church bell from below

No Other Foundation

Reflections from Fr. Lawrence Farley

We continue our series examining St. Matthew’s citations of the Old Testament.  Today we look at his citation of Jeremiah 31:15.  It reads, “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 not.”  The LXX renders it more or less the same way, though the order of the chapters is different.  In the LXX the text is found in Jeremiah chapter 38, not chapter 31.  But the meaning of the text is the same.

The passage is part of a longer oracle promising joy and restoration after exile.  This part of the oracle focuses upon the northern tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh (the sons of Joseph), carried away into captivity much earlier by the Assyrians.  Rachel was the ancestral mother of those tribes (Genesis 30:22-24), and her tomb was near Bethlehem (Genesis 35:19, 48:7).  It was from that site that the prophet portrayed her as weeping unconsolably as she saw her children and descendants being deported.  She refused to be comforted, because they were lost to her, as good as dead in a foreign land of exile.

This passage describes the sorrow that came to Israel in centuries past—that of the exile of both the northern tribes at the hand of the Assyrians and then later of the southern tribe of Judah at the hand of the Babylonians.  St. Matthew identifies the sorrow of exile which caused Rachel to weep from near Bethlehem with the sorrow of slaughter at the hand of Herod.  Rachel not only wept when she saw her descendants brought down and taken away in centuries past; she also wept when she saw her later descendants murdered in approximately the same place.

The identification is made all the more poignant by the use of the word “children” or sons (Hebrew benim; Greek LXX uioi).  Those deported by the Assyrians were mostly adults, though called “sons” or children because they were the offspring of mother Rachel.  But those later slaughtered by Herod were truly sons and children, toddlers two years old or younger.

But apart from the word in the prophecy describing those afflicted as sons or children, why would Matthew identify Herod’s slaughter of a few dozen children with the deportation of exiles that occurred so long before?  The answer to this question provides a key to interpreting the over-arching narrative of salvation history.

God had promised through His Law that if Israel was faithful to the covenant and obeyed Him, they would be blessed and protected.  He also promised that if they betrayed the covenant and disobeyed Him through idolatry and injustice, they would be abandoned and punished.  In particular, they would be punished by being sent into exile, far from the Promised Land.

Yet He held out hope:  when they repented in the lands of their exile, He would bring them home again and restore them.  The Temple would be rebuilt in glory, and God’s shekinah presence would return to it.  Israel would be free and exalted among the nations, and all the peoples of the world would visit the Temple, enriching it with gifts, and seeking the blessing of Israel’s God.  The promise of exile, regathering, and glory is found in Deuteronomy 28:64-68, 30:1-5).  It was this final and full restoration that Israel awaited at the time of Jesus, and which they expected the Messiah to bring.  Though many had returned from exile after the time of Cyrus in about 520 B.C., many Jews were still in exile as the diaspora, and the promised Messianic glory had still not arrived.

In this sense, the exile was still ongoing, for it would only be ended when all the Jews returned home and God returned in glory to His Temple, and all the nations of the world flowed into it.  After Messiah had been crucified and glorified, this hope underwent drastic revision, with Israel reconstituted no longer as a nation, but as the Church.  But this reworking of the promised hope and glory did not change one thing:  until Jesus brought in the Kingdom, the time of exile, sorrow, and wrath still lay upon God’s people.

That was why St. Matthew could identify the sorrow at the slaughter of the infants with the sorrow at the exile—it was all of a piece and part of Israel’s sorrow that would only be ended by the Messiah.  The Evangelist was not arbitrarily applying ancient prophecies to a situation which had nothing to do with it.  He was stepping back and surveying the total landscape of pre-restoration Israel.  Before Messiah came and brought the promised glory, God’s people still lay under the curse.

We also look at another Old Testament citation in Matthew’s Gospel.  In the New American Standard Bible, the editors made the decision to capitalize all Old Testament citations in the New Testament.  Significantly, St. Matthew’s Old Testament citation from the prophets reading, “He will be called a Nazarene” is not capitalized.  Apparently the editors were as puzzled as many generations of commentators and were unable to locate the Old Testament text cited.

Some commentators have (doubtless in a moment of desperation) resorted to the suggestion that the citation referred to Christ being a Nazirite, since the same Hebrew consonants are found in the word “Nazirite” and “Nazareth”.  Given that Nazirites (men dedicated and vowed to God for a period of time) were forbidden to drink wine (Numbers 6:3) and given that our Lord not only drank wine, but made its consumption a part of His mandated memorial to be observed ever after (Matthew 11:19, 26:27-28), the reference is unlikely.  The answer seems to be in the Hebrew, and involves a very Jewish approach to Scripture.

Isaiah 11:1 is a prophecy promising restoration through the Messiah, and it says that “a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse [i.e. the father of David] and a branch from his roots will bear fruit”.  The Hebrew word for “branch” is nezer. It is similar in meaning to another word for branch, the Hebrew tsemach.  This was the word used in Jeremiah 23:5 and Zechariah 3:8 to describe the Messiah.

Note that St. Matthew refers not to “the prophet” in the singular (as in 1:22, 2:5, 2:17, and 2:18, but to “the prophets” in the plural (2:23).  I suggest that the plural reference refers to the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Zechariah with their prophecies of the Messianic nezer and tsemach.

A nezer was a tiny and insignificant sprout, a twig, a little branch such as grew from a felled tree.  The prophecy in Isaiah 11 referred to the people of Israel as a felled tree, chopped down by the Babylonians at the time of the exile.  Out of this tree would sprout a little branch—one destined to become a mighty tree again, restoring the people of Israel—the Messiah.

St. Matthew saw in the insignificance of the nezer a foreshadowing of the insignificance of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth.  Nazareth was too insignificant show up in an atlas of Old Testament towns.  It was even asked derisively in our Lord’s day, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).  The coincidence of consonants in both words reflected the similarity of meaning:  both the prophetic nezer and the geographical Nazareth were tiny and yet Messianic.

St. Matthew’s citation of Isaiah 11:1 reveals something of the Jewish approach to prophecy and Scripture in general.  The text was so full of meaning, the prophecies so pregnant with unseen import, that even a coincidence of consonants was significant.  For Christian commentators this means that we must not disdain the Hebrew text, however much we love the Septuagint.  That is perhaps why when St. Jerome undertook his own translation of the Old Testament he worked from what he called “the Hebrew truth”, and not from the Septuagint alone.  Without this Hebrew truth, we would never uncover the hidden meaning of St. Matthew’s “He will be called a Nazarene”.

Fr. Lawrence Farley

About Fr. Lawrence Farley

Fr. Lawrence serves as pastor of St. Herman's Orthodox Church in Langley, BC. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.