Friday, December 3, 2010

The Nobody Branch

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead."  Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.  But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee.  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

Part of the birth narrative of Jesus is the flight to Egypt to escape the murderous plans of King Herod.  In this passage we see Joseph returning to Israel and settling his family in Nazareth, in fulfillment, Matthew says, of the prophets that Messiah would be “called a Nazorean.”
Um, , okay, except we kinda can’t find anywhere where any prophet, much less prophets, said any such thing.
In fact, the city of Nazareth isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Old Testament, much less anyone being from there.  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 the other side of Nowhere.  And nowhere can we find a mention that the Messiah would be a Nazorean.  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.
Some 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 perhaps points us in a new direction as well.  One of the Hebrew words for “branch” is nezer, which both written and spoken is close to the word for Nazarite, nazir, which can also be translated as “an untrimmed vine” (as in Leviticus 25:5, 11).  I know this sounds like a stretch, but this kind of word-play is exactly the kind of thing that Hebrew 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.
Vss. 6-10

So Matthew means for this little phrase, “He will be called a Nazorean,” which we have always taken to mean merely that Jesus came from Nazareth, to mean so much more.  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, king of the forest.  And 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."  (Jesus of Nazareth, Matthew 13:32, emphasis mine.)
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.

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