“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.”
Matthew 2:6 (NRSV)
There is a category of movies, particularly scary movies, called “found footage.” This category came into its own with The Blair Witch Project, and many movie makers have tried to re-bottle that lightning.
Found footage movies tell the story from video footage taken by the characters in the movie. The idea is that something terrible happened to someone, but the movie makers found these videos lying around, and they were able to piece together what happened. The movie is supposed to be scarier because the first person view point makes it more visceral. It is as if you are in the movie.
But this is a tricky thing to get right, and found footage movies often slip up in various ways. One of the more famous ways is a mistake I like to call Who’s Filming This. Somewhere in the course of making the movie, the director forgets he is supposed to have a viable way for the scene to end up on the found footage, and he secretly hopes you’ll be immersed enough that you’ll forget, too. So you’ll end up with scenes in these movies that couldn’t possibly have been shot by anyone actually there. They are basically normal movie scenes, at that point, but fit into a narrative that is trying to look like found footage, so sometimes you don’t notice.
When we read the Gospels, it’s good to keep this awareness. Matthew was not present for the scene he is describing between Herod and these emissaries, and it is unlikely anyone he spoke with was, either. There are many things in the Gospels where the purported authors were not present. We need to keep in mind that, although the Gospels present the illusion of a first-person narrative, they are rarely that. They were all written some time later than the events they describe by authors who only got to experience a slice of them, if any. The rest comes from other people’s stories, traditions, previous Gospels, and conjecture.
In this scene, Herod calls together the chief priests and scribes to exegete the location where the Messiah was to be born, and they pinpoint Bethlehem because of Micah 5. It is highly likely that Matthew is helping us out, here. Jewish tradition held that the figure spoken of in Micah would come “from Bethlehem” in the sense that David was from Bethlehem and this new ruler would be from his line. It is unlikely these guys got together in an exegetical huddle, pored over the Old Testament, and after extensive calculations, arrived at Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Messiah.
Matthew is helping us out by explicitly making the connection. There is a tradition about a new, Davidic king who will restore David’s kingdom, and this is Jesus. And, in case you had any doubts, Jesus actually came from Bethlehem.
And so, as always, to understand why Matthew wants us to explicitly connect this passage to Jesus, we look at the original context of the prophecy.
Micah is a tricky book, for me, anyway, because he’s not very good at signposting. You’re never quite sure who he’s getting on to. Sometimes, it seems like he’s prophesying a terrible fate for the nations who oppose Israel, then he sort of casually slips into what seems to be a critique of Israel’s own conduct and what God might do about that, then back out again. Perhaps the ambiguity is intentional. Perhaps Micah is trying to get across that the Israel of his day was not much better than the nations they contended against. It gives meaning to Israel’s troubles of that day as well as offering hope.
By the time we get to Micah 5, though, the scene is relatively clear. For now, Israel has been in exile, but God will restore them to their former glory. The nations will be gathered against Israel, but God will transform her into this metal fighting machine that will bring the whole world into submission under YHVH.
It is in this situation that Micah prophesies a new ruler from Bethlehem who will bring protection and shalom to Israel. If Assyria moves against Israel, this ruler and his men will bring them under Israel’s dominion. Then Israel will give up her weapons of war, be purified of her evil practices, and be remade holy to the Lord.
Matthew is encapsulating that whole episode from Micah into the little summary in his Gospel, saying a mouthful with the line, “who is to shepherd my people Israel.” Micah 5 talks about this ruler feeding the flock of Israel and raising up shepherds against Assyria.
Once again, we have to remind ourselves that Micah 5, and Matthew’s use of Micah 5, are prophecies about the destiny of Israel accomplished by a new leader of Israel on behalf of the people of Israel. Even in Micah’s prophecy where the nations submit to Israel’s God, Israel is still at the top of the food chain. They are the means by which the nations are brought into submission. The nations come to YHVH because Israel makes them.
It is at this point that it might seem like a mistake for the people of Jesus’ day to expect a political deliverance, but I would argue that the only mistake that may have been made was the thought of some (Peter, I’m looking in your direction) that this would be accomplished with armies and swords, and this can hardly be called a mistake given the imagery used by these prophets. Jesus eschewed these things particularly so that the deliverance would be ascribed to the power of God – much like his ancestor David in his fight against Goliath – as well as the fact that shalom governs the new creation. War and warriors have no place in it. It does not advance that way. A man whose hands shed blood cannot build the Temple.
However, because Jesus doesn’t militarily stage a coup, that doesn’t mean his deliverance isn’t political. He begins a counter-cultural community that is both anti-Empire and anti-Temple, uniting under the banner of a new king. He preaches a coming judgment against the world order and the powers that be that will leave them deposed, poor, and likely dead. He preaches and manifests the signs Israel is expecting of that great Day of the Lord when the nations would bow to Israel. He does not just forgive sins, he feeds the hungry, he cleanses the Temple, he claims kingship, he issues commands, he heals the sick, he installs officers, and he is executed by the government for insurrection – claiming to be the king of the Jews.
And he offers a way beyond the authorities and powers of his age to be exalted above them – faithfulness unto death. By placing his new nation’s hands into God’s hands, it is God who delivers, God who protects, and God who resurrects.
We cannot miss the world-shattering significance to Israel of Rome destroying their Temple and sacking Jerusalem, nor can we miss the world-shattering significance of Caesar proclaiming that Jesus was lord of the Roman Empire. Events like these do not bring the story of the people of God to an end, but they are eminently political and change the destiny of the faithful forever.
And you, by claiming Jesus as your Lord, have signed into this kingdom. It is a real thing made up of real people who follow real laws issued by a real king living on real land occupied by other nations. Jesus has shown you how to fight and conquer these nations – by the word of your testimony and not loving your life even unto death. We do not pick up a sword, for this is how the kingdoms of this world conquer and “peacekeep.”
Our kingdom fights by throwing our kingdom in their face, in a sense. We live out in radical, world-noticing ways our collective walk of love, justice, forgiveness, care, restoration, and sacrifice. And when the swords come out, our testimony gets bolder and our lives get louder. And when they kill us, our blood cries from the ground to God who avenges. And when we see suffering and even death before us, we endure it because of the joy held out before us – resurrection and new creation. This is the path of the Master, and we servants are not greater than he such that we do not have to walk it.
But people of God, what joy there is being part of this society, experiencing the presence of our God and our king by the power of the Spirit, and walking arm and arm with brothers and sisters who would give us their clothes, food, money – even die for the love of us. It is the age to come bleeding into this one, and we get to be part of that and active in it.
This not only a spiritual, internal thing. It is political, and it rocks the nations and changes the world. Or at least, it could. It would. If we were about it.
- Can you think of other places in Scripture where “shepherd” imagery is important? What is that image meant to communicate in those passages? How might this relate to Jesus being a shepherd of Israel?
- In Matthew’s day, there was an expectation of actual, historical intervention by God to achieve actual, historical outcomes. In our day, we have tended to focus on spiritual, internal realities. Why do you think this shift has happened over time? Is it a good shift?
- What are the ways the church has opposed evil in your country? Does it look very much like the way Jesus opposed evil and encouraged his followers to do the same?