Fleeing Before Herod (Matt. 4:12-13)

by Fred B. Craddock

Fred B. Craddock is professor of preaching and New Testament at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 17, 1990, p. 43, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


That Jesus can and does identify with the uprooted, the pursued, the victim, is in itself an encouraging and redeeming word. In Jesus, God has identified with those who suffer violence and with the homeless, those who have no place to lay their heads (Matt. 8:20).

"Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee; and leaving Nazareth he went and dwelt in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali" (Matt. 4:12-13) . The Gospel reading begins with this quaint reference to old tribal boundaries, meaningless long before Matthew. But these verses do raise the question of why Jesus moved to Capernaum upon hearing of John’s arrest. Perhaps Jesus had to leave his hometown in order for his ministry to have a chance of being heard. Perhaps he thought that Capernaum, having more people and a greater flow of traffic, would serve better than Nazareth as a center for spreading the Word. Jesus and his apostles certainly understood that the mission is to go where the people are. If one asks, Why move at this time? then Mark could supply the answer: "Now after John was arrested Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God" (1:14) . In other words, the silencing stirs the other to continue the call to repentance in preparation for God’s approaching reign.

Such answers, however, reveal an inadequate attention to Matthew. Notice the sequence of the narration: Jesus hears that Herod Antipas has thrown John into prison; Jesus withdraws (apparently from Judea where he had been baptized and endured the wilderness trials) into Galilee; Jesus moves his place of dwelling; this move fulfills ancient prophecy (Matt. 4:14-16) . Sound familiar? In 2:19-23, Matthew describes how after the death of Herod the Great, Joseph brought Mary and Jesus back from Egypt to the land of Israel. But Judea is still full of danger since Herod’s son Archelaus is as violent as his father. Joseph withdraws into Galilee and the holy family settles in Nazareth; this move fulfills ancient prophecy. This too sounds familiar. In 2:13-15, Joseph, Mary and Jesus are living in Bethlehem. Herod plans to destroy the child, so under divine guidance Joseph moves the family to Egypt; this move fulfills ancient prophecy. The pattern is clear: Jesus moves his place of dwelling from Bethlehem, to Egypt, back to the land of Israel, to Nazareth and to Capernaum in response to an anticipated act of violence by one of the Herods; each move fulfills Scripture. It is reasonable to conclude that in our text the news of John’s imprisonment poses for Jesus himself another imminent danger.

The scene before us, then, is painfully familiar. On television screens and on the covers of newsmagazines the picture is a constant one: innocent people fleeing their homes to escape the terror of violent and inhuman authorities. Jesus is in their company, man and boy, seeking refuge from those who imprison and kill. Matthew’s stories are not simply historical recollections; they are current events. King Herod is dead, to be sure, and so are Archelaus and Antipas, but not really. Their successors seem to wait in line to raise the sword against God’s Christ and against those whose ways are the ways of God. The gospel continues to have its enemies and not solely in totalitarian states. Love without partiality and those who are zealous for racial, cultural and social "purity" will rise up in great numbers and from surprising quarters. Teach and practice forgiveness and the voices of vengeance will come screaming at you.

Tell the truth and those who have bought into the usefulness of the political and economic lie will find you outdated and nonprogressive.

What, then, are we to make of the text? It certainly is not an attractive picture, Jesus withdrawing and moving again and again. Is there any Good News here? Yes. First, that Jesus can and does identify with the uprooted, the pursued, the victim, is in itself an encouraging and redeeming word. In Jesus, God has identified with those who suffer violence and with the homeless, those who have no place to lay their heads (Matt. 8:20) . Sympathy alone does not alter the human condition, but it holds promise of change and gives hope to the victimized. For them, Immanuel, "God is with us," is not an empty word. Second, Jesus ceases to withdraw before the threat of the Herod family and takes up John’s message:

"Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand" (4:17) . God’s reign was announced by John, and though he was silenced, the message, greater than the dynasty of all the Herods, is not. Third, Jesus is not withdrawing before the Herod family’s threats but rather moving openly toward the people. He chooses four disciples to help in his expanding ministry and travels freely through all of Galilee, teaching, preaching and healing (4:18-23) . "The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned" (4:16, quoting Is. 9:2) .

The quotation from Isaiah reminds us of a fourth and final way in which the text before us is Good News. We noticed earlier that at Jesus’ every move, from his infancy to the present, Matthew says the event was a fulfillment of prophecy. Interpretations of such passages vary, but one thing is clear to Matthew: in those critical hours the violent authorities only seem to be in control. To interpret acts of violence by those who oppose God’s people as fulfillments of prophecy is to believe that God has something else in mind. God is God, and God is able to turn even human wrath to serve the salvation of the world.