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Framing the Story

The way that we read stories and how we interpret those stories changes dramatically depending on the context within which the story resides. A one sentence story should suffice as an example. If I told you, “I fell as fast as a man could,” without first framing my brief story, you have a good idea what I might mean, but it’s not necessarily clear. An initial interpretation might be that I had lost my footing at such a high altitude that I reached terminal velocity. However, if I add one sentence, the meaning of my story changes completely. If I framed my story of falling by first informing you that, “Her sparkling emerald eyes met mine,” then it is likely that my communicative intent would be interpreted correctly and there would be delightful clarity in our communication.

Well, Matthew does some story framing at the beginning of his gospel that aids us in understanding his communicative intent and better comprehending what it is that he’s trying to tell us. One way he does so is by frequently quoting of the prophets near the beginning of his gospel. Obviously, this a blog post meant to stimulate thought and not a thesis paper intending to tie all loose ends. For brevity’s sake it’s going to suffer a little bit from some oversimplification. But I encourage you to do some searching yourselves and discover just how deep the rabbit hole goes. Here’s a selective sampling of Matthew’s richly intertextual introduction to his narrative.

In Matthew 2:6 the author quotes the old testament, saying,

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

Are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;

For out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'”

This is an interesting quote because it is a paraphrase of Micah 5:2 and includes language found in 2 Samuel 5:2. It’s kind of amazing to me how much liberty the writers of the gospels often take with their quoting of Scripture. They have a lot of artistic freedom. The quotation from Micah is about the coming of a future ruler of Israel who will be the one God uses to free the Israelites from oppression and, according Micah 5:3-4, is a man whose existence marks a sort of renewed presence of YHWH within the Israelite community (Matthew 1:23). Matthew is making it clear right away that Jesus is this ruler who will bring deliverance and who is the sign of YHWH revamped activity in Israel. By also quoting 2 Samuel 5:2, which is about the anointing of David as “the shepherd of my people Israel,” Matthew sets up Jesus as a Davidic ruler, not just through descent as Matthew showed us in the genealogy, but also as an anointed ruler of Israel who will follow in the footsteps of the epitomic ruler of Israel, David (Reading through Kings and Chronicles will give you a good idea what I mean by that. David is the king to which all other kings are compared… yes, in spite of being a murderer and an adulterer, go figure). Jesus is the perfect and legitimate ruler of YHWH’s people.

A few verses later Matthew quotes part of Hosea 11:1 which says, “out of Egypt I called my son.” What YHWH was referring to here was how He, in His love for Israel, freed them from the slavery of the Egyptians. YHWH goes on to talk of both His acts of love for them and the ways the Israelites betrayed Him in spite of His love. Matthew wants us to see that God is now doing something similar with Jesus. God brought the Israelites out of Egypt to form a people who were set apart by God to exemplify what it means to be a community centered on YHWH. Jesus is coming out of Egypt to form a community set apart for the glorification of the Father. Jesus is the first out of the gate in this new Exodus. He is the one who will proclaim and set into motion a new freedom from a different kind of slavery. Jesus is, and those who follow him should be, the Israel that Israel was not. Unlike the relationship between God and Israel outlined in Hosea, just as YHWH was faithful to the covenant, so Jesus will be faithful where the former people of God were not. Jesus will fulfill the prophecy by being a true son while Israel was an unfaithful one. Jesus is being for Israel what Israel could not be for themselves.

In a final example of how Matthew quotes the prophets to frame his gospel narrative, the author quotes Jeremiah in Matthew 2:18:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,

Weeping and great mourning,

Rachel weeping for her children

And refusing to be comforted,

Because they are no more.”

Matthew uses these words to describe what happened when Herod ordered that all boys at the age of two and under were to be killed, but originally in Jeremiah the passage was describing the exile of the Israelite people, descendants of Rachel, from the promised land. In the original passage, the description of the sorrow is followed up by an injunction and a promise by YHWH to the mourners. YHWH says, “Restrain your voice from weeping… Your children will return to their own land.” Matthew quotes the verses about the sorrow, but the whole passage is actually one of hope for the Jewish people, hope that their exile would be over that they might be restored as the set apart people of God’s kingdom. Matthew is explaining to us that this time of return from exile is here for the Israelites. This time of Herod’s child murder is the precursor to the time when the mourning stops, where God restores, and when YHWH makes a new covenant with His people. Jesus is bringing His people back from Exile.

Perhaps you’ve gone to churches with much better teachers than I have, but I’ve never heard teachers address Jesus’ fulfillment of the prophets in a way that talked much about the theological meaning of him filling full the words of the prophets. What I have heard spoken about is a more Lee Strobel model of prediction about Jesus –> prediction coming true about Jesus. This model presumably has supposed to have deep meaning to me because Jesus was predicted and therefore God is real and Jesus is God, but those things are already assumed in the Bible and, whether or not Jesus was predicted, I believe them to be true anyway. I think looking at where the gospel writers quote the prophets exclusively as predictions about Jesus coming true is to miss out on much deeper and much more important theological implications that the authors were trying to communicate.

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Categories: Miscellaneous
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  1. September 8, 2012 at 1:40 pm

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