- Isaiah 7:10-16 and Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
- Romans 1:1-7
- Matthew 1:18-25
The Birth of the Messiah (Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth)
Being Year A, the focus on this Sunday before Christmas falls on the account of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew was most likely written between the mid-80s and early 90s of the first century. His account of Jesus’ birth reflects ancient interests in the special circumstances surrounding the birth of a hero. This account is distinctively different from that found in Luke, with the following major elements: family tree, unexpected conception, failed attempt to kill him, exile in Egypt, move to Nazareth.
Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth can be outlined as follows:
- 1:1–17 Jesus’ family tree
- 1:18–25 Conception and birth
- 2:1–12 Threat to the Christ child
- 2:13–15 Escape
- 2:16–18 Massacre of the Innocents
- 2:19–23 Moving to Nazareth
Matthew seems to have been influenced by Jewish traditions about the birth and childhood of Moses when writing his story about the birth of Jesus. These traditions are known as the Moses Haggadah (“Haggadah” is a Hebrew word for story.)
The Biblical story of Moses’ birth celebrated the special significance of Moses but left many questions unanswered.
1:8 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we.10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.”11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh.12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites,14 and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah,16 “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.”17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?”19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.”20 So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong.21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”<BR<
2:1 Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman.2 The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months.3 When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river.4 His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
5 The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it.6 When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said.7 Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?”8 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother.9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it.10 When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.” [Exodus 1:8-2:10]
The birth of Moses in ancient Jewish tradition
From Jewish writings of the Second temple period, we know that this biblical passage inspired further elaboration on the Moses story. While no single surviving text contains a complete Moses haggadah, we can trace the general outlines of this complex that seems to have shaped the way Matthew depicts the infancy of his own hero, Jesus the Messiah.
Egyptian Horus legend
Seth went searching for Horus, still a child, in his hiding place in Chemmis (the Nile Delta marshland), after his mother (Isis) had hidden him in a papyrus thicket. [The text goes on to say that the child was in a reed boat.]
[Pap. Jumilhac, cited by Plaut, Torah, 392]
An Akkadian legend of Sargon
Sargon, the mighty king, king of Agade, am I.
My mother was a high priestess, my father I knew not.
The brother of my father loved the hills.
My city is Azupiranu, which is situated on the banks of the Euphrates.
My priestly mother conceived me, in secret she bore me.
She set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed my lid.
She cast me into the river which rose not over me.
The river bore me up and carried me to Akki, the drawer of water.
Akki, the drawer of water, lifted me out as he dipped his ewer.
Akki, the drawer of water, took me as his son and reared me.
[Pritchard, ANET, 119. cited by Plaut, Torah, 392]
Greek legend of Telephus
Telephus was born of a union between the god Heracles and Auge, daughter of King Aleus of Tegea. The enraged father put mother and son into a wooden chest and cast them into the sea. The chest floated to the land of King Teuthras who married Auge and raised Telephus as a prince.
[Strabo. cited by Plaut, Torah, 392]
Pseudo-Philo, Biblical Antiquities, 9
/9:1/ And after Joseph’s passing away, the sons of Israel multiplied and increased greatly. And another king who did not know Joseph arose in Egypt, and he said to his people, “Behold that people has multiplied more than we have. Come, let us make a plan against them so they will not multiply more.” And the king of Egypt ordered all his people, saying, “Every son that is born to the Hebrews, throw into the river; but let their females live.” And the Egyptians answered their king, saying, “Let us kill their males, and we will keep their females so that we may give them to our slaves as wives. And whoever is born from them will be a slave and serve us.” And this is what seemed wicked before the LORD.
/2/ Then the elders of the people gathered the people together in mourning, and they mourned and groaned saying, “The wombs of our wives have suffered miscarriage; our fruit is delivered to our enemies. And now we are lost, and let us set up rules for ourselves that a man should not approach his wife lest the fruit of their wombs be defiled and our offspring serve idols. For it is better to die without sons until we know what God may do.”
/3/ And Amram answered and said, “It will sooner happen that this age will be ended forever or the world will sink into the immeasurable deep or the heart of the abyss will touch the stars than that the race of the sons of Israel will be ended. And there will be fulfilled the covenant that God established with Abraham when he said, ‘Indeed your sons will dwell in a land not their own and will be brought into bondage and afflicted 400 years.’ And behold from the time when the word of God that he spoke to Abraham was spoken, there are 350 years; from the time when we became slaves in Egypt, there are 130 years. /4/ Now therefore I will not abide by what you decree, but I will go in and take my wife and produce sons so that we may be made many on the earth. For God will not abide in his anger, not will he forget his people forever, nor will he cast forth the race of Israel in vain upon the earth; nor did he establish a covenant with our fathers in vain; and even when we did not yet exist, God spoke about these matters. /5/ Now therefore I will go and take my wife and I will not consent to the command of the king; and if it is right in your eyes, let us all act in this way. For when our wives conceive, they will not be recognized as pregnant until three months have passed, as also our mother Tamar did. For her intent was not fornication, but being unwilling to separate from the sons of Israel she reflected and said, ‘It is better for me to die for having intercourse with my father-in-law than to have intercourse with gentiles.’ And she hid the fruit of her womb until the third month. For then she was recognized. And on her way to be put to death, she made a declaration saying, ‘He who own this staff and this signet ring and the sheepskin, from him I have conceived.’ And her intent saved her from all danger. /6/ Now therefore let us also do the same. And when the time of giving birth has been completed, we will not cast forth the fruit of our womb (if we are able). And who knows if God will not be provoked on account of this so as to free us from our humiliation?”
/7/ And the strategy that Amram thought out was pleasing before God. And God said, “Because Amram’s plan is pleasing to me, and he has not put aside the covenant established between me and his fathers, so behold now he who will be born from him will serve me forever, and I will do marvelous things in the house of Jacob through him and I will work through him signs and wonders for my people that I have not done for anyone else; and I will act gloriously among them and proclaim to them my ways. /8/ And I, God, will kindle for him my lamp that will abide in him, and I will show him my covenant that no one has seen. And I will reveal to him my Law and statutes and judgments, and I will burn an eternal light for him, because I thought of him in the days of old, saying, ‘My spirit will not be a mediator among these men forever, because they are flesh and their days will be 20 years.'”
/9/ And Amram of the tribe of Levi went out and took a wife from his own tribe. When he had taken her, others followed him and took their own wives. And this man had one son and one daughter; their names were Aaron and Miriam. /10/ And the spirit of God came upon Miriam one night, and she saw a dream and told it to her parents in the morning, saying, “I have seen this night, and behold a man in a linen garment stood and said to me, ‘Go and say to your parents, “Behold he who will be born from you will be cast forth into the water; likewise through him the water will be dried up. And I will work signs through him and save my people, and he will exercise leadership always.”‘” And when Miriam told her dream, her parents did not believe her.
/11/ The strategy of the king of Egypt, however, prevailed against the sons of Israel, and they were humiliated and worn down in making bricks. /12/ Now Jochebed conceived from Amram and hid him in her womb for three months. For she could not conceal him any longer, because the king of Egypt appointed local chiefs who, when the Hebrew women gave birth, would immediately throw their male children into the river. And she took her child and made for him an ark from the bark of a pine tree and placed the ark at the bank of the river. /13/ Now that child was born in the covenant of God and the covenant of the flesh. /14/ And when they had cast him forth, all the elders gathered and quarreled with Amram, saying, “Are not these our words that we spoke, ‘It is better for us to die without sons than that the fruit of our womb be cast into the waters’?” And Amram did not listen to those who were saying these words. /15/ Now Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe in the river, as she had seen in dreams, and her maids saw the ark. And she sent one, and she fetched it and opened it. And when she saw the boy, and while she was looking upon the covenant (that is, the covenant of the flesh), she said, “It is one of the Hebrew children.” /16/ And she took him and nursed him. And he became her own son, and she called him by the name Moses. But his mother called him Melchiel. And the child was nursed and became glorious above all other men, and through him God freed the sons of Israel as he had said.
[D.J. Harrington, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. 2, 315f]
1. NOW it happened that the Egyptians grew delicate and lazy, as to pains-taking, and gave themselves up to other pleasures, and in particular to the love of gain. They also became very ill-affected towards the Hebrews, as touched with envy at their prosperity; for when they saw how the nation of the Israelites flourished, and were become eminent already in plenty of wealth, which they had acquired by their virtue and natural love of labor, they thought their increase was to their own detriment. And having, in length of time, forgotten the benefits they had received from Joseph, particularly the crown being now come into another family, they became very abusive to the Israelites, and contrived many ways of afflicting them; for they enjoined them to cut a great number of channels for the river, and to build walls for their cities and ramparts, that they might restrain the river, and hinder its waters from stagnating, upon its running over its own banks: they set them also to build pyramids, (17) and by all this wore them out; and forced them to learn all sorts of mechanical arts, and to accustom themselves to hard labor. And four hundred years did they spend under these afflictions; for they strove one against the other which should get the mastery, the Egyptians desiring to destroy the Israelites by these labors, and the Israelites desiring to hold out to the end under them.
2. While the affairs of the Hebrews were in this condition, there was this occasion offered itself to the Egyptians, which made them more solicitous for the extinction of our nation. One of those sacred scribes, (18) who are very sagacious in foretelling future events truly, told the king, that about this time there would a child be born to the Israelites, who, if he were reared, would bring the Egyptian dominion low, and would raise the Israelites; that he would excel all men in virtue, and obtain a glory that would be remembered through all ages. Which thing was so feared by the king, that, according to this man’s opinion, he commanded that they should cast every male child, which was born to the Israelites, into the river, and destroy it; that besides this, the Egyptian midwives (19) should watch the labors of the Hebrew women, and observe what is born, for those were the women who were enjoined to do the office of midwives to them; and by reason of their relation to the king, would not transgress his commands. He enjoined also, that if any parents should disobey him, and venture to save their male children alive, (20) they and their families should be destroyed. This was a severe affliction indeed to those that suffered it, not only as they were deprived of their sons, and while they were the parents themselves, they were obliged to be subservient to the destruction of their own children, but as it was to be supposed to tend to the extirpation of their nation, while upon the destruction of their children, and their own gradual dissolution, the calamity would become very hard and inconsolable to them. And this was the ill state they were in. But no one can be too hard for the purpose of God, though he contrive ten thousand subtle devices for that end; for this child, whom the sacred scribe foretold, was brought up and concealed from the observers appointed by the king; and he that foretold him did not mistake in the consequences of his preservation, which were brought to pass after the manner following:—
3. A man whose name was Amram, one of the nobler sort of the Hebrews, was afraid for his whole nation, lest it should fail, by the want of young men to be brought up hereafter, and was very uneasy at it, his wife being then with child, and he knew not what to do. Hereupon he betook himself to prayer to God; and entreated him to have compassion on those men who had nowise transgressed the laws of his worship, and to afford them deliverance from the miseries they at that time endured, and to render abortive their enemies’ hopes of the destruction of their nation. Accordingly God had mercy on him, and was moved by his supplication. He stood by him in his sleep, and exhorted him not to despair of his future favors. He said further, that he did not forget their piety towards him, and would always reward them for it, as he had formerly granted his favor to their forefathers, and made them increase from a few to so great a multitude. He put him in mind, that when Abraham was come alone out of Mesopotamia into Canaan, he had been made happy, not only in other respects, but that when his wife was at first barren, she was afterwards by him enabled to conceive seed, and bare him sons. That he left to Ismael and to his posterity the country of Arabia; as also to his sons by Ketura, Troglodytis; and to Isaac, Canaan. That by my assistance, said he, he did great exploits in war, which, unless you be yourselves impious, you must still remember. As for Jacob, he became well known to strangers also, by the greatness of that prosperity in which he lived, and left to his sons, who came into Egypt with no more than seventy souls, while you are now become above six hundred thousand. Know therefore that I shall provide for you all in common what is for your good, and particularly for thyself what shall make thee famous; for that child, out of dread of whose nativity the Egyptians have doomed the Israelite children to destruction, shall be this child of thine, and shall be concealed from those who watch to destroy him: and when he is brought up in a surprising way, he shall deliver the Hebrew nation from the distress they are under from the Egyptians. His memory shall be famous while the world lasts; and this not only among the Hebrews, but foreigners also: — all which shall be the effect of my favor to thee, and to thy posterity. He shall also have such a brother, that he shall himself obtain my priesthood, and his posterity shall have it after him to the end of the world.
4. When the vision had informed him of these things, Amram awaked and told it to Jochebed who was his wife. And now the fear increased upon them on account of the prediction in Amram’s dream; for they were under concern, not only for the child, but on account of the great happiness that was to come to him also. However, the mother’s labor was such as afforded a confirmation to what was foretold by God; for it was not known to those that watched her, by the easiness of her pains, and because the throes of her delivery did not fall upon her with violence. And now they nourished the child at home privately for three months; but after that time Amram, fearing he should be discovered, and, by falling under the king’s displeasure, both he and his child should perish, and so he should make the promise of God of none effect, he determined rather to trust the safety and care of the child to God, than to depend on his own concealment of him, which he looked upon as a thing uncertain, and whereby both the child, so privately to be nourished, and himself should be in imminent danger; but he believed that God would some way for certain procure the safety of the child, in order to secure the truth of his own predictions. When they had thus determined, they made an ark of bulrushes, after the manner of a cradle, and of a bigness sufficient for an infant to be laid in, without being too straitened: they then daubed it over with slime, which would naturally keep out the water from entering between the bulrushes, and put the infant into it, and setting it afloat upon the river, they left its preservation to God; so the river received the child, and carried him along. But Miriam, the child’s sister, passed along upon the bank over against him, as her mother had bid her, to see whither the ark would be carried, where God demonstrated that human wisdom was nothing, but that the Supreme Being is able to do whatsoever he pleases: that those who, in order to their own security, condemn others to destruction, and use great endeavors about it, fail of their purpose; but that others are in a surprising manner preserved, and obtain a prosperous condition almost from the very midst of their calamities; those, I mean, whose dangers arise by the appointment of God. And, indeed, such a providence was exercised in the case of this child, as showed the power of God.
5. Thermuthis was the king’s daughter. She was now diverting herself by the banks of the river; and seeing a cradle borne along by the current, she sent some that could swim, and bid them bring the cradle to her. When those that were sent on this errand came to her with the cradle, and she saw the little child, she was greatly in love with it, on account of its largeness and beauty; for God had taken such great care in the formation of Moses, that he caused him to be thought worthy of bringing up, and providing for, by all those that had taken the most fatal resolutions, on account of the dread of his nativity, for the destruction of the rest of the Hebrew nation. Thermuthis bid them bring her a woman that might afford her breast to the child; yet would not the child admit of her breast, but turned away from it, and did the like to many other women. Now Miriam was by when this happened, not to appear to be there on purpose, but only as staying to see the child; and she said, “It is in vain that thou, O queen, callest for these women for the nourishing of the child, who are no way of kin to it; but still, if thou wilt order one of the Hebrew women to be brought, perhaps it may admit the breast of one of its own nation.” Now since she seemed to speak well, Thermuthis bid her procure such a one, and to bring one of those Hebrew women that gave suck. So when she had such authority given her, she came back and brought the mother, who was known to nobody there. And now the child gladly admitted the breast, and seemed to stick close to it; and so it was, that, at the queen’s desire, the nursing of the child was entirely intrusted to the mother.
6. Hereupon it was that Thermuthis imposed this name Mouses upon him, from what had happened when he was put into the river; for the Egyptians call water by the name of Mo, and such as are saved out of it, by the name of Uses: so by putting these two words together, they imposed this name upon him. And he was, by the confession of all, according to God’s prediction, as well for his greatness of mind as for his contempt of difficulties, the best of all the Hebrews, for Abraham was his ancestor of the seventh generation. For Moses was the son of Amram, who was the son of Caath, whose father Levi was the son of Jacob, who was the son of Isaac, who was the son of Abraham. Now Moses’s understanding became superior to his age, nay, far beyond that standard; and when he was taught, he discovered greater quickness of apprehension than was usual at his age, and his actions at that time promised greater, when he should come to the age of a man. God did also give him that tallness, when he was but three years old, as was wonderful. And as for his beauty, there was nobody so unpolite as, when they saw Moses, they were not greatly surprised at the beauty of his countenance; nay, it happened frequently, that those that met him as he was carried along the road, were obliged to turn again upon seeing the child; that they left what they were about, and stood still a great while to look on him; for the beauty of the child was so remarkable and natural to him on many accounts, that it detained the spectators, and made them stay longer to look upon him.
7. Thermuthis therefore perceiving him to be so remarkable a child, adopted him for her son, having no child of her own. And when one time had carried Moses to her father, she showed him to him, and said she thought to make him her successor, if it should please God she should have no legitimate child of her own; and to him, “I have brought up a child who is of a divine form, (21) and of a generous mind; and as I have received him from the bounty of the river, in , I thought proper to adopt him my son, and the heir of thy kingdom.” And she had said this, she put the infant into her father’s hands: so he took him, and hugged him to his breast; and on his daughter’s account, in a pleasant way, put his diadem upon his head; but Moses threw it down to the ground, and, in a puerile mood, he wreathed it round, and trod upon his feet, which seemed to bring along with evil presage concerning the kingdom of Egypt. But when the sacred scribe saw this, (he was the person who foretold that his nativity would the dominion of that kingdom low,) he made a violent attempt to kill him; and crying out in a frightful manner, he said, “This, O king! this child is he of whom God foretold, that if we kill him we shall be in no danger; he himself affords an attestation to the prediction of the same thing, by his trampling upon thy government, and treading upon thy diadem. Take him, therefore, out of the way, and deliver the Egyptians from the fear they are in about him; and deprive the Hebrews of the hope they have of being encouraged by him.” But Thermuthis prevented him, and snatched the child away. And the king was not hasty to slay him, God himself, whose providence protected Moses, inclining the king to spare him. He was, therefore, educated with great care. So the Hebrews depended on him, and were of good hopes great things would be done by him; but the Egyptians were suspicious of what would follow such his education. Yet because, if Moses had been slain, there was no one, either akin or adopted, that had any oracle on his side for pretending to the crown of Egypt, and likely to be of greater advantage to them, they abstained from killing him.
[Antiquities of the Jews II.9]
Book of Memory
In the 130th year after Israel went down to Egypt, Pharaoh dreamed that he was sitting on the throne of his kingdom. He looked up and saw an old man standing before him holding a balance like those used by merchants. The old man took hold of the scales and held them up before Pharaoh Then he took all the elders of Egypt, her princes and her nobles and put them on one scale of the balance. After that he took a tender lamb and put it on the second scale. The lamb outweighed them all. Then Pharaoh wondered at this amazing sight, how the lamb outweighed them all. Pharaoh woke up and realized it was only a dream. Next morning, Pharaoh got up, summoned all his courtiers, and narrated his dream. They were all extremely frightened. Then one of the royal princes answered, “This can only mean that a great disaster will come on Egypt at the end of days.” “And what is that?” the king asked the eunuch. So the eunuch replied to the king, “A child will be born in Israel who will destroy the whole land of Egypt. If it pleases the king, let a royal statute be written here and distributed throughout the land of Egypt to kill every newborn male of the Hebrews so that the disaster will be averted from the land of Egypt.” The king did so and sent for the midwives of the Hebrews …
When the Israelites heard Pharaoh’s decree that their male children be thrown into the river, some of the men divorced their wives but the rest stayed married to them …
There was a man of the tribe of Levi in the land of Egypt whose name was Amram, son of Qahat, son of Levi, son of Jacob. This man married Jochebed, a daughter of Levi and his own aunt, and the woman conceived and gave birth to a daughter and called her Miriam …
One day the Spirit of God descended on Miriam and she prophesied in the center of the house saying, “Behold, a son will be born to my father and mother at this time who will save Israel from the power of Egypt.” When Amram heard the words of the child he remarried his wife who he had divorced after the decree of Pharaoh ordering the destruction of every male of the house of Jacob. He slept with her and she conceived by him. Six months later she gave birth to a son and the house was filled with brightness like that of the sun and moon at their rising.
[Miller, Born Divine, 131f (after Crossan, “From Moses to Jesus”)]
Good News for Outsiders in Matthew’s infancy narrative
While Matthew’s infancy narrative is deeply influenced by the Jewish traditions about Moses, he has given his story a definite twist in favour of inclusion of those who would otherwise have been excluded from the community.
The most obvious expression of this can be seen in the visit of the Magi. These pagan astrologers do not belong in such a tale, but their presence highlights the differing responses to Christ by the Jewish authorities (represented here by Herod) and the gentiles. Biblical themes of gentiles coming from the ends of the earth in the messianic times are echoed here as well. The arrival of these “seekers” from the end of the earth forms something of an inclusion with the final instruction from the Risen Lord in Matt 28:16-20 (“Go, and make disciples of all nations …”).
- For further on the magi see: 369 Star of Revelation
Another clue to Matthew’s grasp of the radical inclusion of all people in the blessings brought by Jesus comes in the genealogy in Matt 1:1-17. Four women are included in the list of Jesus’ ancestors, and five in we count Mary:
- the wife of Uriah (Bathsheba)
If we look for something that these women have in common, including Mary the mother of Jesus, then it seems that Matthew is offering a subtle defence to allegations that Jesus’ conception involved some extramarital scandal.
However, if Mary is excluded from consideration, the most significant characteristic that the remaining four women share (and which does not apply to Mary) is their non-Jewish ethnicity. Is it possible that Matthew is underlining his theme of inclusion for the Gentiles by mentioning these four foreigners who were either ancestors (or the wife) of King David, and ancestors of Jesus himself?
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
- Hail to the Lord’s anointed – TiS 275
- The angel Gabriel from heaven came – TiS 302
- Lord Jesus Christ, you have come to us – TiS 526
- When God almighty came to be one of us – TiS 281
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.