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Have Yourself a Merry Little (Deconstructing) Christmas, part two.
He will save his people from their sins?
This week I’m continuing our series that peeks behind the scenes of the Christmas stories found in Matthew and Luke. If you missed last week’s introduction you can find it here. In this post we’ll look at the nativity story as told by Matthew.
Here’s the text:
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:
Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,
And they will call him, Emmanuel.
(Emmanuel means “God with us.”)
When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. But he didn’t have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25, CEB)
Matthew has a focused agenda with his Christmas narrative: Matthew wants us to see Jesus as a new Moses, Moses 2.0 if you will, who is leading a new Exodus.
How is Matthew making this point?
For his first readers it would have been obvious, but for us, separated by time and culture, it can often go by unnoticed. Matthew makes his case by a creative use of midrash. If you aren’t familiar with the term, midrash is a kind an ancient Jewish commentary on a text. It creatively fills in the gaps of a text, and aids in interpretation. Which leads to a reminder about a key detail that we must keep in the front of our minds at all times when engaging the Gospels: They are Jewish texts, written by Jewish authors, for communities that were made up of Jewish participants. Yes, they were people who had embraced the person and Way of Jesus, but that doesn’t mean they were “Christian” in the way we think of that category today.
Back to the midrash.
The pattern Matthew presents when Joseph discovers Mary’s pregnancy goes like this: He decides to divorce her, then he experiences a revelation, and as a result he marries Mary. This sequence, however, is not original to Matthew; it’s actually taken from midrash about the birth of Moses.
At the end of the book of Genesis the Hebrews have moved down to Egypt to escape a famine in Canaan. Making a long story short, Joseph had become a highly influential and powerful official in the administration of the pharaoh, and when the famine occurred he relocated his father, Jacob/Israel, and his family to Egypt to care for them.1 After a while Joseph died, and a pharaoh who did not know about him or his contributions came to power. This pharaoh had an irrational fear of the Hebrews, so he enslaved them, and then enacted a program of genocide against them. He decreed that all Hebrew baby boys be killed at birth, drowned in the Nile river. The text of Exodus moves from the decree to the announcement of Moses’s birth:
Then Pharaoh gave an order to all his people: “Throw every baby boy born to the Hebrews into the Nile River, but you can let all the girls live.” Now a man from Levi’s household married a Levite woman. The woman became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She saw that the baby was healthy and beautiful, so she hid him for three months. When she couldn’t hide him any longer, she took a reed basket and sealed it up with black tar. She put the child in the basket and set the basket among the reeds at the riverbank.
Exodus 1:22-2:3, CEB
The chapter break here isn’t original to the text, so the transition is abrupt. The genocide is enacted, and the Levite couple conceive and give birth to a child. This was a bit puzzling for ancient readers. Why would this couple have a child when they knew the consequences would be dire?
*Midrash has entered the chat*
There are several different sources, with slight variations, but there is a general narrative.2 The Levites who would become Moses’s parents were named Amram and Jochebed, according to these traditions. Amram decided, because of pharaoh’s decree, to divorce Jochebed to ensure they did not produce a son. After a period of time, however, there is a revelation (to whom depends on the version, either Amram or their daughter Miriam) that the couple should come together and produce a son, because this child would go on to become the liberator of the people. As a result, Amram and Jochebed come back together, have a son, and the rest is “history”.
Matthew is intentionally, I believe, overlaying the story of Moses onto his birth narrative of Jesus to make plain, right at the outset, who he believes Jesus to be: a new Moses, leading a new Exodus.
This emphasis on liberation is deepened by the words of the angel in Joseph’s dream:
As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21, CEB)
When Christians hear these words, he will save his people from their sins, we likely hear them through the lens of Original Sin. If you aren’t familiar with this doctrine (you are really fortunate), it essentially states that because of the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, all humans are born with the stain of sin upon us. We are born separated from God, totally depraved, and deserving of God’s wrath. The way we avoid that wrath is by believing that Jesus, who, because of his virginal conception avoided the stain of Original Sin, was sinless and therefore able to die in our place as an acceptable sacrifice to God. Jesus’s death appeased God’s wrath toward us, if we accept it to be true, says this understanding.
There are multitudinous (I love that word) problems with this theological construct. Here are just a few of them. First, Original Sin doesn’t exist in the Jewish tradition. It’s just not a category. Second, even if Mary conceived Jesus while she was a virgin, all that we know today about biology and DNA tells us that Jesus would still have shared DNA with his mom. In the ancient world the understanding was that all of life was contained within the male, and that the womb was simply an incubator of life. We know now that this isn’t the case. Finally, this understanding misunderstands the meaning of salvation in Matthew’s story, and perhaps all of scripture. Salvation is tied in meaning to the Exodus narrative. The liberation of the enslaved Hebrews from Egyptian bondage is paradigmatic for the meaning of salvation in the Bible, and I think it’s also what Matthew is hinting at here in his Christmas story.
A question I often like to ask is, “When does the first mention of sin occur in the Bible?” When I ask this, people are often hesitant to share their answers. It seems so obvious. It has to be Genesis 3, right? Interestingly, the word sin never occurs in Genesis 3. Neither does the whole narrative about humans being separated from God. The first people sin, hide in their shame, and God still shows up for their planned stroll. God isn’t repelled by these humans, but instead moves toward them to heal their shame.3 Further, Original Sin would be a foreign idea to the first couple of centuries of what became the Christian tradition. It began to emerge in the third century CE, and took off in the work of Augustine in the fourth century.
The actual first mention of sin in the Bible occurs in Genesis 4, in the story of Cain and Abel. Cain is angry and resentful toward his brother, and the God character warns him:
“…sin will be waiting at the door ready to strike! It will entice you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:7b, CEB)
Sin, in its first mention, is connected to violence. It’s coiled like a snake, ready to strike. Violence is also one of the reasons given for the Great Flood of Genesis 6. Six chapters into the story, and human violence is at such a height that it threatens to undo creation, sending it into a flood of chaos and destruction. Is it possible that sin, throughout the Bible, is tied to all the ways we enact violence, physical and rhetorical, against other human beings?
Then we come to the context in which Matthew wrote his gospel story. It’s the 80s CE, which means we’re talking about a decade or so since the world ended for Matthew’s community. That’s exactly how the loss of the temple felt for them when Rome razed the city of Jerusalem and Judaism’s holiest site to the ground in the year 70 CE. It was the end of their world. The destruction of the city and temple was the decisive moment that ushered in the eventual end of the Jewish revolt against the Roman empire that began in 66 CE.
When Matthew says that Jesus will “save his people from their sins” what if he’s talking about violence? What if Matthew is pointing to the options that were on the table, violent revolution or non violent resistance, and reminding his readers that Jesus called them to be a community of non violent enemy lovers? What if Matthew is saying that listening to the non violent Jesus would have saved so much pain before, but it’s not too late to listen now, for the future?
I think Jesus still wants to save us from our sin of violence. In America’s 245 year history as a nation we’ve experienced less than 20 years without war. For 92% percent of our history we’ve been engaged in collective violence. As of October 2021 there had been 470 mass shootings in this country, not counting the tragedy in Michigan last week. Avoidable. Preventable. Sinful.
Yet, so much of dominant Christian theology is itself not a solution to violence, but a celebration of violence—the angry God requiring innocent blood, the returning Jesus who will come back in vengeance to make nonbelievers pay, the God who tortures people infinitely for finite sins.
And here we are in Advent, awaiting the coming Christ.
Jesus came, and during Advent comes to us again, to save us from our sins, maybe just not how we thought. May we listen. May we know what makes for peace—-real, lasting, healing, transformative peace. May we follow Jesus in the work of a new Exodus, a movement of liberation toward a new kind of humanity. And may we become instruments and incubators of that peace, everywhere we go.
The First Christmas, by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan
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By the way, Joseph was communicated with by God in dreams, and he had a father named Jacob. In Matthew, Joseph is communicated with by God in dreams, and he had a father named…Leonard. Nope, just kidding. Jacob. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
See Pseudo-Philo’s Book of Biblical Antiquities, Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities, and the Targum of Jerusalem I.
Part of the bad theology of Original Sin is grounded in a literal reading of metaphorical stories, like the beginning of Genesis.