Using the gospel of Matthew as our guide we have begun the task of opening the background necessary to grasp, as members of the current generation of Christians, the meaning of all the gospels. This is necessary because all of the gospels are Jewish books written by Jewish authors for Jewish congregations. They employ Jewish symbols and Jewish images; they draw on the Jewish Scriptures of antiquity to interpret the life and meaning of the Jewish Jesus of Nazareth. If we do not understand this Jewish reality, the tendency on the part of modern readers of these gospels will be to treat them as literal accounts of things that actually happened. They were never written to be that! I began this study of Matthew’s gospel by lifting the figure of Moses out of the shadows in Matthew’s first seven chapters. Although the image of Moses dominates these chapters his name is never mentioned. Yet for those who understand, Moses is the template against which Matthew tells his story of Jesus.
Earlier in this series, we looked at the first Moses story in Matthew’s gospel, the account of King Herod going down to Bethlehem and killing all the Jewish boy babies up to the age of two in a vain attempt to destroy God’s promised messiah. When Moses was born, we read in the book of Exodus that a king named Pharaoh sent an order throughout Egypt to kill all Jewish boy babies in his mythological attempt to destroy the one whom God had promised to deliver the Jewish people from Egyptian bondage. Matthew was thus wrapping a well-known Moses story around the infant Jesus. His original readers would have understood that. It is the first instance of the interpretive clue to the role the unseen Moses will play in Matthew’s story of Jesus. It will not be the last. The shadow of Moses will emerge time after time as this gospel pursues its story.
Next we looked at Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River, which Matthew likened to Moses’ Red Sea experience. Moses split the waters of the Red Sea while Jesus, the new Moses, split the heavenly waters. These heavenly waters then proceeded to rain on him as the Holy Spirit. The baptism of Jesus was thus being paralleled to the Red Sea experience of Moses. The interpretive power of Moses was still at work. It would not stop even there.
What did Moses do after his baptismal experience in the Red Sea? Read the book of Exodus and you will discover that he wandered in the wilderness for forty years trying to figure out what it meant to be God’s “Chosen People.” To purpose-driven modern men and women, this meandering in a wilderness type limbo is very strange. Look, however, at how the gospel writers treat this Jewish story from the Torah. After Jesus had his Red Sea experience in the Jordan River, we are told that he too wandered in the wilderness, not for “forty years,” but for “forty days,” trying to figure out what it meant to be God’s designated messiah, the one whom God had called “My beloved son in whom I am well pleased.”
Mark, the earliest of the gospels, says simply that Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days being tempted by the devil, but he gives no content as to the temptations. Matthew, however, provides that content, which also serves to open the mind of Matthew a little more deeply. We study that mind by searching for the source of Matthew’s temptation content. A careful reading of the Moses story in the Torah provides this new understanding.
During Moses’ forty year sojourn in the wilderness, we learn that Moses faced three critical experiences. The first one had to do with the shortage of food and Moses took his concern to God. God answered Moses’ prayer by raining down upon the starving children of Israel heavenly bread that came to be called “Manna.” By the time the editing of the Torah was finished, the “Manna in the Wilderness” story, had become stylized in order to accommodate Jewish piety. The manna eventually fell on only six days a week in order to save both God, who had to send it, and the people, who had to gather it, from violating the prohibition against working on the Sabbath. It also placed into biblical mythology the image of a God capable of expanding the food supply, a theme that will be visible in the stories of Elijah and Elisha and will making its appearance in the Jesus tradition as the miraculous feeding of the multitude with a limited number of loaves and fish. In any event, the crisis of hunger among the people that Moses was leading in the wilderness is answered by the God who sent heavenly bread.
The second critical moment for Moses came in response to another crisis, this time involving a shortage of water. In response Moses dared to put God to the test at a place named Meribah. Moses, in frustration over this threatened water shortage, struck a rock with his staff and demanded that God cause water to flow out of that rock. God, according to this story, obeyed Moses’ command so as not to humiliate God’s chosen leader. God, however, was not pleased. No one commands God to do a human being’s bidding. Moses had sinned and the Torah made that clear. Moses was punished for this act by not being allowed to enter the Promised Land. He would see that destination, but he would not enter it for no one puts God to the test! Moses died in the wilderness with his life’s work in some sense unfulfilled.
The third critical moment for Moses in these forty years in the wilderness came in the episode we know as the story of the golden calf. Moses had been away from his people for a long period of time, conferring presumably with God on top of Mt. Sinai. The people felt abandoned and became restive. So, under the direction of Aaron, who was both the high priest and Moses’ brother, the people brought all of their gold jewelry, their bracelets, rings, necklaces and chains, and Aaron proceeded to melt them down and to fashion the gold into the image of a calf, which was then proclaimed to be “God” for the people. Before this golden calf they then bowed in worship, while saying: “This is the God who brought us out of the land of Egypt.” The people had turned from the worship of God to the worship of something less than God. When Moses returned, he smashed this golden calf and instituted a purge of the chosen people. Each of these three critical moments has its consequences, but in them Moses was tried by hunger, by putting God to the test and by seeing the people worship something other than God. Matthew knew these stories in the Hebrew tradition and, not surprisingly, he wrapped them around the memory of Jesus in a way designed to demonstrate that the God presence in Jesus exceeded the God presence in Moses, the holiest hero of the Jewish faith story. That was his stunning claim.
So, if it took Moses forty years to get through the wilderness, Matthew suggested that Jesus did it in just forty days, while struggling successfully with the same crises that confronted Moses. The first of what Matthew called the temptations of Jesus arose out of the shortage of food. “Turn these stones into bread,” the tempter urged. Jesus, however, resisted. People do not live by bread alone, he responded. Full stomachs do not make full human beings.
The second temptation was to put God to the test: “Cast yourself off the pinnacle of the Temple, Jesus,” make God serve you. The tempter even quoted scripture to make the temptation more appealing, “It is written,” he said, “that God will give his angels charge over you and in their hands they will bear you up lest you strike your foot against a stone.” Jesus responded: “You do not tempt the Lord your God.” You do not put God to the test.
The third temptation once again followed the Moses script. The tempter invited Jesus to bow down before him with the promise that the devil would give him all the kingdoms of the world. Jesus, however, understood the script that Matthew was following and so he was made to respond with the ringing words that God alone, not any creature, was worthy of worship.
Moses, struggling to understand what it meant to be the “chosen people,” underwent three critical moments in his forty years in the wilderness. Jesus, struggling to understand what it meant to be “messiah,” God’s chosen deliverer, underwent three temptations in his forty day sojourn in the wilderness. The content of their crises was identical. This is not a coincidence, nor is this literal history. This is Jewish interpretive storytelling. Matthew was announcing the arrival of a new Moses and, to make his meaning clear, he proceeded to wrap around the memory of Jesus the well-known stories of Moses from his birth, to the Red Sea adventure, to his critical moments in the wilderness.
This is not biography. This is not Matthew writing a literal account of Jesus’ life. Matthew knew what he was doing and so did the audience who first read his words. He wanted to fill them with a sense of wonder, awe and even worship. “I am writing,” if I might paraphrase him, “to tell you about the one who fulfilled our Jewish scriptures; one in whom God was present as God has never been present in a human life before, not even in the holiest life of Moses, who stands at the apex of our own Jewish traditions. Listen to my story. It is of infinite importance.”
As long as his readers were aware of Matthew’s Jewish story telling method, they heard and they understood. Literalism and fundamentalism arose in Christianity after the Christian Church ceased to be made up primarily of Jews. Fundamentalism was born when Gentile ignorance made it impossible for them to understand the Jewishness of Matthew’s stories about Jesus. Fundamentalism is thus a “Gentile Heresy.”
When this series resumes we will turn our attention to the “Sermon on the Mount.” and Moses will emerge once more in the background.