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 Micah 5:2.  “In the Masoretic Hebrew it reads, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you will come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.”  The LXX reads similarly:  “And you, Bethlehem, house of Ephrathah, you are very small to be in the thousands of Judah, from which for me will come out to be for a ruler of Israel, and his goings out are from the beginning, from the days of eternity.”  It is all the more surprising therefore that St. Matthew’s version reads a little differently from either the Hebrew or the Greek.  It reads,  “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you will come a ruler who will govern my people Israel.”

Note the description of Bethlehem:  the Hebrew and Greek describe the town as tiny:  “little to be among the clans of Judah”, “very small to be in the thousands of Judah”.  In Matthew’s Gospel this becomes “by no means least among the rulers of Judah”.  Bethlehem has gone from being “little” to being “by no means little”.

It is unlikely that Matthew’s Gospel is using a manuscript tradition different from both the Hebrew or the Greek.  It is also unlikely that the change simply means that the Evangelist was not changing the text, but only accurately reporting the inaccurate citation of Herod’s advisors.  The change seems to be editorial and intended.  What does it mean?

It means that the Evangelist was more interested in truth and meaning than in pedantically accurate citation.  Scholars must of course take care to quote their sources accurately and cannot take liberties and paraphrase, but the Evangelist was not working as a scholar with a text, but as a herald proclaiming salvation.  He was telling his readers and all men what Bethlehem meant to the world.

The prophet’s point was that although Bethlehem was little in size, it was actually great in importance because, as the hometown of David, it would also be the hometown of the Messianic King.  The tininess of the town belied its true significance, and the contrast between size and significance made the significance shine all the more.  The Evangelist paraphrased the prophet to make that point and to make sure that no one would miss it.  In the Evangelist’s exegesis of Isaiah 7:14 we saw that a single word (e.g. parthenos) can be mined for hidden meaning.  Here we see that single words do not tell the whole tale, but that a discerning exegete must look at the whole picture.  When this is done, “little” can mean “great”.

This also means that greatness is not determined by size, for the “little town of Bethlehem”, though little in size, was huge in importance and in destiny.  Indeed, like the womb of the Theotokos, it was more spacious than the heavens, for the little hamlet contained the God whom heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain.

The truth that something may be outwardly small but immensely important should be encouraging news for the Orthodox residing in the West.  Numerically we are tiny indeed, too little to be among the clans of Judah—or among the impressive numbers of pollsters and statisticians.  When polls are taken here in North America, the numbers of other denominations and religions vastly outnumber us.  The Roman Catholics are bigger than we are, the Baptists are bigger than we are.  Even the Mormons have big numbers.  Orthodox are often so small as to be grouped with similarly insignificant denominations, under the humble heading “Other”.  Our own little St. Herman’s here in Langley is tiny, dwarfed by groups like the local Pentecostal assembly.  But, as Bethlehem reminds us, significance in God’s eyes cannot be accurately assessed by numbers alone.

We also examine the word of the prophet in Hosea 11:1 which reads, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”  The “child” or “son” was of course the people of Israel, whom God loved and protected as a father does his son, and who shared the name, dignity, and resources of the father.  Hosea (a prophet of hurt and heartbreak) goes on to describe how Israel, despite being God’s child and son, rebelled against God and broke His heart with their idolatry.

The LXX rendering of the text is in line with us, though the Christological significance vanishes in that rendering.  It reads, “Because Israel was an infant I loved him, and out of Egypt I called his children”.  The reference to “the son” in the singular (Hebrew ben) becomes the plural “children” (Greek tekna).  (Fans of the LXX who declare “the Septuagint is the Old Testament of the Orthodox Church” take note.  St. Matthew quoted not from the LXX, but from the Hebrew.)

Once again, as in his handling of Isaiah 7:14, the Evangelist is not confined to the plain and historical meaning of the text.  He knows that in its original context the “son” referred to Israel.  But just as the Evangelist was struck by the fact of the virgin birth and knew that Isaiah 7:14 was too much of a coincidence to be coincidental, so he was struck by the fact that Jesus the Son of God also came out of Egypt, recapitulating and embodying Israel’s history in His own life and person.  Hosea 11:1 also was too much of a coincidence to be coincidental.  It was providential and prophetic.

We see in this identification of the son Israel with the Son Jesus the realization that Israel’s destiny was fulfilled in Jesus, Israel’s king and Messiah.  The identification and coalescence of the two figures are seen in many places in the Old Testament Scriptures.  The mysterious “servant of Yahweh” in Isaiah’s so-called “Servant Songs” is clearly the people of Israel (see, for example, Isaiah 41:8, 42:19).  But the servant of Yahweh is also a single individual, the One appointed to be a covenant to God’s people, and a light to the nations (Isaiah 42:1, 6). He is a suffering servant who was despised and forsaken by men, pierced for their transgressions (Isaiah 53:3, 5).  The Servant of Yahweh is Israel and is also Israel’s true king.  The king embodied the kingdom, and fulfilled Israel’s destiny of suffering and eventual glory.  And He was once called out of Egypt, as the Evangelist recorded.

St. Matthew’s interpretation of this passage reveals that the skilled Christian scribe must read the individual text with an eye open to the total narrative and sweep of the Holy Scriptures and all its themes.

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.