New Exodus and the LXX

Brenton LXXI had just received a hardbound copy of Lancelot Brenton’s translation of the Septuagint (introduced in a prior post) from Amazon right before Christmas, so I thought I would peruse it along with the New Testament readings I was doing.

Yes, that is very nerdy. I know.

But the basic idea was to understand what and how the authors of the gospels were quoting from the Old Testament as they presented the arrival of Jesus Christ in the flesh as the fulfillment of prior expectations woven throughout the Hebrew scriptures. When I got to Matthew 2, I found something stunning (to me) that fueled my desire to study the Septuagint more fully.

A Ruler in Bethlehem

Matthew 2:6 is one of the more well-known instances (of many in Matthew) where Jesus’ birth is described as consummating OT prophecy. When the Magi arrive in Jerusalem in search of the newborn king who lies at the other end of the star they have observed in the east (see my sermon on this passage), King Herod gathers his scholars to find out where this alleged king was to be born. They quote Micah 5:2:

(Matt 2:6a-b ESV) And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.

(Micah 5:2a-b ESV) But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel.

The casual observer will note that there is, as expected, obvious parallelism between the ESV of Matthew 2:6 (which is from the original NT Greek) and the ESV of Micah 5:2 (which is from the original Hebrew MT),[1] though with some small differences in word choice and order. It is likely that Matthew was using the Septuagint/LXX (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) here as he does often in his book. The LXX reading of Micah 5:2, from the NETS translation, is as follows:

(Micah 5:2a-b NETS) But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel.

The LXX stays pretty close to the Hebrew in this case, so it appears that Matthew, as happens occasionally when NT writers make reference to the OT, is not making a 100% word-for-word quote of either the Hebrew or the LXX but, rather, offering a slightly fuller reading that is perhaps incorporating allusions to, say, Gen 49:24 (first promise of a “shepherd” for the people of Israel). My point is not to provide a solution to the quotation issue, however, so I will set that aside for perhaps another day.

Continue Reading in Micah

My real focus is what Matthew does not quote from Micah. If you continue reading in Micah 5:2, you will find that a small part of the verse is left out. I will provide it in the ESV of Micah (from the Hebrew), the NETS English of the Septuagint, and the Greek of the Septuagint:

(Micah 5:2c ESV) whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.

(Micah 5:2c NETS) and his goings forth are from of old, from days of yore.

(Micah 5:2c LXX) καί ὁ ἔξοδος αὐτός ἀπό ἀρχή ἐκ ἡμέρα αἰών

I have underlined the key word that wowed me in a big way when I stumbled upon it while reading the Septuagint alongside the Matthew passage. It is hard to pick up in the English given that most translations render it “going forth” or “coming forth” (as the two examples above), but the actual underlying word in the Septuagint is exodos, or in English, “exodus.”

While Matthew did not quote this last part of the verse, it most certainly was in his mind when he provided the first part of Micah 5:2 in his passage. In fact, most NT scholars today agree that in general, when a NT author is quoting or alluding to an OT passage, they are not simply proof-texting: that is, they are not simply saying, “Let me repeat something from the OT to prove my point and move on.” Rather, they are in effect bringing forward the entire context of the passage they have in mind, even if they are not directly quoting the whole thing.[2]

We do this all the time in our own lives. For instance, if someone quotes, “Fourscore and seven years ago,” they are not just quoting the first five words of Lincoln’s famous speech, but they are drawing on the emotions, the grandeur, and the content of his entire speech and bringing it to bear in whatever context they are in. Or of someone says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” he or she is actually pulling forward the entire context of the opening of the Declaration of Independence. The reader who is familiar with what is being quoted is automatically transported into the fuller original text, such that he or she is able to make deeper connections with the original beyond the small amount that the author is quoting.[3]

So what does that mean in the context of Matthew 2:5?

The New Exodus Theme of the NT

Matthew’s readers would have certainly been familiar with the part of the Micah passage that he left out; in fact, one could argue that his suppression of that last detail actually heightens the force of the allusion. Hence, when the first century reader encountered Matthew’s quotation of Micah 5:2, he or she would immediately have realized that the birth of this child in Bethlehem is actually the realization of the rest of Micah’s prophecy: namely, that the bringing forth of the king / shepherd in Bethlehem is a new “exodus,” which was foretold from all eternity. The Greek word used in Micah 5:2b is the same as that which is used to describe the original “going out,” or “exodus” of the Israelites from their captivity in Egypt (from whence we derive our English name for the second book of the OT, Exodus).

Red Sea

The story of the original Exodus – the plagues, the passover, the parting of the Red Sea, “Pharaoh, Pharaoh, Oh baby let my people go,” and so forth – is well known. Less obvious is that the OT continues to develop the “exodus” theme long after the conclusion of the first one. Throughout the major prophets and several minor prophets, there is a recurring promise of (a) impending exile for Israel (722BC) and Judah (586BC), (b) captivity in a foreign land (Assyria and Babylon, respectively), and after some period of time, (c) a promise of restoration from captivity back to the promised land (at least for Judah). This movement of exile-captivity-restoration is patterned precisely after the original movement in Egypt, almost 1,000 years earlier. The prophets describe a great leader (Messiah / king / shepherd) who will in some way lead a new exodus of the people of God into their promised land once again. That future day, that new exodus, is a source of hope for Israel during dark times.[4]

By the time we get to the NT era, the people of God are still waiting for this new exodus.[5] Modern studies in the NT, particularly the gospels, have demonstrated that the NT authors believe the advent of Jesus is itself the fulfillment of this promise of new exodus.[6]

How is Jesus leading a new exodus? How is he pictured as a new Moses leading the people of God out of exile? There are at least ten parallel patterns worth mentioning:

Screen shot 2013-07-31 at 1.12.24 PM
The clincher, at least for me, is Luke 9:31, where Jesus is conversing with Elijah and Moses during his dramatic transfiguration. What are they talking about?

(Luke 9:31 ESV) who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure,  which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 

As above, the English renderings do not always capture this subtlety. The Greek reads:

(Luke 9:31 GNT) οἳ ὀφθέντες ἐν δόξῃ ἔλεγον τὴν ἔξοδον αὐτοῦ ἣν ἤμελλεν πληροῦν ἐν Ἰερουσαλήμ.

The underlying word is “exodon,” or in English, “exodus.” Just as Micah has prophesied that the coming king would be enacting an “exodus,” so also Jesus describes his own advent, work, death, and resurrection – in a conversation with Moses, the leader of the first installment – as his “exodus.” As THE exodus: as the new exodus foretold from before all time.

In other words, through sensitive and nuanced writing, Matthew is connecting the birth narrative of Jesus to a theme that serves as a major superstructure for the entire Old Testament AND an recurring motif throughout the New Testament: Jesus Christ, the shepherd / king born in Bethlehem, ushers in the “new” exodus everyone has been awaiting. This baby born in a manger in a no-name town called Bethlehem was doing nothing other than fulfilling an eternal promise that someone would come to lead God’s people home: to take us out of bondage to sin, evil, and destruction and take us to our promised land – an eternal rest in the presence of God.

So what? Connecting to the pew

What is the key takeaway from this seemingly technical “discovery” I made while reading Matthew 2 and checking OT references in my shiny new Septuagint? I think there are three:

  • Consider the broader context of OT quotations in the NT. As any study Bible will point out, the NT is absolutely laden with OT references, both in the form of direct quotations and indirect allusions or echoes.[7] It is easy to read, say, Matthew’s quotations of fulfilled prophecies and think, “Hmmm, that’s neat, let’s move on.” This study reaffirmed to me the importance of at least spending 30 seconds reading the full paragraph (or even chapter) of an OT quotation that shows up in shorter form in the NT, because you never know what you might find. A classic example would be a quotation of Isaiah 53 in the NT (e.g., Matt 8:17, Acts 8:32ff). If you simply read the snippet quoted in the NT, you would miss out on the massively important context of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53, which the NT author surely had in mind when he chose to quote a portion of that chapter. Note: This is still very much a valuable exercise even if you do not know the original Hebrew or Greek; the English translations are very good!
  • Ponder anew the magnitude of Jesus’ coming. One surface-level conclusion from Matthew 2:6 is this: “That is pretty cool that the OT predicted that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem, and that’s how it actually happened. Ok, let me move on to the next verse.” That is a valid conclusion, and it is indeed cool. But the OT did not simply make “predictions” of when and where the Messiah would be born. Rather, the “exodus” context of Micah 5:2 shows that on the shoulders of this baby boy was placed the millennia-long expectations of a deliverer who would lead the people of God out of the darkness of exile and into eternal rest. THAT is what Jesus was doing. He was not just being born in Bethlehem. He was the new Moses (Deut 18:15) leading a new exodus as God had foretold from all eternity.
  • Encourage your pastors to use the languages. In many churches, the pressures of “running” a church, attending meetings, counseling, and so on (all of which are valid) crowd out the pastor’s ability to stay sharp in Greek and Hebrew and use it on a normal basis. Encountering the new exodus theme in the Septuagint and connecting it to the gospel of Matthew for, say, an advent sermon on Matthew 2 would be very difficult without taking a few minutes actually to read the respective Greek passages. So I would exhort church members to encourage their pastors to use the original languages, namely through managing expectations about how his time should be spent (that is, respect the time it takes to prepare a good sermon and do the hard work of analysis and study). See Piper’s Brothers, Bitzer was a Banker for more!



[1] MT stands for “Masoretic Text,” which is the authoritative text tradition for the Hebrew Bible that underlies essentially all modern English translations. I will post more on the MT in the future.

[2] This thesis that a NT author is appealing to and drawing on a broader “contextual field” than the simple quotation itself was classically articulated and defended by British NT scholar Charles Dodd (According to the Scriptures: The Sub-Structure of New Testament Theology. London: Nisbet & Co., Ltd., 1952.). Dodd argues that this technique particularly applies to the prophets and the Psalms.

[3] Consider song lyrics. If someone quotes, “Oops, I did it again,” unfortunately you are automatically making connections to Britney Spears’ original pop hit, whether you want to or not!

[4] A survey of the literature that fleshes out this new exodus anticipation in the OT is beyond the present scope; a short article on the exodus theme in Isaiah by Bryan Estelle will have to suffice. I will note, however, that a strong new exodus theme is manifested among Jews between the closing of the OT and the writing of the NT, notably the Temple Scroll (11Q19 of the Dead Sea Scrolls). See discussion in Wise, Abegg, and Cook, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation (link), 593ff.

[5] The restoration of a remnant from Judah under Zerubbabel, followed by Ezra, Nehemiah, etc., is only a partial fulfillment that never achieves the grand vision offered by the prophets; not even the temporary rise of the Hasmoneans centuries later was seen as the final fruit of a new exodus.

[6] See, for instance, Andrew Brunson’s Psalm 118 in the Gospel of John: An Intertextual Study on the New Exodus Pattern in the Theology of John (link).

[7] See Richard Hays’ Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul for a detailed study (link).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s