Matthew 2:19-23 – “The King’s Reception, Part 3c: Anticipated Rejection of the New Exodus”
“So, when Herod died, behold! An angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt saying, ‘Arise and take the child and His mother and go to the land of Israel, because those who seek the life of the child have died.’ So, getting up, he took the child and His mother and came into the land of Israel. But hearing that Archelaus ruled over Judea instead of his father Herod, he became afraid to depart there. So, being warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And arriving, he dwelt a city called Nazareth, so that the word through the prophets might be fulfilled, that He will be called a Nazarene.”
These verses not only conclude Matthew’s presentation of Israel’s reception of the king (vv. 13-23) but the whole reception of the king motif of chapter 2. Matthew’s language works to both connect back to the previous section as well as work to conclude this section with the use of at least three tools. First, Matthew connects back to the larger section of 2:1-12 by using the same language regarding Joseph being warned (χρηματίζω) as he did to describe the magi being warned not to return to Jerusalem (2:12). Second, Matthew also makes sure to conclude this section by killing off his antagonist (v. 20), and having his new protagonist depart (ἀναχωρέω) just as he did his original protagonist (2:12). Finally, Matthew uses a third and final “fulfillment formula” (πληρόω). While it is true that only vv. 13-23 hold these fulfillments, both sections (vv. 1-12 & vv. 13-23) revolve around three OT allusions or quotations. This third fulfillment signals a conclusion to the current section.
The theme of a new Exodus has permeated vv. 13-23 as Matthew reveals that Israel receives her King with great hostility. This Exodus was prepared for in vv. 13-15, explained as necessary in vv. 16-18, and here is anticipated as being rejected by the current generation. As Matthew moves Joseph and his family out of Egypt and back into the land as faithful Israelites, he confirms that the people will reject and despise their new David and their new Moses.
Returning to the Land (vv. 19-21)
It is amazing how much information the biblical authors can back into so few words. The narrative concerning Joseph left us with the family in flight to Egypt because Herod was seeking to destroy the child Jesus. Joseph was to keep his family in Egypt until the angel brought further instruction. All the work of setting up the second Exodus motif that was accomplished in vv. 13-15 is wrapped up in a nice little bow here. The pattern continues with the angel bringing faithful directions for Joseph (vv. 19-20) followed by Joseph’s faithful response (v. 21).
Faithful Direction (vv. 19-20)
“So, when Herod died, behold! An angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt saying, ‘Arise and take the child and His mother and go to the land of Israel, because those who seek the life of the child have died.’”
Herod, the antagonist who was seeking the child’s life, has died. The verb τελευτάω literally means “to come to an end” but is commonly used as a euphemism for the end of one’s life. The point is that Herod is no longer in the picture. There is much that Matthew leaves out of his narrative. The painful and disgusting death that Herod endured coupled with his cruel orders and the rearrangement of his will are summed up in a single participle phrase: then Herod came to an end. The threat against the son of David, son of Abraham is no more.
The appearance of the angel is presented in identical fashion as in 1:20 and 2:13. The attention getter “behold” (ἰδοὺ) followed by the appearance and what the angel said. To this now familiar formula, Matthew adds an interesting phrase: in Egypt (ἐν Αἰγύπτῳ). The point of this is very simple yet profound when we consider Joseph as a person. The family is still in Egypt awaiting the instruction they were promised. Joseph did not take the initiative to return home until he received word from the angel as per his instructions (v. 13). When we examine the angel’s command, we again see much similarity from the previous occurrences, but sometimes the significance lies in the differences.
The command is almost identical in that the same preparatory participle “arise” (ἐγαρθεὶς) precedes the imperative “take!” (παράλαβε) followed by the less frantic imperative “go!” (πορεύου) rather than the previous “flee!” as in v. 13. As the angel commanded Joseph to flee to Egypt, now he commands Joseph to go back into the land of Israel. The word choice here is of no small consequence. On the one hand, “land of Israel” (γῆν Ἰσραήλ) is a general term that refers to a larger territory than the province of Judea. If one were to look at a map of the Levant in the early first century AD, there would be no mention of a “Israel”. This is a biblical reference, an Old Testament reference. To speak of the land of Israel is to recall the land promise made first to Abraham, then passed to Isaac, and finally to Jacob who was later called Israel. The language here is very similar to the call of Abraham in Genesis 12. The seed of Abraham is being called back into the land of Promise because the men who sought to kill Him are no more.
As before, the angel provides a reason for his command and, as before, that reason has to do with Herod. More than informing Joseph that Herod is dead, this phrase “because those who sought the child’s life are dead” is an obvious allusion to Ex. 4:19 and the divine call of Moses to return to Egypt so that he might lead the people of Israel in the ordained Exodus from Egypt. The prophet like Moses (Deut. 18:15) has been identified and He is being sent back to the land of Israel as a new patriarch.
Faithful Response (v. 21)
“So, getting up, he took the child and His mother and came into the land of Israel.”
Once again, we see the immediate and precise obedience in Joseph. The imperatives used by the angel appear again as indicatives to show Joseph’s commitment to obedience. More than this, Joseph’s actions are strikingly similar to Abraham’s as recorded in Gen. 12:5. After receiving the divine command to leave Haran and go to the land of Canaan, Moses records that “Abram took (λαμβάνω) Sarai his wife and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions which they had accumulated, and the persons which they had acquired in Haran, and they departed to go forth to the land of Canaan; thus they came (πορεύομαι) to the land of Canaan.”
It is important to see more than Joseph’s obedience. Joseph is bringing his family into the land as if for the first time. This is the beginning of something new. Just as Abram departed from his home and entered the land in order to pursue the blessings of land, seed, and blessing, now the true Seed of Abraham reenters the same land for the same purpose. The only question that remains is whether the land will receive Him.
Rejected in Obscurity (vv. 22-23)
It appears that Joseph anticipated returning to Bethlehem to pick up where he had left off. Joseph knows that the child under his care and protection is Yhwh’s Messiah, the son of David, and Seed of the woman. It only makes sense to raise the child in David’s shadow, as it were. What doesn’t make sense is who was left reigning over Jerusalem and Judea.
Danger in Judea (v. 22)
“But hearing that Archelaus ruled over Judea instead of his father Herod, he became afraid to depart there. So, being warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee.”
It was well known that Herod’s oldest surviving son (eldest of those whom he had not yet murdered) Antipas was to rule once Herod was dead. But a last-minute change to his will divided Herod’s kingdom into three sections. Antipas as to rule the northwest region of the Galilee, Philip was to rule in the northeast over Iturea, while Archelaus was to rule over Judea. This was not good news to anybody because Archelaus was just as bloody minded and cruel as his father.
Clearly, returning to Bethlehem of Judea does not seem like the best course of action. Every time the King attempts to come into His capital, the capital rejects Him. Joseph’s concerns are validated when he is then warned in a dream. The same term (χρηματίζω) was used when the magi were warned not to return to Herod (v. 12). For the time being, the city of Jerusalem and the district of Judea are off limits. Yet the command was to return to the land of Israel. If Messiah is not welcome in the south where the heart of Israel is located with the king and the temple, then Joseph will withdraw (ἀναχωρέω) and take the child to the far north, to Galilee. If Jesus has come to lead His people through a second Exodus, it does not seem that the people are on the same page.
Despised in Nazareth (v. 23)
“And arriving, he dwelt a city called Nazareth, so that the word through the prophets might be fulfilled, that He will be called a Nazarene.”
The city where Joseph settles with his family is so obscure that it makes Bethlehem look like Grand Central Station. Nazareth likely boasted around 400 inhabitants and is so obscure that it is not mentioned once in the entire Old Testament. While Galilee was a hotbed of Zealot activity during the Jewish War of independence from Rome (66-73 AD), Josephus never mentions Nazareth as a site of activity or even as a location en route to some battle. Nazareth is literally on the way to nowhere, and that’s the entire point.
Matthew’s fourth “fulfillment formula” is somewhat different than the rest in that Matthew uses a different conjunction (ὅπως instead of ἵνα), lacks the participle λέγοντος (saying) that prepares the reader for a quotation, and refers to plural prophets (τῶν προφητῶν) rather than a specific prophet. Another puzzling aspect is the fact that no such quotation or allusion can be found anywhere in the Old Testament. As already mentioned, “Nazareth” is never mentioned in the Old Testament and so it is impossible that we are dealing with a direct quotation that Messiah is to be called a Nazarene. What then could this possibly mean?
There are several theories out there, but only three that deserve any attention. The first two assume that Matthew is making some sort of world play while the third takes Matthew’s words at face value and attempts to read them in the context of a Jew in the first century AD.
The first theory sees a parallel between Nazarene (Ναζωραῖος) and Nazirite (Ναζιραῖος/נָזִיר). Advocates of this theory see Jesus appearing as a new Samson who saves his people through his death. Thus, the fulfillment is that Jesus is a consecrated individual like a Nazirite. The problems are basic and two-fold. First, it is difficult to see a connection with a physical move to Nazareth somehow making Jesus a Nazirite. Second, in no way, shape, or form, was Jesus a Nazirite. Nazirites were forbidden to consume alcohol (Num. 6:3) or come into contact with anything unclean, like a dead person (Num. 6:6-12). Yet, Jesus touched lepers (Matt. 8:3), takes dead children by the hand (Matt. 9:25) and came eating and drinking (Matt. 11:19). Whatever Matthew means here, we can know for certain that this is not an allusion to Jesus as a Nazirite.
The second theory also assumes a word play, but this time it is between Nazarene (Ναζωραῖος) and branch (ἄνθος/נֵצֶר). The emphasis here is to present Jesus as the Davidic branch as foreseen by Isaiah in Is. 11:1. While the Messianic emphasis is attractive, this view is even more problematic than the previous theory. First, the wordplay only works (maybe) in Hebrew, yet Matthew wrote in Greek. Is the reader expected to back-translate as they go? Is that the authorial intention of Matthew? Second, it is Jesus’ connection to David (and thus Bethlehem) that makes Him the branch, yet Matthew connects Jesus with Nazareth as the fulfillment to this word. Third, while the presentation of Messiah as the branch is a significant theme in Scripture, only Isaiah uses נֵצֶר. Other prophets, like Jeremiah (23:5) use the similar term צֶמַח. While these two terms may be related, they do not sound alike and thus are not eligible to be considered part of any word play with Nazareth or Nazarene.
The third (and correct) theory takes Matthew’s words at face value and interprets them in a straightforward manner. To present this view, we need to take several things into consideration. First, Matthew makes no claim to refer to a specific passage but presents his allusion as if it were the consensus of the prophets. The idea is that there are too many references to bother with and so he simply says, “the prophets foresaw this.”
Second, “Nazareth” and “Nazarene” must be understood literally. It is because of Joseph’s move to Nazareth that Jesus was called a Nazarene (i.e., someone who lives in or is from Nazareth) and that title is what the general prophetic consensus foretold.
Third, we must ask the question what does Nazareth mean to a first century Jew? What did Nathanael say when Philip told him that he had found Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth? “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (Jn. 1:46). Apparently, Nazareth has quite the negative reputation. It is generally assumed that the whole of the Galilee was looked down upon as being the backwoods and its residents little better than illiterate hicks by the social elite in Jerusalem. Yet Nathanael was a fellow Galilean from Bethsaida. Nazareth’s negative reputation is held as unique among Galileans. Nazareth is a no-account place full of no-account people. One might even say that Nazareth is despised and rejected.
Finally, we must understand how this statement fits in the immediate context of Matt. 2:13-23. Matthew concludes his presentation of Israel’s reception of the king with the words “He will be called ‘a Nazarene’.” The point is simple: Jesus, the born king of the Jews, will be slandered, mocked, and abused. Wherever He goes they will say “is this not the Nazarene?” as if to accuse Him of ignorance and irrelevance. This is what the prophets spoke of when they foresaw Messiah as being rejected by His people (Ps. 22; 69; Is. 53). Joseph moved to Nazareth to fulfill the general consensus of the prophets: Israel will mock their Messiah.
Matthew presents Jesus as the one who will lead His people through a new Exodus that will culminate in the New Covenant. For this reason, Jesus is sent to Egypt to live as the nation lived and is called back to the land as the fathers were called back. Yet the hearts of the people are far from their God. The day of the new Exodus will come, but first Messiah will be despised and rejected. Israel rejects her king. The cross precedes the kingdom.
 Charles Quarles, Matthew, Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2017), 30.  David Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), p. 97.  John Broadus, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, An American Commentary on the New Testament (Forgotten Books, 2012), p. 26.  David Garland, Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the First Gospel (New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1993), p. 31.  Quarles, p. 31.