There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
Matthew 2:23 (NRSV)
Ok, well, now Matthew is just trolling us.
It’s bad enough he had to stop every two sentences to give us an Old Testament reference. And we almost didn’t stick with him when he decided to use one that referred to the wrong location and wasn’t a reference in the future. But now he’s finally done it. He’s quoted an Old Testament reference that doesn’t even exist.
Say what you like about the inadequacies of proof-texting; at least the texts generally exist. This is in a whole different league. Matthew has become the Michael Jordan of misapplying the Old Testament.
Or so it would seem.
Scholars have tried to explain this – the quote that wasn’t there – with theories ranging from Old Testament texts that we no longer have to the Hebrew word being “shoot” or “branch” to a reference to a Nazirite vow to Matthew sort of summarizing some verses that maybe would give the idea Jesus was a Nazarene.
To make matters more complicated, Matthew provides a reasonably detailed backstory for how Jesus ended up in Nazareth involving Joseph fleeing from the reign of Herod Archelaus. Archelaus is not the same Herod who ordered the babies killed – he’s the son, and the Jews do not like him at all. According to Josephus, they make all kinds of demands before he’s confirmed as king of the Jews, and when he sends a delegation to settle the unrest, the Jews stone them to death and get right back to living their lives. Archelaus responds by sending the whole army and killing 3000 Jews in the Temple.
Luke, by contrast, has a much more pedestrian story of Joseph being from Nazareth, they go to Bethlehem for the census, then they go back home.
What’s with the need for Matthew to unpack this weird little political intrigue to “fulfill” a verse that doesn’t even exist?
Obviously, there are no easy answers, here. But here’s what I suspect.
I’m going to go with Jerome on this one, at least part way. I think the Nazarene thing probably encompasses the Messianic references to the “branch” (ne’tser) and its root “shoot” (neser). Matthew says this bit was spoken by the prophets – plural – and the branch/shoot/root image is used several times in Old Testament messianic expectation as well as inter-testamental writings and writings of the Qumran community.
Look, for instance, at Isaiah 10-11. In this passage, God brings Assyria to end the oppression of Israel by, get this, other Israelites. Iniquitous decrees, neglect of the poor, injustice – these are the accusations Isaiah levels against Israel. To deliver the weak and oppressed, in comes Assyria.
But it turns out Assyria is also terrible and, in this environment, faithful Israel repents and cries out to the Lord, and the Lord delivers them from Assyria and leads them into a restored kingdom of Shalom led by the one spoken of in Isaiah 11.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch (neser) shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
Isaiah 11:1-3 (NRSV), interlinear Hebrew mine
Isaiah seems to be the only book fond of this specific word, but it shows up in Isaiah in at least two other places most likely not all written by the same person or at least at the same time. Further, this image of the Messiah is all over the prophets, even if the particular word is not used.
We have seen over and over again Matthew summoning up an Old Testament passage to give meaning to the event of Jesus, and he loves to tie it together with some literal hook. In this case, the literal hook is Jesus being from Nazareth. The Branch is from Branch City.
And, as we’ve also seen many times, we have the theme of faithful Israel suffering under an oppressor and the promised deliverance and restoration by God.
So, there’s a sense in which all those theories may be somewhat correct (except maybe the Nazirite thing, in my opinion). It’s a summary. It’s not an allusion to one specific passage, but rather a collection, and that collection are the passages that emphasize God’s servant as the Branch raised up to deliver Israel and give her – a repentant, purified, and restored Israel – a glorious kingdom of shalom. Jesus is super that, and you know it has to be him, because he’s from Branchville (Nazareth).
I encourage you to look at previous posts to see how, even in just a couple of chapters, this theme of the imminent deliverance and restoration of Israel by God through Jesus is just used almost non-stop in this Gospel. Matthew will bring it up again, and again, and again, hammering it in every three sentences, seems like. It’s important to him, and as people trying to really hear Matthew, it should be important to us. But I don’t want to keep repeating myself on the topic – I lack Matthew’s inspiration in several senses of the word.
Suffice it to say that this is something Jesus did accomplish, and the fact that you and I are now full members of the people of God and our destination is new creation is because of it.
- Do you think you could get away in a sermon with quoting an Old Testament verse that didn’t exist? Let’s not try it.
- Two other passages in Isaiah that use this word are Isaiah 14:19 and 60:21. What do these passages, in context, contribute to our understanding of Jesus as the Branch?
- The purpose of the Branch in Isaiah 11 is to create a kingdom of shalom. In what ways should the church embody this and work toward it? What is your calling in this?