Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Matthew 2.13-18
Holy Innocents, Martyrs

Other texts:

Our Lutheran Lectionary has the following Lesser Festivals following the Nativity of Our Lord (December 25):

Dec 26 -- St. Stephen, deacon & martyr

Dec 27 -- St. John, apostle and evangelist

Dec 28 -- The Holy Innocents, martyrs

Pfatteicher (Festivals and Commemoriations) associates these three "heavenly birthday" celebrations with the birthday of Christ: "as he was born into this world from that, so they were born into that world from this" [p. 464].

These three festivals are also sometimes distinguished by:

St. Stephen -- a martyr in will and deed

St. John -- a martyr in will, but not in deed (the only apostle not to have been martyred)

The Holy Innocents -- martyrs in deed, but not in will. "Although the Holy Children ... were not believers and were unaware of the reason for their fate, they were killed for the sake of Christ, and in a sense in place of him, and the church by the beginning of the third century recognized them as martyrs" (Pfatteicher, p. 470).

If these festivals are celebrated, they help us quickly move from the sentimentality of Christmas and a "cute" baby, to the dire costs of discipleship.

Since a slightly longer lection, Matthew 2:13-23, is assigned for the 1st Sunday after Christmas, year A, most of the following notes came from my posting for that Sunday.

Chapter 2 is unique to Matthew and it can be divided into four parts with each of them containing an OT quote, probably inserted by Matthew into traditional material. 

The first part: 2:1-12 -- The Visit of the Magi -- is the text for Epiphany, although it is often read as part of Christmas programs or worship services. The OT quote in v. 6 is from Micah 5:2. This story sets up our text -- the next three parts. If the star had led the Magi directly to the child, Herod wouldn't be trying to kill the child and neither would Joseph need to take his family to Egypt.

The next section contains three parts 2:13-15, 16-18, 19-23. (The last section is omitted in the assigned reading.)

As a general theme, life after Christmas is not all that sweet. Following the birth of Jesus there is anger and murder, weeping and wailing, moving and resettling. After our wonderful Christmas celebrations we are again confronted with the fact that the kingdom has not fully arrived. The "peace on earth" sung by the angels (in Luke) is followed by death and destruction, suffering and evil. Salvation for Joseph and his family meant hearing and believing the word from God and then doing them.

There is also great irony in this section. Chapter 1 proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God -- Emmanuel -- God with us, but now we see "God with us" fleeing for his life. We see the "savior" needing to be saved from Herod's anger. Two thoughts from this "reversal": (1) It is an indication of the "emptying" of Jesus who comes as a suffering servant, rather than a powerful god. (2) For Matthew, Jesus "needed" to do these things to fulfill OT prophecies. Jesus comes "to fulfill all righteousness" (3:15). He comes to do what God requires of him and not to fulfill his own desires.

Matthew 2 indicates two responses to the revelation about Jesus -- Gentile Magi come to worship the child. The Jewish king, Herod, seeks to destroy the child. It is important, especially in Matthew, to recognize that it is not all "the Jews" who reject Jesus. It is likely that in Matthew's Christian community, there were many Jewish converts. At Jesus' birth, it is King Herod who seeks to destroy Jesus. At his crucifixion, other Jewish authorities seek to destroy Jesus. In both cases, they are unsuccessful. Jesus is taken away for a time, then is brought back.

A connection between our text and the passion is made with the word apollumi, which is used of Herod's desire to "destroy/kill" the child in 2:13; and chief priests' and elders' desire to "have Jesus killed" in 27:20. Another connection could be with empaizo. This word is used to refer to what the Magi do to Herod in 2:16 ("tricked" in NRSV); but its four other uses refer to Jesus being "mocked" by others (20:19; 27:29, 31, 41) at his crucifixion. This text might be used to pre-figure the crucifixion/resurrection event.

Verses 13-15 and 19-23 have many parallels.

The God who came to Joseph in Bethlehem does exactly the same in Egypt.

Matthew through the narrative and through the quotes, brings in a multitude of OT images.

The flight to Egypt and the name "Joseph" recalls how "Joseph," son of Jacob/Israel, was sold by his brothers and taken to Egypt (Gen 37:12-36) -- later to provide a place of refuge for his family during the famine in Canaan (Gen 46-47). However, since it wasn't persecution that the family was fleeing; some scholars have also looked at the Jacob/Israel flight from Laben (Gen 31) -- but this flight, as far as I can tell, never gets to Egypt.

Egypt has traditionally been a place of refuge for those fleeing tyranny in Palestine. When King Solomon tries to kill Jeroboam, he flees to Egypt (1K 11:40). When King Jehoiakim wants to kill Uriah the prophet, he flees to Egypt, but he is captured, brought back to Jerusalem, and killed (Jer 26:21-23). It would be quite believable that Joseph would have fled with his family to Egypt.

The quote in v. 15 from Hosea 11:1, illustrates Matthew's loose way (by our standards) with OT scripture. First of all, he has been talking about the flight *to* Egypt, and the quote is about leaving Egypt. Secondly, "my son" in the quote refers to the nation of Israel -- not a specific individual. In fact, the LXX uses "children" rather than "son". Thirdly, Hosea follows the quote with a chastisement of Israel. Something Matthew certainly doesn't intend to do with Joseph and his family.