Friday, 9 May 2014

Jesus and Moses in Matthew 1-4

Many have noticed Matthew’s sensitive contrast between Moses and Jesus.  This is fairly obvious when we get to the Sermon on the Mount where, just like Moses, he delivers something of a new law to the people.  If you read any standard introduction to the biblical theology themes of Matthew, you will find many such examples of how Jesus is the New Moses.

Jesus on Mount 
I’d like to share with all of you a little more of how Matthew portrays Jesus as not just the new Moses, but the one who is greater than Moses.  I will focus my attention on the birth narrative in chapters one and two.  Much of this information depends upon common first century beliefs about Moses, and illustrates how a better appreciation of the primary sources can help us understand the biblical text better.

The Direct Quotation
Let’s begin with the quotation of Exod 4:19 in Matt 2:20.  In Exodus, God tells Moses to return to Egypt, while in Matthew, the angel tells Joseph to return to Israel.  Here’s how the two texts read in the NIV:

Exod 4:19       ...for all the men who wanted to kill you are dead.
Matt 2:20        ...for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.

The Greek texts of Exod 4:19 (Septuagint) and Matt 2:20 are actually as close as they can possibly be, except for the difference of the use of the second person (“you”) in Exodus, while Matthew refers in its place “the child,” an unavoidable difference.

So, we have here two very similar stories of the main character returning to his homeland for the same reason, with Matthew giving an almost direct quotation of the earlier text.  This should give us the interpretive clue that Matthew is comparing Jesus to Moses.

Listing the Other Parallels
However, there are many more clues.  Let’s list them.  (I culled the raw data from the New International Critical Commentary on Matthew, pp. 192-193, for full citation of the primary sources.)

Josephus, a 1st cent. Jewish historian
1.         According to Josephus (whose dates are approximate to Paul’s), the Jews believed that Amram (Moses’ father) was troubled at the news of the coming birth of Moses.  Also, Josephus says that God appeared to Amram in a dream and told him not to despair.  In telling the story, Josephus lauds Amram for his piety and noble character.  Matthew says the same things about Joseph:  Joseph was a righteous and noble man, he was troubled at the news of the pregnancy, and he was told not to be afraid.  (See also Pseudo-Philo, probably first century.)

2.         According to Pseudo-Philo, the Jews believed that an angel appeared to make an announcement of the coming birth of one by whom “I will save my people.”  In the same way, an angel also appeared to Joseph to foretell the birth of the one who would “save my people from their sins.”

3.         Pharaoh ordered the death of all the Hebrew boys.  Likewise, King Herod gave similar orders regarding the boys of Bethlehem.

4.         Josephus says that the Jews believed that Pharaoh ordered the drowning of the Hebrew boys because he learned of the birth of a future liberator of Israel (see also the Aramaic Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Exod 1:15).  Likewise, Herod’s motivation for the slaughter of the innocents was the same.

5.         Josephus says that the Jews believed that Pharaoh learned of this future liberator from sacred scribes (see also the aforementioned Targum).  Likewise, Herod learned of the coming Messiah through the chief priests and scribes.

6.         Just as Moses was forced to leave his home by people who wanted to kill him, Jesus also was forced to leave his home because people wanted to kill him.

7.         Just as Moses took his wife and sons and went back to Egypt (Exod 4:20), Joseph took his son and his wife and went back to Israel.

8.         Finally, the issue in Matthew 2 is, Who is the real king of the Jews?  Obviously, Jesus is, not Herod.  But interestingly, according to Josephus, Philo, and a number of other Rabbinic traditions, the Jews believed that Moses also was a king.

Concluding Comments
Let me just hasten to say that much of the Jewish beliefs about Moses are legendary and found outside of the Old or New Testaments.  However, the primary sources do tell us what first century Jews typically believed about Moses.  When reading Matthew’s Gospel, they would not have overlooked these parallels, even if we moderns don’t get a picture as fully developed as they did.

Now, this is just raw data.  Interpretation of the raw data requires a bit more work.  Minimally, we see that Jesus is being compared with Moses.  Later in Matthew, we see that Jesus’ word is superior to that of Moses.  The theme can be developed much more fully.

The birth narrative in Matthew’s Gospel clearly sets out to compare Moses to Jesus.  It doesn’t quite tell us who is greater, but it gives us a heads up so that we can look for other clues later in the story.

After the Passover, the Israelites departed Egypt and crossed through the Red Sea.  Many have also compared Christian baptism to the same event.  If this comparison is valid we see that Jesus’ baptism might correspond to the Israelite crossing of the Red Sea.  But Jesus’ venture through the waters was followed by the divine pronouncement of his sonship, revealing that he is more so God’s Son than Israel ever was; recall the Matthean quote, “Out of Egypt I have called my Son.”

After the crossing of the Red Sea, the Children of Israel were tested in the wilderness.  Likewise, after Jesus’ water experience, he too went into the desert to be tested.  The Israelites failed in this time of testing, but Jesus Messiah endured the testing successfully.

After crossing the Red Sea, Moses went up to a mountain, received the Covenant and issued it to the people.  In Matthew, after his Jordan experience, Jesus also goes to a mountain and lays out the Covenant to the people (i.e., The Sermon on the Mount).  In doing so, Jesus exerts his superiority to Moses not only by announcing that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, but also by saying, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago....  But I tell you.....”  Clearly the Messiah is a prophet greater than Moses.

My comparison of Jesus to Moses is limited to the first few chapters of Matthew.  However, more could be spelled out.  

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