Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, 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.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
Matthew reads the scriptures in his own distinctive way. This is the second time that he has referred to the fulfilment of prophecy (and there are more instances to come), as though he believes that the prophets’ chief task was to foretell the future.
But turn to the Hosea quote (Hosea ch 11) and we find a beautiful passage describing God’s loving parenting relationship with his people Israel. “I took them up in my arms…. I led them with bands of love….” This is the son whom God has called out of Egypt through the liberating exodus experience that marks the turning point in their history – and the prophet of course had no idea that centuries later a child named Jesus, soon to be referred to as “Son of God”, would also spend time in the land of the Pharaohs.
We could accuse Matthew of being wooden and unimaginative in the way he uses scripture. The frequent repetition of his formula “that the prophecy might be fulfilled” is as jarring as the claim “But the Bible says” which we often hear in angry and frustrating debates today. We may all claim to value the scriptures, but we do not interpret and understand them in the same way, even if we look for the help of the Holy Spirit in our all-too-human attempts.
But it’s good that this early on in his gospel Matthew reminds us of the fascinating connections that can be made as we reflect on the story of God’s great love from its beginnings. The Word of God that we encounter in the scriptures is, as Watts put, “a broad land of wealth unknown”. And maybe we can find breadth and riches even here each day, as we share with one another our own reflections and insights.
We thank God for the words of the prophets and the writings of all who heard and recognised in their message a living word for their own time.
Through the Spirit may these words be alive for us in all that we believe and do.
The Revd John Durell, retired minister and member of Waddington Street URC, Durham