A Provocation: The Epiphany: January 6, 2018: Matthew 2:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12
2:1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,

2:2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

2:3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;

2:4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.

2:5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

2:6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”

2:7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.

2:8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

2:9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.

2:10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.

2:11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

2:12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

 

A Question or Two:

  • Poor Herod.
  • Do you suppose he tweeted about this?

Some Longer Reflections:

The heart of this scene is the revelation of the birth of the Messiah to pagans from the East.  Or maybe better, the heart of this scene is the revelation of the birth of Messiah BY pagans from the East.  Both happen.  Both matter.  And that would imply that the notion that the world needs to be set right-side-up is not an insight only Christians can have.  Or only Jews.  Or only religious people.  Maybe we all know that the world needs to be set right, and thus the revelation that comes clear this Epiphany might be that we are ALL in this together.

That is worth thinking about, especially if you are accustomed to being right and to having the Truth.

The other thing to think about is Herod.

Herod claims the title, “King of the Jews.”  Herod maintains his hold on this title through the use of brutal force.  The next scene in Matthew’s story shows Herod ordering the slaughter of toddlers in and around Bethlehem in his effort to hold power.  His next act is to die.

But I see Herod in this scene, and in this scene the storyteller informs us that he is frightened.  In English, anyhow.

And “all Jerusalem” is frightened with him.  In English.

The Greek word is ἐταράχθη, and you can indeed translate this as “frightened.”  I think, however, that such a translation over-determines the word.  I think that the word is more open-ended, more allusive than “frightened” allows.  But before we consider that, notice what this way of translating implies.  Herod is frightened.  Jerusalem is, too.  They are made to be basically similar.  They are both afraid of the baby born in Bethlehem  and this similarity suggests that the whole city of Jerusalem is complicit in Herod’s genocidal attack.  Be careful of such interpretive lines.  Blanket condemnations are dangerous.  It’s time we stopped issuing blanket condemnations.

Even if the storyteller is doing it.

I am not convinced, however, that Matthew’s storyteller is doing that at all, and that is because the Greek original is more interesting than the English translation.

The word ἐταράχθη means that Herod was “shaken.”  I like how wide open ἐταράχθη leaves things.  There are many ways of being shaken, only some of which involve fright.  I rather enjoy the image of big, powerful Herod being afraid of a toddler.  I suspect that the storyteller (and surely the translators) share my reaction: Herod is being undercut.

But why is Jerusalem also ἐταράχθη?

Some possibilities:

Perhaps Jerusalem is shaken because they have learned that bad things happen when Herod is upset.  That does not imply that Jerusalem is on Herod’s side, but only that the people in Jerusalem have learned that Herod is dangerous.  The storyteller will make it clear just HOW dangerous he is in the next scene.  This means that Jerusalem is an ally of the reader who learns to fear Herod.

But what if Jerusalem is shaken because word has gotten out that there is reason to believe that Messiah has been born?  This possibility is worth careful consideration.  The word ἐταράχθη does not pre-determine the KIND of shaking that has happened. For Herod, it is negative.  He feels the earthquake beginning and he is afraid.  The people of Jerusalem feel the earth move under their feet and rejoice.  This, also, is a possible reading of ἐταράχθη.

And maybe we are simply supposed to notice that everyone in this narrative world is shaken.

Herod is shaken.  Jerusalem is shaken.  Bethlehem will be shaken.  Jesus’ family (as a consequence) will be shaken.  And Jesus will also be shaken.

This last shaking really matters.  Matthew’s storyteller opens to us a world that suffers earthquakes and other disasters.  When Messiah is born into that world, Messiah is shaken, too.  Necessarily.

This is necessary because otherwise he would not be “Immanuel.”  Matthew’s storyteller insists that this must be a story about “God-Is-With-Us,” and that must mean that Messiah suffers earthquakes and disasters exactly the same way we do.

This s not a story of magic deliverance.  This is a story of Incarnation.  This is, therefore, the real revelation in this story.

 

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