Herod had told the Magi to tell him where the new king could be found, but the Wise Men were warned in a dream not to and so left for home by another route. Joseph was also warned about Herod in a dream and told to flee to Egypt. When Herod realized the Wise Men weren’t coming back, he became enraged and ordered all the children in Bethlehem, age two and younger, to be killed. Joseph and his family remained in Egypt until Herod was dead, and an angel spoke to him in a dream telling him it was time to return. When he discovered that Herod’s son Archelaus reigned in his father’s place, he was told in yet another dream to go to Nazareth.
This is a rather complicated passage in which a very busy time in the lives of Joseph, Mary and Jesus is compressed into very few words. It is also full of dreams and prophecies.
Herod’s infamous Murder of Innocents is not recorded outside the Gospel of Matthew, but is it an act historians universally agree is in keeping with the Herod’s character. He has gone down in history as Herod the Great for all of the works he did to aggrandize Judea and Jerusalem. He restored the glory of the Temple, in material terms, to such an extent that it became known as Herod’s Temple, but Herod’s family was Idumaean in origin. Idumea was the Greek name for the Edomites, the descendants of Esau. The Hasmonean kings of Judea had conquered them and forced them to convert to Judaism, absorbing them into the Jewish people, but the Jews of Herod’s time never let him forget where he came from, and consequently his power and position were always closely tied to his friendship with Rome. As famous as he was as a builder, he was equally infamous for the blood he shed to preserve his power, even killing several of his own children.
That Joseph sought refuge in Egypt isn’t surprising. By the first century there was a large and stable Jewish presence there. It was close by, but outside the influence of Herod. When Herod died, his son Herod Archelaus took the throne, and began by killing three thousand Pharisees who opposed him. His reign over the entirety of his father’s kingdom was brief. After two years the Romans divided it up, leaving Archelaus still ruling half of it, including Jerusalem, but the other half was divided between his brothers Herod Philip and Herod Antipas. After ten violent years Archelaus was exiled to Gaul (France) and his kingdom turned into a Roman province. Philip ruled his area peacefully for almost forty years. He was the only one of his brothers to retain his position until the end of his life. Antipas ruled the longest, approximately forty three years, before also being exiled to Gaul. He ruled over Galilee and Perea and was still in power when John the Baptist and Jesus ministered. It was Herod Antipas who would behead John and would mock Jesus, sending back to Pilate. Nevertheless, following the death of their father, Antipas was still much preferred over Archelaus and Joseph, once again warned in a dream, settled in Galilee.
The dynastic politics give us some indication of when Jesus was born. There was no standard calendar at the time. Herod the Great was still alive. He died sometime between 4 and 1 BC. The earlier date is traditional, but there are reasonable grounds for the latter one as well. Jesus was no older than two at this time. Archelaus ruled his father’s entire kingdom for two years before it was divided up, and so Joseph and his family lived in Egypt for at least that long--he couldn’t have been directed to Antipas’ area before the division--and so there were at least four years between the Murder of Innocents and their settling in Nazareth.
Dreams play a big role in the first two chapters of Matthew. While the magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, it is Joseph who is counseled by them again and again. It was in a dream that he was told not to divorce the pregnant Mary (1:20) and here he is given directed three times by dreams: to flee to Egypt (2:13), that it was safe to return (2:20), and to settle in Galilee (2:22). These are the only two chapters in which we learn anything of Joseph’s earthly father and we see a man who sought answers in dreams, not the counsel of others, or even the Law. That may be unfair, given that these passages represent only a small part of his life, but it is all we are given. He seems content to follow the example of his Old Testament namesake, Joseph the dreamer.
Prophecy also weighs heavily here. We’ve already seen Matthew quote Isaiah and Micah in order to prove that events in Jesus’ life were the fulfillment of prophecy. Now he adds Hosea and Jeremiah. The family’s sojourn in Egypt was the fulfillment of Hosea 11:1:
When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt.And the Murder of Innoents was the fulfillment of Jeremiah 31:15:
Thus saith the LORD; A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not.On their face, neither of these scriptures seem to foretell Christ. Hosea is talking of the deliverance of Israel from Egypt and Jeremiah of the restoration of the Northern Kingdom to the true worship of God (Rachel was the mother of Joseph and by extension Ephraim, the principal tribe of the Kingdom of Israel; she was buried in Ramah). Yet Matthew sees prophecy anyway. Why? When the early Church read the Old Testament, they saw Jesus everywhere. Each and every scripture spoke of His coming. Modern Christians tend to look to the historical context in a way that the Apostles did not. Early Christians saw the scripture as laden with symbolism, with types and anti-types. Its not that they doubted its history, or saw it as unimportant, but that they saw the Old Testament first and foremost as the foundation of their beliefs and of the promise of the Redeemer. And this was true of every verse, even those passages that wouldn’t appear to be prophecies to others.
Matthew ends his recounting of Jesus’ early life by telling us that His family’s settlement in Nazareth was the fulfillment of a fifth prophecy, that “He shall be called a Nazarene.” But where is this prophecy? Unlike the previous four, Matthew is not quoting any scripture in the Old Testament. An early attempt to find its source, dating back at least as far back as Jerome, ties it to Isaiah 11:1:
And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his rootsThe Hebrew for branch is netzer and so Nazarene could have arisen from a transliteration. But this is stretch. The reality is that no one has come up with a solution that persuasive enough to resolve this question and we’re left with another puzzle by a writer who isn’t afraid to leave us wondering. As he would later quote Jesus, “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.”