Over the Christmas period, I am posting videos exploring biblical echoes and symmetries in the stories of the nativity in the gospels. In this seventh video I discuss the villain of the account, Herod, and the complicated history that lies behind him. I have more to say about these themes in my book, Echoes of Exodus. I also reference Peter Leithart’s recent commentary on Matthew’s gospel.
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Welcome back for this, the seventh day of Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Today I am going to be returning to my study of the echoes and the symmetries within the Nativity and the infancy narratives of the gospels.
Today, I want to focus particularly upon the connections between Matthew’s account of the Nativity and the events surrounding it, and what we find in the story of the Exodus. And within this set of parallels, what we see particularly is the threat to the baby boys—Pharaoh seeking to kill the infant Hebrew children. Here in Matthew we see Herod trying to kill the baby boys in Bethlehem and its surrounding regions.
In both cases, there is a threat to the promised deliverer. Now, Pharaoh does not know that he is threatening Moses, but that is what is happening—he is threatening the deliverer that is being raised up. And this deliverer is threatened at his very birth and has to be rescued. We see some courageous women standing against Pharaoh: the Hebrew midwifes, Jochebed, Miriam, and even from his very household, Pharaoh’s own daughter.
Then, in the New Testament, we see the threat of Herod to the infant children of Bethlehem and its surrounding regions. This aligns Herod and Pharaoh as two archetypal opponents to Israel and its deliverer: whether it is Moses or whether it is Christ. You have this figure of the king who is the dragon, who is trying to consume the child who has just been born. This figure of Herod is associated, then, with the Canaanite kings, with the Pharaonic rulers of Egypt—and, in both of these cases, it presents him as someone who is about to be overthrown. It presents him as an opponent figure who will be brought low.
There are more things going on within these texts. These particular connections are ones that are very familiar to people. It is often pointed out that Herod is a Pharaoh figure, and that this event is a familiar one—one that we have heard already and one that we may even hear again on occasions. But there is more going on here. And what we see going on, I think, echoes back to a deeper conflict, not just between Pharaoh and Israel, but between Edom and Israel, between Esau and Jacob—these two great figures who become connected nations that are in opposition with each other.
What we find, in the case of the Edom and Israel conflict is something that goes back to the story of David’s own life. There is a particular passage in 1 Kings 11, which is not often referenced—I have never seen it referenced it in this context. But it needs to be considered because there is a lot that is going on here that is parallel. And I will read some of it.
Now the Lord raised up an adversary against Solomon, Hadad the Edomite; he was a descendant of the king in Edom. For it happened, when David was in Edom, and Joab the commander of the army had gone up to bury the slain, after he had killed every male in Edom (because for six months, Joab remained there with all Israel, until he had cut down every male in Edom) … [notice this theme of cutting down all the males] … that Hadad fled to go to Egypt, and he and certain Edomites of his father’s servants with him. Hadad was still a little child … [again, another parallel] … Then they arose from Midian and came to Paran; and they took men with them from Paran and came to Egypt, to Pharaoh king of Egypt, who gave him a house, apportioned food for him, and gave him land.
Hadad has a wife given to him, and he settles there. And then he hears, when he is in Egypt, “that David rested with his fathers”—the one who sought your life is dead—“and that Joab, the commander of his army was dead. Hadad said to Pharaoh, ‘Let me depart, let me go, that I may go to my own my country.’ Then Pharaoh said to him, ‘But what have you lacked with me, that suddenly you seek to go to your own country?’ So he answered, ‘Nothing, but do let me go anyway.’”
Previous to this, Solomon ruled over all the territory. He seemed to have access to the whole territory of Edom. He was building ships and he had access to the sea there. And then, here is opposition raised for him within the land of Edom. And it seems to be on account of his father’s own brutal actions—that David was playing the role of Pharaoh within the land of Edom. He was killing all the boy, all the males. This is something that we have seen on various occasions in history. But it is associated with the bad guys. Within these chapters in 1 Kings, what we see is a twisting of the David and Solomon characters to become more like Pharaonic characters. They are the villains of the piece.
And so, they have people raised up against them who have the characteristics of Israel. Hadad, who flees from threat into the land of Egypt, was succoured there for a while, and then comes back, and returns to the land as an opponent. Solomon finds himself in the position of the Canaanite king. Jeroboam is another similar figure who has a time in Egypt, and then returns as an adversary.
There are all sorts of themes that are playing out within these contexts. They help us to recognize that Solomon and David have become the bad guys, that God has now raised up adversaries against them that have characteristics of Israel, as if to remind them that, now, they are finding themselves as Pharaoh-type figures, as Canaanite-type figures. God is judging them in figures that remind them of what they really are and what they really should be.
When we read this story, and then when we go back to the story of Matthew, what do we find as a connection? I think what we see is the deep struggle between David and his son—David and Solomon—and the king of Edom. And here, in this case, David and Solomon are the bad guys. They are playing a role similar to Herod in the slaughter of the innocents. But when we get to the Gospels, what we see is a reversal of that, that Christ—the son of David—is the one pursued by the Edomite king, who is seeking to kill the males.
There is a deeper history playing behind this text: Christ is taking on the history of his people. This threat from the Edomite king is not just a villainous Pharaoh-type figure who is trying to take down this messianic child, this Son of David. Rather, there is a sin of David and sins of Solomon being borne here. Christ is taking on something of the legacy of his ancestors, of those whose name he bears.
He is the Son of David, and he bears the consequences of their sins. He is the one who is threatened by the Edomite king that his father, David, once threatened. And there, I think, we find something going on that is a lot deeper than just the connection with the Pharaoh story, about which we will say more later. What else can we see? “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” That great quote, back to Hosea 11, is a way in which Christ takes on not just the characteristics of David, but the characteristics of his whole people: he is Israel being called out of Egypt.
Now, in that original context, it is referring to the story of Israel. It is not referring directly to Christ. But Matthew takes that verse to show that Christ must take on the characteristics of Israel. And as I have already noted, within the story of Matthew, we see Christ playing this role of Israel—its whole history being played out, from the very beginning of Genesis to the very end, that we see in the decree of Cyrus in the end of 2 Chronicles 36. And at the end of Matthew, we see the Great Commission, which is paralleled with that.
Israel’s history is being played out again. Peter Leithart, in the first volume of Matthew Through New Eyes, deals with this in some detail. I highly recommend that book if you want to think about some of the parallels which go on throughout the whole of the Book of Matthew, between Christ and the story of Israel.
There are even more things going on. If you go back to the story of Exodus in Exodus 4, you read: “And the Lord said to Moses in Midian, ‘Go, return to Egypt; for all the men are dead who sought your life.’ Then Moses took his wife and his sons and set them on a donkey, and he returned to the land of Egypt.” Now, again, this is a similar pattern. This is what we see in Matthew’s account, in Matthew 2:19: “But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying ‘Arise, take the young Child and his mother, and go to the land is Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead.’ Then he arose, took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel.”
These are patterns that we have seen before. Christ is being portrayed not just as Israel against Pharaoh, not just as Israel drawn out of Egypt, not just as the one who is the Son of David, who is suffering this opposition from the brother of Edom. He is also the Moses figure, the deliverer, the one who was threatened at his birth, and the one who was delivered from death. He is the one who goes into exile, and then he is the one who comes back. And he is the one who is going to lead this greater exodus.
All these different parallels help us to build a bigger picture of what Christ is doing—who he is and what Matthew is about within his gospel. Matthew is presenting a deeper theological argument, and the typology helps us to get at that—the typology is not just some decorative flourish.
Matthew is explaining who Christ is. Christ is Moses. Christ is Israel. He is the one who bears the identity of his people. Christ is David’s son. He is the one who suffers for David’s actions, but he is also the one who fulfils the promises associated with David. There is a lot more that could be said here, of Herod, and Pharaoh’s figures. But I will get back to this, perhaps, at a later point.