Matthew 2 has all the elements of an exodus story. There’s a murderous king, who slaughters Jewish babies. There’s a infant who will be Israel’s future deliverer, saved from the murderous king so He can later return to save His people and lead them to the Promised land. There’s an exodus from the land of the murderous king. There’s a sojourn in Egypt and a return from Egypt. Matthew quotes a line from Hosea that refers to the first exodus: “Out of Egypt I called my Son.”
All along the way, the exodus gets reversed, inverted, subverted, turned inside out and on its head. The murderous king is not an Egyptian Pharaoh, but Herod, “King of the Jews.” The threatening land is not Egypt, but Israel. And the land where the Son finds safety is not Israel but Egypt. The new Moses comes to deliver His followers not from Egypt but from an Israel that has become no better than Egypt.
The Magi are part of the reversal. They come with news about the birth of the King of the Jews, the long-awaited Messiah, the fulfillment of all of Israel’s hopes, the final act in the drama of Israel’s history. This is not just news, not just good news, but the good news. When Herod hears the news, he’s not gladdened but threatened. So is all Jerusalem with him (v. 3). Jesus’ birth is good news to the poor, to the marginalized faithful like Mary and Joseph, to the Simeons and Annas. In the power center of Israel, though, a Messiah is bad news, an anti-gospel.
They don’t want the Messiah to come. And when He comes, they kill Him. Put it more pointedly: Yahweh, the God of Israel, is coming to visit His people, and the first thing they do is to murder God.
When Moses showed up, Gentiles trembled, and Israel rejoiced. When the greater Moses shows up, the news is brought by Gentiles while Jews shake in their boots. In another sense, this is not a reversal of the original exodus. It is precisely the experience of Moses. As Stephen tells the story of Moses, the Jews rejected their deliverer who had come to visit them. Even after the exodus, the people grumbled against Moses and refused to follow him. And they do the same to Jesus. The Jews are continuing their long track record of rebellion, resistance, hostility to the God who saved them, and to all the saviors that Yahweh raised up for them.
The Queen of Sheba traveled to an impressive court to visit Solomon. She was breathless at the glory of Solomon’s court, his building projects, the impressive array of wealth and the choreography of his servants. The prophets envision the nations on pilgrimage to a Jerusalem rebuilt with precious stones (Isaiah 54:12). Zion will rise as chief of the mountains. Israel will return from exile in power, and that’s when the Gentiles show up.
That’s not what the magi do. The Magi don’t find the king of the Jews in Jerusalem or the king’s court. The king has built no temples; he has no troops; he has no fleet of ships that travels to India. The magi find him in the small town of Bethlehem, the child of humble parents. How will the nations be attracted to this? How can this be the fulfillment of the dreams of Israel’s glory? How can this fulfill the Abrahamic and prophetic promises about Israel’s future? No wonder the Jews stumbled over Jesus.
There is no beauty or glory that the magi should desire him. Yet they do.
On deeper reflection, it should not surprise us that the magi want to adore a little baby born in the Judean village. That’s what has attracted Gentiles throughout the Old Testament. God brings Gentiles to salvation not mainly when Israel is strong but when she is weak.
Pharaoh seeks a blessing from Jacob after Jacob recounts the difficulties of his life (Genesis 47:7-10). Few and unpleasant have been the years of my life, Jacob says, and I haven’t lived as long as my fathers. And Pharaoh asks for a blessing.
Ruth attaches herself to Naomi when Naomi has nothing (Ruth 1:15-18). Naomi went out of Israel full – with husband, two sons, everything she needed. While in Moab, she lost everything. Yahweh has made her life bitter. Naomi says, God has dealt harshly with me. And Ruth says, I want your God to be my God. Somehow, uncannily, Ruth finds something in a woman who has nothing.
By the time of Jesus, as many as 10% of the population of the Roman empire was either Jewish or Gentiles who attached themselves to Judaism. Yet this happened when Israel was as empty as Naomi, without land, king, or temple. Gentiles looked at Jews scattered about the Mediterranean, looked at the temple smoldering in Jerusalem, looked at the end of the Davidic dynasty, and said: Your God will be our God.
The magi’s attraction to the helpless child is a fitting climax to the history of Israel. Paul wasn’t thinking only of the New Testament when he said, “God has chosen the weak things of this world to shame the things which are strong” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31). That’s the story of Israel. In the weakness of Israel, God displays His strength; in the folly of Israel, God displays His wisdom. It’s the story of the true Israel, Jesus. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God stronger than men.
Peter Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.