Many things could be said about the Gospel of Matthew but perhaps the most obvious is its attempt to portray Jesus as the new and better Israel. Let me explain.
Throughout the book, the author either alludes to or explicitly cites biblical passages that in their original context are about the people of Israel. In Matthew 2:13-15, after Joseph is warned in a dream to flee to Egypt and told to come back when Herod was dead, Matthew writes, “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet,” ‘Out of Egypt I called my son'” (Matthew 2:15). But look at the actual passage from the prophet he cites.
When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more they were called,
the more they went away;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals
and burning offerings to idols. (Hosea 11:1-2)
Clearly, the prophet Hosea is speaking of the people of Israel and their flight from Egypt, not Jesus and his return from Egypt. Matthew is using Hosea for his own purposes and that purpose is to show that Jesus is the superior “son.”
Consider also the temptation of Jesus by the devil in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). He is taken into the wilderness and fasts for “forty days and forty nights” (v. 2). But why the wilderness? Because that is where God drew his people to after they left Egypt and it is where he would meet with them in the Christian vision of the coming of the Messiah. We read in Deuteronomy 8:1-3 that Moses told Israel,
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. And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what is in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. 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.
Notice anything familiar? Israel is led by God into the wilderness (Deuteronomy 8:2); Jesus is “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness” (Matthew 4:1). The purpose of this wilderness journey for Israel was to “humble you, testing you to know what is in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not” (Deuteronomy 8:2); Jesus is led into the wilderness “to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). Israel is there for forty years (Deuteronomy 8:2); Jesus is there for forty days and nights (Matthew 4:2). Israel is fed by bread from heaven so that they might learn that man lives by every word of God (Deuteronomy 8:3); Jesus cites Deuteronomy 8:3 when the devil tempts him to turn stones into bread (Matthew 4:3-4).
There are other parallels we could consider like Moses going up to a mountain to get the Decalogue (Exodus 19:20) and Jesus going up on a mountain and delivering his famous “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7). Suffice it to say, Jesus is clearly being viewed as a superior specimen to even the greatest heroes of Judaism. For Matthew, at least, Jesus is the new, more obedient, and better Israel.
Most of us are familiar with the general details of the story of man’s sin and expulsion from Eden. But few of us really appreciate all that is going on in the story in Genesis 3. After God makes man in the garden (Genesis 2:7), he plants two trees: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:9). He tells the man that he can eat from any of the trees except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The penalty for doing so is death (2:16). Scary!
Next, in contrast to the repetition of the word “good” throughout Genesis 1, in Genesis 2 we find out that God has done something not so good: “It is not good that the man should be alone” (2:18). So he decides to create a helper for the man. He creates animals and brings them to the man so he can name them. But among them there is no suitable helper (2:19-20). So what does God do? He puts the man to sleep, pulls out a rib, and creates a woman.
We come to Genesis 3 and it opens with another animal God had made and that undoubtedly the man had encountered in chapter two: a serpent. He comes to the woman and he asks her, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?'” (3:1) This, of course, is no innocent question. The serpent is leading the woman down a path that leads to her expulsion from the garden.
“We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden,” she replies, “but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'” (3:2-3) The woman isn’t exactly quoting God correctly. Look back at Genesis 2:16 again. He told the man that he could eat of every tree except from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. She also places the tree of the knowledge of good and evil “in the midst of the garden” despite the fact that both it and the tree of life are in the middle of the garden (2:9). She has fallen for the serpent’s craftiness. What is more is that she has added a prohibition God did not offer, namely that she is not even permitted to touch the fruit. This was not in the original command to the man.
“You will not surely die,” he tells the woman. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (3:5). We may be taken aback by this contradiction of God’s word but the fact of the matter is that the serpent isn’t wrong. Neither Adam nor Eve die when they take the fruit and eat it. Check it out. Adam lives for 930 years before he dies (5:5). Furthermore, they do become like God knowing good and evil. God says later in the story, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil” (3:22).
What do we make of all this? Well, it becomes clear that the serpent is, for the most part, telling the truth. Though he leads with a question that implies God said something that he didn’t, his outright denial that neither the man nor the woman would die upon eating the fruit and that they would become like God when they did turns out to be completely true! But it is also clear from the text that the serpent knew that what he was doing would lead to the first humans’ downfall.
Genesis 3 is an etiology that seeks to answer questions like, “Why is child-bearing so painful?” and “Why do serpents go on their bellies?” Coming back to the text time and again reveals more and more interesting things. Today its how the serpent gets the woman to eat without telling her to do so and how he tells the truth about what will happen if she does eat.
If you have any thoughts or comments, please feel free to leave them or email me at email@example.com. Keep reading!