Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Tragic Infanticide and Heroic Rescue

 Below is a rough translations and some initials thoughts regarding Matthew 2:13-23, the Revised Common Lectionary reading for the first Sunday after Christmas in Year A. Such a tragic story that is part of a litany of tragic stories throughout human history. It may be difficult to approach such a story and the responses that it demands in the wake of the season of Christmas. I will suggest below that one might put the focus on Joseph, if that helps. 

13  Ἀναχωρησάντων δὲ αὐτῶν ἰδοὺ ἄγγελος κυρίου φαίνεται κατ' ὄναρ 

τῷ Ἰωσὴφ λέγων, Ἐγερθεὶς παράλαβε τὸ παιδίον καὶ τὴν μητέρα αὐτοῦ 

καὶ φεῦγε εἰς Αἴγυπτον, καὶ ἴσθι ἐκεῖ ἕως ἂν εἴπω σοι: μέλλει γὰρ Ἡρῴδης 

ζητεῖν τὸ παιδίον τοῦ ἀπολέσαι αὐτό. 

Then [the Magi] having departed behold an angel of the lord appears in a dream to Joseph saying, “Arise, take the child and his mother and flee into Egypt, and be there until I tell you; for Herod seeks to find the child in order to kill him.  

Ἀναχωρησάντων: AAPart gmp, ἀναχωρέω, 1) to go back, return  

φαίνεται: PMI 3s φαίνω, 1) to bring forth into the light ... 2b) to become evident 

λέγων: PAPart nsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak

Ἐγερθεὶς : PPInf nms, ἐγείρω, 1) to arouse, cause to rise  1a) to arouse from sleep, to awake  

παράλαβεPAImpv, 2s, παραλαμβάνω, 1) to take to, to take with one's self, to join to one's self  1a) an associate, a companion

φεῦγε: PAImpv 2s φεύγω, 1) to flee away, seek safety by flight  

ἴσθι: PAImpv 2s εἰμί 

εἴπω: AASubj 1s λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  1a) affirm over, maintain  1b) to teach  1c) to exhort, advise, to command, direct  

μέλλει: PAI 3s μέλλω, 1) to be about  1a) to be on the point of doing or suffering something  1b) to intend,

ζητεῖν: PAInf ζητέω, 1) to seek in order to find  1a) to seek a thing  

ἀπολέσαι: AAInf ἀπόλλυμι, 1) to destroy  ...  1c) to kill  

1. I’ve had a habit of translating δὲ as “Yet,” in the rough translation, just to hold off on deciding whether it has the tone of an ‘and’ or perhaps ‘but.’ The way Matthew keeps using here, however, makes me feel that it is more of a connective word – so I’m using ‘then’ – without qualifying the connection as either a continuation (and) or contrast (but). 


14  δὲ ἐγερθεὶς παρέλαβεν τὸ παιδίον καὶ τὴν μητέρα αὐτοῦ νυκτὸς καὶ 

ἀνεχώρησεν εἰς Αἴγυπτον, 

Then having gotten up he took the child and his mother at night and departed into Egypt, 

ἐγερθεὶς : APPart nms, ἐγείρω, 1) to arouse, cause to rise  1a) to arouse from sleep, to awake  

παρέλαβεν: AAI 3s, παραλαμβάνω, 1) to take to, to take with one's self, to join to one's self  1a) an associate, a companion  1b) metaph. 

ἀνεχώρησεν: AAI 3s, ἀναχωρέω, 1) to go back, return  2) to withdraw 

1. I may be spouting nonsense here, but it just occurred to me that the verb παραλαμβάνω (to take with oneself) is the direct opposite of παραδίδωμι, (to give into the hands of another). The two words share the prefix παρα, and the contrast between λαμβάνω and δίδωμι, take and give, is stark. Παραδίδωμι is often translated as “betray.” And while it can mean something less intense (such as “Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife” in 1:20), I wonder if παραλαμβάνω has more of a sense of “rescue” here, more intense than just “take.” While we tend to imagine that the birth narrative unfolds simply, Joseph might have been at a genuine crossroad here. Yes, he had a dream telling him that the birth was God’s way of sending a savior. Yes, Magi from the east came confirming that dream through their astrological arts. But, Herod is Herod and if Joseph were to betray Jesus and hand him over into Herod’s hands, which is what παραδίδωμι means and which is what Judas does eventually, then Herod would be mollified and Joseph, perhaps, would be rewarded quite handsomely. Instead, he takes the child out of the hand of Herod παραλαμβάνω - precisely what the angel commanded him to do in v.13. 


15καὶ ἦν ἐκεῖ ἕως τῆς τελευτῆς Ἡρῴδου: ἵνα πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν ὑπὸ κυρίου 

διὰ τοῦ προφήτου λέγοντος, Ἐξ Αἰγύπτου ἐκάλεσα τὸν υἱόν μου. 

and was there until the death of Herod; in order that the word of the lord may be fulfilled through the prophet who said, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” 

πληρωθῇ: APSubj 3s πληρόω, 1) to make full, to fill up, i.e. to fill to the full  λέγοντος: PAPart gsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 

ἐκάλεσα: AAI 1s, καλέω, 1) to call  1a) to call aloud, utter in a loud voice 

1. Hosea 11:1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. Also, Numbers 23:22 and 24:8 use this phrase, “God, who brings him out of Egypt.” Matthew is making quite the interpretive leap to assign these referents, which typically are interpreted to mean “Israel,” as referring to Jesus. 


16 Τότε Ἡρῴδης ἰδὼν ὅτι ἐνεπαίχθη ὑπὸ τῶν μάγων ἐθυμώθη λίαν, καὶ 

ἀποστείλας ἀνεῖλεν πάντας τοὺς παῖδας τοὺς ἐν Βηθλέεμ καὶ ἐν πᾶσι τοῖς 

ὁρίοις αὐτῆς ἀπὸ διετοῦς καὶ κατωτέρω, κατὰ τὸν χρόνον ὃν ἠκρίβωσεν 

παρὰ τῶν μάγων. 

Right then Herod having seen that he had been deluded by the Magi was exceedingly infuriated, and having ordered he slayed all the children who were in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and younger, according to the time which was exacted from the Magi. 

ἰδὼν: AAPart nsm, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes  2) to see with the mind, to perceive, know

ἐνεπαίχθη: API 3s, ἐμπαίζω, 1) to play with, trifle with  1a) to mock  1b) to delude, deceive 

ἐθυμώθη:API 3s, θυμόω wroth (be) to make,to provoke. Here, passive, to be stirred up into a tumultuous state of mind.  HE LOST IT! 

ἀποστείλας: AAPart nms, ἀποστέλλω, 1) to order (one) to go to a place appointed  

ἀνεῖλεν: AAI 3s, ἀναιρέω, 1) to take up, to lift up (from the ground)  ... 2b) to put out of the way, kill slay a man 

ἠκρίβωσεν: AAI 3s ἀκριβόω, 1) to know accurately, to do exactly  2) to investigate diligently

1. Matthew uses Τότε to begin this verse and the next. I am translating it as ‘right then’ only to show that it is a different term than the δὲ that began vv.13-14.

2. Grammatically, it is unnecessary and redundant to include the pronoun ‘he’ for ‘he slayed,’ since Herod continues to be the subject. But, I wanted to emphasize how Matthew equates Herod giving the order with Herod actually slaying the children, not those who carried out the order. 


17τότε ἐπληρώθη τὸ ῥηθὲν διὰ Ἰερεμίου τοῦ προφήτου λέγοντος, 

Right then the word was fulfilled according to Jeremiah the prophet who said, 

ἐπληρώθη: 1) to make full, to fill up, i.e. to fill to the full 

λέγοντος: PAPart gsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 


18 Φωνὴ ἐν Ῥαμὰ ἠκούσθη, κλαυθμὸς καὶ ὀδυρμὸς πολύς: Ῥαχὴλ κλαίουσα 

τὰ τέκνα αὐτῆς, καὶ οὐκ ἤθελεν παρακληθῆναι, ὅτι οὐκ εἰσίν. 

A cry was heard in Ramah, wailing and much lamentation; Rachel mourning her children, and was not willing to be comforted, because they are not. 

ἠκούσθη: API 3s, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf  2) to hear  2b) to attend to, consider what is or has been said  

κλαίουσα: PAPart nfs, κλαίω, 1) to mourn, weep, lament  1a) weeping as the sign of pain and grief for the thing signified  

ἤθελεν: IAI 3s, θέλω, 1) to will, have in mind, intend  1a) to be resolved or determined, to purpose  1b) to desire, to wish

παρακληθῆναι: APInf, παρακαλέω, 1) to call to one's side, call for, summon  2) to address, speak to, (call to, call upon), which may be done in  the way of exhortation, entreaty, comfort, instruction, etc.  

εἰσίν: PAI 3p, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 

1. Ramah is a town of the tribe of Benjamin, situated north of Jerusalem on the road leading to Bethel;

2. Jeremiah 31:15 “Thus says the Lord: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.” The weeping in Jeremiah was over the exile, not literal children being slaughtered. It was part of a chapter that is a call to rejoice, because the exiles would return. 

3. I have always assumed that the reference to Rachel’s weeping is a way of capturing the grief and mourning of families over the slaughter of the innocents. Since the quote from Jeremiah is about Israel’s exile experience, and not a literal mother weeping for her literal children, I wonder if Matthew’s intended meaning is actually about the exile and not the slaughter. I have to ponder that one for a spell.  


19 Τελευτήσαντος δὲ τοῦ Ἡρῴδου ἰδοὺ ἄγγελος κυρίου φαίνεται κατ' ὄναρ 

τῷ Ἰωσὴφ ἐν Αἰγύπτῳ  

Then Herod having died behold an angel of the Lord appears in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 

Τελευτήσαντος: AAPart gms, τελευτάω, 1) to finish, bring to and end, close  2) to have an end or close, come to an end 

φαίνεται: PMI 3s, φαίνω, 1) to bring forth into the light, cause to shine, shed light   2) shine   2a) to shine, be bright or resplendent  

1. There is no sense of how much time has elapsed here. The connective tissue between the last verse and this one is simply the very common conjunction δὲ.

2. In fact, the mention of Herod’s death really picks up on what was said in the first part of v.15, that they stayed in Egypt until Herod’s death.   


20 λέγων, Ἐγερθεὶς παράλαβε τὸ παιδίον καὶ τὴν μητέρα αὐτοῦ καὶ πορεύου 

εἰς γῆν Ἰσραήλ, τεθνήκασιν γὰρ οἱ ζητοῦντες τὴν ψυχὴν τοῦ παιδίου. 

Saying, “Rise take the child and his mother and go into the land of Israel, for those seeking the soul of the child have died.”   

λέγων: PAPart nsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak

Ἐγερθεὶς : PPInf nms, ἐγείρω, 1) to arouse, cause to rise  1a) to arouse from sleep, to awake  

παράλαβε: AAImpv 2s, παραλαμβάνω, 1) to take to,

πορεύου: PMImpv 2s, πορεύομαι, 1) to lead over, carry over, transfer  1a) to pursue the journey on which one has entered, to continue on  one's journey  

τεθνήκασιν: PerfAI 3s, θνῄσκω, 1) to die, to be 

ζητοῦντες: PAPart nmp, ζητέω, 1) to seek in order to find 1a) to seek a thing

1. τὴν ψυχὴν τοῦ παιδίου could easily be translated “the life of the child.” I just want to show that the word often translated as “soul” is used here, not a word referring to biotic life.


21  δὲ ἐγερθεὶς παρέλαβεν τὸ παιδίον καὶ τὴν μητέρα αὐτοῦ καὶ εἰσῆλθεν εἰς 

γῆν Ἰσραήλ. 

Then having awakened, he took the child and his mother and went into a land of Israel. 

ἐγερθεὶς : APPart nms, ἐγείρω, 1) to arouse, cause to rise  1a) to arouse from sleep, to awake  

παρέλαβεν: AAI 3s, παραλαμβάνω, 1) to take to,

εἰσῆλθεν: AAI 3s, εἰσέρχομαι, 1) to go out or come in: to enter 

1. Here’s that word παραλαμβάνω again. See v.14 n.1 above. 


22 ἀκούσας δὲ ὅτι Ἀρχέλαος βασιλεύει τῆς Ἰουδαίας ἀντὶ τοῦ πατρὸς αὐτοῦ 

Ἡρῴδου ἐφοβήθη ἐκεῖ ἀπελθεῖν: χρηματισθεὶς δὲ κατ' ὄναρ ἀνεχώρησενεἰςτὰ μέρη τῆς Γαλιλαίας, 

Then having heard that Archeleaus [was] king of the Judeans after his father Herod, he was afeared to go there; then being warned in a dream he returned [to] the region of Galilee. 

ἀκούσας: AAPart nms, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf  2) to hear 

ἐφοβήθη: API 3s φοβέω to terrify, frighten,  to put to flight by terrifying Pass. 1. to be put to flight, to flee, 2. to fear, be afraid; 

ἀπελθεῖν: AAInf ἀπέρχομαι, 1) to go away, depart  1a) to go away in order to follow any one

χρηματισθεὶς: AAPart nms, χρηματίζω, 1) to transact business, esp. to manage public affairs  1a) to advise or consult with one about public affairs  ...  2) to give a response to those consulting an oracle, to give a  divine command or admonition, to teach from heaven 

ἀνεχώρησενεἰς: AAI 3s, ἀναχωρέω, 1) to go back, return  

1. The verb ‘was’ is supplied. 

2. Every time I use “afeared” it sounds like something my Grandfather used to say. I am using it because “was afraid” sounds like an adjective and I’m trying to catch the spirit of this aorist passive verb ἐφοβήθη. The root φοβ is the root of the English “phobia.”

3. This is the fourth dream that Joseph has about the child and his mother. The first was when Joseph had decided to “put Mary away” quietly – as opposed to shaming her and her family publicly – in Mt. 1:18-25. The second was after the visit by the Magi (who had their own dream message) and Joseph is told to take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt in Mt. 2:13-15. The third is in vv.19-20 above, when Joseph is given the “all clear.” And the last is here, where Joseph’s fear is confirmed by being ‘warned’ in a dream.   


23καὶ ἐλθὼν κατῴκησεν εἰς πόλιν λεγομένην Ναζαρέτ, ὅπως πληρωθῇ τὸῥηθὲν διὰ τῶν προφητῶν ὅτι Ναζωραῖος κληθήσεται. 

And having come they settled in a city which is called Nazareth, so that which was spoken through the prophets would be fulfilled that he shall be called a Nazorean. 

ἐλθὼν: AAPart nms, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come  1a) of persons 

κατῴκησεν: AAI 3s, κατοικέω, 1) to dwell, settle  1a) metaph. divine powers, influences, etc., are said to  dwell in his soul, to pervade, prompt, govern it  2) to dwell in, inhabit

λεγομένην: PPPart afs, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  1a) affirm over, maintain 

πληρωθῇ: APSubj 3s, πληρόω, 1) to make full, to fill up, i.e. to fill to the full  1a) to cause to abound, to furnish or supply liberally 

ῥηθὲν: AAPart nsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 

κληθήσεται: FPI 3s, καλέω, 1) to call  1a) to call aloud, utter in a loud voice

Richard Erickson, No known Old Testament scripture reads exactly Ναζωραίος κληθήσεται, but neither are such nonspecific 'quotations' otherwise unknown in the New Testament.

1. In vv.21-23a all of the verbs and participles are singular, with the subject being Joseph. One might expect a “they” along the way, but Matthew’s emphasis is that Joseph is the one waking, taking, hearing, fearing, being warned, having come, and settling – with the child and his mother. 

2. Where in the world did this reference to the prophets come from? I went to one site that seems to consider every possible explanation to be a conspiracy of the devil, or the Roman Catholic Church, except theirs. Their explanation is that “Nazorean” is etymologically the same as “sprout,” so it’s a reference to Jesus being a sprout from Isaiah – only that explanation seems to fly in the face of the clear meaning of the verse, which is about Jesus ending up physically in Nazareth, not about Jesus being metaphorically sprouty. Still, it was a good attempt to ward off other suggestions like, “Maybe Matthew is simply misinformed here.” Some folks’ view of inspiration would not allow such a possibility.   


I’m torn about what Matthew is ultimately communicating in this story. I see some possibilities. 

1. If we look at the grammatical phrasing, Matthew is telling a story about Joseph. The angelic visits, the emphasis on Joseph’s decision-making and actions, etc. pull the attention toward Joseph – more than the story about the massacre of the innocents, which compels us with its horror; more than the story of the Magi, which compels us with its majestic juxtapositions; and more than the story of the birth itself (which is told in a dependent clause in v.1). 

2. At the same time, if we look at the exceptions, Matthew is separating Joseph from Jesus with the phrase “the child and his mother,” instead of “his child.” I have to wonder if Matthew is addressing a burning question of his day, going back to the genealogy, regarding the lineage of the coming one. As powerful as lineage is – and in ancient cultures I think lineage was a much greater part of one’s identity than it tends to be in my own culture – what is more powerful here is that the Messiah is generated by God, a fulfillment of the words of the prophets. 

3. Then there is the insight form Richard J. Erickson’s article, “Divine Injustice? Matthew’s Narrative Strategy and the Slaughter of the Innocents.” Erickson outlines the story in three major sections: Vv.13-15 is “the flight to Egypt”; vv.16-18 is “the slaughter of innocents”; and vv.19-23 is “the return to Israel and Galilee.” Erickson argues that the implied story of Jeremiah’s lament is that the exiles will return. It’s hard to fit that to a story about children being slaughtered, to be sure, but the family’s flight to Egypt and then their return is a fulfillment of the weeping followed by joy. 

4. I like the contrast between παραδίδωμι and παραλαμβάνω (v.14, n.1 above). “Joseph, the rescuer” is a little more derring-do than “Joseph the fleer.” It also seems to keep before us Joseph’s own trial of faith, from going against his better judgment of ‘putting Mary away privately’ to rescuing instead of betraying Jesus. If we see the gospel as one cloth, this action in the face of violence is faithful action, unlike the actions of the disciples at the crucifixion. 

5. I do wonder if Matthew intends for us to read Rachel’s weeping for her children as a reference to Israel/Jesus being forced into exile, rather than a reference to the “slaughter of innocents.” Hmm ….


  1. Matthew makes a lot of odd interpretive connections. I wonder if the Nazarene is linked in Matt's mind to the Nazarite story of Samson: Judges 13:5,7
    “For behold, you shall conceive and give birth to a son, and no razor shall come upon his head, for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb; and he shall begin to deliver Israel from the hands of the Philistine. "


  2. Both slaughter and exile can be true. The elites were taken captive, not peasants. Total war is rather old.


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