From Bethlehem to Egypt (Matthew 2)

The wise men were guided by the star right to where Jesus was. Its guidance brought them great joy. Matthew stresses that they did not worship Mary, but only worshipped the child Jesus. Three types of gifts were given, and they indicated the resources of the wise men. Moreover, the gifts were of practical benefit and would help the family in different ways over the next while.

The family of Jesus were not allowed by God to stay any longer in Bethlehem. It looks as if the wise men left that evening, and that God appeared to Joseph in a dream that night with an instruction that he leave immediately because of the threat of Herod. Bethlehem was only six miles from Jerusalem and it would not take Herod long to send his soldiers. So Joseph took Mary and Jesus to Egypt.

What are we to make of the actions of Herod? They were desperate, depraved and devilish. His murder of the children was an attempt to preserve his place in society. If we knew about his treatment of his family, we would not be surprised at his action. He murdered some of his sons and poisoned one of his wives. Moreover, before he died he arranged for 1,500 people to be executed in order that there would be a sense of sadness at his death. He knew that people would not mourn for him, so he tried to get them to mourn in general. Fortunately, this intention was not carried out after he died.

The family were not in Egypt for long before Herod died. Initially, Joseph thought of returning to Bethlehem, but decided not to go because he was aware of the character of Archelaus, the son of Herod, who also was known for his cruelty. So God guided Joseph to go back to Nazareth and live there.

So as a young child aged about two or three, Jesus was taken to live in Nazareth. We may wonder at the two Old Testament usages that Matthew makes in this connection. The first is to a statement in Hosea that originally applied to Israel when God took them out of Egypt after a long period of trouble. Matthew indicates that there is a similarity between the experience of Israel and of Jesus. But he is saying more – he is also saying that there is an identity between Jesus and his people.

The second is in verse 23 where Matthew says that the prophets predicted that Jesus would be called a Nazarene. What does he mean by that comment because we know that there is not a specific prophecy that says so? First, he says that the name Nazarene is one way of stating what the prophets said in general about Jesus. Second, the name connects him to Nazareth, but in a derogatory way, signifying obscurity. Third, Matthew knows that he can link the term to a word that means branch, which in Isaiah 11:1 balances the dignity of David’s line with him being only a stump, and yet a branch. So Matthew means that Jesus, although he was of the royal line, would grow up in obscurity, which is what the prophets said about him. 

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