and to reject the worship of any other. With that the tempter is confounded and dismissed from the scene. And so God’s Son passes the third test by responding obediently, just as Moses instructed Israel to do. (pp. 119-120)

Jesus enacts the faithful Israel, son of God through whom salvation comes.

At the end of his time in the wilderness, Jesus has rightly embodied the covenant faithfulness Israel was meant to render to God – and he has done it, in Matthew’s elegant narration, by simply reciting the very Scriptures through which that covenant faithfulness was originally defined and commanded. (p. 120)

We began this survey with Jesus called out of Egypt and identified along with Israel as God’s son. Traced the allusions, through Hosea and Jeremiah to God’s love for Israel, and his promise of redemption and restoration for his people. The first public acts of Jesus in Matthew reinforce this idea of Jesus taking on and restoring the destiny of Israel. Yes, it is for all of us – but through God’s chosen people.

What do you think of this cast of the story of Jesus?

How are we to understand Matthew’s fulfillment quotes – especially when they do not seem particularly relevant?

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