This last Sunday we looked at a preview of Matthew 2. Joseph still dominates the scene in his vocation as husband and father. However, whereas Matthew 1 focused on the origin of Jesus relative to his genealogy and his birth, Matthew 2 shifts the emphasis to locations. The movement is from Bethlehem, to Jerusalem, to Bethlehem, to Egypt, to Nazareth.
The birth itself does not even rate mention except as an after-the-fact acknowledgement, “after Jesus was born” (2:1). But the birth sets in motion activity throughout the world (west and east). In Luke’s Gospel, it was western focus: the Roman census that triggered Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1–4). In Matthew it was the eastern focus: it triggered an event (occurrence) in Persia or Babylon. Magi (traditionally “wise men”) who had studied the stars had seen an unusual star, so unusual that they were willing to travel 500-700 miles to see the cause of this star.
Why would they come to see a Jewish king? One likely possibility was that during the Babylonian captivity (597-536 BC, with three deportations), the “wise men” (astrologers) were influenced by the Jews. Daniel himself was placed in charge of a large segment of these advisors and educated people (Daniel 6:1-3). It is likely that through the Jews these men heard about the promises of a prophet (Numbers 24:17) or a king (2 Samuel 7:11-15). Given that background, these men were encouraged to seek out this king.
The obvious place for them to go is Jerusalem, the head of the Jewish state under Roman rule. As they began to inquire, Herod, the “king of the Jews,” hears about it and reacts as he had throughout his reign. In effect, he says, “Who is this usurper of my crown?” This is Herod the Great, as distinguished from the other Herods (his sons and grandsons) mentioned in the Bible.
Herod was not a Jew, but Idumean, a group of people descended from Esau, not Jacob. That territory south of Judea had been annexed by John Hyrcanus (134-104 BC) along with Samaria and Galilee. Herod received his title, based on his father’s (Antipater) alliances within the Roman leadership, and further cultivated by Herod himself. Herod at one time supported Julius Caesar, then Mark Antony and Cleopatra, and when they were defeated (later committing suicide) in 31 BC, Herod switched allegiances again, this time receiving support from Octavian, who bestowed on him the title, “king of the Jews.”
Herod’s reputation among the Jews was not based on his switching allegiances, though; his fanatical pursuit of anyone who challenged his throne, including his wives and most of his sons, led him to commit atrocities among the Jews. As he neared death, he even planned for many leaders among the Jews to be killed at his death, to ensure that the Jews would be in mourning when he died. Little wonder that “all Jerusalem” was troubled with him.
God’s intervention in Herod’s plan included Joseph “taking the child and his mother” to Egypt. Notice that the move is timed exactly, so that the visit of the wise men bringing expensive gifts can finance the move to Egypt. It should also be pointed out that there were many Jews living in Alexandria, Egypt, and so they would have enjoyed safety there. And of course, God’s Word of prophecy, from Hosea 11 that looked backward, is also fulfilled in a greater way looking forward to the true Israel (Jesus) coming out of Egypt.
The final move of location is from Egypt to Galilee. Even though Herod the Great had died, his son, Archelaus, was ruling there, and following in his father’s footsteps. Thus, Joseph takes the family to Nazareth in Galilee. The chapter of origins (Matthew 1) gives way to the chapter of locations: from the origins of birth to the origins of his ministry. Throughout this whole chapter we see God’s hand moving and guiding people to get Jesus where he needs to be, to fulfill prophecy, and to prepare for the earthly ministry of Jesus.