- Isaiah 63:7-9 and Psalm 148
- Hebrews 2:10-18
- Matthew 2:13-23
Herod threatens the Christ Child
Many churches this Sunday will recount the sequel to the visit of the Magi from Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus.
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
This story has been crafted by Matthew somewhere during the last quarter of the first century. Its original intention was not to chronicle the events of Jesus’ conception and childhood, but to celebrate the prophetic significance of Jesus and to place him securely within the Jewish tradition. Affirmation of the biblical and providential character of Jesus would have been especially significant to Jewish Christians such as Matthew’s community as they found themselves increasingly excluded from the synagogue communities in the aftermath of the Jewish war.
Matthew’s infancy story leaves the reader in no doubt that Jesus was deeply Jewish. In the story of his childhood, Matthew has Jesus re-live in his own experience some of the most central themes of Jewish identity. This match is especially close in the episodes that describe the flight to Egypt and the eventual return of the Christ child to Palestine.
In his recent study of the birth stories of Jesus and “other sons of God,” Robert Miller comments on the close literary relationship between the story of Moses in Exodus and Matthew’s story of Jesus:
(Matt) 2:19-21 is closely modeled in Ex 4:19-20 and is also nearly identical to Matt 2:13-14. Matthew’s formulaic wording creates an almost exact symmetry between Jesus’ two journeys to Egypt and back to Israel. It looks like Matthew wrote 2:19-21 in careful imitation of Ex 4:19-20 and then used it to clone 2:13-14, making the necessary adjustment in the reference to Herod in v. 13b. [Born Divine, 111]
Miller provides the following table that shows the close relationship between these texts:
|After these many days the king of Egypt died.||After Herod’s death||After they had departed,|
|The Lord said||a messenger of the Lord appeared in a dream||a messenger of the Lord appeared in a dream|
|to Moses in Midian,||to Joseph in Egypt and said to him,||to Joseph and said to him,|
|“Get up, take the child and his mother,||“Get up, take the child and his mother,|
|“Go back to Egypt,||and return to the land of Israel,||and flee to Egypt,|
|for all those who were seeking your life are dead.”||for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”||for Herod is determined to seek out the child and destroy him.”|
|Moses took his wife and children and put them on donkeys and returned to Egypt.||So he got up, took the child and his mother and returned to the land of Israel.||So he got up, took the child and his mother, and left for Egypt.|
In addition to the Moses traditions, even as developed in the widespread Moses Haggadah, the idea that a newborn hero might be in some danger from a hostile tyrant was a familiar element in Greek and oriental mythology.
Danger for baby Sargon
From ancient Sumer (c. 2,300 BCE) we have the story of Sargon II, future ruler of the Akkdian empire, cast adrift after birth by his (unmarried?) young mother:
1. Sargon, the mighty king, king of Akkadê am I,
2. My mother was lowly; my father I did not know;
3. The brother of my father dwelt in the mountain.
4. My city is Azupiranu, which is situated on the bank of the Purattu [Euphrates],
5. My lowly mother conceived me, in secret she brought me forth.
6. She placed me in a basket of reeds, she closed my entrance with bitumen,
7. She cast me upon the rivers which did not overflow me.
8. The river carried me, it brought me to Akki, the irrigator.
9. Akki, the irrigator, in the goodness of his heart lifted me out,
10. Akki, the irrigator, as his own son brought me up;
11. Akki, the irrigator, as his gardener appointed me.
Romulus and Remus
The Roman historian, Tacitus, tells the story of Romulus and Remus being at risk due to the evil intentions of Tarchetius, king of Alba:
For to Tarchetius, they say, king of Alba, who was a most wicked and cruel man, there appeared in his own house a strange vision, a male figure that rose out of a hearth, and stayed there for many days. There was an oracle of Tethys in Tuscany which Tarchetius consulted, and received an answer that a virgin should give herself to the apparition, and that a son should be born of her, highly renowned, eminent for valour, good fortune, and strength of body. Tarchetius told the prophecy to one of his own daughters, and commanded her to do this thing; which she avoiding as an indignity, sent her handmaid. Tarchetius, hearing this, in great anger imprisoned them both, purposing to put them to death, but being deterred from murder by the goddess Vesta in a dream, enjoined them for their punishment the working a web of cloth, in their chains as they were, which when they finished, they should be suffered to marry; but whatever they worked by day, Tarchetius commanded others to unravel in the night. In the meantime, the waiting-woman was delivered of two boys, whom Tarchetius gave into the hands of one Teratius, with command to destroy them; he, however, carried and laid them by the river side, where a wolf came and continued to suckle them, while birds of various sorts brought little morsels of food, which they put into their mouths; till a cowherd, spying them, was first strangely surprised, but, venturing to draw nearer, took the children up in his arms. Thus they were saved, and when they grew up, set upon Tarchetius and overcame him. This one Promathion says, who compiled a history of Italy.
The dragon and the Christ Child
While the same motif is known from fairy tales and popular traditions around the world, we find another significant example within the NT itself. In Rev 12:1-12 we have another story of the messianic child being at risk as the Dragon attacks immediately after the infant’s birth:
A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days.
And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world–he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming,
“Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Messiah,
for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down,
who accuses them day and night before our God.
But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony,
for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.
Rejoice then, you heavens
and those who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
for the devil has come down to you
with great wrath,
because he knows that his time is short!”
This appears to be a Jewish messianic text rather than a Christian composition. Although its present form betrays some Christian influences, it is hard to imagine a Christian writer composing a text in which the savior role is attributed to Michael the Archangel. In any case, what we have is clearly a mythic tale of the Christ child being in peril as the powers of Satan attack soon after his birth.
Matthew’s story is no less mythic even though his characters are historical figures and the location is the eastern Mediterranean. Herod is every inch the great red dragon, and the holy family flee to Egypt so that the great mythic themes of exodus are re-enacted in the experience of this new “Joshua” (as Jesus would have been called in Hebrew).
The spider and the cave
Such stories celebrate the providential involvement of God in human affairs, an insight that lies very close to the heart of the Incarnation. A much later story that elaborates on the theme of the flight to Egypt is the legend of the spider and the cave:
The Holy Family stumbled wearily into a dark, damp cave on their way to Egypt. It was a cold, freezing night – so cold that the ground was carpeted with a white hoar-frost. Tired as they were, Mary and Joseph busied themselves trying to make the cave as warm as they could for their new-born child. But it was all to no avail. It was impossible to light a fire as the wind blew mercilessly into the cave. Soon the baby began to cry and awoke a sleeping spider. The spider was moved when he saw Jesus and decided that somehow he must do something to help Mary and Joseph. So, patiently, he began to spin a web across the entrance of the cave to make a kind of curtain which would shield them from the searing wind. It was hard work and the spider was near to exhaustion when it was finished. He had only just completed his work however, when a detachment of Herod’s soldiers approached the cave. Blood was on their swords and hate in their hearts. Their mission was to kill the infant Jesus. The spider trembled with fear as he heard them stop outside the cave and prepare to burst in and search it. He looked at the now sleeping Jesus and prayed with all his might for a miracle. He was not disappointed. The soldiers were just about to enter the cave when the captain noticed the slender web, covered with white hoar-frost, stretched across the entrance. He laughed hideously and cursed his men for their ignorance. “Can’t you see the spider’s web, you idiots?” he cried. “It’s completely unbroken. There can’t possibly be anyone in the cave, otherwise they would have certainly torn the web.” And so the soldiers went on their way and the infant Jesus slept peacefully that night because the little spider had given up his night’s sleep to spin his web.
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.