We are studying Matthew 2:7-15 for Sunday, December 20; this is the part of Matthew’s story of Jesus’s birth, in which the wise men arrive in Bethlehem. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are a few notes on this text:
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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We are still in the opening of Matthew’s gospel. As we’ve seen in the past two weeks, Matthew begins by depicting the “genesis” of Jesus Christ genealogically and paternally. He keeps the actual birth event of the Messiah “offstage,” but devotes space to a detailed account of the arrival of the magi, the “magoi,” their appearance in Jerusalem, their interactions with Herod, their finding and worshipping the Christ child, and their return by another way. This is followed by the holy family’s flight into Egypt, the massacre of the innocents, and the family’s eventual return to the land of Israel and settlement in Nazareth – all accompanied by prophetic fulfillment formulas.

After that, the stage goes dark again, until we hear the voice of John the Baptist crying in the wilderness, preparing the way for Jesus’s baptism and public ministry.

The Herod in the story is presumably Herod the Great, a “client ruler” recognized by the Roman empire, but maybe less well-accepted by the Jewish people as “king of the Jews.” Herod the Great is a complicated historical figure. He certainly seems to have been ruthless and self-interested enough to have ordered the massacre of the innocents reported in Matthew 2, whether or not he actually did. That’s a matter that divides scholars, as far as I can tell according to their prior commitments about the imperative historical accuracy of Biblical details.

Herod Archelaus – mentioned in Matthew 2:22 – was the son of Herod the Great, and governed the region of Samaria, Judea, and Idumea after the death of Herod the Great, around 4 BCE. His brother, Herod Antipas, was “tetrarch” of the area that included Galilee – and by extension, Nazareth – during that same period. Archelaus was replaced by more direct Roman administration of Judea in 6 CE; Herod Antipas continued to “rule” in Galilee till 39 CE.

Bible Odyssey has more on Herod the Great, and his Herodian successors, along with a good map.

The magi seem most likely to have been Persian students of the heavens, although Brent Landau reports on a text that describes them as coming from China. The idea that there are three of them seems to come from the naming of the three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. People discuss the symbolism of these gifts in more than one way. Certainly, both frankincense and myrrh are costly, aromatic tree resins. Myrrh was used in embalming, but was also an ingredient in the sacred anointing oil for use in the Tabernacle (see Exodus 30:22-25). Frankincense had – and still has – medicinal as well as ritual uses. This all suggests that the simple equation of gold with “king,” frankincense with “god,” and myrrh with “death” – as given in the hymn “We Three Kings of Orient Are” – is an oversimplification, albeit a memorable one.

In context, Matthew seems to be using the magi and their gifts to communicate the worshipful recognition of Jesus’s authority and importance by Gentiles. These Gentile sages are the first humans to formally acknowledge Jesus’s importance. By contrast, Herod, a nominal “king of the Jews” who doesn’t even know the significance of Bethlehem, will do his best to have Jesus killed.
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CLOSER READING: In verse 7, the word translated “determined” – what in the King James was translated “enquired diligently” – is a fairly rare word. It is related to Herod’s instruction to the visitors to search “carefully” for the mysterious child, and occurs once more, still in connection with Herod, in verse 18, where we learn that he managed to “determine” what time the child was born from his interrogation of the wise men. From this language, we might pick up a hint of obsessiveness associated with Herod’s character, and with his relationship to the news of the birth of the [real] “king of the Jews.” For him, it’s less than good news.

The text makes the goal of “worshipping” the child whose birth has been announced by the heavens a matter of concern. The magi announce worship as their intention in verse 2, Herod falsely tells them he, too, wants to worship the child, the wise men actually do worship the Christ in verse 11, which is echoed by their offering of gifts, an act that is often associated with worship.

Matthew is fond of this word offering or present [your offering] or bring, by the way, and uses it more than all the other gospel writers combined. In particular, he uses it in connection with people bringing the sick and demon-possessed to Jesus to be healed, as well as bringing children to be blessed, and bringing him Roman coins to be used in incredibly wise object lessons about rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s but unto God the things that are God’s. Matthew has Jesus use the word, too, in talking about presenting offerings in the Temple and also in a parable about a servant’s presenting or bringing the yield from using the talents he was given …

A side note, the “treasure boxes” the wise men open to bring out their gifts are literally thesaurus. We could think of that the next time we’re looking for synonyms. Words are precious.

As another side note, their act of opening those treasure boxes seems to foreshadow several other acts of opening that will take place in this gospel, not least Jesus’s opening his mouth to teach people, as in the Sermon on the Mount and in parables – another kind of treasure.

In verse 10, the wise men literally rejoice with joy great exceedingly. Matthew makes sure we don’t miss the point that they are overjoyed to find and be able to worship Jesus.

In verses 12 and 13, divine communication in dreams links the sages from the east to the Joseph of Genesis and to the Joseph who is Jesus’s father, and reminds us that real practical wisdom is a gift of God.

Sending Joseph and his family to Egypt because a king is seeking Jesus’s life resonates with the events of the Exodus story in more than one way: the original Joseph’s journey to Egypt, Moses’s flight from and return to his homeland, and the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, the original reference in the quotation from Hosea (Hosea 11:1) in verse 15.  

People who are wise seek Jesus to worship him and give him their gifts. Lying imposters seek him to use murderous state violence to try to kill him. That doesn’t work – not at the beginning of Matthew, and not at the end of Matthew, either. I think Matthew is urging his readers to be wise, and to seek Jesus for the right reason.
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Holy family - Mary, Joseph, Jesus - asleep in desert guarded by a sphinx

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Images: St. Matthew mosaic at All Hallows Church, Allerton, UK by Rodhullandemu [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons; “Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” Luc Olivier Merson, 1880, an image in the public domain, Wikiart. The original is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.