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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

christmas according to matthew

The Christmas story as we have come to know it is not really one story but two. The gospels of Matthew and Luke each contain a story of the birth of Jesus, and it has become a tradition to bring all the elements from both gospels together to make one complete story.

Remarkably, the two gospels share almost no details in common, other than the miraculous conception and the birth in Bethlehem. What I want to do in this two-part post is to look at each birth narrative on its own, because I think they each have things to tell us, and sometimes the details can get lost when we try to conflate the two stories.

First I'll take a look at Matthew 1-2.

If there is a theme in Matthew's gospel, it is to show a parallel between Jesus' life and the whole history of Israel. Even in the two chapters of the birth narrative, I count at least nine references to the Jewish Bible.

The gospel begins with a lengthy genealogy. If Matthew submitted it to a publisher today, he would be asked to write a better opening. But in ancient Israel, genealogies were important. They are scattered throughout the Bible along with legal code and narrative. So it is natural to begin Jesus' story with a genealogy.

But this is more than just a list of names. There's a point to this list: the number 14. Matthew divides the names into three groups of 14.

Numbers were important in ancient Israel, too. The number 40 appears repeatedly, for example, in the days and nights of the flood, the years in the wilderness, and for Christians the days of Jesus' temptation by the devil. Other numbers, such as 12 and 7, also appear often.

But why 14? This number is obviously symbolic. The actual number of generations in each group is not 14. Matthew only lists 13 names in the third group, unless Jeconiah is supposed to be counted in both groups 2 and 3. And 1 Chronicles 3:10-17 clearly lists 18 generations from Solomon to Jeconiah. Matthew was forced to omit a few names from group 2 to get the correct number.

So what is the significance of 14? The key, I've been told, is that the Israelites (like the Romans) used letters for numbers. Much of their numerology came from adding the letters of people's names and looking for significance in the total. In the case of King David, the total was 14. So this whole genealogy, in addition to establishing Jesus' lineage, points back to King David, the one whose rule was supposed to last forever. Matthew sees Jesus as a fulfillment of that promise.

After the genealogy, Matthew tells about Joseph's discovery that his fiancee is pregnant, his plans to send her away quietly, and his dream in which an angel sets him straight. Readers may recall another dreamer named Joseph.

In response to the angel's message to Joseph, Matthew offers a quote from Isaiah which, in context, appears to be a word of comfort to King Ahaz. Some modern scholars have argued that Matthew mistakenly took this verse out of context. But if Matthew's aim is to show parallels between the history of Israel and the life of Jesus, then it makes perfect sense to apply this verse here.

Following Joseph's dream is the visit of the Magi. This seems rather abrupt and a little startling to those of us accustomed to hearing Luke's account intermingled with Matthew's. Matthew tells nothing of Joseph and Mary's trip to Bethlehem -- in fact, if this were the only gospel, we'd assume they were residents of Bethlehem at the time of Jesus' birth. The Magi, led by a star, visit them in a house (2:11). Along the way, they are led by a star. This recalls the imagery from Isaiah, of the light to the nations.

In contrast to the Magi's worshipful reverence, King Herod displays jealousy and rage. To escape Herod's wrath, the family escapes to Egypt, as a result of Joseph's dream. Again, he's not the first Joseph to end up in Egypt because of his dreams.

Matthew offers a quote from Hosea, another passage that meant something else in its original context. Again, though, if Matthew's intention is to show parallels, this quote is entirely appropriate.

Herod's order to destroy the infants of Bethlehem recalls Pharaoh's orders to kill the Hebrew children.

Matthew quotes from Jeremiah, perhaps a more obscure passage than the two previous quotes. Still, the original context is one of hope and comfort. The children who were lost will be returning. Matthew's quote, once again, makes sense only if the weeping is understood as a parallel and not a prediction.

Eventually King Herod dies, and the family can return to Bethlehem. Except that Herod's son Archelaus is in charge there. So they go to Nazareth in Galilee. The odd thing about this is that another one of Herod's sons, Herod Antipas, is ruling Galilee. Why would it be any safer there? Still, Matthew relates this back to the story of Israel with one more quote, "He will be called a Nazorean." It is uncertain to what Matthew is referring. This phrase cannot be found in the Hebrew Scriptures.

But the point had already been made: The story of Israel was a precursor to the story of Jesus. From the very beginning of his life, Jesus was the ideal to which God's entire history of interaction with humanity was pointing. Everything God had promised was to be fulfilled in him. If that's not good news, I don't know what is.



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