Yeshua in Context » Background to Gospels, Detailed Commentary, Formation of the Gospels, Gospel Genres, Hebrew Bible as Testimony, Ideal Israel Theme, Intertextuality in the Gospels, Literary Features » “My Son” as Midrash
It’s a famous example of what seems to be the unusual, perhaps questionable, use of the Jewish scriptures by the apostles. It occurs in a very noticeable location — the birth narrative of Yeshua in Matthew. Some parts of the Bible get very little traffic, but the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are pretty much highways and not little goat trails. So people are bound to notice some odd things about Matthew’s “this happened in order to fulfill” sayings.
One of the two weirdest (there is one that is even weirder) is Matthew 2:15. Is Matthew able to read and understand the Hebrew Bible? Is he guilty of a strange and arbitrary reading simply to justify his belief in Yeshua of Nazareth? Of course the author of Matthew knows what he is doing. It is the modern reader who must make the adjustment into the world of midrashic use of scripture. Midrash is a kind of teaching using the scriptures in a homiletic manner (a sermon, a talk on a religious or moral subject). Midrash is interested in going beyond the plain meaning — but it is not intended to replace the plain meaning. Midrash is looking for something hinted at. And Midrash always has a justification. It is never arbitrary. It is always based on some technical detail about the words, grammar, or interconnections between the verse in question and other verses on the same theme.
One aspect of the art of midrash is to say something that seems a tad outrageous. But on closer investigation the outrageous statement can be justified and also can be shown relevant. The sages and rabbis of old loved to discuss halakhah (detailed investigations of categories and practices for keeping the commandments of Torah). But the public preferred to hear from them midrashes — sermons and parables with moral, theological, and narrative interest.
So, let’s look at the great midrash of Matthew on Hosea 11:1 and learn as students.
Matthew’s citation of Hosea 11:1 is much closer to the Hebrew than the Greek translation (LXX, Septuagint). The Hebrew text of Hosea 11:1 rendered in as literal a form as possible looks something like this:
When a youth [was] Israel, I loved him; and out of Egypt I called my son.
The LXX has: out of Egypt have I called his children.
Matthew has: out of Egypt I called my son.
Although Matthew wrote in Greek, his midrash on Hosea depended on the Hebrew text (or if not, a Greek text that was based on the proto-Masoretic text).
It is quickly obvious if you look up Hosea 11:1 that the verse is not about Messiah, but about Israel. Vs.2 says, “As they [prophets] called to them they went away from them; to the Baals they would sacrifice and to images they would burn offerings.” (Note: Most modern translations deviate from the Masoretic text, but I am not persuaded of their reasons regarding this verse and so offer my own translation based on the Delitzsch commentary).
What facts of the situation did Matthew have in front of him that led to this connection between Yeshua the son and Israel the son?
First, Matthew had the gospel accounts from eyewitnesses that the heavenly voice twice called Yeshua “son,” once at the baptism and once at the transfiguration. Second, he had the unusual manner of Yeshua’s speaking, which was frequent, about his Father. The sonship of Yeshua was a major theme of Yeshua’s teaching and God was “Abba” to him. Third, he knew the deep theme of Israel’s sonship in the Hebrew Bible. In Deuteronomy 32 (a key chapter), Israel is the son who disappointed God who gave him birth. In the Exodus tradition, God said to Pharaoh, “Let my son go” (Exod 4:23). God promised to be a father the Davidic king (Messiah) who would be a son to him. In the Psalms about the Davidic king (Messiah) the king is called son and it is even said, “you are my son; today I have begotten you” (Psa 2:7).
Matthew is saying that Yeshua is the son like Israel is the son and like the Davidic-messianic king is the son. He is defining the meaning of Yeshua’s sonship. The specific event that brought this comparison to mind is Yeshua’s family coming back into Galilee out of Egypt, where they had been hiding from Herod.
Comparisons between contemporary events and ancient biblical events were a poetic Hebrew way of thinking. A similar famous text is also used in this section about Rachel weeping for her children. The event that inspired Jeremiah the prophet to speak of Rachel weeping was when exiles to Babylon, terribly treated Judeans being taken away from everything they held dear, passing nearby the place where Genesis had indicated Rachel was buried. It was not unusual for Jeremiah to relate geography — the place Rachel was buried — to events in his time — exiles being tragically marched away.
The problem a modern reader has is simple: we look for the plain meaning, the literal. We tend to be bothered by poetic, symbolic, homiletical connections. If Matthew doesn’t have a prophecy-fulfillment connection to Hosea 11:1, how dare he cite the verse!
But Matthew has done something much deeper. He has related Yeshua (not only here, but in dozens of places) firmly to the sonship of Israel and the sonship of the Davidic-messianic kings.
In Matthew’s day, the movement of Yeshua-followers was expanding. Certain elements already wanted to remove Yeshua in some ways from his Jewish context. Matthew famously represents the interest of keeping the image of Yeshua within a Jewish framework. Yeshua is Ideal Israel and Yeshua is the New Moses. The midrash on Hosea 11:1 is a masterful example of the art of teaching Yeshua’s life from within Jewish thought.