The Messiah: A Nobody from Nowhere?

canstockphoto20184885Why does Matthew write that the prophets say the Messiah will come from Nazareth when there is no such reference anywhere in the Old Testament?

In Matthew’s birth narrative, Joseph is warned to flee to Egypt to escape the murderous plans of King Herod. After Herod dies, Joseph is told to return with his family to Israel, but he is afraid to return to Bethlehem because Herod’s son, Archelaus, had been installed as ethnarch over the province of Judea.

Joseph therefore went far north, all the way to Galilee, finally settling in the small town of Nazareth “so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’” (Matthew 2:23 NRSV).

This is a bit of a problem because no one knows what Matthew is talking about. There is not a single Old Testament prophet that says anything about the Messiah being called a Nazorean or being from Nazareth.

In fact, the city of Nazareth isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Old Testament. It was such an obscure, backwater village that Josephus, writing in the decades immediately following Jesus’ death, didn’t even include it in a list of towns in Galilee.

Nazareth wasn’t just Nowhere, it was on the other side of Nowhere.

Some have speculated that Matthew is claiming that the Messiah would be a Nazirite like Samuel or Samson, one who was consecrated and set apart of life-long sacred duty; yet no Old Testament passages claim this for the Messiah either.

Others have suggested that, because Nazareth was a nowhere town, anyone from there must by definition be a Nobody, and this is what Matthew is claiming—that the prophets said that the Messiah would be a Nobody.

This suggestion has some merit. Isaiah 53:2 says this of the Messiah: “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”

And the first part of that verse points us in a new direction as well. The Hebrew word for “branch” is close to the word for “Nazarite” and in Greek that word is just one letter away from the word for Nazorean.

This kind of word-play is exactly the kind of thing that Jewish writers liked to do. So perhaps Matthew is evoking images of the Messiah being a branch that is consecrated for sacred services, and that is an image that is certainly attested to in the prophets, perhaps no more clearly than this passage from Isaiah which is often used as an Advent reading:

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch 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

The stump is the fallen Davidic monarchy, cut down and sent into exile, and Isaiah is prophesying that, in his mercy, God has not washed his hands completely of sinful Israel. Out of David (Jesse was David’s father) would someday come a righteous king who would rule with fairness.

With the righteous King would come a righteous Kingdom, which would encompass all Creation, so that there would be peace at last:

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Isaiah 11:6-10

With this little phrase, “He will be called a Nazorean,” Matthew means to indicate more than just that Jesus came from Nazareth.

Jesus comes onto the scene as a nondescript little shoot from some stump out in the middle of nowhere, yet that little shoot will grow to be a mighty tree, the king of the forest.

His coming signals the inauguration of the Kingdom of God, which itself starts out as small as a mustard seed, “but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (Matthew 13:32 NRSV)

And in Isaiah’s vision, this kingdom isn’t just for the benefit of a few insiders, it’s for all creation. Everyone’s invited.

Even Nobodies from the other side of Nowhere.

Photo by © Can Stock Photo Inc. / 2002Lubava1981

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