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Note of the Day – January 4

In celebration of Epiphany, I will be devoting three successive notes to the Matthean Infancy Narrative (chapter 2)—the first (today) will outline the structure of the passage and look at the Old Testament citation from Micah 5:2 (Matt 2:6), while the second and third (Jan 5 & 6) will examine the background of the two narrative strands (or parts) that make up the passage.

The chapter can be divided several ways:

Into two halves—the second having a tri-partite structure:

  1. The visit of the Magi (vv. 1-12)
  2. The Flight to Egypt—a triad with a Scripture citation in each part:
  • The Dream of Joseph, warning of Herod, and flight into Egypt (vv. 13-15)
    “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1)

    • Herod’s killing of the infants in Bethlehem (vv. 16-18)
      “A voice was heard in Ramah…” (Jeremiah 31:15)
  • The Dream of  Joseph speaking/warning of Herod, and return from Egypt (vv. 19-21[23])
    [“He shall be called a Nazarene” (citation uncertain)]

Into two halves, each with a bi-partite structure (containing a main and secondary Scripture passage):

  • The visit of the Magi to the child Jesus in Bethlehem, in the threatening shadow of Herod (vv. 1-12)
    “And you O Bethlehem…” (Micah 5:2)

    • The Dream of Joseph and flight into Egypt (vv. 13-15)
      “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos 11:1)
  • Herod, ‘tricked’ by the Magi, slaughters the children in Bethlehem (vv. 16-18)
    “A voice was heard in Ramah…” (Jer 31:15)

    • The Dream of Joseph and return from Egypt (vv. 19-21[23])
      [“He shall be called a Nazarene”]

One might also add 1:18-25 to create three-part structure for the entire Infancy Narrative, each with a central Scripture passage and dream ‘visitation’:

  • Birth of Jesus (1:18-25) [dream/visitation to Joseph]—OT: Isaiah 7:14
  • Visit of the Magi (2:1-12) [dream/warning to the Magi, v. 12] —OT: Micah 5:2
  • Flight to Egypt (2:13-21[23]) [two-fold dream/visitation to Joseph, v. 13, 20]—OT: Jeremiah 31:15

Dividing chapter 2 into the two parts of vv. 1-12 and vv. 13-21[23], we can isolate two main interlocking narrative strands:

  1. The visit of Magoi (“Magi”) from the east (emphasized in vv. 1-12)
  2. The journey into (and out of) Egypt to escape the slaughter of children by Herod (in vv. 13-21)

It is possible to separate each of these out into clear and consistent independent narratives, which suggests that the Gospel writer (trad. Matthew) has likely joined together separate traditions (for a good discussion and illustration of this point, cf. R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah Anchor Bible Reference Library [1977, 1993], esp. pp. 104-119, 192-193, 228-229). This can be admitted as a valid theory, even if one accepts without question the historicity of the narrative as it has come down to us.

The Scripture passage in 2:1-12 (Micah 5:2):

First, one may note that, unlike other citations in the Infancy Narrative (1:22-23; 2:15, 17-28, 23), here the Scripture is quoted by a character (priests and scribes together) in the narrative, rather than as an aside by the author; however, critical scholars would still view this as a Matthean citation, little different from the others in the Gospel. Be that as it may, there are a couple of distinct differences between Micah 5:2 and the other passages (Isa 7:14; Hos 11:1; Jer 31:15; and those underlying Matt 2:23) cited by the Gospel writer as prophecies related to Jesus:

  1. The original context of the passage is much closer to having an actual ‘Messianic’ connotation (on this, see the discussion below).
  2. It is the only passage which appears to have been independently applied to the Messiah in Judea prior to the writing of the Gospels. This can be inferred fairly from John 7:42. The historical context in John at this point is ambiguous enough to virtually guarantee that we are dealing with a Jewish (rather than early Christian) tradition. It could be derived simply from the historical details surrounding David’s life, but more than likely the reference in Micah 5:2 is assumed as well.

On both of these points, it is clear enough that, if one looks honestly at the original historical context of Isa 7:14 [see notes]; Hos 11:1; Jer 31:15, etc., they have little to do with a future Messiah-figure. Only Isa 7:14 is likely to have been understood in this way, but there is little evidence of such use in Jewish literature contemporaneous or prior to the New Testament. As I indicated above, the case is somewhat different for Micah 5:2:

  • Unlike the oracles of Isaiah 7:10-17 and 9:1-7, which are presented in a relatively precise historical context (the reigns of Ahaz and Hezekiah, the Syro-Ephraimitic crisis and impending invasion by Assyria, c. 740-701 [esp. 735-732] B.C.), Micah 5:1-6 [MT 4:14-5:5] has a rather more general setting of coming judgment (military attack implied) followed by restoration. The themes (as well as language and style) of the these oracles in Micah are quite similar to those of Isaiah, but without some of the accompanying historical detail.
  • Assyrian invasion is mentioned in 5:5[4], and is presumably the source of judgment to hit Judah and the Northern kingdom (there is no clear indication Samaria has yet fallen, 722-721 B.C.); however, there is nothing like the precise (imminent) timing found in the predictions of Isa 7:15-17; 8:4. The implication of Micah 5:5-6 would seem to be that the Davidic ruler of 5:2 will lead (Judah’s) troops against the Assyrian invasion, which will lead to the gathering in of the remnant of Jacob (the Northern kingdom?); there is thus a closer parallel to the oracle in Isa 9:1-7, which is also much more plausibly ‘Messianic’ (in its original context) than Isa 7:10-17.
  • The reference in Micah 5:3 [2] that God will give Israel/Judah up to judgment “until the one giving birth has given birth” is far more general (and symbolic, cf. the reference in 4:10) than that of the virgin/woman of Isaiah 7:14 (or Isa 8:3); this fact, in and of itself, makes application of the passage to an archetypal or future ruler much more natural.
  • The reference to Bethlehem (in Judah), while possibly intended (originally) to refer to a specific coming ruler in Micah’s own time, also makes likely an archetypal reference to the Davidic line (cf. also references to the “house of David” and “throne of David”, Isa 7:13; 9:7, etc).
  • While one can consider the language in 5:2b as similar to the exalted honorific titles given to ancient Near Eastern rulers (see my note on Isaiah 9:6-7 in this regard), there is a dynamic, almost ‘mythological’ quality to the phrasing, which, when removed from the immediate context, would certainly suggest divine origin. Once the specific ritual sense of king as God’s “son” (cf. Psalm 2) has ceased to be relevant in Israelite history, the way is paved for the idea of a future/Messianic ruler as “son of God”.

Matthew’s citation of Micah 5:2 differs in several respects from both the Hebrew (MT) and Septuagint (LXX) versions:

Hebrew (MT) [5:1]

And you, House-of-Lµm {Bethlehem} of Ephrath,
Small to be (counted) with the ‘thousands’ [i.e. clans] of Yehudah {Judah},
From you shall come forth for/to me
(One) to be ruling/ruler in Yisra°el {Israel},
And his coming forth is from ‘before’ [<d#q#]
—from (the) days of ‘long-ago’ [<l*ou]

LXX

And you, Beth-lehem, house of Ephrathah
Are little to be in/among the thousands of Yehudah;
(Yet) out of [i.e. from] you will come out for/to me
The (one) to be unto (a) chief [a)rxwn] in Yisra’el,
And his ways out are from (the) beginning [a)rxh]
—out of [i.e. from] (the) days of (the) Age

Matthew 2:6

And you, Beth-lehem, land of Yehudah,
Not even one (bit the) least are you in/among the leaders of Yehudah;
(For) out of [i.e. from] you will come out a leader
Who will shepherd my people Yisra’el

There are three major differences (and one minor) between Matthew’s citation and that of the LXX and Hebrew MT:

  • Instead of the reference to Ephrath(ah), Matthew specifies “land of Judah”; this may be an intentional alteration to avoid mention of an unfamiliar clan name (though the place name Ramah is retained in the citation of Jer 31:15 [Matt 2:18]).
  • Instead of calling Bethlehem small/little [LXX o)ligosto$], Matthew uses the expression “not even one (bit the) least” [ou)damw$ e)laxisth, i.e. ‘not at all’, ‘by no means’]—in other words, Bethlehem is actually great. Is this a variant reading (from a lost Hebrew or Greek version), or an intentional alteration (by the Gospel writer)?
  • Instead of the ‘thousands’ [or clans] of Judah, Matthew reads “leaders [h(gemwn]” of Judah. This is a relative minor difference, and may conceivably reflect a different reading of the consonantal Hebrew text; or it may be an attempt to emphasize rule (rather than the constitution) of Judah.
  • Matthew has omitted the final bicolon (“and his coming forth…”), inserting at the end of the prior line (replacing “of Israel”): “who will shepherd my people Israel”. This appears to be a quotation from 2 Samuel 5:2 (LXX): “you will shepherd my people Israel”, joined to Mic 5:2. Is this a way of identifying the ruler of Micah specifically with (a descendent of) David?

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