NEW TESTAMENT CRITICAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verses 12-14: “But God warned the Magi in a dream not to go back to King Herod. So they went back to their own country by a different route. After the Magi left, an angel from the Lord came to Joseph in a dream. The angel said, ‘Get up! Take the child with His mother and escape to Egypt. Herod wants to kill the child and will soon start looking for Him. Stay in Egypt until I tell you to come back.’ So Joseph got ready and left for Egypt with the child and the mother. They left during the night.” While it may be thought that the Magi set out on their journey inspired by their love for astrology and star gazing, there is much to be said as to their purpose. They were looking for a new born king. They were led to Jerusalem. Then they were led to the house where Joseph, Mary and Jesus were staying. Was all of this sheer luck or good astronomy? If God now warned them in a dream to leave and not tell Herod anything about where they found the boy, could it not be that God in His own infinite way sparked their interest in learning what this new star in the sky really meant? Furthermore, here we see God’s omniscience with regards to Herod’s ensuing action of murdering the infant boys. How true that God knows men’s thoughts before they are expressed. There is something very interesting here in the way that the angel in verses 13 & 20 specifies directions so clearly. The writer is explicit in his narration when he reiterates that Joseph took “the child and His mother.” Even though they were ceremonially man and wife, the scripture clearly indicates that this product of Mary’s womb was not the result of the usual intimate relationship between his mother and her husband. Joseph is referred to here in a way that shows a “parental relationship,” not a “biological relationship,” and therefore was merely an accomplice to the greatest story ever told. It also signifies that God did not motivate Joseph to ask Mary to wed him simply out of love or because he wanted a wife to bear him children, but God was choosing a good caretaker of this remarkable girl and her supernatural son. For some reason we are not told into what part of Egypt Joseph took Mary and Jesus. This was a traditional place of refuge, as we can see in various Scriptures.1 Some say they went to Alexandria because there was a large Jewish community there at the time. In one Jewish document the Rabbis were discussing about when a writ of divorce is made out, how in some cases an inscription is made on leather in the form of writing, and how if it is done on the Sabbath the writ is then void. In an unusual remark, one Rabbi stated: “Now did not Ben Stada – [Jesus] learn and bring magic to make marks on leather in the form of writing in the same way?”2 Two hundred years later Jewish writers make this same point, only they say, “It was taught: ‘But did not Ben Stada [Jesus] bring forth witchcraft from Egypt by means of scratches in the form of charms on His flesh? He was a fool, answered they, and proof cannot be adduced from fools.”3 Although it is unclear as to just what types of marks or scratches on Jesus’ skin they were referring to, there is always the possibility that this was their way of trying to debunk the testimony of the disciples, who said that they saw the risen Christ and knew it was Him because of the nail prints in His hands and the scar in His side. But it does verify that the Jews were aware of the time Jesus spent in Egypt as a child, which fits Matthew’s account. In light of this, there is an interesting story in Jewish tradition about Gehazi, Elisha’s servant who was stricken with leprosy because of his disobedience by accepting gifts from the Syrian General Naaman after he was healed in the Jordan River. After hearing this story, someone in the group asked: “What happened to Rabbi Joshua ben Perahjah?” They were told: “When King Jannai slew our Rabbis, Rabbi Joshua ben Perahjah (and Jesus) fled to Alexandria, Egypt . . . And a great teacher has said, ‘Jesus the Nazarene practiced magic and let Israel astray’.”4 The problem with this story is that it makes Jesus a contemporary with King Jannai (104-78 BC). Very few scholars have accepted this as having any credibility, therefore that is why it was scrubbed from later copies of the Talmud. Nevertheless, it does show us that Jesus being down in Egypt was a subject in Jewish discussions. Then in a polemic document the writer gives his opinion on Jesus being taken down into Egypt: “What was the reason for this? If he were God, why should he have been afraid of the king? Why, we see that God’s angels and servants were not afraid of flesh and blood; they carried out their divine mission openly, and no man had the power to touch them or harm them at all.”5 What this anonymous writer of the polemic did not take into account was that Jesus was here to fulfill all scriptures written about the Messiah so that His claim to be the Messiah would be clearly authenticated. Joseph and Mary were not so much afraid of Herod as they were respectful of the angel’s message from God. But a Christian apologists had an answer for such speculation:
“My opponent will perhaps meet me with many other slanderous and childish charges which are being spread everywhere. That Jesus was a Magician; he effected all these things by secret arts. From the shrines of the Egyptians he stole the names of angels of might, and the religious system of a remote country. Why, O you of little wisdom, do you speak of things which you have not examined, and which are unknown to you, running your mouth with the babble of a rash tongue ? Were, then, those things which were done, the freaks of demons, and the tricks of magical arts? Can you specify and point out to me any one of all those magicians who have ever existed in the past ages, that did anything similar, in the thousandth degree, to Christ? Who has done this without any power of incantations, without the juice of herbs and of grasses, without any anxious watching of sacrifices, of libations, or of seasons? And yet we all agree that Christ performed all those miracles which He wrought without any aid from external things, without the observance of any ceremonial, without any specific procedure, but solely by the inherent might of His authority; and as was the proper duty of a true God, as was consistent with His nature, as was worthy of Him, in the generosity of his bounteous power he bestowed nothing hurtful or injurious, but only that which is helpful, beneficial, and full of blessings good for mankind.”6
I’m sure to all of what our brother said here we can shout a loud “Amen!” We may not be as loquacious or witty as this writer, but the point is the same. Why do we cringe when we are confronted and challenged by those who do not believe in God, the Bible, Creation, Miracles, the Resurrection, etc? Remember, as this writer said, it is incumbent upon them to prove they are right just as much as they ask us to prove we are right.
Verse 15: “Joseph stayed in Egypt until Herod died. This helped people to better understand what the Lord meant when He said through the prophet: ‘I called my son to come out of Egypt.’” Jesus could have been as old as 18 to 24 months when the Magi came, and Joseph and Mary stayed in Egypt several years, by the time they got to Nazareth, Jesus may have been as old as 5 years of age. The prophet mentioned here by Matthew was Hosea, who said: “The Lord said, ‘I loved Israel when he was a child, and I called my son out of Egypt.‘”7 Another Rabbi sees this verse differently, and renders it: “When Israel was a child in Egypt, then in My love for him, I used to cry out whenever I saw him, O My son.”8 A more recent Jewish translation puts it this way: “When Isra’el was a child, I loved him; and out of Egypt I called my son.”9 This conforms very much to the Aramaic text of this verse. There is no reason not to believe that Matthew was convinced that this statement involved Jacob going down into Egypt during the famine and stayed there with Joseph until he died. Then the children of Israel remained in Egypt some 450 years before God called out Jacob’s children, out of the love he had for him since he was a child. But Matthew saw that this word from God about Israel, in fact contained a subliminal message about His Son the Messiah. Regardless of what happened to Joseph, Mary and Jesus in Egypt, Herod paid for his treachery and attempt to end the Savior’s life before His ministry could be realized. Luke is the first one to tell us the following story: “Later, Herod moved from Judea. He went to the city of Caesarea and stayed there a while. Herod was very angry with the people from the cities of Tyre and Sidon. But these cities needed food from his country, so a group of them came to ask him for peace. They were able to get Blastus, the king’s personal servant, on their side. Herod decided on a day to meet with them. On that day he was wearing a beautiful royal robe. He sat on his throne and made a speech to the people. The people shouted, ‘This is the voice of a god, not a man!’ Herod did not give the glory to God. So an angel of the Lord caused him to get sick. He was eaten by worms inside him, and he died.”10 A venerable Jewish historian gives us an even more detailed story:
“Now when Agrippa had reigned three years over all Judea, he came to the city Caesarea, which was formerly called Strato’s Tower; and there he exhibited shows in honor of Caesar, upon his being informed that there was a certain festival celebrated to make vows for his safety. At which festival a great multitude was gotten together of the principal persons, and such as were of dignity through his province. On the second day of which shows he put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a design truly wonderful, and came into the theater early in the morning; at which time the silver of his garment being illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun’s rays upon it, shone out after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him; and presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another, (though not for his good,) that he was a god; and they added, ‘Be thou merciful to us; for although we have up until now only reverenced you as a man, yet we will from now on accept you as superior to mortal nature.’ Upon this the king did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery. But as he shortly thereafter looked up, he saw an owl sitting on a rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings, as it had once been the messenger of good tidings to him; and he fell into the deep depression. A severe pain began to form in his belly in a most violent manner. He therefore looked at his friends, and said, ‘I, whom you call a god, am commanded presently to depart this life; while Providence thus reproves the lying words you just now said to me; and I, who was by you called immortal, am immediately to be hurried away by death. But I am bound to accept of what Providence allots, as it pleases God; for we have by no means lived ill, but in a splendid and happy manner.’ When he said this, his pain became violent. Accordingly, he was carried into the palace, and the rumor went abroad every where, that he would certainly die in a short time. But the multitude presently sat in sackcloth, with their wives and children, according to the law of their country, and besought God for the king’s recovery. All places were also full of mourning and lamentation. Now the king rested in a high chamber, and as he saw them below lying prostrate on the ground, he could not himself keep from weeping. And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life, being in the fifty-fourth year of his age.”11
While Herod certainly got what was coming to him for his murder of the innocents, we cannot help be feel a sense of sorry that he died in such a horrible manner. More than this being a curse from God, Herod brought it on himself. Such is often the case in this world with those who refuse to recognize God the Father and His Son Jesus the Savior of the world. We should never be heard saying: “Good for that sinner. I’m glad he or she died, they deserved it.” Rather, we should say in the words contributed to the British parson John Bradford (1510-1555 AD), who while watching a group of prisoners being let to their execution remarked to those standing in the crowd with him: “There but for the grace of God go I.”
1 Genesis 12:10; 41:57; I Kings 11:40; II Kings 25:26; Jeremiah 26:21; 43:1-7
2 Jerusalem Talmud, op. cit. Tractate Shabbat, Ch. 12:4 [I:2 H-I – I:3 A]
3 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Shabbath, folio 104b
4 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Sanhedrin 107b
5 Jewish-Christian Debate in the High Middle Ages, op. cit, p. 173:159
6 The Seven Books: Arnobius Adversus Gentes, Bk. I:43-44 by Arnobius of Sicca
7 Hosea 11:1
8 Pesikta de-Rab Kahana, op. cit, Piska 1:2, loc. cit.
9 Complete Jewish Bible, op. cit., loc. cit.
10 Acts of the Apostles 12:19-23
11 Antiquities of the Jews, Bk. 19, Ch. 8:2