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Did Jesus Have Help to Fulfil Prophecy? A Response to Robert J. Miller, Part 1: Out of Egypt I Have Called My Son

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I recently purchased a book by Robert J. Miller, published in 2016, entitled Helping Jesus Fulfill Prophecy. The author is Rosenberger Chair of Christian and Religious Studies at Juniata College in Pennsylvania, and a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar since 1986. Of late, I have been particularly interested in the intersection of Judaism and Christianity, in particular the evaluation of Jewish objections to the Messianic credentials of Jesus, and the case for Jesus being the fulfilment, culmination and climax of the Hebrew Scriptures. Expect to see more articles from me in the future tackling this important and fascinating subject. Here, I begin a series of critical reviews of Miller’s book. The book is divided into four parts. Part 2 contains the chapters concerned with the New Testament understanding and utilisation of Hebrew prophecy. Since this is the area I am most interested in, I will begin my series of reviews with addressing part 2, but most likely will also discuss part 1 at a later date (part 1 deals with non-Messianic prophecy). In this article, I begin a series of reviews of chapter 8, which deals with the fulfilment of prophecy in the gospel of Matthew.

Miller introduces the first section of the chapter as follows:

This section of the chapter analyzes the different kinds of creativity involved in the ways Matthew matches prophecy to fulfillment: connecting prophecies to events that do not fulfill them in any obvious way, quoting scripture selectively, translating scripture selectively, fabricating prophecies, tailoring stories so that they can fulfill prophecy, and “retrofitting” prophecies so that Jesus can fulfill them.

Miller notes nine fulfilment scenes in Matthew, and ponders why it is that, in the case of eight out of the nine Matthean fulfilment scenes, Matthew is the only New Testament writer to notice the fulfilment of Scripture. For the sake of conciseness (and because a number of the examples require a detailed commentary) I will examine just one example in each blog post in this series. But please rest assured that I do intend to write a detailed response to all nine examples given in the chapter.

Miller cites Matthew 2:13-15:

13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

The Scriptural quotation that Matthew gives is taken from Hosea 11:1. Miller correctly observes that Matthew does not quote the whole verse, or for that matter verse 2. So let’s quote the two verses in full:

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2 The more they were called, the more they went away; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning offerings to idols.

Based upon the literary context, it is clear that the text is speaking about the delivery of the people of Israel out of Egypt. Miller thus correctly observes that Israel’s Messiah is not even in view in this text. He thus concludes that Matthew has wrenched the text out of its literary context. He writes,

Hosea 11:1a makes it clear that “my son” in :1b is a collective reference to Israel. Quoting the whole verse would wreck the correlation to Jesus. This is doubly true for the next verse, which not only refers to the Israelites in the plural, but also speaks of their idolatry. Both features of Hos 11:2 make it impossible for Matthew to read Jesus into it.

But is that really what Matthew is doing? To appreciate more clearly what Matthew is doing with this text, let’s turn over to Matthew 4:1-4:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

In this scene, Jesus is led into the wilderness, where he fasts for forty days and forty nights, to be tempted by the devil. When the devil tempts Jesus to command the stones to become loaves of bread, Jesus replies by quoting Scripture: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” This is a direct quotation from Deuteronomy 8:3. For context, let’s look at Deuteronomy 8:1-3:

The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the Lord swore to give to your fathers. 2 And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. 3 And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

The Greek word translated “to be tempted” in Matthew 4:1 is πειράζω, which literally means “to be tested” — the very same (inflected) word used in Deuteronomy 8:2 in the Septuagint (ἐκπειράσῃ). Its Hebrew equivalent לְנַסֹּֽתְךָ֗ is used in the Hebrew text. Furthermore, Israel is in the wilderness for forty years, just as Jesus is in the wilderness, according to Matthew 4, for forty days and forty nights. Finally, the very text that Jesus quotes while in the wilderness is lifted directly from this text in Deuteronomy 8. Since Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days (not forty years), there may even be a connection to Numbers 14:34:

According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, a year for each day, you shall bear your iniquity forty years, and you shall know my displeasure.’

Clearly, then, Matthew views Jesus as in some sense recapitulating events in the history of the nation of Israel.
A similar theme is in view in Matthew 2:13-15. Matthew has taken a text that has to do with the nation of Israel and has applied it to the life of Jesus, in order to highlight Jesus as the true, or perfect, Israel. When one comes to grasp that, one gains a new appreciation for the genius insight that the gospel authors had into the Hebrew Bible, for this is not a concept that has been invented out of whole cloth by the authors of the New Testament. Rather, the concept of the Messiah as the new and perfect Israel can be traced back to the Hebrew Bible itself. Let us take a look.
Isaiah 41:8-10 speaks of the nation of Israel as being God’s servant:

8 But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; 9 you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, “You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off”; 10 fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

However, in the next chapter the individual referred to as God’s servant is an individual, not the nation of Israel. Here is Isaiah 42:1-7:

Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. 2 He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. 4 He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law. 5 Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it: 6 “I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, 7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.

How do we know that the servant in view in this text is an individual, and not a personification of the nation of Israel? The answer lies in the second half of the chapter (verses 18-25), in which God contrasts the righteous servant described in the first part of the chapter, with the unrighteous servant Israel:

18 Hear, you deaf, and look, you blind, that you may see! 19 Who is blind but my servant, or deaf as my messenger whom I send? Who is blind as my dedicated one, or blind as the servant of the Lord? 20 He sees many things, but does not observe them; his ears are open, but he does not hear. 21 The Lord was pleased, for his righteousness’ sake, to magnify his law and make it glorious. 22 But this is a people plundered and looted; they are all of them trapped in holes and hidden in prisons; they have become plunder with none to rescue, spoil with none to say, “Restore!” 23 Who among you will give ear to this, will attend and listen for the time to come? 24 Who gave up Jacob to the looter, and Israel to the plunderers? Was it not the Lord, against whom we have sinned, in whose ways they would not walk, and whose law they would not obey? 25 So he poured on him the heat of his anger and the might of battle; it set him on fire all around, but he did not understand; it burned him up, but he did not take it to heart.

As further evidence that the servant spoken of in Isaiah 42:1-7 is an individual rather than national Israel, the servant spoken of is clearly one and the same individual as spoken of in Isaiah 11:1-10, as can be discerned from various literary parallels and the similitude of the servant’s job description. But that servant of the Lord is to be a direct descendant of Jesse and King David (Isaiah 11:1 as well as Isaiah 9:7). Surely, an individual is in view here.

There appears, then, to be both continuity and discontinuity between Israel’s Messiah and the nation of Israel. This becomes even more striking in Isaiah 49:1-7:

Listen to me, O coastlands, and give attention, you peoples from afar. The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name. 2 He made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow; in his quiver he hid me away. 3 And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” 4 But I said, “I have laboured in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my right is with the Lord, and my recompense with my God.” 5 And now the Lord says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him— for I am honoured in the eyes of the Lord, and my God has become my strength— 6 he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” 7 Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers: “Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves; because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

Notice that in verse 3, the servant is actually given the title of Israel, but then in verse 5 he is nonetheless distinguished from Israel because He is the one chosen “to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him.” This is also evidently the same servant who is spoken of in Isaiah 42 as well as 11. Verse 7 also suggests that it is the same servant as the one spoken of in Isaiah 52:13-53:12, since the parallel between Isaiah 52:15 and 49:7 is striking.

Is it any wonder, then, that Matthew viewed (and wants his readers to view) Jesus as the new, greater, and perfect Israel?

But there is yet further Biblical precedent for the association between Israel and the Messiah. Consider the oracles of Balaam in Numbers 23 & 24. Balaam’s second oracle is given in Numbers 23:18-24, in which we read,

18 And Balaam took up his discourse and said, “Rise, Balak, and hear; give ear to me, O son of Zippor: 19 God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfil it? 20 Behold, I received a command to bless: he has blessed, and I cannot revoke it. 21 He has not beheld misfortune in Jacob, nor has he seen trouble in Israel. The Lord their God is with them, and the shout of a king is among them. 22 God brings them out of Egypt and is for them like the horns of the wild ox. 23 For there is no enchantment against Jacob, no divination against Israel; now it shall be said of Jacob and Israel, ‘What has God wrought!’ 24 Behold, a people! As a lioness it rises up and as a lion it lifts itself; it does not lie down until it has devoured the prey and drunk the blood of the slain.

Attentive readers will notice that verse 22 strikingly parallels Hosea 11:1, alluded to in Matthew 2:13-15 and the subject of our discussion.

We now turn to the third oracle, which is given in Numbers 24:2-9:

And the Spirit of God came upon him, 3 and he took up his discourse and said, “The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, the oracle of the man whose eye is opened, 4 the oracle of him who hears the words of God, who sees the vision of the Almighty, falling down with his eyes uncovered: 5 How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your encampments, O Israel! 6 Like palm groves that stretch afar, like gardens beside a river, like aloes that the Lord has planted, like cedar trees beside the waters. 7 Water shall flow from his buckets, and his seed shall be in many waters; his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted. 8 God brings him out of Egypt and is for him like the horns of the wild ox; he shall eat up the nations, his adversaries, and shall break their bones in pieces and pierce them through with his arrows. 9 He crouched, he lay down like a lion and like a lioness; who will rouse him up? Blessed are those who bless you, and cursed are those who curse you.”

Here, Jacob’s king is said to be “higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted.” The text goes on to say “God brings him out of Egypt and is for him like the horns of the wild ox”, the very same language used to describe the nation of Israel in the previous oracle. Is the antecedent of the “him” in this verse (and by extension the pronouns that follow in the rest of verse 8 and 9) referring to Jacob (who represents the nation of Israel), or is it referring to Jacob’s (and Israel’s) King? The key lies in the next and final oracle, which is recorded in Numbers 24:15-19:

15 And he took up his discourse and said, “The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, the oracle of the man whose eye is opened, 16 the oracle of him who hears the words of God, and knows the knowledge of the Most High, who sees the vision of the Almighty, falling down with his eyes uncovered: 17 I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth. 18 Edom shall be dispossessed; Seir also, his enemies, shall be dispossessed. Israel is doing valiantly. 19 And one from Jacob shall exercise dominion and destroy the survivors of cities!”

Notice that the final oracle speaks of the King to come from Jacob’s line, saying that he “shall exercise dominion and destroy the survivors of cities!” This parallels the previous oracle, which speaks of the one who “shall eat up the nations, his adversaries, and shall break their bones in pieces and pierce them through with his arrows.” This is almost certainly speaking of the same character, which entails that the antecedent of the pronouns in Numbers 24:8-9 must be referring to the king to come from Jacob’s line, not to the nation of Israel as a whole. That means that the same expressions that are applied to Israel (Numbers 23:22-24) are also applied to the King to come from Jacob’s line (Numbers 24:8-9). There is therefore a link between the identity of Israel and the identity of that Messianic King to arise from David’s line.

One may fairly ask whether this text is speaking of the Messianic King or of King David. I would argue that a Messianic interpretation is more likely. For one thing, David never ate up the nations and exercised dominion over the earth, but that is precisely what the Scripture anticipates about the Messiah’s reign (e.g. Zechariah 9:9-11; Zechariah 14; Isaiah 2:1-5; Isaiah 11:1-10, etc etc). Furthermore, the text parallels texts in the Psalms that have been traditionally understood to be Messianic (although defending their Messianic nature is beyond the scope of this article). For example, Psalm 2:7-12, says,

7 I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. 8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. 9 You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” 10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. 11 Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. 12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

This text is interpreted to be a reference to the Messiah in the Jewish Talmud (Sukkah 52a):

Our Rabbis taught: The Holy One, blessed be He, will say to the Messiah, the son of David (May he reveal himself speedily in our days!), “Ask of me anything, and I will give it to you”, as it is said, “I will tell of the decree … this day have I begotten thee. Ask of me and I will give the nations for your inheritance” (Psalms 2:7–8).

Similarly, the Midrash Tehillim teaches:

R. Jonathan said: “Three persons were bidden, ‘Ask’—Solomon, Ahaz, and the King Messiah. Solomon: ‘Ask what I shall give thee’ (I Kings 3:5). Ahaz: ‘Ask thee a sign’ (Isaiah 7:11). The King Messiah: ‘Ask of Me’, etc. (Psalms 2:8).”

Furthermore, we read in Psalm 110,

“Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” 2 The Lord sends forth from Zion your mighty sceptre. Rule in the midst of your enemies! 3 Your people will offer themselves freely on the day of your power, in holy garments; from the womb of the morning, the dew of your youth will be yours. 4 The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” 5 The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath. 6 He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter chiefs over the wide earth. 7 He will drink from the brook by the way; therefore he will lift up his head.

Finally, Balaam’s oracles also closely parallel another Messianic text, to be found in Genesis 49, where Jacob blesses his sons. In verses 8 and 9, we read,

8 “Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons shall bow down before you. 9 Judah is a lion’s cub; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him? 10 The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until shiloh comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. 

The Messianic interpretation of this text is actually also not a Christian invention. Indeed, it goes at least as far back as the Targum Onkelos (1st century CE), and the text has been interpreted to be referring to the Messiah in most traditional Jewish writings.

A further point that is made by Miller, in relation to Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1, is that,

[I]t is confusing when Matthew tells us that Jesus fulfilled the prophecy “I called my son out of Egypt” (Hos 11:1) by fleeing toward Egypt (Matt 2:15).

It is likely that Matthew’s intended reference was to Jesus coming back out of Egypt later in the narrative (Matthew 2:19-23). Miller also observes,

The prophecy refers to the exodus, in which Egypt is the place of slavery and death, whereas in Matthew’s story Egypt is the place of safety.

This is true, but the parallel that Matthew is attempting to draw is only a limited one, and there is no intention of a point-for-point correlation between the Matthean and Exodus narrative.

In summary, Miller is quick to dismiss Matthew as having ripped Hebrew Scripture out of context. However, we have seen that a more detailed, closer, inspection of Matthew reveals that, far from failing to understand the Biblical contexts he quotes from or deliberately distorting their meaning, Matthew has deep and incredible insight into the Hebrew Bible. In future articles, we will see yet further examples of how Miller’s attempts to discredit Matthew in fact reveal his genius understanding of Old Testament texts and his insight into the Old Testament concept of Israel’s Messiah.


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