“Now after Jesus had been born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, look! Magi from the east came to Jerusalem saying, ‘Where is the one born King of the Jews?’” (Matthew 2:1).
This notice from Matthew following the birth story of Jesus in Matthew 1, would sound off all sorts of alarms for the first readers. Up to this point in his Christmas story, Matthew has not told us where Jesus was born, but when he finally writes “Bethlehem” as Jesus’s birthplace, the readers would think “David,” since David was born there. When Matthew names “Herod the King,” the readers would think “Uh oh,” because Herod was a known tyrant who was willing to put anyone to death who challenged his power, including wives and sons. “David the king” was named in the genealogy (1:6), but now “Herod the king” is announced. When the Magi are mentioned, people might think of Babylon and its reputation for learning and astrology.
Today, so much of our Christmas lore is idealized, as though the Christmas story was a uniformly happy and joyous event. We all think of the “wise men” who come to worship the baby Jesus in a snow globe kind of way, while ignoring the true story of danger that Matthew tells. For the first readers of Matthew, there would have been no doubt of this danger the moment Matthew says “In the days of Herod the king.” Though the story of the visit of the Magi is a beautiful one, for Matthew it is only a piece of the story he is telling about how God protects Jesus from those who want him gone, and the beginning of the story of opposition that will ultimately lead to the cross for Jesus.
This story revolves around Herod and then Joseph again. When the Magi come to Jerusalem, they think they are in the right place. Herod the king lived there a good part of the time, and it was only about ten miles north of Bethlehem. For Herod, any notion of a Jewish king that was not him or his sons would have caused consternation and it did when the Magi inquired about “the one born king of the Jews”— “Herod was troubled and all Jerusalem with him.” He gathered a conclave of scholars who informed him of Micah’s prophecy about the Messiah being born in Bethlehem. Herod decided “quietly” to have the Magi do the finding of this king for him, so that he too could go and “worship him.” In the request, Herod asks repeatedly for accurate information, and later we find out why.
Matthew does continue with the joyous story of the Magi; they followed the star to Bethlehem and the place Jesus was staying and they “rejoiced an exceeding great joy.” Matthew then recounts the visit of the Magi to Jesus with their gifts and sincere worship. What their notion of “the one born king of the Jews” was, we don’t know, but Matthew at least wants his readers to understand that the coming of Jesus was not just a Jewish event, but one that impacted the whole world.
Following the visit, the story plot unfolds. Dreams to the Magi and then to Joseph are essential elements for God’s protection of the child Jesus. First, the Magi are warned in a dream to leave another way, then an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream as before to tell him directly, “arise, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt and stay there until I tell you, for Herod is about to seek the child to destroy him.” For those of you who have read the previous posts in this Christmas story series, there are definite connections to Revelation 12 here.
Joseph did as the angel spoke and not a moment to soon. Herod (like Pharaoh in the story of Moses’s birth in Exodus 1-2) sought to kill babies two and under around Bethlehem, “according to the time ascertained from the Magi.” Matthew seeks somehow to explain this vile act by searching out the Hebrew Scriptures. When Matthew quotes a prophet he normally says “so that” the prophet’s words might be fulfilled, expressing God’s divine purposes, but here he says “then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah saying, ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, crying and much travail, Rachel weeping for her children and she did not want to be comforted, for they were not.’” This was a “fulfilled” prophecy, but not God’s purpose. It was the fulfillment of human evil seeking to destroy a potential rival.
The child Jesus, though, was protected for God’s purposes to “save his people from their sins.” God’s hand to protect in the midst of unexplainable evil is not open for our understanding, but only to accept by faith that God’s good purposes will come to fruition. For Jesus, he escaped destruction by Herod to ultimately be destroyed on the cross in a much more public way by the coalition of Jewish leaders and Roman power thirty or so years later.
The story concludes with two more dreams to Joseph, one to lead him back to the land of Israel with “the child and his mother,” and a second one to lead them to Nazareth, since Herod’s son Archelaus ruling in Judah had all of the tyrannical traits of his father. Once again we see strains of the exodus story as Jesus leaves Egypt and comes to the promised land, where he would ultimately fulfill his purpose to save his people from their sins. Joseph shows again and again that he is a faithful servant of God who courageously acts to carry out God’s word to him.