Paradox & the Flight to Egypt

The Gospel text for this second Sunday after Christmas is from Matthew 2:

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene (vv. 13-15 & 19-23).

What’s often missed in this text is that Matthew applies the citation from Hosea 11:1 (“out of Egypt I called my son”) to the escape from Israel to Egypt.

That is, paradoxically, actual Israel has become theological Egypt — a threat to God’s saving purposes.

Joseph is later told to bring his family back to the land of Israel, but the Hosea quotation refers to the escape from danger in Israel. It is not applied to the return from Egypt to Israel. Egypt in this narrative, anyway is the place of safety.

It’s a text rich with significance for the ways that institutions and communities that should be a blessing can easily become threats and agents of oppression. And places of perceived threat and discomfort can be locations of rest and refreshment.

Stephen Holmgren directed our attention this morning to this work by Luc-Olivier Merson, called “Rest on the Flight Into Egypt” (1880). In it, Mary and her child are resting in the arm of the sphinx, making the same point as Matthew: against all expectations, Israel has become Egypt for God’s Son, and Egypt has become a place of rest.




2 thoughts on “Paradox & the Flight to Egypt

  1. Tim Cole

    Matthew’s use of recursions–intentionally shaping a narrative by taking the key elements from one story and then repeating them in a succeeding story-is a compositional strategy used all the way through the OT and NT. Parallels and correspondences virtually tie the OT together and as well as tying the OT and NT together. It was M.D. Goulder (Type and History in Acts, 1964) who showed that Matthew intentionally constructed the story of Joseph’s flight into Egypt to save Israel’s future deliverer (Jesus) was modeled after the earlier story of Joseph who took Israel down into Egypt to save Israel’s future deliverer (Moses). The massacre of the innocents, the report of the death of the tyrant, the use of dreams, stars, wise men, genealogies, the deliverance/return to Israel, the passage though water, the trip to the mountain to receive the Law and many other recursions link the two accounts together linguistically and thematically. Matthew’s use of recursions throughout his narrative is almost as breathtaking as Luke’s in constructing the life of Paul based upon the life of Jesus in Luke-Acts.

    The challenge before us is twofold: How to apply this linguistic data pastorally and how to interpret it as the author’s meant it to be understood. The existence of these parallels argue for a canonical approach to Scripture.

    Thanks for posting. Keep up the good work. Keep challenging your students to think canonically. Grace be with you in abundance.

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