Notes Matthew chapter 2
© copyright 1997 drs Gijs van den Brink
The Magi from the East, 2:1-12
2:1. Jesus was born in 4 or 5 B.C. Our calender is based on a faulty calculation, through which some four years have been omitted. He was born during the period when Herod the Great was king of Judea, Idumea and Samaria (40-4 B.C.).
Magi from the east. The ‘wise men from the east’ were probably Babylonian astrologers, called wise men (Dan 2:12, 48), Chaldeans (Dan 2:4,10) or magicians (the Greek word is magoi).
2. Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? The Magi did not ask if a king had been born. There was no doubt about it. They only asked where he was to be found. It is not so strange that these Babylonian wise men were concerned about the birth of a Jewish king, who would be of some significance for them, when we read the visions and prophecies of Daniel and remember that Daniel was at one time their chief (Dan 2:48).
We saw his star. We cannot conclude from this event that the connection is always real that astrology tries to make between the stars in heaven and events here on earth. In any case God has forbidden his people in the strongest terms to have anything to do with these practices (Isa 47:13; Jer 10:2; Deut 4:19; cf. Deut 18:9-14).
3. He was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. The inhabitants of Jerusalem were disturbed by the thought that there might be a rival for the throne. They were not afraid of the new king, but for Herod and his reaction. They expected the worst of him. We know that in his later years Herod had many people killed, including his sons Aristobulus, Alexander and Antipater, but also a number of Pharisees whom he suspected (see also commentary on v.16).
4. All the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law. Herod puts the wise men’s question to the Jewish Supreme Council (the Sanhedrin), the judicial and executive power in Jerusalem during the Greco-Roman period. The Council was competent both in political and theological matters. The Supreme Council consisted of 71 members, representing three groups: the chief priests (the ruling committee), the elders (heads of eminent families), and the scribes (16:21; 27:41). Often only two groups are mentioned.
5. In Bethlehem in Judea, they replied. The Supreme Council has a clear answer from scripture: Bethlehem in Judea. But this knowledge did not bring them to belief in Jesus because of their own traditions, which they considered as authoritative as the Scriptures (see John 7:27). We observe a sharp contrast between the attitude of the Jewish Council and that of the heathen wise men. Despite the obscure message of the star, the wise men had made a long and difficult journey, shown unflagging zeal in their search and great joy at their findings (v. 10). On the other hand the Jewish leaders displayed not a trace of interest, even though they knew the prophet’s plain words. We find this contrast in many places in Matthew’s gospel: 3:9; 8:10-12; 15:28; 21:43; 22:5-10; 24:14; 28:19.
6. Micah 5:1 is freely quoted with allusions to 5:3 (‘shepherd’) and 2 Sam 5:2 (‘You will shepherd my people Israel’)
7. Herod accepted that the child had been born when the star first appeared (see v.16). He had learned the place of birth from the Sanhedrin, and now wished to learn the time of birth from the Magi. The magicians were secretly summoned to let the Jewish people see nothing of his peculiar interest in the affair, in order to ensure his plans.
8. Herod sent the Magi to Bethlehem, as though they were his own private ministers, with a double task: first, to search carefully where the child was and second, if their search was successfull, then they were to return and tell him. With a devilish hypocrisy he added: ‘so that I too may go and worship him’.
9. The star they had seen. Both from v.7 (‘had appeared’) and from vv.2 and 9 (‘saw’;’had seen’), it is apparent that they had seen the star in their own country, and that they saw it again at the moment they left Jerusalem.
10. They were filled with joy on seeing the star because they had received a confirmation of the child’s birth, and that they were being led in a divine way.
11. The house. We may conclude that Joseph and Mary did not remain at the place of the confinement after the birth, but had been able to find a house. Apparently some weeks or even months had passed since the baby’s birth when the wise men came. It is likely that the wise men had seen the star at the moment of Jesus’ birth, and had begun their long journey thereafter. It cannot be determined if they arrived before or after the Presentation of the child in the Temple (Luke 2:21-38).
Presented him with gifts. Paying homage to a king with gifts was an Eastern custom (Gen 43:11; 1 Sam 10:27; 1 Kings 10:2; Ps 45:9; 72:10-11,15; Isa 60:6). Incense and myrrh were presented on account of their fragrance. They were used as perfume (and also medicinally, cf. Mark 15:23). Mary and Joseph could indeed make good use of the gold for their imminent journey to Egypt.
12. With this, the wise men disappear from the Bible story.
The Flight into Egypt 2:13-15
13. Take the child … and escape to Egypt. Apparently the angel appeared to Joseph immediately after the departure of the Magi, instructing him to flee into Egypt. Since the time of Alexander the Great (4th century B.C.) and the Ptolemies ruling after him, many Jews had settled in Egypt. They mainly lived in the cosmopolis Alexandria.
Just as Abraham (Gen 12:10), Jacob (Gen 46) and Jacob’s sons (Gen 42 and 43) were driven to Egypt of necessity, so too was Jesus. Joseph, Mary and Jesus had to flee to Egypt, and to nowhere else, in order for Israel to see the parallel with its earlier times and thus to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah (cf. v.15).
But the flight of Mary and Joseph itself also refers to a later occurrence: the flight of the Church in the Last Days (Matt 24:16,22; Rev 12:6,13-14). Similarly, Herod’s appearance reminds us of the Antichrist, because, despite his belief in the divine prophecies that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, he still tried to bring the divine plan to nothing. This is typically satanic (cf. Rev 12:12 ff).
The child and his mother. The angel’s word-order emphasizes the extraordinary nature of the child (also in v.20). Matthew adopts it (vv.14,21).
14. Joseph immediately obeyed the divine order. Just as Moses, Israel’s saviour in Egypt, had to flee in order to escape Pharaoh (Exod 2:15), now the Messiah, the Saviour, flees to avoid Herod.
15. Out of Egypt I called my son. In the OT, the redemption of Israel from Egypt through Moses is a foreshadowing, a type, of the redemption that begins with the coming of the Messiah (cf. Isa 11:1; Hos 2:16; 12:10; Micah 7:15 in context). We must also understand the quotation from Hos 11:1 ‘I called my son out of Egypt’ in this light. Jesus is the completion, the fulfilment of the history of Israel: He is the true Israel, the Messiah.
The Murder of the Children in Bethlehem 2:16-18
16. To kill all the boys … who were two years old and under. This verse may indicate that the visit of the Wise Men from the East took place when Jesus was two years old, but it is also possible that Herod took a wide margin to be sure of (the success of) his plans. The historian Flavius Josephus does not mention the murder of the children at Bethlehem. It is possible that this was trifling in comparison with Herod’s other crimes. He does mention that Herod has killed three of his own sons with 300 of their attendants, a great number of Pharisees and principal Jews, as well as his own chief court officials (Jos. Ant. XVI,xi,7; XVII,ii,4; XVII,vii). We do not know the population of Bethlehem. Per thousand head there would have been some 30-40 boys under three years of age. Apparently we are dealing with a number between ten and thirty.
Just as Pharaoh attempted to kill Moses, who delivered Israel out of Egypt (Exod 1:22; 2:15), so did Herod try to kill Jesus.
17. This is a reference to Jer 31:15.
18. A voice is heard in Ramah, … Rachel weeping for her children. Rachel’s grave (Gen 35:19-20) had long been one of the holy places of the country and was well known to the inhabitants of Bethlehem because it was near the town (Gen 35:16; 48:7).
In Jer 31:15, Jeremiah sees in the spirit Rachel, the ancestress of Israel, weeping and mourning for her children, who are being carried off into exile. The weeping and mourning were heard as far a field as Ramah, on the border between Israel and Judah.
The destruction of the people of Israel by foreign princes since the carrying-off into exile reaches a climax in the slaughter of innocent children in Bethlehem. The infanticide in Bethlehem is the last occurrence of its type before the revelation of the Messiah (Matt 3:13 ff), and for this reason is an outstanding fulfilment of Jer 31:15 (cf. Jer 31:16 ff).
Joseph, Mary and Jesus Settle in Nazareth 2:19-23
19. Matthew writes nothing about the length and place of the sojourn in Egypt. Joseph knew that he neeeded the same assurance and protection before returning as he had received before his flight (2:13).
20. Those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead. Flavius Josephus tells us that Herod was 69 when he died of a feverish illness. Herod knew that no-one would mourn him when he died, and therefore assembled the eminent people of the country in Jericho. Here they were imprisoned in the arena. Then he ordered his sister Salome and her husband Alexas to have them killed at the moment of his own death. Because no-one knew that he too had died, the whole country would be plunged into mourning. Salome was indeed frightened of the wrath of the people, and set the distinguished people free in the king’s name before the news of Herod’s death was made public (Jos. Ant. XVII,vi,5; XVII,viii,2).
Those … are dead. This is a generalising plural (BDR par.141) which refers to Herod and his men. From the close relationship with Exod 4:19 it is clear that Jesus is here too introduced as the new Moses (cf. vv.14 and 16).
21. Joseph was always obedient. Possibly they considered settling in Bethlehem, which was not far from Jerusalem, the holy city (see v.22).
22. After Herod’s death the kingdom was divided among his three sons Archelaus, Antipas and Philip. Although for an unexplained reason Joseph felt compelled to go to the district of Judah, he was afraid of Archelaus, Herod’s son, who had become ethnarch of Judea, Idumea and Samaria. It was known that Archelaus was following his father’s example so as not to be considered a spurious son of Herod’s. He began his reign by storming the Temple, where he caused a bloodbath among the rebellious Jews.
Then for the fourth time Joseph received a message from heaven in a dream, upon which he settled in Nazareth in Galilee.
23. He will be called a Nazarene, is not the gist of an Old Testament quotation. This is so not only in that it does not occur in the Old Testament, but also from Matthew’s introductory words. He writes of prophets in general terms (in contrast to one specific prophet) and omits ‘saying’ (cf. Matt 26:56). When this occurs, no quotation follows (see Mark 14:49; Luke 24:25,27,44; John 17:12). The Greek word hoti (tr. ‘:’ ) here does not mean ‘that’ or ‘that is’ but rather ‘for’, or ‘because’, and thus indicates a reason and explains the sense in which living in Nazareth is a fulfilment of prophecies. When Jesus is later called a Nazarene (a man of Nazareth) or a Galilean (cf. Matt 26:69,71), it is in most cases a sign of lack of appreciation (Matt 13:54 ff; John 1:46; 7:41,42,52). For this reason living in Nazareth is a fulfilment of the prophecies which say that the Messiah will make an unobtrusive appearance and will be unappreciated by his people (among others, Isa 42:2; 53:3; Zech 12:10).
Some of those who regard v.23b as the subject-matter of a prophecy claim that Matthew sees a deep prophetic significance in the word ‘Nazarene’. He may have derived it from the Hebrew word ntser, which means ‘branch’, ‘twig’ (Isa 11:1). Yet others consider that Matthew is speaking of a Nazarite (Judg 13:5).