“May I phone you? I’m having a crisis of faith, and I think you may be able to help.” I’ve had such requests before, including from total strangers, because I’ve done a lot of writing on the Bible’s reliability. This specific request, though, was entirely unexpected. “I’m a Messianic Jew. You might have heard of me, so I’m not going to use my real name, or the name of my organization that I know you’ve heard of.”
The man’s concern was prophecy about Jesus. He had come to faith years earlier because he heard a speaker explain how unlikely it was that more than 200 prophecies given by different Old Testament writers over many centuries would all come true in one man, Jesus of Nazareth—unless he really were the heaven-sent Messiah for Israel. Over time, he had discovered that this number was considerably exaggerated, and that many of the passages the New Testament writers cite were predictions that had at least provisional fulfillment already in Old Testament times. Still, there were others he clung to, and he had studied a lot about the concept of multiple fulfillment.
“But what about a passage like Matthew 2:15?” he asked. “That’s not even any kind of prediction. There are no future-tense verbs in it, only one in the past tense.” He was speaking of Matthew’s quotation of Hosea 11:1: “When Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” Matthew cites this passage in the context of Joseph and Mary’s flight to Egypt when Herod was trying to kill baby Jesus. Thus the holy family would return to Israel, after Herod’s death, from “out of Egypt.”
My conversation partner had read about “typology,” the ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman practice of seeing striking patterns of repeated activity throughout history that were attributed to the intentional design of God or the gods. But how did I understand it to be at work here?
Did Hosea have to know he was making a future prediction with his past-tense statement? Was this sensus plenior—a deeper meaning to a passage known only to God? The man could see nothing that could make Hosea 11:1 refer to anything other than the exodus, when God brought Israel as a people out of Egypt. Indeed, the first half of the verse makes the connection clear (“when Israel was a child, I loved him”). And if this were sensus plenior, it must’ve been completely random. And what grounds for Christian belief could that produce?
I explained that I did not believe typology required either of those approaches. Rather, in Judaism the believer saw—in God’s providential hand guiding all of history—a recurring pattern of his working, particularly at key moments of salvation. Such patterns were understood to be a way by which God revealed that he was orchestrating the redemption of the world.
If one wanted to couch it in terms of probability, one could ask what are the odds that, just as God led the Israelites out of Egypt when he established the old covenant, so would he lead the Messiah out of Egypt when he established the new covenant? A first-century Jew should realize this was too coincidental to be anything other than the one true, living God disclosing his hand in both events.
How Typology Works
Of course, Matthew didn’t choose Hosea 11:1 randomly. It does, after all, refer to Israel as “God’s son.” Believers saw the salvation Jesus provided as a new rescue from slavery, a new exodus. They saw him as the one who established the new covenant prophesied by Jeremiah (a straightforward prediction), which was better than the covenant made with Israel when God brought them out of Egypt (Jer. 31:31–34).
In fact, Matthew highlights numerous ways in which Jesus recapitulates Israel’s history, including resisting temptation where Israel had repeatedly succumbed to it. The 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness were likely intended to parallel Israel’s 40 years of wilderness wanderings (Matt. 4:1–11). So it was natural for Matthew to see, in Hosea 11:1, yet another way that Jesus retraced Israel’s footsteps.
It was natural for Matthew to see, in Hosea 11:1, yet another way that Jesus retraced Israel’s footsteps.
The immediate context of Matthew 2:15 reminds us that the Hebrew Scriptures had already utilized typology before the time of Christ. In verse 18, Matthew quotes Jeremiah 31:15: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” Though the context in Jeremiah 31 clarifies that it was Israelite mothers lamenting their young men being taken in exile to Babylon, Jeremiah personifies the women collectively as Rachel—Jacob’s wife from more than a millennium earlier.
Rachel herself, then, could be viewed as weeping from her grave when all her family had to leave Canaan to go to Egypt in order to survive (Gen. 42–50), and again when her infant children were slaughtered by the Egyptian Pharaoh when Moses was born (Ex. 1:8–2:10). Jeremiah saw the deportation to Babylon as yet another instance of this pattern. And now Matthew sees still another occasion for maternal sorrow in Israel, as the mothers of the massacred babies in and around Bethlehem mourn their losses.
The same is true of Hosea 11:1. Matthew doesn’t see Hosea 11:1 as a prediction coming true. Rather, he compares the events of Jesus’s life to the Old Testament, and he sees a pattern. In this case, a pattern of God calling his beloved son out of Egypt.
No Reason to Lose Faith
I stressed to my telephone caller that all this was common and clear in Jesus’s world. We just have to make sure we don’t explain it as more than what it actually was. He was grateful for our conversation and seemed reassured.
The existence of typology in biblical prophecy is hardly something to lose one’s faith over! On the contrary, these kinds of providential connections are meant to strengthen our faith, as we see God’s sovereign hand weaving patterns into human history.