Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Matthew 2:13-15)
That last verse has caused plenty of consternation over the years. The Holy Family goes to Egypt, and this somehow fulfills Hosea’s reference to Israel’s exodus? It looks like Matthew is connecting the prophetic dots by the slimmest of connections.
Here’s what we read in Hosea 11:1-4:
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more they were called, the more they went away; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning offerings to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up by their arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of kindness, with the bands of love, and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws, and I bent down to them and fed them.
Clearly, Hosea (speaking for the Lord) is harkening back to the Exodus. He is remembering when Israel was just a little toddler of a nation, and God delivered them out of bondage in Egypt. “Many years ago, by Moses and the plagues and all that, I called my son Israel out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”–that’s what Hosea 11 is about.
But look again at Matthew. “Out of Egypt I called my son” here refers to God hiding Jesus away in Egypt to avoid Herod’s decree and then calling him back from Egypt when Herod is dead. This seems to be unrelated to anything Hosea was talking about. How can Matthew say this flight to Egypt fulfilled the words of the prophet Hosea when the two events seem connected by no more than the word Egypt? How can this possibly be a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy? Hosea say what?
Those who suggest Matthew is playing free association with Biblical prophecy–“Jesus came out of Egypt; here’s something in the prophets about coming out of Egypt; let’s put these two things together”–haven’t looked closely at how Matthew uses the Old Testament in his Gospel. More than any gospel writer, Matthew goes to great lengths to show that Jesus’ birth, life, and death, are rooted firmly in the Old Testament. Jesus was born of a virgin (fulfilling Isaiah 7:14). He was born in Bethlehem (fulfilling Micah 5:1-2). He was sought out to be killed by Herod (fulfilling Jeremiah 31:15). He was preceded by John preparing the way (fulfilling Isaiah 40:3). He healed diseases (fulfilling Isaiah 53:4). He spoke through parables (fulfilling Psalm 78:2). He came to Jerusalem riding on a donkey (fulfilling Zechariah 9:9). Matthew is very deliberate with his use of the Old Testament. So his citing of Hosea 11 must be more than just a loosey-goosey connection with the word Egypt.
Jesus as the True Israel
The first step toward understanding Matthew’s purpose is to look more carefully at the word “fulfill.” It’s the Greek word plēroō, and it is a very important word in Matthew, occurring 15 times in the book (1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 3:15; 4:14; 5:17; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 13:48; 21:4; 23:32; 26:54; 26:56). Most basically, it means to fill up. Sometimes this means very specifically that the Old Testament predicted the Messiah’s birthplace would be in Bethlehem and Jesus was, in fact, born in Bethlehem. There you go. That’s fulfillment. But fulfillment can be broader than that. It can also mean that Jesus brings the Scriptures to their intended goal, that the incomplete revelation to and through Israel has been brought to completion.
Take Mark 1:14-15, for example. “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.'” When Jesus said “the time is fulfilled,” he did not mean “right now a specific prediction of Scripture is coming to pass.” He meant, “with my preaching of the gospel, the time has been filled up and the kingdom is here. The Old Testament is reaching its climax.” Likewise, I don’t believe Matthew thought Jesus’ flight to Egypt was predicted in Hosea 11:1. But I do believe that Matthew thought Jesus’ flight to and return from Egypt was filling up Hosea 11:1.
So what exactly is Jesus fulfilling, or filling up in Matthew 2:15? Jesus, as Matthew correctly understands the situation, is filling up the redemptive historical purposes of the nation. In other words, Matthew can claim that this Hosea passage, which talks about the Exodus of Israel out of Egypt, is fulfilled in Jesus, because Jesus is the embodiment of Israel.
Matthew looked back and saw an analogical correspondence between the history of the nation Israel and the history of the Messiah…the Hosea 11:1 quotation by Matthew is not an example of arbitrary exegesis on the part of a New Testament writer. On the contrary Matthew looked back and carefully drew analogies between the events of the nation’s history and the historical incidents in the life of Jesus (Tracy L. Howard, “The Use of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15,” Biliotheca Sacra 143:325).
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is cast as the true and faithful Israel. Matthew is retelling Israel’s well known story, but he’s putting Jesus right in the middle as the main character in the story. Jesus is the new Israel.
- Chapter one starts with the genealogy of Jesus. The very first words, in Greek, are “biblos geneseos Iesou Christou“–a book of the beginning of Jesus Christ. Now why is that significant? Well, because that word geneseos is a form of the word genesis, as in the first book the Bible. I don’t think Matthew is trying to be tricky here, but surely he knew the first book of the Bible and realized that when he begins his gospel with “a book of the genesis of Jesus” he is, at least, strongly suggesting that this story of Jesus Christ marks a new beginning for the people of God. The story is starting over. This suggestion is supported by another parallel with the first book of the Bible. Genesis is broken up into ten toledoth sections. Ten times in the book of Genesis, we read “these are the generations (toledoth) of…” Interestingly enough, these toledoth sections are, in a couple of places, translated into the Greek Septuagint with biblos geneseos (Gen. 2:4; 5:1), which further points in the direction that Matthew understood Jesus to be a new generation, a new genealogy, a new beginning for the nation of Israel.
- Not only is Jesus the new Genesis, his life embodies the new Exodus. Shortly after Jesus’ birth, he was rushed away to safety to avoid the wrath of a jealous king who had ordered all the young boys to be killed. Where else does this happen in the Bible? Exodus 1. Pharaoh fears the Hebrews and so he orders that every baby boy be thrown into the Nile. But Moses was spared because his mother hid him in a basket in the river. Likewise, Jesus was spared Herod’s decree because his mother hid him in Egypt.
- Following right on the heels of Jesus’ exodus out of Egypt, we come to his baptism in the Jordan in Matthew 3. Again, I don’t think Matthew is trying to speak in secret code, and he certainly isn’t making the stories up, but he has arranged the material in such a way as to retell Israel’s story, with Jesus now as the true Israel. So just like the Israelites left Egypt and then passed through the Red Sea (baptized into the sea according 1 Cor. 10:2), Jesus too leaves Egypt and passes through the waters in his baptism.
- Just to point out one more parallel, think what happens to the Israelites after they pass through the Red Sea. They wind up in the desert where they wander for forty years. And where is Jesus in Matthew 4 after his baptism? He is in the desert about to be tempted after having fasted for forty days and forty nights.
Matthew clearly wants to portray Jesus as fulfilling Israel’s history and bringing it to a climax. Matthew didn’t think Hosea 11:1 was a direct prophecy about Jesus and his family going to Egypt. And Hosea didn’t mean it as such. The passage is about Israel’s Exodus out of Egypt and about her subsequent idolatries and adulteries. Matthew understood that. He wasn’t trying to give Hosea 11 a fanciful new meaning. But he did see something Messianic in Hosea’s words. Jesus would be the faithful Son called out of Egypt, filling up what was lacking in the first faithless son, Israel. From his genesis to his exodus to his baptism in the Jordan to his forty days in the wilderness, Jesus was identifying himself with the covenant people. He was the embodiment of Israel.
With Him He Was Well Pleased
And so when Jesus fled Herod and went to Egypt, it brought to a climax the work of deliverance that began in the Exodus of Israel and was now coming to completion in the Exodus of Jesus. That’s why Matthew can say “this was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet.” But whereas the first Israel, God’s son, broke the covenant and deserved God’s wrath, when God beholds his only begotten Son Jesus Christ, he says in Matthew 3:17, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
Far from being a barely connected prophetic fulfillment, this word from Hosea 11 filled up in Matthew 2, is a robust piece of New Testament theology. This text says something weighty about the person of Jesus Christ: he is the one who came to complete all that Israel was designed to perform. All the adulteries and idolatries and rebellion and waywardness that characterized Israel would be recast in the true Israel Jesus Christ. God sent his Son to do himself what his people could not do for themselves. This is the meaning of fulfillment of Hosea 11 and the true meaning of Immanuel, God with us.