The Gospel of Matthew Part 2: The Birth, The Temptation and The New Exodus Story

In part one I talked about how the Genealogy sets up Matthews larger concern for establishing Jesus and the new Kingdom as a Kingdom for the least, the oppressed and the marginalized, which is where he understands Jesus found him. The way he weaves the line is unconventional to say the least, and yet also set firmly within the writers own Jewish tradition.

Moving into the birth narrative, we can begin to see how Matthew uses this to now establish Jesus as the New Exodus and establish the religious leaders (the Saduccees and the Pharisees) as a picture of Israel’s long held resistance to the Prophets message of liberation for those on the margins. We even see this in how he emphasizes the magi (pagans) as coming in to this line in the birth narrative.

The Birth Narrative
Emerging from the genealogy, Matthew explains that there are 14 generations in all (1:17), a number that symbolizes the name of David which lies at the center of his genealogy (Abraham-David, David-Babylon, Babylon-Christ), and 3 sets of 14 names which reflects 6 weeks (symbolic of 6 days), which now leads us into the Sabbath week (Jesus).

So with this grand vision in place, we can understand the words to Joseph as redemptive in nature. “Do not fear” the angel says regarding Mary’s pregnancy (1:20), for “he will save his people from their sins” (1:21). This then leads to Jesus’ birth and the establishing of John’s ministry, where the baptism of John’s call to repentance, a word that evokes a turning of direction or turning to face a different direction (which is paired with the idea of the straight paths John came to turn people towards), comes with confession of their “sins” (3:6) and comes because the Kingdom is at hand, the Kingdom being established in this Sabbath week.

Jesus’ birth and John’s ministry then sets up Jesus as the picture of the New Exodus.

Jesus and John: Baptism and The New Exodus
Just as John baptized the Jewish people in water for repentance, he now baptizes Jesus (3:13-17) as the establishment of the promised Kingdom. This is said to be fitting “so as to fulfill all righteousness”, and it is here that we hear Jesus declared to be God’s beloved son, being brought through water (the Exodus story) to a new exodus (the wilderness and the temptation narrative).

This word righteousness is one that will reoccur in Matthew’s Gospel over and over again. It is a word that evokes a recognizable Jewish context, a word that shares a root word with justification or justice. It is tightly connected to the idea of a Israel’s hope for a restored Kingdom, God once again taking up residence in their temple. It is communal in nature. Here is a great link to understand the connection between the two words and why it is important.

The use of this word “righteousness” carries with it this grand vision of the New Exodus, an establishing of the promised Kingdom through the promised Messiah raised up from the Prophetic tradition. And all throughout Matthew’s Gospel we find this sort of fulfillment structure (“and this took place to fulfill the prophets” 1:22) repeated over and over and over again. Everything that happens in Matthew is interpreted through a particular (and very intentional) OT passage as a “fulfillment”. And when I say everything, Matthew goes out of his way to do this. In the early chapters alone we see it in 2:6; 2:15; 2:17; 2:23; 3:3; 4:4, 4:6; 4:7; 4:10, and it just keeps going. Take a tally next time you read through it, it’s astounding the number of times this appears.

In Jesus’ baptism we not only find the image of this promised Kingdom, we find the Spirit (again, language the Jewish tradition and experience would have understood) descending on him and the Spirit sending him into the wilderness for 40 Days, 40 Nights. Given how Matthew imagines Jesus as one who fled to Egypt (fleeing the wrath of Herod) and now comes out of Egypt through the waters and into the wilderness in a direct callback to the Exodus story. I get excited every time I read this, because to me this interconnected image arrives with so much wonderful and liberating drama. What is important to recognize though as readers is how this connects directly to the Israelite story and the image of the Kingdom. The entire temptation story revolves around this competing image of the Kingdoms of the world and the new Kingdom that Jesus is bringing and establishing (4:8). So often we relegate this story to be in line with our interpretation of the garden story in Genesis, where we see the temptation as sin and Jesus’ resisting of this temptation as his righteousness proved and declared in his not giving into temptation. There is certainly overlap between what is happening in this story and the idea of sin, but this is not the full emphasis of this story. If you follow the opening narrative in Matthew, we have already moved from the garden narrative and are now in the exodus story. And what the exodus story is about is about establishing a new Kingdom over against their slavery, their oppression. It is a story of liberation.

The Temptation Narrative and The Exodus Story
In Jewish tradition, the Exodus is what they reenact and relive in memory of the grander story of God’s liberating work in their lives, and to push them towards the promise of a new future, a new Kingdom. Jesus arrives not only as a reenactment, but it’s fulfillment. This is the point of Matthew’s Gospel. The story of Genesis and Exodus are recognized as “temple” texts in scholarship and Jewish tradition, texts that revolve around the establishment of God’s Kingdom and the story of God’s dwelling among them. What the Jewish history understood was that God’s presence had left the Temple and their longing was for God’s presence to return and take up residence. This is what Jesus is going to become in the image of the temple being destroyed and rebuilt. Jesus is the new Kingdom and, in the important prophetic words of Jeremiah, God’s presence is written on the hearts and minds of the people.

This is the context of this image of the tempter (4:3), who is called the devil (the one whom we find in the garden narrative 4:10). the tempter (4:3) is the devil (4:10), bringing us back to the garden. If one understands the force of Paul’s own Jewish language, in which sin came into the world through “one” man (Adam), and death through sin (Romans 5:12), we can see him recognizing this as a systemic problem, a collective issue as it moves from person to person leaving nothing unturned (in the whole of creation).

And what is the sin that we find in the temptation of the garden narrative? James helps us to understand the root of the problem:
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. (James 1:13-15)

Temptation at its root is about desire. This is what temptation exposes and reveals. And what does the tempter attack in the garden? This idea of true liberation. God has tasked Adam and Eve to be in communion with creation, God and one another, and the tempter suggests that they are not truly free BECAUSE “God knows that when you eat from it (the tree of knowledge of good and evil) your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil (3:5).” So the question is, understanding this as a temple text in which the trees symbolize a key aspect of this broken relationship the Exodus story is looking to restore, what does the tree (or trees) symbolize? It symbolizes life (God’s dwelling among them) and death (knowledge of good and evil). In midrash they understand this life to be found in God’s created order, and in the life of Israel. This is why God singles out trees rather than the garden (symbolically speaking). When set into the context of the temple life, what you have is the hope of their liberation, God’s dwelling among them (the tree of life, or the tree as the source of life) and the knowledge of good and evil (which is understood as the Law). This forms the later understanding of Paul in which his Jewish tradition, set in light of his encounter with Jesus as God’s dwelling among them (life), sees the Law not as life but as death. It is through the Law that we become aware of sin, and through sin comes death. And yet, as Paul declares, through one man (one tree, one cross), salvation (life) comes to all.

Just to reinforce this contest between life and death, note how the conversation unfolds with the tempter. As the Genesis text reads, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel (3:15).”

What this does is set in play this key contest that holds the whole of the created order in contest- life and death, humankind and the tempter, Jesus and the tempter. This is the grand narrative we find being declared in the New Exodus, this wilderness journey to the New Kingdom. What is being established is this reestablishing of God’s Kingdom, and what is being emphasized in the wilderness is the “source” of life that lies at the center of this Kingdom, the dwelling of God in the temple that Jesus is raising up in Himself in the Spirit, as as the new temple. We will reside in Him, and in Him we will find the new Kingdom being established. This is why the reeneactment of the Exodus in the temptation narrative doesn’t move us through the garden, but through the elements of the Exodus story, with each temptation recalling a key aspect of God’s provision (food, water, and ultimately we come to this grand summation in the picture of the coming Kingdom, the promised land).

Here is what is most important though. If James is right and the tree of knowledge of good and evil is about the revealing of the “desire” of our heart, what is being revealed in the temptation narrative, in this grand contest, is the desire of God’s heart. God’s heart is for His creation. It is life giving, not death giving. That is what Matthew’s Gospel is going to begin to unfold as it places this contest between the forces of good and evil that hold this world bondage into the narrative of the religious leaders and Jesus’ kingdom that is about to unfold. Matthew adds to this temptation narrative that this happened “before the time” (3:29), which is super important, because the traditional narrative ends the temptation narrative with the “devil” (the tempter) leaving until a more opportune time. What is going to become revealed in Matthew’s Gospel is that the way this Kingdom comes, the way it is going to be reestablished is not by way of the Israelite story of conquest and failure, but way of God entering into our suffering reality. By way of Jesus, who knew no sin (the knowledge of good and evil) placing himself in bondage to sin along with us. This is how the Gospel will reestablish the source of life in the midst of our suffering world, one held captive by the toiling of the ground, enmity between our natures, and ultimately by death. Jesus is the source of life, not us, and in this we discover (or rediscover) God’s true heart for his creation. He is the temple (the image of the new Kingdom, the garden, God’s dwelling), and we dwell in him, in which traditionally the final thing to be placed in the temple is the idol, the image of God. We are the image of God, bearing witness to the source of life.

Here is a good further resource for understanding the Exodus story in Jewish understanding and the Jewish narrative.

Moving forward, what we are going to see in Matthew’s Gospel is a very intentional, parallel placement of the story of John the Baptist, Herod (the two Herods) and Jesus, something that Matthew uses to emphasize the nature of the new Kingdom has set within the competing forces. For now though, what Matthew has established is that promise of the new Kingdom is coming. Liberation is here. This is the declaration of the New Exodus.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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