Grief had always been at home in Bethlehem. Rachel died there, giving birth to Israel’s final son (Genesis 35:19). Maybe a parent would give her life so her children could live. But Rachel’s hopes were dashed as empires invaded, killing her children. Assyria decimated the tribes of her older son Joseph. Babylon crushed the remnant of Benjamin.
Jeremiah imagined Rachel weeping inconsolably as God’s promises fell apart:
Jeremiah 31:15 (NIV)
This is what the Lord says: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
Bethlehem was David’s town. Samuel was sent there to anoint David as the earthly representative of the heavenly king. But the current ruler made Samuel too fearful to go: “If Saul hears it, he will kill me” (1 Samuel 16:2). Earthly rulers resisting the heavenly king—it’s the story of history. Herod’s infanticide was one more case of earthly rulers using death to keep their power. Jeremiah was right: nothing will change until humans commit to a new legal agreement (covenant) where YHWH is king (Jeremiah 31:31–40). Until that day, death rules … and Rachel’s grief seems unending.
Do you think we’re being too hard on human rulers? Aren’t some better than others? Mary and Joseph hoped for someone better after Herod died. But Archelaus proved worse than his father. Before he even left for Rome, he killed 3000 people at Passover. After prolonged revolt against his brutality, he was finally deposed. The only long-term solution for evil on earth is for rulers to give their power back to the heavenly ruler. But how and when will that happen? That is precisely what Matthew wants us to ask.
For us, Bethlehem connotes not horror but hope: “Out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel” (2:6). The God who rescued Jesus from Herod will rescue his people.
The heavenly sovereign gives Joseph inside information — an intelligence report to avoid Archelaus (2:22). They settle in Galilee, well north of the capital. Nazareth was a small village (less than 500 people) with a very Jewish lifestyle and significantly less Greek influence than nearby Sepphoris. It was not the kind of place you would look for a “king of the Jews.” That was probably the point.
Matthew says that by living in Nazareth Jesus fulfilled what the prophets said. There’s no prediction about Nazareth anywhere in the Old Testament, but we’ve already seen that prophecy is not predicting. When the Jewish leaders referred to “Jesus of Nazareth” it was with a certain smugness, for no one expected a significant figure from such an insignificant place (compare Matthew 26:71; John 1:46).
So here’s the wonder of how the heavenly sovereign intends to restore his kingship over the earth. He sends his Son to restore the divine presence (1:23). Like God’s people before him, his life is threatened by those who claim to rule. He’s an asylum seeker, fleeing the tyranny of abusive human rule. He grows up in an unremarkable town, a place that didn’t even exist in the time of the Old Testament prophets, the kind of place where you’d never get a chance to be rich or powerful.
Nazareth is ideal because the Herods of this world don’t notice it. Nazareth is ideal because the heavenly king plans to use an unknown from nowhere: Jesus of Nazareth. It will be the great reversal. Jesus of Nazareth will deal with Rachel’s grief. Like Moses, Jesus was saved to save his people. He went into exile with his people to lead them out in a new exodus, to re-establish them as his kingdom.
Jesus of Nazareth. The hope of the world. An unknown from nowhere restores the whole earth to its heavenly sovereign.
What others are saying
Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 111–112:
More important than the specific nuances that recall Jesus’ identification with the time of Israel’s exile, the context in Jeremiah 31 also implies future hope. Rachel weeps for her children, but God comforts her, promising the restoration of his people (Jer 31:15–17), because Israel is “my dear son, the child in whom I delight” (31:20; cf. again Mt 2:15). This time of new salvation would be the time of a new covenant (31:31–34). The painful events of Jesus’ persecuted childhood are the anvil on which God would forge the fulfillment of his promises to his people, just as the cross would usher in the new covenant (26:28).
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 95:
On this view, then, the words “He shall be called a Nazorean” represent the prophetic expectation that the Messiah would appear from nowhere and would as a result meet with incomprehension and rejection. Of course the prophets could not speak specifically of Nazareth, which did not even exist when they wrote. But the connotations of the derogatory term Nazorean as applied in the first century to the messianic pretender Jesus captured just what some of the prophets had predicted—a Messiah who came from the wrong place, who did not conform to the expectations of Jewish tradition, and who as a result would not be accepted by his people. Even the embarrassment of an origin in Nazareth is thus turned to advantage as part of the scriptural model which Matthew has worked so hard to construct in this introductory section of his account of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.