Skip to content

Bethlehem, the Nativity, and Matthew’s New Exodus

With Christmas season upon us, the eyes of Christians worldwide turn to Bethlehem, the city immortalized in Scripture, songs, and pageants as the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Though it once was and still remains a relatively small city, its significance far outstrips its size. In ancient Israel, Bethlehem is recorded to be the nearby locale of Rachel’s tomb (Gen 35:9), the hometown of Ruth’s first husband and Boaz (Ruth 1:1–22; 2:4), and, most importantly, the birth-city of David (1 Sam 17:12).

It is this latter connection that draws the attention of Luke (2:4) and John (7:42), where Bethlehem attains its peak significance as the ancestral home of the Davidic Messiah.

But what about Matthew? Perhaps surprisingly Matthew traces out the significance of Bethlehem as Jesus’s birthplace in a different direction than we might expect. In doing so, he gives us a fascinating insider’s look the unfolding plan of God—and what exactly was being accomplished in Bethlehem that fateful night.

Scripture in Matthew’s Nativity Account

Readers of Matthew 1–2 quickly notice the author’s emphasis on Scripture through his repeated “fulfillment” formulas (in contrast to Luke 1–2, where the scriptural interplay is more subtle). This interweaving of Scripture has also generated debate, particularly related to the question of whether Matthew is lifting verses out of context to score apologetic points about Jesus. A closer look at five passages reveals not only that this is far from the case, but that Matthew is a more sophisticated reader of Scripture than often granted. We will then turn to a sixth passage, his Bethlehem quotation.

1. Book of the genesis. Matthew begins with a genealogy. While perhaps tedious to modern readers, a list of names in the ancient world grounds contemporary events in the flesh-and-bones history of a people. And Matthew introduces his in a notable way: “the book of the genesis of Jesus Christ” (1:1). This phrase conjures the wording found at several points in the first book of Israel’s Scriptures (Gen 2:4; 5:1) as well as the last book, according to most Hebrew/Jewish orderings (1 Chr 1:29). Matthew connects Jesus’s origins, his genesis, to the historical people of God—a people who are still in exile, awaiting the reboot of their royal genealogy (Matt 1:17). Matthew also includes four non-Jewish women (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba) in Jesus’s family tree, signaling God’s plan for ingrafting the nations.

2. Birth to a virgin. When Matthew narrates Mary’s virginal conception, he famously concludes with Isaiah 7:14 (Matt 1:22–23). At one level, he is showing that the “virgin birth” anticipated by Isaiah has arrived. But we should avoid thinking this is only as a box checked by Jesus. If you read Isaiah 7–8 closely, a bigger picture emerges. Isaiah is forthtelling to Ahaz that the judgment of exile is at Israel’s door. Isaiah offers signs to call the people to have faith in the LORD who will deliver them, namely, three symbolically-named sons: Shear-Jashub (“a remnant will return”; 7:3), Immanuel (“God with us”; 7:14), and Maher-shalel-hash-baz (“hasten to the plunder, quick to the spoils”; 8:1–3). Matthew, by quoting and then translating the second symbolic name, pulls in this rich context of Isaiah: the nations will overrun Israel, but those who have faith in God as their sanctuary will be preserved (Isa 8:13–14). In Matthew 1, then, God has drawn near to his exiled people (=“Immanuel”) in the person of his miraculously-conceived Son.

3. The star in its rising. After Jesus’s birth, Matthew narrates how an astral phenomenon causes a group of pagan magi from Persia to trek to Jerusalem in search of a new Israelite king (Matt 2:2). Why would a star’s rising cause these men to do this? Most likely the stimulus is the ancient oracle of Balaam in Numbers 24:17, which predicted a king’s coming from Israel like a rising star, who in turn would rule all nations.

4. A son’s exodus from Egypt. Matthew’s biggest curve-ball is 2:14–15. Upon describing Joseph, Mary, and Jesus’s flight to Egypt, he quotes Hosea 11:1 (“out of Egypt I called my son”). Both laypersons and scholars often struggle here, for it seems that Matthew is taking that passage to be a direct messianic proof-text when, plainly, Hosea 11 is speaking of Israel. But we need to remember that point-to-point messianic prophecy is not the only tool in Matthew’s toolbelt. Something more complex is going on. Hosea is drawing on the original exodus, where God declares that he will deliver his “firstborn son” out of Egypt (Exod 4:22–23). Hosea, then, slides the window forward by saying that a new kind of exodus will take place, with God delivering his “son” from impending exile. That is the connection that the flight to Egypt makes for Matthew: history is repeating itself, but now in a consummated way. Jesus embodies “Israel” as the true Son of God, and his birth signals that the final exodus promised by Hosea—but never truly fulfilled—is at hand. Jesus embodies “Israel” as the true Son of God, and his birth signals that the final exodus promised by Hosea—but never truly fulfilled—is at hand. Click To Tweet

5. Rachel’s weeping in Ramah. Matthew’s final major fulfillment quotation comes on the heels of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, which Matthew explains by quoting Jeremiah 31:10–16. At first blush, this seems to be an odd prooftext. But on closer inspection, we see its significance. Rachel, as mentioned, was likely buried near Bethlehem after she died birthing Benjamin. Centuries later, her descendants (as part of the Southern Kingdom) would be gathered for deportation by the Babylonians. Where? Ramah (Jer 40:1). Thus, Jeremiah’s oracle envisions Rachel metaphorically weeping in Ramah over her soon-to-be exiled offspring. But the rest of Jeremiah 31:10–16 offers hope (that culminates later in that chapter’s “new covenant” passages): she will no longer weep, for God will shepherd and restore the people in a new exodus. For Matthew, then, the past attack on Rachel’s children is being recapitulated by a new antagonist (Herod)—but there is hope for a restoration.

Taking stock of these five, we see consistent motifs emerge: the people of Israel, a coming ruler, ongoing exile, and new exodus. In short, the circumstances of Jesus’s birth point Matthew to see how God’s plan to redeem his people out of exile by a future ruler, and to accomplish his plans for all the nations, is now at hand.

What, Then, of Bethlehem?

The sixth major instance where Matthew’s nativity engages Scripture is Micah 5:2–6, which is quoted in explaining Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem (2:5–6). Usually, this is taken to be merely an apologetic maneuver: Matthew finds the best (and only) prooftext for how the birth in Bethlehem not only echoes David (as per Luke/John) but explicitly fulfills a prophecy. And this is certainly part of it. But is that all? What we have seen so far regarding Matthew’s sophisticated engagement with Scripture might lead us to probe further. The key, as we have seen already, is to look at the broader context.

Matthew, indeed, invites us to do this by quoting lines that bracket a larger portion of text in Micah. Let us examine them side-by-side:

Matt 2:5–6 Mic 5:2–6
For so it is written by the prophet:
“And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; And you, Bethlehem house of Ephrathah, are least among the clans of Judah.
for from you shall come a ruler from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel.
who will shepherd my people Israel.” And he will stand and shepherd his flock
in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.
And he shall be their peace. When the Assyrian comes into our land and treads in our palaces … he shall deliver us from the Assyrian.

With a few minor variations in wording, Matthew appeals to one portion of Micah to establish that Bethlehem in Judah is the point of origin for a future ruler; he then skips down to explain what this ruler will do, namely, shepherd the people of Israel.

The surrounding context of Micah—to which Matthew invites us to listen by his selective quotation pattern—gives sparkling color to the portrait being sketched.

First, we find that this coming ruler is no mere earthly Bethlehemite. His “coming forth” is from ancient history; in fact, in the Greek rendering of Micah, this ruler’s exodoi (plural for “exodus”) is “from the beginning, from the days of eternity.” In some shadowy sense, Micah is speaking of a ruler grounded in eternity past.

Second, Micah speaks of how God will “give them up”— the people of Israel—for a period of time in the impending exile (as was the case for the aforementioned passages in Isaiah, Hosea, and Jeremiah). In Micah’s field of vision, “she who is in labor” likely refers to Israel’s travails. But a greater signification is revealed by Matthew, in light of how he has already sunk the roots of Jesus’s birth in the history of Israel: God sent his people into exile until the pregnant woman—namely, the mother of this Bethlehemite ruler—has given birth. Then he will gather the “brothers” back in restoration (see Matt 23:37).

Third, Micah speaks of how this ruler-shepherd will “be great to the ends of the earth.” How? By delivering his people from Assyria. Again, in Matthew’s nativity, we see an eschatological fulfillment of this passage: the Bethlehemite ruler-shepherd born to the woman to deliver the people of God in exile will do so by expanding his kingdom-reign to all nations.

Matthew’s New Exodus

Let us put it all together. Matthew’s appeal to Micah is not a mere birthplace box to check on a messianic job application. It is far more complex and beautiful. When read in its full context—and in light of how Matthew is reading Scripture elsewhere in the nativity, invoking the motifs of exile and restoration from other passages—we have a quite compelling scene.

It is not that the birth in Bethlehem causes Matthew to scramble to find a place where that was prophesied, full stop. Rather, it is Micah’s entire prophecy that causes Matthew, in his deft handling of Scripture, to articulate who exactly this person is that is born in that city.

He is the one whose origins are from eternity past. Indeed, whose “exodus” is rooted in ancient times.

He is the one who, upon the labor and delivery of his earthly mother, signals that the scattering of God’s beloved people, the original “firstborn son,” has now reached its expiration date. His birth is the beginning of the end of the captivity. The “brothers” of this newborn king will now be gathered in, with him as shepherd.

And he is the one who will rule over the nations by either subduing them or—as even his own genealogy attests—ingrafting them into himself by faith.

Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem attests: that is who he is.

While Mark often gets most of the airtime for his “new exodus” theme, we should not overlook Matthew’s own new exodus. For it begins in the sleepy little town of Bethlehem, with an eternal Christ-child who turns back the exile, restores his brothers, and advances God’s purposes for the nations.

Gregory R. Lanier

Gregory Lanier (PhD, University of Cambridge) serves as Assistant Professor of New Testament and Dean of Students at Reformed Theological Seminary Orlando and Associate Pastor at River Oaks Church (PCA).

Back to Top