One of the good things about following the church year and the lectionary is that the same texts and same holidays keep showing up. I know, this is twenty-first century America and I’m supposed to be constantly on the search for the new and the novel. Routine and repetition are boring and bad. But one of the wonderful things about the Bible is that there is always more to be discovered.
This year, while re reading Matthew’s nativity story, I have been struck by the way the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) shapes the New Testament story. There is, of course, the genealogy where Matthew securely and clearly places Jesus in Jewish history. But after that, Matthew’s use of the Hebrew Bible becomes more subtle.
Take Matthew’s story of Joseph. Wait, where have we heard that name before? Oh yes, the Joseph of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 37-50- its a big story). He was an interpreter of dreams. He had been wronged by family ( recall his brothers threw him in a well and then sold him into slavery) but ultimately forgave them and was reconciled to them. Now read the gospel story of Joseph (Matt. 1-2). This Joseph too, can correctly interpret dreams. This Joseph, by the standards of his day had been wronged by Mary, but Joseph chose reconciliation. Matthew doesn’t give us a one to one correspondence the New Testament Joseph is not just a repeat of the Old Testament Joseph. But what we know about OT Joseph, helps us understand NT Joseph.
As Matthew’s story continues with the Magi and Herod, the slaughter of children and Jesus travel to Egypt and back again at God’s command, we should hear echoes of Moses’ story as told by the Bible and Josephus. Josephus, a first century Jewish historian, writes that Pharaoh was warned about the coming birth of Moses, the one who would deliver the Hebrew people. The story continues with Pharaoh ordering the death of Hebrew boy babies. Moses’ life is spared in a surprising way and he does lead a mixed multitude of people to freedom. These people, by the action and calling of God become Israel, the people through whom all the people of the earth are to be blessed.
In the gospel, Magi tell another king about a Jewish deliverer, The empire is threatened and lashes out at innocent children. Jesus is spared and ultimately he leads a mixed multitude of people who by the action and calling of God become the church.
The Hebrew Bible stories help Matthew and his audience make sense of Jesus’ story. The old stories of Joseph and Moses give a framework, a lens to help interpret events. I don’t think Matthew made up the nativity stories to deliberately echo the Old Testament and I don’t think Joseph and Moses and their lives happened only to give Jesus’ followers a clue about Jesus. The stories of Joseph and Moses have value historically and theologically in their own right. Never the less, knowing those stories helps Matthew, the early church, and us understand Jesus and his story. They help us recognize the ways God is at work in the world.
It helps us to make these sorts of connections. You can perhaps recall a time when you said, “Oh, that’s kind of like when….. only different”. The first event, similar and yet different, helps you make sense of the second. It helps you recognize and organize the world around you. That, I think, is a little piece of what Matthew is trying to do. He is helping us organize and recognize what God is doing in Jesus.
So, how does Matthew’s story of Jesus birth help us organize and recognize what God is doing in our world today? Does Matthew give us a framework, a lens for looking at the world in a particular way? How does knowing the gospel story help us understand our days? I’d like to know, what do you think?