Israel Is the New Egypt in Matthew 2:15

The citation of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15 is a well-known example of a New Testament text using an Old Testament text, and the explanations for this particular case are multiple. For the record, I think Matthew is reading Hosea 11:1 typologically, but that’s not the primary argument I want to make with this post. Instead, let’s observe that Jesus goes out of Israel and goes into Egypt (Matt 2:14), and in some way, “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son'” (Matt 2:15b, citing Hos 11:1).

My question is this: how does going into Egypt fulfill a text about going out of Egypt?

The most common explanation offered is that Matthew put the fulfillment formula where he did in anticipation of Jesus later leaving Egypt in Matt 2:21. Put another way, Jesus went into Egypt (2:14) so that “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos 11:1) could be fulfilled when he left (Matt 2:21). According to some scholars, if Matthew put his citation of Hosea 11:1 after the actual departure from Egypt (i.e. after Matt 2:21), it would compete with his fulfillment formula in Matthew 2:23 about Jesus being “called a Nazarene.” These same scholars acknowledge, though, that the placement of the Hosea 11:1 text doesn’t seem to be the most logical place.

A few scholars (such as Joel Kennedy, Leroy Huizenga, and Peter Leithart) offer a different explanation, one I find more compelling, and it is this: when Jesus left Israel for Egypt, he was fulfilling Hosea 11:1 because the land of Israel had become the new Egypt. Here are ten reasons I think this interpretation is stronger than the one more commonly presented.

  1. Herod is like a new pharaoh, so to speak, but remember where Herod is ruling. He is the king of Judea right now, which is in Israel. He is not ruling in Egypt. If “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos 11:1) was about the Old Testament exodus from a wicked pharaoh, then the picture of Jesus’ exodus in Matthew 2 portrays his escape from a murderous ruler once he leaves Israel. Think of it this way: if Jesus’ exodus (the fulfillment of Hos 11:1) wasn’t until he actually left Egypt, then a major correspondence to the Old Testament story is missing, because Jesus wasn’t escaping a malevolent authority in Egypt. (But he did flee from the wrath of Herod when he left Israel.)
  2. If Herod is like a new pharaoh who is sanctioning the slaughter of male babies reminiscent of Exodus 1, then remember where Matthew 2 reports the slaughter occurring when Jesus was a young child. The murders occurred in Israel. If Jesus is a new Moses who is escaping a massacre that was sanctioned by a maniacal ruler, then his exodus out of Israel was an escape from danger. When Jesus went into Egypt, the massacre didn’t occur there. It was in Israel where the new pharaoh ruled, and it was in Israel where his baby-killing decree was given. In Matthew 2, Israel is the new Egypt.
  3. The proximity of Jesus’ exodus from Israel and the statement of fulfillment is crucial. In Matthew 2:13 an angel tells Joseph to take his family to Egypt, in 2:14-15a Jesus goes to Egypt until Herod dies, and in 2:15b Matthew announces fulfillment of Hosea 11:1. What seems to fulfill “Out of Egypt I called my son” is Jesus (and his family) going out of Israel. Israel is the new Egypt here.
  4. Building on the previous point, the particular fulfillment formula in Matthew 2:15b (hina + plerothe) is used in 1:22, 4:14, 12:17, and 21:4 as well, and in each case the statement has in view what just happened (not what was going to happen later) in the narrative. Other fulfillment formulas (such as those in 2:17; 8:17; 13:35; 26:56; 27:9) also follow the event(s) they refer to. So if the formula in 2:15b refers backward, the geographical movement “out of” a place was from Israel. In an ironic twist, then, Matthew 2 portrays Israel as the new Egypt and the actual Egypt as a place of refuge. If the text Matthew quotes in 2:15b isn’t fulfilled until 2:21, then the way he used the formula seems confusing. But if the fulfillment formula–like the other occurrences of it–refers backward, then everything makes sense if a figurative meaning of “Egypt” is granted to Israel.
  5. Matthew’s use of “Egypt” from Hosea 11:1 can be figurative, even though the references to Egypt in Matthew 2:13, 14, and 19 mean the literal location. The difference between the figurative and literal uses in Matthew 2 is this: his use of “Egypt” in 2:15b is in a citation of an Old Testament text, so he may be applying that term in a literary–not necessarily literal–way. The uses of “Egypt” in 2:13, 14, and 19 must be interpreted literally, though, because they occur in the narration of the text outside any Old Testament quotation. Arguably, “out of Egypt” in Matthew 2:15b should be understood figuratively because Matthew says Hosea 11:1 had been fulfilled in what had just taken place, yet the only movement connected to an exodus from a treacherous ruler was Jesus’ departure out of Israel. Calling Israel “Egypt” is not out of biblical bounds, either, because certain places become literary cards that biblical writers may choose to play when it helps their hand. If a place is compared to Sodom or Egypt or Babylon, certain connotations may follow.
  6. When Matthew quotes “Out of Israel I called my son,” he relies on the MT instead of the LXX, and the reason had to do more with sonship than the actual place of Egypt (though evoking the exodus from Egypt was key). His MT dependence is significant because Matthew prefers the LXX for his Old Testament quotes. Why his switch to the MT, then? The reason is immediately apparent when we see that in Hosea 11:1 the LXX used “children” and the MT used “son.” Both versions of Hosea 11:1 refer to the nation being called out of Egyptian captivity through the miracle of the exodus, but only one version used a singular, and the singular is what attracted Matthew. Throughout the genealogy (Matt 1:1-17) and the angel’s words to Joseph in a dream (1:18-25), the sonship of Jesus has been an important theme. Israel was God’s son (see Exod 4:22), so it was important to Matthew’s readers to understand what happened to Jesus–who was truly God’s Son in the most unique sense–in light of Israel’s history. Matthew’s choice of the MT (which used “son” in Hos 11:1) may indicate that the theme of sonship–and not necessarily the literal location of Egypt–was what mattered in the biblical pattern. Again, the place of hostility in Matthew 2 was not Egypt but Israel.
  7. When the exodus occurred, it was “by night” (cf. Exod 12:29-42), and the phrase “by night” is used in Matthew 2:14 as Joseph and his family leave out of Israel. Don’t miss the parallel: in Exodus 12, God’s son (Israel) went out of Egypt; in Matthew 2, God’s Son (who embodied Israel), went out of Israel. Both exits were “by night.” Now, if Hosea 11:1 evokes the Old Testament exodus–which occurred “by night”–then this new exodus, involving Jesus, fulfilled Hosea 11:1 because it too was “by night.” We should therefore see the fulfillment of Hosea 11:1 as referring to the departure from Israel in Matthew 2:14-15a.
  8. If Jesus leaving literal Egypt was the point, then the use of Hosea 11:1 would be more logically placed after the words of Matthew 2:21. It would have read like this: “And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son'” (Matt 2:21). But that’s not what Matthew did. Now some scholars say that such a location would have created an unwanted competition between it and the next two verses (2:22-23) which also speak of fulfillment. I find this explanation very unconvincing. In its current location, Matthew 2:15 contains a fulfillment formula, and another one occurs in 2:17. That’s only one verse between fulfillment formulas. But apparently competition would have been created if Matthew had placed the fulfillment formula in 2:21 because another formula is in 2:23. Why, though? There is one verse separating the formulas there too. “But,” a naysayer might object, “the use of Hosea 11:1 still anticipates Jesus’ leaving Egypt in 2:21 because in the latter he actually left Egypt.” Even though the Egypt-connection would be preserved in the sense that both words would refer to the same place, think of what is lost. If Hosea 11:1 (which is meant to evoke the exodus) is used in Matthew 2:15b to anticipate Jesus’ departure from Egypt in Matthew 2:21, then Jesus would be leaving a place where the “new pharaoh” was not ruling (since Herod was in Israel) and where the recent murder of male babies did not happen (since that was in Israel too). It makes more sense to see Matthew applying “Egypt” in a literary-theological way. If we understand Israel to be the new Egypt in the story Matthew is telling, then we don’t need ingenious (but unsatisfactory) explanations as to why Matthew had to put Hosea 11:1 where he did.
  9. Matthew may be allowed literary license in his application of Hosea 11:1 to Israel as a “new Egypt,” because his subsequent uses of Scripture in the infancy narratives (i.e. Matt 2:18 and 2:23) are creative as well and serve ultimately to make a theological point. In Matthew 2:18, when he quotes Jeremiah 31:15 about “a voice . . . in Ramah,” the weeping would of course have actually been in Bethlehem, for that was where the babies were killed. And when Matthew narrates Jesus’ arrival in Nazareth and says “what was spoken by the prophets” had been “fulfilled,” it is important to realize that there is not a single Old Testament text that says “He shall be called a Nazarene.” Therefore, in at least the three instances of Matthew 2:13-15, 16-18, and 19-23, he appears to be doing something more typological and literary-theological than geographically literal when he speaks about fulfillment. If we start saying, “But Matthew says Egypt in 2:15b, so it must be actual Egypt,” then the way he speaks about fulfillment in 2:18 and 2:23 is going to hit us with a curve ball.
  10. The event of Jesus’ exodus from Israel in Matthew 2:14-15 is appropriate when we consider the spiritual exodus he will bring from there at the culmination of his passion week. King Herod wanted him dead, but that death was set by God the Father for a later date. Perhaps, then, Jesus’ exodus from Israel in Matthew 2 was a foreshadowing of Matthew 27. In that latter chapter, sonship recurs as a theme once more when the onlookers mocked him (27:39-43) and the centurion confessed him (27:54). And afterward another Joseph carried his body away (27:57-60).

There may be more reasons to consider, but I’ll stop with these ten. Do you find them compelling? I think their combined weight makes a strong case that “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos 11:1) is fulfilled when Jesus goes out of Israel and into Egypt. In Matthew 2, Israel is the new Egypt, Herod is the new pharaoh, and a new massacre of male babies is decreed. Jesus, who is consummate Israel and the very Son of God, embodies that Old Testament story in his own experiences. And in Matthew’s literary masterpiece (ahem: his Gospel), we witness the exodus of Jesus and are full of hope that God is up to something wonderful, something that even surpasses the greatness of deliverance from Egyptian captivity. A New Moses is on the scene, and sin and death must let his people go.


8 thoughts on “Israel Is the New Egypt in Matthew 2:15

  1. I think that you are spot on here. I wrote and presented a paper on this very thing at a regional ETS meeting, relying heavily from Joel Kennedy. I argued that Jesus recapitulates Israel’s history throughout Matthew, which allows us to understand his Baptism as a Red Sea like event. If you are interested, let me know and I will send along the link.

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