19 After King Herod died, an angel from the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt. 20 “Get up,” the angel said, “and take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel. Those who were trying to kill the child are dead.” 21 Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus ruled over Judea in place of his father Herod, Joseph was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he went to the area of Galilee. 23 He settled in a city called Nazareth so that what was spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled: He will be called a Nazarene.
This is the final episode in Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth. Although the angel provides direction a great deal depends on Joseph’s willingness to implement the wish of God communicated to him in dreams. Matthew is at pains to show that although Joseph is not the genetic father of the baby, he more than fulfils his legal duties as the child’s adoptive parent. His life, as well as Mary’s, is dramatically disrupted by the birth of Jesus, who arouses enmity from worldly powers as soon as he is born. Matthew’s birth stories emphasise above all the profound vulnerability of Jesus Messiah.
This section also shows that Matthew considered Bethlehem the family home and Nazareth as an accidental place of residence, chosen for the sake of safety. This is contrary to the understanding of Luke’s gospel and probably of Mark’s also, which see Jesus’ family as native to Nazareth. There is no evidence outside the Bible for the existence of this village in the time of Jesus, and some scholars have guessed that its existence was deduced from a wrong interpretation of the phrase “Jesus the Nazarite”, that is, a man dedicated to God, keeping certain rules such as abstention from alcohol. As this doesn’t sound much like Jesus, I am inclined to dismiss the idea, and to accept the existence of Nazareth as a very obscure village in Jesus’ time.
Matthew probably had not much in his sources about Jesus’ birth, and expanded these by the use of biblical prophecy and imaginative material meant to relate the birth of Jesus to the pattern of Israel’s history under God and of his own life, death and resurrection. He is not much concerened with what a journalist might call facts, but with the story of God’s goodness to the world. Does it tell us more than John’s summary statement that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us? Yes, it characterises the family amongst whom he dwelt, the demands made upon them and the contribution made by them. It also tells how the world received the word made flesh, with recognition in the case of the Gentile magoi, rejection in the case of the ruler of Israel. Above all it displays the wild plot of salvation devised by the Source of all stories.