Out of Egypt (Third Sunday of Advent)

Flight into Egypt, circa 1320 by Giotto (Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, Assisi, Italy).

And he said to me, “You are my servant,

Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

-Isaiah 49:3

“When Israel was a child, I loved him,

and out of Egypt I called my son.

-Hosea 11:1

It has, for a while now, been of popular mind to utilize the Old Testament as a prophecy machine. Plug in an Old Testament prophecy to a New Testament passage and see if something matches up. If they do, it’s like winning a game of slots in Vegas or, God forbid, Reno. But like any gamble, matching prophecies up is mostly a losing game. Nevertheless we work this way: find a verse in the Old Testament, plug it into a verse in the New Testament, and — ding-ding-ding — we have a winner! After that, you’re done. Prophecy was fulfilled and that settles it.

We probably do this because we think it is what the New Testament is doing when it quotes the Old Testament. After all, they seem to be playing the game and winning. But the prophets, when you read them, seem to be so much larger, so filled with what Abraham Heschel called, “divine pathos,” or, the sharing of “the divine reaction to human conduct” (Heschel, The Prophets, pg. 290). What they shared through their words was a Word — through their sentences came a pathos, a sense of who God was and what it was like to be in fellowship with him. They shared his anger towards injustice, his preference for the poor, his fierceness for covenant-keeping. “To the prophet, knowledge of God was fellowship with Him, not attained by syllogism, analysis, or induction, but by living together” (Heschel, 288). The prophets were never meant to be taken as verses or sentences, but as a Word, a sense, an emphasis.

This is how the scholar Richard Hays developed his brilliant theory of “echoes” in Scripture. Instead of a simple slot machine, the relationship between Old and New Testament works more like a set of “hyperlinks” (a phrase from Tim Mackie). The phrase or quotation sitting in the New Testament links the reader back to the fullness of the Word from the Old Testament. In other words, the quotation is not meant to be read in isolation so the reader can keep reading forward, but instead, as Hays argues, we are to see that quotation and read backwards to the Old Testament’s context and meaning before reading forward. The hyperlink sends us to another page, another world that informs the one we’re reading about in Romans or Matthew or James.

“Jesus and his first followers were Jews whose symbolic world was shaped by Israel’s Scripture,” writes Hays, “their ways of interpreting the world and their hopes for God’s saving action were fundamentally conditioned by biblical stories of God’s dealings with the people of Israel” (Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, pg. 5). The Gospel writers did not understand the Old Testament to be a prediction machine that now became easier to “match” with Jesus. They instead saw his life as the “reorganization” (Hays) and reinterpretation of Israel’s story, law, and wisdom. Therefore, by quoting the Old Testament, the Gospel writers are not “proving” anything; they are reinterpreting everything. They are not primarily interested in predictions coming true, but in showing God’s complete faithfulness to Israel, which has culminated and been made complete in Jesus, the Messiah. Especially Matthew.

Matthew is certainly the most Jewish Gospel. He was interested in showing Jesus’ connection to Israel, as seen in his preamble genealogy in Matthew 1 (a grand reversal of Genesis 5 and 10–11). By connecting Jesus to Abraham, Matthew works to hyperlink us back to Genesis 12 and to the corresponding genealogies of the Old Testament. Matthew 1 is an “echo” of all the genealogies and stories mentioned in the verses. But instead of a genealogy that leads to more corruption, it is one that leads towards redemption.

As the birth story gets moving in Matthew 1 and 2, Scripture quotations are thrown out left and right. We are, in just a few short verses, hearing “echoes” of Deuteronomy 24, Isaiah 7, Isaiah 8, Genesis 25, Zechariah 9, Micah 5, Isaiah 60, Hosea 11, and Jeremiah 31. And that’s just in a pack 25 verses between Matthew 1 and 2. Most of them are ambiguous and more of a nod and a wink than a straightforward explanation. Remember: hyperlinks, not slot machines.

One particular echo is in Matthew’s description of the family fleeing to Egypt. The family of the newborn king, after a seemingly peaceful birth with wise men visiting from Persia, goes on the run to escape a psychotic king who pledges to kill all newborn boys in hopes to kill this “king of Jews.” An angel appears to Joseph in a dream telling him to take his family: “flee to Egypt,” the angel commands, “and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” The family goes as refugees to Egypt, escaping the political threats of violence, and Matthew quotes the Old Testament prophet Hosea: “This was to fulfill what the Lord has spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’” (Matthew 2:15).

When you follow this hyperlink back to Hosea 11:1, what you find is at first confusing: this Old Testament verse is very much about Israel, not Jesus. God is fond of calling his nation “my son” to connect their collective heritage to the man Jacob (renamed “Israel” after his encounter with God). Why is Matthew quoting this line from Hosea? Is he misinterpreting or misquoting this Old Testament passage, thinking it’s about a Messiah when it’s actually about Israel?

No. Matthew is showing us the Old Testament not as a slot machine, but a hyperlink to a whole new landing page. In doing so, we can see what Hosea sees and what Matthew sees as well. Hosea was recapping how God brought Israel out of captivity in Egypt, but “Matthew sees in these words [of Hosea’s] a deeper allusion,” writes the scholar Michael Wilkins, “The history of God’s children is recapitulated in the history of God’s Son. As Israel long ago was led down to Egypt [and called out through the salvific action of God], so was Jesus. As Israel came out, so did Jesus. He embodies and fulfill the history of the people of God in his own person” (Wilkins, NIV Application Commentary: Matthew).

In Jesus Christ, Matthew realizes that the salvation of Israel from Egypt both saved a nation and also prefigured the salvation of the entire world. This verse in Hosea (“Out of Egypt I have called my son”), then, “takes a meaning Hosea never imagined but that evangelists would find” (Fredrick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1–12, pg. 75). Humanity fell from God in Genesis 3, 6, and 11, but God used Israel to work out his salvation plan for the world (Genesis 12:1–4). Now, Matthew realizes that things are working similarly: Israel has fallen from God (read your Old Testament) and God uses Jesus to work out his salvation plan for Israel and the whole world. Jesus is who Israel failed to be. Matthew realizes that Hosea is not about Israel or the Messiah — it’s about how the Messiah is Israel, standing in their place. Jesus takes Israel’s place by becoming a substitute for them — and not just them, but the world, the Gentiles, us.

This little hyperlink gives us a connection to the whole story of Israel. Now, as Fredrick Bruner points out, the story of Christmas gets all the larger: we see this Joseph as not the first Joseph we’ve read about that took refuge in Egypt when he was in danger in his homeland (Genesis 37:36). Joseph is not the first Jewish man to hear news of a wicked king out for blood of little Hebrew boys (Exodus 1:16). And Joseph is certainly not the first man to experience a miraculous conception (Sarah, Rachael, Hannah, etc.). All of these moments (and their corresponding references to passages in the Old Testament) are hyperlinks to the larger story showing us that Jesus will be the true and better Israel, the obedient Son, the light of the nations.

What is not seen yet, but will be communicated most clearly as his ministry develops, is that this Son, the figure of New Israel, will lead to a surprise ending. He will not “rule the nations” by taking control of the government, but by the government taking control of him. He will not subject his enemies to violence, but his enemies will subject him to violence. He will not take lives; he will give his own.

Why?

Once again, to give us a hyperlink and a reinterpretation of Israel’s story. In the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ we see the true nature and character of God, the God who has always been there, substituting himself for his people. He is the ram slain instead of Isaac (Genesis 22), the blood on the doorposts (Exodus 12–14), the fourth man in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3). He is the exiled one, subjecting himself to the Babylon of his time for the freedom of his people. He is the New Israel, which is all to say this: he is the salvation of the world.

Pastor, writer, and sometimes professor, currently serving Awakening Church in the Silicon Valley. Author of DISTANT GOD and LESS OF MORE: chrisnye.co/books

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