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Do the New Testament Writer’s Care About Context, Part 9: Back to Matthew 2:15

So in Chapter 2 verse 15, Matthew deems Joseph’s return to Israel after a quick escape from Herod by hiding out in Egypt for a time to be a fulfillment of Hosea 11:1, which says, “Out of Egypt have I called my son.”

Many have suggested that such a blatant abuse of context is proof positive that the NT writers used a free hand to adapt any text to speak whatever they needed it to speak without respect for historical, grammatical and literary context.

I suggest, however, that a full investigation that follows seven avenues will yield another proof… that the NT writers, like the Jews around them, cared about HAGALAH[1] a great deal… that we are better to speak of USE and not INTERPRETATION… that our lack of connection with the eastern, more analogical mind and with its unfamiliar perspectives on the world leaves us little prepared to grasp the true contextual nature of their employment of biblical texts to speak of Jesus and his church.

Step #1: Study the OT text in its larger original context. NT writers use pinpoint reference for a passage in context, and not merely proof texting.

  • The larger context of Hosea 11:1 is the sonship of Israel, which traces as far back as the Mosaic confrontation of Pharaoh in Exodus 4:22-23. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.'” (see also Jeremiah 31:9)
  • Hosea marries an unfaithful woman and then takes her back to love her again, just like God will take back Israel after punishment.
  • Once, God brought his son up from Egypt; just so, God will restore Israel from Assyrian exile where he is now sending them.

Step #3: Discern the form and source of any NT reference to an OT passage.

  • No lightning here. Matthew appears to be quoting the Hebrew, giving his own translation ad hoc, opting against the LXX which alters the text away from the Hebrew at points that are meaningful to Matthew. Matthew doesn’t quote enough of the verse to gain too much data from the way he quotes it… though he leaves out a point that might have proven interesting… the child status as expressed in the earlier portion of Hosea 11:1, “For a lad is Israel.”

Step #4: Discover what you can about the influential “life” of an OT text in the Jewish community prior to its use.

  • The exodus is a common typology both in Scripture and in Jewish literature for depicting God’s future deliverance of his people their oppression in the exile, and for their future salvation thereafter. True exile only comes to an end when the fullness of restoration prophecies become a reality… God in his glory with his people.

Step #2, #5  #6 and #7 link meaningfully.

Step #2: Discover the potentially varied purpose of a NT writer in using an OT passage.

Step #5: Make sure you have an understanding of the homiletical & exegetical practices of the 1st century to make sure that you do not assume things about the NT writers that would not have been likely given their general environment.

Step # 6: One needs to consider the world view of the writers concerning the nature of God, man and reality.

Step #7: The interpreter needs an awareness of how hindsight might influence the way texts are applied to Jesus

  • Fulfill, given the analogical interests of Jewish perceptions, does not merely mean prediction-fulfillment, but can also mean to replicate a meaningful or sacred pattern.
  • The NT writers mine the life of Christ for elements that by “coincidence” or by Jesus’ own calculations replicate the patterns of the OT saints and prophetic sermons. They use points of contact between what happens with Jesus for any reason and what happened with the OT saints to cast Jesus in a particular light.
  • The hindsight of Jesus’ Messiahship draws out the replication of the pattern of “into Egypt for safe keeping—being led out by divine guidance—into one’s inheritance” which is replicated with Abraham, Jacob/Israel, for portions of the Jews in the return from Exile, and then, Lo and Behold! Messiah.
  • Other patterns that are meaningful to the Old Testament are NOT replicated and, therefore, are not picked up by the NT writers.
  • For instance, there is a repeated pattern of the younger being lifted up over the elder. Consider that Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Perez (forebears of David), Joseph then Ephraim, David & Solomon all superseded their elder siblings to rise to prominence in God’s salvation plan. This pattern is important for a Davidic validation, but does not work out in the life of Jesus… who, as far as Mary is concerned, is eldest.

Thus, what we find here a point of contact for Jesus’ early years with the Old Testament that is of interest to Matthew, built not upon a lack of concern for original meaning in original context, but upon a meaningful USE for a text that has solid theological connections to the events he is describing. If this pattern of [into Egypt for safe keeping— being led out by divine guidance—into one’s inheritance] is a point of celebration for Hosea in his anticipation of God’s deliverance of his metaphorical son, how much more does it have relevance—not as a prediction, but as a meaningful pattern—in the life of his actual son, who has come to fulfill those prophecies… even if the uncanniness of it all only emerges in hindsight?

[1] Historical Grammatical Literary Hermeneutics (i.e. Interpreting in full context of the author).

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