Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12
The structure of the Epiphany gospel, Matthew 2:1-12, is a chiasm:
A. Wise men came asking “Where?”
B. Herod heard, asks “Where?”
C. Chief priests and Scribes answer, quoting Micah 5:2 “In Bethlehem.”
B2. Herod sent for wise men, then, although he had no jurisdiction over them, sent them to Bethlehem.
A2. Wise men went to Bethlehem following star, honored Jesus, and returned by another road.
Literarily, a chiasm does up to three things:
1. Highlights the center of the chiasm,
2. Highlights the first and final position of the text, and/or
3. Highlights the mutual critical interpretation between the middle and the first/final position.
How is the season of Epiphany itself a liturgical chiasm? How does this text function as a chiasm?
First, Epiphany could function as a liturgical chiasm since it is a focused season that comes directly between the Christmas cycle (Advent, Christmas) and the Easter cycle (Lent, Easter). Epiphany could provide a lens of mutual interpretation when the preacher considers how the concept or experience of epiphany — or a manifestation of the divine — interprets Christmas and/or Easter. How do Christmas and/or Easter transform one’s interpretation of what epiphany means? While consideration of a chiasm in the liturgical year is theologically sound, there is also a limitation to this consideration: there is not historical evidence that the liturgical year was structured to include a chiasm.
Second, this pericope, like the Gospel of Matthew, intentionally uses chiasms. Scholars have suggested that the whole of Matthew may be structured around a chiasm. In Matthew 2:1-12, the center of the chiasm is verse 6, when the chief priest and scribes’ quote of Micah 5:2.
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.
“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.”
Stunningly, this quoted passage does not only answer the question that the wise men and Herod voice out loud — that is the question of “Where?” this one will be born. While the quote does respond to the twice asked “where?” question, with the answer, “in Bethlehem,” it also answer Herod’s implicit question “Who?” These texts answer the “who?” question by saying that the one whom the wise men seek is “to rule in Israel.”
Taking a closer look at how this news may have sounded to Herod, we realize that Herod has been on a long career climb to get to the place he is now.
- Herod was named governor of Galilee by Antipater II.
- Antipater’s successor Mark Antony appointed Herod as the tetrarch of Judea.
- During a Parthian siege, Herod was finally named the King of Judea.
This man, who had spent his whole life climbing to the political height he had achieved, is unlikely to favorably receive news that a baby is to be born with a right to Herod’s rule. Furthermore, Herod is used to getting rid of people who don’t serve his ambition. He:
- had ten wives,
- ordered multiple assassinations, including assassinations of some of his own sons, and,
- changed succession plans multiple times as he decided who would take his throne when he died.
When Herod heard that a baby could get in the way of his plans, he defaulted to his regular pattern of figuring out how to execute the problem child. In verse 12, the wise men’s dream makes them leery to return to Herod with more information of Jesus’ location. Verse 16 confirms the wise men’s (and the readers’) suspicions when it says, “[Herod] sent and killed all the children.” Herod’s attempts to rid himself of competition for the rule of Judea.
Dreams, like the wise men’s dream in verse 12, serve an important function in the Matthean birth narrative. In ancient Near Eastern society, dreams were viewed as supernatural and as crucial methods of divine communication with humans. Joseph married Mary, left Bethlehem, and returned to Nazareth (instead of Bethlehem) all on account of listening to dreams. Similarly, the wise men averted disaster by listening to their dream and returning “by another road.”
What part do spiritual practices and dreams have in the way your community discerns the path ahead? There are plenty of roadblocks out there currently in any given congregation. How is it that you might communally discern if there is a new way forward by another road?