Friday, January 25, 2013

Gospel Blog: Matthew 2

Note: See Introduction for context of this series on the Gospels.

Summary of Matthew 2
Evil King Herod tries to kill the Messiah and commits child genocide. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus escape, and after Herod’s death they eventually settle in Nazareth.

Detailed Thoughts about Matthew 2
After finishing this passage, I had three initial thoughts:
  1. Herod was desperate not to lose power.
  2. Herod’s actions in Jerusalem were unspeakably awful.
  3. Joseph sure dreamed a lot!
The chapter begins with mysterious “wise men from the East” coming to King Herod to ask about the Messiah after following this giant star to Bethlehem. Huh. Matthew sure breezed through this part. Who were the wise men? Where did they come from? How did this giant star come into being? Why were they compelled to follow it? How did they connect this star with the birth of the “King of the Jews”? How did they even know about this birth?

Keep in mind, I am simply blogging my thoughts and not using related history texts, concordances, or other supplemental materials. To any theologians reading this: I hope you are not shouting answers to these questions at the screen in frustration! Your comments are welcome.

But then the text concentrates on Herod. Wow, this guy. After the wise men asked him these questions, Herod got confirmation from the religious leaders about the birthplace of the Messiah according to the prophets. Then he used diabolical manipulation to get the wise men to tell him where this child actually was located. Finally, in desperation, after the wise men were told (in a dream) to clear out, Herod did something breathtakingly evil. He ordered all male children under 2 years old in Bethlehem to be killed. Child genocide. I can’t take it in.

For a discussion on whether this genocide was historical or just a myth, see posts by James McGrath and Tony Jones.

What I see in this chapter, besides the horror, is a man desperate not to lose power. So desperate, in fact, that he would kill the Messiah in order to keep this power. What a timeless, common human condition! We see this desparation in politics, in business, in relationships, and, clearly, in the church: people willing to manipulate, lie, cheat, or worse in order to keep power. Matthew's brief portrait of Herod sets up another contrast to the radical teachings of Jesus. (I admit it: I’m already getting excited about reading Jesus’ words in this whole new light.)

In the meantime, Joseph had a dream where he was instructed to flee Bethlehem and go to Egypt for safety. When Herod died, Joseph had another dream to return to Israel. When hearing that Herod’s son was ruler of Judea, Joseph had yet another dream to go to Nazareth. So after 2 chapters in Matthew, Joseph has already had 4 dreams. (What is it with Joseph and the dreams?)

Matthew uses these stories to bring more evidence to his argument that Jesus is the true Messiah: the birth in Bethlehem, the text from Jeremiah “Rachel weeping for her children” (although indicating Herod's massacre as a fullfillment of this prophecy seems a bit of stretch to me), and that the Messiah would be a Nazarene.

Looking at these stories with an objective eye, it all seems pretty unbelievable. My honest reaction? It reads more like a myth than an historical text. However, I’m just going to sit with that thought and let it be. At this early stage, what I’m already taking away from these readings is the stark contrast between what I know of the life and teachings of Jesus and the world and culture that he inhabited.

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