This passage provides some important lessons for Matthew's first audience and for us today.
God Protects Jesus and His Family (2:13) Matthew here narrates God's protection for Jesus (2:13-15) and Herod's brutal massacre of other children (2:16-18). Although the narrative rings with inspired grief and rage against Herod's act, God does not stop the injustice in this narrative any more than in most of the narratives we hear played on the evening news. Yet this narrative contains a kernel of good news that human reporters often cannot adequately discern until after the fact: the injustice of a world run by rebels against God cannot thwart his ultimate purposes for justice in that world.
Jesus Is a Refugee, a Model for Suffering (2:14)
If we read 2:13-14 in the context of Matthew's Gospel, we realize that even in his childhood the Son of Man already lacked a place to lay his head (8:20). Disciples would face the same kind of test (10:23; 24:16).
Jesus' miraculous escape here should not lead us to overlook the nature of his deliverance (compare, for example, 1 Kings 17:2-6). Jesus and his family survived, but they survived as refugees, abandoning any livelihood Joseph may have developed in Bethlehem and undoubtedly traveling lightly. Although travel within Egypt was easy for visitors with means (Casson 1974:257), many Judeans had traditionally regarded refuge in Egypt as a last resort (2 Macc 5:8-9; compare 1 Kings 11:17, 40; Jer 26:21).
Some Christians in the West act as if an easy life were their divine right, as if to imply that suffering Christians elsewhere lack faith or virtue. Yet from its very beginning the story of Jesus challenges such a premise. Of the millions of refugees and other impoverished people throughout the world (for reports, see, for example, B. Thompson 1987), some are our brothers and sisters in Christ; many others have never yet heard how much he loves them. Reports of hundreds of thousands of civilians being tortured or slaughtered each year for political, ethnic or religious reasons can inoculate us against the reality of the human pain involved, but firsthand accounts from some of my closest African friends have brought the tragedy of this plight home to me. Many could resonate with the story of Jesus the refugee who identified with their suffering. Indeed, Western Christians should not be so arrogant as to think that we could never face such affliction ourselves; in due time Christians in all nations will receive their share of hardship (see 24:9).
Like other episodes in Matthew's first narrative section (1:18-4:25), the accounts of Jesus' childhood fulfill Scripture, with at least one explicit quotation per section. But all four stories in chapter 2 also surround place names rooted in Scripture. Jesus is "forced to wander from place to place," King of a world hostile to him (Schweizer 1975:41, 45). The world's treatment of Jesus likewise promises little better for his followers (10:23-25). While Christians are right to work for change within this world, we should not be surprised when we face hostility, false accusations or even death for Jesus' name (10:17-39; 13:21; 16:24-27; 24:9-14; compare 1 Thess 3:3; 1 Pet 4:12-13).
In Jesus the Anticipated Salvation of God's People Has Begun (2:15)
When Matthew quotes Hosea, he knows Hosea's context. The past exodus with which Jesus identified (Hos 11:1) was the historic sign of the covenant anticipating a new exodus (Hos 11:11). By quoting the beginning of the passage, Matthew evokes the passage as a whole and shows how Jesus is the forerunner of the new exodus, the time of ultimate salvation. Matthew uses God's pattern in history to remind us that our call and destiny, not the ridicule of outsiders, must define us. We are the people of the new exodus, the people of God's kingdom.
Matthew declares (2:15) that Jesus' sojourn in Egypt fulfills Hosea's prophecy Out of Egypt I called my son (Hos 11:1). But this second line in Hosea's verse directly parallels the first, "When Israel was a child, I loved him." Thus by citing Hosea 11:1 Matthew evokes the new exodus in Jesus, who embodies Israel's purpose and mission (Longenecker 1975:144-45). But by emphasizing that Jesus' return from Egypt reveals his sonship, Matthew again emphasizes that Jesus' mission is for all peoples (compare Acts 6:13; 7:33).
Matthew's quotation from Hosea also reminds us that Jesus identifies with his people's heritage. Jesus appears as the promised one greater than Moses (Deut 18:18; compare Mt 4:2; 17:2) and the heir of God's call to Israel. As God protected Moses when Pharaoh killed the male Israelite children, so God protects Jesus.
Further, Jesus goes to Egypt like Israel under the first Joseph, and like Pharaoh, Herod slays male Israelite children (Ex 1:16-2:5; Ps-Philo 9:1). To persecuted Christians, Herod's Pharaoh-like behavior is significant. Infanticide and more frequently child abandonment constituted typically pagan offenses that the Jewish people despised (for example, Wis 12:5-6; 14:23; Ps-Philo 2:10; 4:16); only such pagan evildoers as Antiochus IV Epiphanes had repeated Pharaoh's murder of Israelite babies (1 Macc 1:60-61; 2 Macc 6:10; 8:4).
Part of the moral of the story is therefore how it reflects on rulers among God's people: if a supposed "king of the Jews" can be a new Pharaoh, one cannot necessarily count on one's own people for allies. Matthew again challenges his readers' prejudice against Gentiles, reminding them of their opposition from fellow Jews. In a world still divided by racial and national ties, Christians from all peoples must remember that no group of people is incapable of producing evil. Herod's behavior may thus summon us to examine the sins of our own people first (compare 7:1-5).
A Ruler's Injustice Is Denounced (2:16-17)
We lack concrete historical record for Matthew's next episode (except a garbled account from Macrobius; Ramsay 1898:219), but it certainly fits Herod's character (France 1979; compare Soares Prabhu 1976:227-28; Stauffer 1960:35-41). When Herod's young brother-in-law was becoming too popular, he had a "drowning accident" in what archaeology shows was a rather shallow pool; later, falsely accused officials were cudgeled to death on Herod's order (Jos. War 1.550-51). Wrongly suspecting two of his sons of plotting against him, he had them strangled (Jos. Ant. 16.394; War 1.550-51), and five days before his own death the dying Herod had a more treacherous, Absalom-like son executed (Ant. 17.187, 191; War 1.664-65). Thus many modern writers repeat the probably apocryphal story that Augustus remarked, "Better to be Herod's pig than his son" (Ramsay 1898:219-20).
The murder of the children of Bethlehem thus fits Herod's character; yet it is not surprising that other early writers do not mention this particular atrocity. Herod's reign was an era of many highly placed political murders, and our accounts come from well-to-do reporters focused on the royal house and national events. In such circles the execution of perhaps twenty children in a small town would warrant little attention-except from God (see France 1979:114-19).
Matthew does not simply report this act of injustice dispassionately; he chooses an ancient lament from one of the most sorrowful times of his people's history. Jeremiah 31:15 speaks of Rachel weeping for her children, poetically describing the favored mother of Benjamin (standing for all Judah) mourning because her descendants were led into exile (see Montefiore 1968:2:10-11). Rachel, who wept from her grave in Bethlehem during the captivity, was now weeping at another, nearer crisis significant in salvation history (compare Mt 1:12, 17).
More important, however, the context in Jeremiah 31 also implies future hope. Rachel weeps for her children, but God comforts her, promising the restoration of his people (Jer 31:15-17), because Israel is "my dear son, the child in whom I delight" (Jer 31:20; compare Mt 2:15; 3:17). This time of new salvation will be the time of a new covenant (Jer 31:31-34). The painful events of Jesus' persecuted childhood are the anvil on which God will forge the fulfillment of his promises to his people, just as the cross will usher in the new covenant (Mt 26:28).
This text shows that God called his son Jesus to identify with the suffering and exile of his people (as in 1:12, 17; compare Jer 43:5-7) as he identified with their exodus (Mt 2:15). In his incarnation Jesus identified not only with humanity in an abstract sense but with the history of a people whose history is also spiritually the history of all believers (because we have been grafted into their history and use their Scriptures).
Yet we may also suspect that this identification speaks of a God who feels our human pain as deeply as we do. While philosophers and theologians must address the problem of evil intellectually, many grieving people inside and outside our churches face it existentially. To broken people wounded by this world's evil, Jesus' sharing our pain offers a consolation deeper than reasoned arguments: God truly understands and cares-and paid an awful price to begin to make things better.