2:13-15. Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt; and he remained there until the death of king Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
It is perhaps time to look a bit more deeply at the nature of the prophecies of Israel concerning the Messiah, the Savior whom they awaited, and of which Christ offers himself as the fulfillment. We have already spoken of aspects of this, and we shall continue to do so, all in the effort to help us realize anew the wonder and beauty of the coming of Christ, and to accept his contemporaneity with us, here and now, as a saving gift of redeeming love for us, too. We are not aiming for a systematic approach that unfolds comprehensively all aspects of Jewish expectation of Christ nor of the prophecies relating to him (this will occur in the very process of reading and reflecting on the text); this has also been done wonderfully by others, particularly writers associated with the Saint Paul Center for Biblical Theology, such as Scott Hahn, Michael Barber, Brant Pitre, and John Bergsma. Let us only summarize here four aspects which are central to Jewish expectation of the Messiah, and which are to be found throughout the Old Testament and in many non-biblical Jewish writings from ancient times. We will then apply these directly to the text we are considering, which clearly relates, explicitly, to at least two of these elements (and implicitly, therefore, includes the others).
All four of these dimensions can be summarized as the hope for a new exodus, like the first exodus of Israel from slavery in Egypt under the headship of Moses, and yet far surpassing it as well. (Anyone who has paid close attention to the liturgies of Holy Week, particularly the Triduum, knows that the Church explicitly understands the Paschal Mystery in this way and presents it accordingly.) The four aspects of this exodus are as follows: 1) the coming of a new Moses, the representative of God and leader from slavery into freedom; 2) the making of a new and everlasting covenant, written not on tablets of stone but on the human heart; 3) the building of a new and definitive temple, open to all nations being made the people of God; 4) the journey to a new promised land, gradually understood explicitly as a new creation, in which justice and righteousness dwells, and universal peace is restored.
Let us shortly summarize these.* Regarding the coming of a new Moses, this was rooted in the statements of Moses at the end of his life, which God himself affirmed and reflected back: words about the coming of a “prophet like me” (Deut 18:15). And how was Moses described? As one, indeed, who “knows the Lord face to face” (Deut 34:11), and from this seeing, this beholding, becomes the representative of God who speaks God’s will to his people with authority, and acts with divine power to deliver Israel from its slavery and to lead them into covenantal union with God, into marriage-union with him. This was a union that was fulfilled in their coming into the promised land and building of the temple of the Lord, his sanctuary among them. Here we see all elements contained in the first: in the promise of a new Moses. And this new Moses was explicitly understood as the coming Messiah, as the Redeemer, as an extra-biblical text says:
As the first redeemer was, so shall the latter Redeemer be. What is stated of the former redeemer? “And Moses took his wife and his sons, and set them upon an ass” (Exod. 4:20). Similarly will it be with the latter Redeemer, as it is stated, “Lowly and riding upon an ass” (Zech. 9:9). As the former redeemer caused manna to descend, as it is stated, “Behold, I will cause to rain bread from heaven for you” (Exod. 16:4), so will the latter Redeemer cause manna to descend, as it is stated, “May he be as a rich grainfield in the land” (Ps. 72:16). (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 1:28)i
We see also the hope for the exodus to a new promised land, where the expectations and desires of the first promised land would reach definitive fulfillment. Indeed, after the two most traumatic events of the last millenium of Israel’s history before Christ—the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions that tore the ten northern tribes apart and scattered them among the nations, and forever wounded the two southern tribes centered in Jerusalem (Judah and Benjamin)—after this the longing for a new exodus and a new promised land was also a hope for the “restoration” of the tribes of Israel, their “gathering together from among the nations” (cf. Ez 36:24) to a land that was truly safe and proved to be a definitive home. We see, also, at the heart of this hope for a new land, the hope for the restoration of the temple, indeed the hope for a “greater temple” (see Haggai 8:6-9). And, clearly, as the throbbing heartbeat of all of this, we see the hope for a new covenant, one truly everlasting in unity and fidelity on both sides, God and humanity, like the covenant made on Sinai and yet surpassing it. This longing for the definitive covenant explains the longing for a new Moses, as it explains the hope for a new exodus to a new promised land and the building of a new temple: in sum, Israel longs for the restoration of lost communion with God, indeed for the consummation of union with him in the marriage that was first contracted at Sinai, and yet which was so terribly torn asunder through her succeeding history. As God says so vividly in Jeremiah:
Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jer 31:31-33)
There are so many more similar passages that we could quote, such as the second half of Isaiah and many passages from the book of Ezekiel. But let us be content to tie all of this together. All of these longings appear to be desires specific to Israel as a nation: their longing to possess God in their midst again, to once again be his chosen people in unity and fidelity with him. But in fact Israel, in its truest moments, was vividly aware that it was privileged not for its own sake alone, but so as to be “God’s first-born son” (see, for example, Hosea 11:1). In and through Israel, the Lord’s desire is to gather together the entire human race in worship of the true God, to make them one as a single people adoring God in a single temple. Isaiah says that the new temple shall be “a house of prayer for all peoples” (56:6-7; 60:1-7), and Ezekiel says that God’s sanctuary shall be set in the midst of Israel forever, and that the Gentiles (non-Jews) will themselves convert to the worship of the Lord (Ez 37:24-28).
Now let us apply all of this to our text from Matthew. After telling of the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, and their staying there until after the death of Herod, Matthew says that this occurred to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Hosea: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I have called my son” (11:1). This text refers to the entire people of Israel as God’s first-born, led from Egypt in the exodus. And yet it is immediately followed by God’s lament at Israel’s infidelity and the terrible effects that this infidelity has wrought. Let us read it now:
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and burning incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of compassion, with the bands of love, and I became to them as one, who eases the yoke on their jaws, and I bent down to them and fed them. They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. The sword shall rage against their cities, consume the bars of their gates, and devour them in their fortresses. My people are bent on turning away from me; so they are appointed to the yoke, and none shall remove it. How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel! How can I make you like Admah! How can I treat you like Zeboiim! My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come to destroy.(Hos 11:1-9)
What a rich text! God is laying before the eyes of his people the great love that he manifested for them in the exodus, in taking them as a child from Egypt and caring for them in the desert, caring for them with the tenderness of a father. And yet he points to their affliction by Assyria, their “return to Egypt,” in other words, the reversing of the grace given in the exodus, back into slavery once again. And this second slavery is worse than the first: “they are appointed to the yoke, and none shall remove it.” But this is followed by something unexpected…and deeply beautiful. The heart of God, before the infidelity of his people and the suffering that this infidelity induces, is unveiled: “How can I give you up? How can I hand you over? My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender.” Yes, God does not treat his people in anger, but it rather overcome by tenderness and compassion for them in their waywardness and suffering. “I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come to destroy.” He will not come to destroy. Then what shall he come to do?
He comes to save. This is the significance of Matthew’s quoting this text. For who now stands in the place of Israel being called out of Egypt into the promised land? Who stands as the new Moses leading his people out of Egypt? Who stands as the exiled one who crosses the desert, over the Jordan River, and into the land of Israel? It is God himself, incarnate as Jesus Christ, the true “first-born son” of God, in whom and through whom Israel is chosen, and from whom the redeeming grace of God flows out to all of humanity. It is he who shall lead humanity from the true Egypt—the Egypt of slavery to sin and the isolation that it creates—in the exodus of redeeming grace, across the waters of Baptism, and into the true promised land of the kingdom, present already in the Church and finding fulfillment at the end of time; it is he who builds the true temple of God’s sanctuary among men, or rather, is that temple come in the flesh, the living-body of God’s presence among us. Yes, and his Risen Body itself, glorious with God’s own light, becomes the open space of the new creation into which we are all incorporated, and in which we shall find everlasting gladness in communion with the Trinity, as the book of Revelation makes so abundantly clear:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” … And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. … Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. There shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall worship him; they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads. And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever. (Rev 21:1-5, 22-23; 22:1-5)
*For a more in-depth exploration of these dimensions and their fulfillment, I would highly recommend the treatment by Brant Pitre in Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist (New York: Doubleday, 2011), 22-47, and indeed the entire book.
i. As quoted in Brant Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, 27, with the italics removed.