By Ian Olson
The season of Epiphany is another phase of the time between the times, inviting the church to remember the revealing of the carpenter’s son as Israel’s promised deliverer and anticipate the wider world’s recognition of his identity. It is a time of unfathomable reversals, of grace manifest in paradox. For this child of controversial parentage and from a region of ill-repute is somehow, also, the beacon who would shine the light of salvation upon the Gentiles.
That Savior, however, was not hailed as such at his birth save by a few of the disenfranchised. He was received as God-sent by a band of foreigners and by some anonymous members of the underclass in Judea. There was no royal installation for this child: instead, he and his family were forced to flee the murderous rage of a petty despot who would tolerate no other order but his own.
Matthew 1–2 situates the birth of Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s long-awaited promise to send a redeeming ruler, his Messiah, to liberate his people from shame and oppression. The Gospel’s first chapter locates Jesus within Abraham’s and David’s lineages, signaling him as the heir of both, before identifying him as the ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision of a child who would rule on God’s behalf (Isaiah 7–9). In the second chapter, the evangelist depicts the events surrounding Jesus’s birth as a recapitulation of the events surrounding Moses’s birth in Exodus 1:15–2:10. Like the centermost ring in a set of concentric circles, Matthew homes in at 2:15 with a quotation from Hosea 11 that posits Jesus’s experience as analogous to Israel’s at the time of the exodus.
But the evangelist’s use of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15 is a conundrum that has vexed generations of interpreters. On the face of it, Hosea 11:1 is a straightforward historical recollection of Israel’s exodus and by itself has no predictive component. How is it then that the evangelist saw in this phrase a prophetic content that would come to pass in Jesus’s family’s flight into Egypt? How he did discern a teleological, culminating fit between Hosea 11:1 and the child Jesus’s exile in Egypt? How did he identify a single personal subject within Hosea’s reference to national Israel?
On the other side of these hermeneutical concerns, what does it contribute to the drama of Christ’s mission and the church’s for God to say, “Out of Egypt I have called my son”? Does this clarify in some way the nature of the deliverance Christ has come to effect? Does it illuminate the experience of our redemption?
The evangelist shared the common Judaean assumption that Israel’s Scripture was the Word of God spoken not only into the past but continually into the present as well. While he understood the coming of Jesus to be anticipated by those texts the surprising course of events by which Israel’s Messiah was revealed demonstrated that his coming exceeded the linguistic expression and conceptual apprehension of those texts.
There is thus a priority to Jesus for Matthew which does not degrade the Scriptures’ significance: rather, the polyvalence of Scripture’s witness converges in the flesh of Jesus who can in turn authoritatively interpret those texts. Having encountered that authority, Matthew understands the life of the man Jesus to be the substance of Scripture’s future orientation. For him, Jesus is the hermeneutical key that unlocks newly recognizable eschatological contours to Israel’s Scripture.
Hosea 11 summarizes Israel’s history from the standpoint of the nation’s unique relationship with God, beginning on an initial note of promise before plunging into a long, catastrophic spiral of covenant breaking. The tenor of Hosea 11 is one of tragedy for Israel’s doom seems inevitable given her unceasing, suicidal drive to flee the Lord to whom she belongs. God emerges, however, as “the Holy One in [her] midst” (11:9) who will instead deconstruct that tragedy and lead Israel into a new destiny.
As a complete literary unit, Hosea 11 summarizes the life of Israel, personified as God’s son. It envisions a future restoration of Israel that finds typological antecedent in her being rescued out of Egypt centuries prior. Hosea’s contemporaries would probably understand the restoration poetically pictured here as return from exile in Assyria and Babylon, but the lingering dissatisfaction with the land and the new temple as well as continued periodic cycles of Gentile oppression rendered it impossible to believe the intertestamental period was the fulfillment of the promise to bring exile to an end. Rabbinic exegesis of Hosea 11 discerned a Mosaic forecasting of a redemptive figure who would effect a second exodus that would usher in the age to come.
Matthew appropriates Hosea 11’s language of sonship as a bridge between national Israel’s history of sojourning and exile and the new saving action God is undertaking in Christ. Crucial to his appropriation of this passage is his understanding that Jesus is the one in whom Israel’s history is recapitulated and her destiny finally enacted. A new density to the symbol “son” becomes apparent as Jesus embodies two filial dimensions found in the Hebrew Scriptures. He is, first, God’s “son” through his belonging to ethnic Israel, and secondly, he is God’s son through the royal adoption language employed in Psalm 2, Psalm 89:7, and 2 Samuel 7.
Furthermore, Hosea 11 sources some of its imagery from Balaam’s visions in Numbers 23 and 24. Verses 9 through 10 utilize Numbers 23:24’s and 24:9’s imagery of God as a lion leading Israel in the wilderness, though Balaam’s vision toggles back and forth between identifying Israel and God as that lion. Numbers 23:21 may very well represent the central nervous system linking Balaam’s visions with Hosea 11 and Matthew 2, as it is here that Balaam reports that God is with his people and a triumphant king is “among” them. The conjunction of God being with Israel and the king among them appears to provide the background to Hosea 11:9’s description of the Holy One who is in Israel’s midst, but going a step further, the parallelism of these phrases suggests an identity between “God” and “the king.” Matthew 2 enlarges the scope of Hosea 11 to portray Israel’s long-promised king submitting himself to the same threat and terror as his people.
Why, however, does he place the Hosea 11 quotation at 2:15 when Jesus’ family is fleeing into Egypt? Would it not make more sense to place it in 2:19–23 when they return after the news of Herod’s death? Matthew’s appropriation of Hosea 11 in 2:15 allows him to place a fulfillment formula with each of the occurrences he documents in verses 13–23 which grants to the reader a sense of the minutest details of Jesus’s life being foreknown, both in the sense of being anticipated in the life of Israel but most especially in the sense of being painstakingly planned by God long ages before. Matthew tracks the geographical movement of Jesus’s family and the events surrounding their flight with Old Testament typology to make manifest to his readers a new work of God in their midst and in their own time, a work that centers upon a human life, that of Jesus of Nazareth, and brings into focus how this one particular human sums up the history of the covenant people as a whole.
Matthew’s citation of Hosea 11:1 signals that the entire eleventh chapter is the subtext for Jesus’s escape into and subsequent return from Egypt. What on the face of it would have appeared in Jesus’s time as nothing more than a poor family’s harried relocation into a different part of the Roman Empire, takes on enormous significance when the son that has just been born is understood to be the promised and long-awaited redeemer of God’s people. This is the irreplaceable key that deciphers Matthew’s interpretation of an otherwise wholly prosaic event.
Matthew does not twist the Scriptures in order to find a text linking sonship with Egypt. Rather, he traces the contours of typology patent within Hosea 11 to find the culmination of Israel’s identity in the one who will gather her to her destiny. This one is called home from Egypt in order to call his obstinate people back to his Father, who is for them “like the horns of a wild ox” (Numbers 23:22, 24:8). He is called home so as to call others home, to announce an end to their exile.
But not only to those scattered in the dispersion of the ancient past. The shepherds who hailed the birth of the promised savior and the magi who came to worship him all sought something unavailable to them by conventional means. Separated by descent, by wealth, by education, and status, the sole thing held in common by these men was their dedication to seeking out something their worlds could not offer them. In dramatic as well as prosaic ways we all experience the pangs of exile, of alienation from ourselves and from the world we sense ought to be home to us and yet continually fails to be.
Amidst the upheaval of our world there are few who emerge entirely unscathed. Families disintegrate, schism divides churches, and ideology polarizes nations and mercilessly grinds away at the disenfranchised and unrepresented. Hundreds of millions are homeless worldwide, and tens of millions displaced by warfare and the tyrants of our day. Jesus’s experience of escaping Herod is an aspect of his participation in our condition and suffering and his return testifies to God’s provision for his sons and daughters.
Psalm 68, a text for the Epiphany season, acclaims God as the father of the fatherless, the protector of widows and the one who settles the solitary in a home (vv 5–6); he is the one who marched through the wilderness (v. 7) and gave his flock a dwelling within it (v. 10). This psalm describes God’s leading Israel in the Exodus and therefore anticipates his coming as the consolation of Israel and the hope of all the earth.
Jesus Christ’s experience of exile and return consecrates the human yearning for home, makes it holy, and brings it to completion. He gathers up our dislocation, our trauma, and our need for settlement, transforming our status as “holy exiles” such that he, the Holy One in our midst, will be our home.
Ian Olson is an Anglican lay student living with his wife and three children in southern Wisconsin, enraptured with W. H. Auden, David Foster Wallace, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and resisting the gravitational pull of the world’s despair with re-enchantment.