Problems of Power

In Matthew 1, Miriam and Joseph seem to have rejoiced, ruptured, and reconciled after the news that Jesus was on the way. The next chapter shows how others began to respond to Jesus showing up. We tend to think we would respond like the heroes of the story. Maybe that’s true, but I don’t think it’s so cut and dry as that. I think we all—and I know it’s true for me—have parts of ourselves that would push for responding like each of the people in the story, like Joseph, like the astrologers, like the chief priests and Bible scholars, and even something like Herod. And what exactly happened to Miriam, who seems to have faded into the background?

Here’s what scripture says about it in Matthew 2. (You can find my whole translation of Matthew here.)

1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea in the days when Herod was king, astrologers from the rising sun came to Jerusalem. 2 “Where is the newly born King of the Judeans?” they were asking. “We saw his star in its rising and have come to bow before him.” 3 King Herod heard about it, and he was agitated, making all Jerusalem on edge with him. 4 He gathered all the chief priests and the Bible scholars among the people and asked them where the Messiah was supposed to be born.

5 “In Bethlehem in Judea” they told him, “since this is how it’s written by the prophet Micah:

6 And you, Bethlehem (in the land of Judah),
are not at all least among the leaders of Judah
because a leader will come from you
who will care for my people, Israel.”

7 Then Herod called the astrologers to him to learn from them exactly when the star appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and told them, “Continue on your journey and search carefully for the child. But when you find him, bring me the news, so that I can go there to submit to him too.”

9 Then, understanding the real meaning of what the king had said to them, they continued on their journey, and the star in the east again commanded their attention and drew them forward, until it was brought to a standstill above where the child was. 10 And as they saw the significance of the star, they celebrated happily.

11 When they came into the house, they saw the child with his mother Miriam, and they knelt down and bowed in submission to him. Then they unpacked where they stored their valuables and gave him gifts: objects made of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 Then after having received direction in a dream not to return to Herod, they returned by another way to their own region.

13 After the astrologers had gone back where they came from, amazingly, the LORD’s messenger showed up to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Wake up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt and stay there however long it takes for you to hear from me. Herod is about to search for the child, intending to destroy him.” 14 So Joseph got up, fled with the child and his mother in the night, and escaped to Egypt. 15 He stayed there with them for the rest of Herod’s life. Therefore, the message from the Lord spoken through the prophet Hosea was given a richer meaning: “I called my son to come out from Egypt.”

16 As soon as Herod realized he had been played by the astrologers, he went into a rage. He ordered the murder of all the children in Bethlehem and anywhere nearby aged two years and under, based on the timing he had learned from the astrologers. 17 That event brought a fuller meaning to what Jeremiah the prophet said:

18 A voice was heard in Ramah
Weeping and endless wailing
Rachel wept in grief for her children
Having no desire to be comforted
Because they were gone.

19 After Herod came to his end, amazingly, the LORD’s messenger appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 who told him, “Wake up, take the child and his mother, and move on to the land of Israel because everyone who was trying to take the child’s life has died.” 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and reentered the land of Israel. 22 But then he heard that Archileus was ruling Judea in his father Herod’s place, and it scared him away from there. So, after being directed in a dream, he went to seek refuge in the province of Galilee. 23 He went to a town called Nazareth and settled down there. That is how what was said in the Prophets was given a fuller meaning, that the child would be called a Nazarite.

What is this story about? There’s more than one way to answer that question. It’s about Joseph’s trusting faithfulness. It’s about God’s work in raising and protecting a messiah for the people. It’s about power coming unhinged. It’s about the least likely characters in the story being the ones who really get and pursue God’s work. It’s about God liberating people from oppression. It’s about people living in fear of violence, that violence being directed toward Jesus, and the violent oppressor’s goals being frustrated, despite committing atrocities to reach them.

It starts with foreign astrologers (probably respected spiritual and scholarly leaders of Zoroastrianism) noticing creation’s message about what God is doing. As Paul wrote about people who were not descended from Israel, “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (Romans 1:19-20 NRSV).

It’s absolutely fascinating to me that this incredible insight from a shockingly unexpected source is immediately contrasted by the chief priests and Bible scholars misquoting the Hebrew Bible.

They don’t just make a mistake, and it’s not just a matter of variations in translations or the difference between quoting the Hebrew text versus quoting the Greek translation of the text. It says the exact opposite of what the passage they quote actually says. Let’s look at them side by side:

Here’s what the religious leaders tell the corrupt King Herod Micah 5:2 says:

And you, Bethlehem (in the land of Judah),
are not at all least among the leaders of Judah
because a leader will come from you
who will care for my people, Israel.

(Matthew 2:6)

Here’s what Micah 5:2 actually says:

And you, Bethlehem of Ephrath [“the ash heap”],
the least of Judah’s clans,
from you shall one come forth from Me
to be ruler of Israel

(Alter, 2019, Micah 5:2)

But that’s not all. The quote presented to Herod not only drastically changes what it says, but it leaves off a necessary part of the thought. Here’s the whole thing:

And you, Bethlehem of Ephrath [“the ash heap”],
the least of Judah’s clans,
from you shall one come forth from Me
to be ruler of Israel
whose origins are from ancient times,
from days of yore.
Therefore shall He give them over
till the time the woman in labor bears her child,
and the rest of his brothers shall come back with the Israelites.
And he shall stand and shepherd them
by the might of the LORD,
by the pride of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall dwell secure,
for then shall he be great to the ends of the earth

(Alter, 2019; Micah 5:2-4)

So we have foreign astrologers accurately hearing and understanding God without any hint that they are becoming Jewish or Christian (not yet a thing that existed) or committing to obey scriptures or change anything about how they live aside from traveling to find the newly born king of the Judeans. And at the same time, we have our first introduction to the religious establishment to be misquoting scripture and the first introduction to the political government of Israel murdering Israelite children rather than shepherding them so that they can “dwell secure.”

The self-emptying love God has for the world created in Genesis and the teaching designed to bring life and give good gifts to all people and all creation (see Deuteronomy 28-30) seems to have been forgotten. It seems to have been replaced the so-called wisdom of the world, where everyone knows that prosperity comes through taking it for yourself no matter who gets in the way.

The result? Death. Herod sacrificed babies to secure his own prosperity. Later, Jesus will have a lot to say about people who follow the way of the Hinnom Valley and the suffering they cause for themselves and others.

Herod is mirroring the horrors committed by the people before him who sought prosperity by burning their own children alive as a sacrifice to the god Moloch, who promised prosperity in return.

Jesus and his family, to the contrary, already demonstrate the themes he goes on to teach as his central message throughout the rest of Matthew that his honor is found in humility, his power is found in generosity, and not even self-defense justifies returning violence for violence but faithfully trusting God included running away to the place their ancestors had been enslaved rather than any attempt to return force and violence toward Herod or his soldiers.

Joseph and Miriam’s trust eventually led to victory: Jesus lived but Herod died.

The structure of Matthew makes this chapter the call to which chapter 27 is the response. Herod is replaced by Pilate. The religious leaders continue to misrepresent scripture and God. People who were typically undervalued and overlooked proved to be the most faithful. And when Pilate tried to kill Jesus, he lost. Sure, Jesus died, but Pilate and the chief priests still lost because they chose the way of the Hinnom Valley, and Jesus chose the way of Torah and the Lord. And Chapter 28 demonstrates the truth of that victory when Jesus was raised up again.

Frankly, it’s pretty easy for me to sympathize with the chief priests and the Bible scholars in Matthew 2. They were afraid of the violence that awaited anyone who got on Herod’s bad side. Survival is a powerful motivator.

Even diligently pursuing prosperity and security is pretty relatable. Herod did it with murder, so I don’t relate much with the specific methods, but I certainly have my own ways of trying to force my reality to match what makes me feel most secure rather than what promotes the best world for everyone.

It takes a lot of trust to stay faithful to refusing to use force to refusing to prioritize my own security over others’ needs. That trust—if we can find it—is that we know where to place our trust that we will be ok even if everything goes wrong. It’s in the confidence that we won’t be alone even if everything is taken from us. It’s the assurance that faithfulness to God’s values leads to life even when the surface circumstances look like death, even include real loss, perhaps even dying.

But it’s not just about me. It’s about all of us, all of the world God created and inhabits. If I insist on responding in ways the produce life and love, then even if someone else uses force against me, I have the victory. That’s the paradox of Jesus.

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