Within this passage of Scripture, we have the word coming that Herod has passed away, and therefore it is safe to return to Judea. We also have what seems to be the human decision to go to Nazareth, where Luke claims that Jesus was for His whole life, and yet it is according to the word of God, for the prophets declared that He shall be a Nazarene. This last part has caused a lot of confusion, because you won’t find that verse anywhere in the Old Testament. It isn’t even prophesied in the apocrypha or pseudepigrapha (books outside the canon). Let’s look at the text as a whole, and then we’ll address the confusion at the end.
In the time of Herod (the one who slaughtered the children at Bethlehem), taxes were an average of about 80-90% of your income. Between Herod, Rome, and the Temple, you payed from a quarter to almost a third of your wages to each one. The Temple demanded a tithe, which was 10%, plus the money required for sacrifices, plus your first fruits, plus whatever else that you have vowed or that the feasts require. Ultimately, this would result in about 30-35% of your annual income. Herod sent out telones, which is translated ‘tax collector’, to bring in the political tax to ‘King’ Herod. As a worker for Herod, you were also allowed to take whatever allotment for yourself. So, between the Herod tax and ‘telones’ tax, you would be giving somewhere around 25-30% of your annual income to your government. Yet, remember that you government (Judea) was ruled by Rome. Therefore, there is a Roman tribute tax that you are required to give, as well as incense when it is periodically demanded throughout the year. Whether they were Roman or under Herod, the marketplaces also would require payment to buy, sell, or trade in.
Because there was so much taxation under Herod (according to Roman historians, this wasn’t the average case in all of the Roman Empire), many of the Jews were losing their land and homes. The property inherited with Joshua was being stripped from families and given to the workers of Herod. You can’t pay your taxes, and therefore you owe the government what is rightfully yours (after all, they didn’t give you that land…). It is here that we find something interesting. What do you do if you’re one of the people during this time who loses your family land? You can’t live off of your inheritance anymore, so how do you feed your family?
In our modern society, we find the answer. You get a job somewhere. Jobs in this period of time were much different than now, but the idea is still the same. You know that in a larger city, there will be people who need to buy metal products, there will be people who need to buy clothing, need their shoes repaired, buy food for their families, etc. All of the normal everyday things that people spend their money on today was also applicable for that day and age. There are only slight differences (mostly within technology).
So, in order to feed your family, you would move to the city to find your place as a blacksmith, a carpenter, a butcher, a tailor, or some other occupation/trade that you could make income with. Joseph doesn’t take his family back to Bethlehem, which is quite obviously where he was born because that is where he went for the census and where Jesus was born (see Luke 1 and previous verses in Matthew 1-2). Joseph doesn’t go back to his family land. Instead, he dwells in Nazareth as a carpenter.
Can you see how immediately the Gospel is bringing hope to the poor?
Herod claimed to be king of the Jews, but the Magi asked where the one to be born King of the Jews had been born. This means something very important: Herod isn’t the true king. Herod’s kingdom, which has up to this point brought poverty and oppression, is going down. Maybe for the rich living in Jerusalem Herod’s kingdom is security, but for the guy who moves to Nazareth in order to become a carpenter and feed his family – the blue collar guy, or maybe even less – Herod’s kingdom resembles oppression and guilt.
Imagine what you would feel if you lost your family land… It has been in your family for millennia, over 150 generations by this point, and now that you’ve inherited it, you’ve lost it. That is a kingdom of guilt, and not freedom.
Matthew is setting the stage quite quickly as to what His Gospel is about. I said at the beginning of this study that it is about Kingdom. Yet, it is important to note that with it being about Kingdom, there are very political statements being made. Someone in the first century who would have been found with this Gospel probably would have been murdered. That kind of political outcry, of speaking that there is a Kingdom and King who has come and has been established that surpasses Herod in glory and in righteousness is impossible to tolerate if you are ascribing to Herod and the system is working for you.
And so now let us deal with the prophecy regarding Nazareth.
It is true what the Jews say. They are right in pointing out that Matthew makes a massive blunder – at least, if we give them that this is a quotation of something. If we put these words in quotes, as my NKJV has done, but which the original Greek did not have, then it is true that Matthew is absolutely deceived or a deceiver. Nowhere does it say anything about the Messiah being a Nazarene. Such words aren’t ever spoken. At best you have the prophecy of Isaiah 9:1-2, when it speaks of Galilee receiving a great light (which Matthew will quote in the next chapter of his Gospel).
So, what is going on here? Matthew is not putting something in quotes. He is exercising a hermeneutic principle that the rabbis are familiar with, which our Christian exegetes are very uncomfortable with. One of the talmudic principles of interpretation is to find other words in Hebrew that are similar, and to interpret the passage according to what it would say if we used other Hebrew words. For example, the word for ‘man’ is ish (pronounced EESH), and the word for ‘woman’ is ishah (pronounced ish-UH). Ish has a yod, and ishah has a hey. Ishah does not have a yod, and ish does not have a hey. Yod and hey together is yah, the condensed form of God’s name. When man and woman come together, the man donates his yod, and the woman donates her hey, and together they worship/represent Yah. But, if the man and/or woman does not have their yod or hey, then you have esh (pronounced AYSH). Esh means fire. When the man and/or woman has forsaken God, they bring fire into the relationship. Therefore, when it says that they shall be one flesh, it is speaking of the man or woman who bear the image of God.
Matthew uses this same kind of principle in his Gospel. Matthew is not saying that the Old Testament strictly declares the Messiah is supposed to be a Nazarene. He is using a word play. Over and over again, the Messiah is called “the branch” in the prophets. This “branch” is the Hebrew word netser (pronounced net-SEHR). The word Nazareth comes from this root. What Matthew is pointing out is that to be a “Nazarene” could have two meanings. First, it meant that you are from Nazareth. This is actually the only usage of the word. Second, and this is where the word play comes in, it could be used in the sense of calling someone “of the branch”.
I think it is this secondary usage that Matthew is striking at. He is pointing out that Nazareth is from the root netser, which is over and over again a term given to the Messiah. What does it mean for Jesus to be “Nazarene”, or (extremely loosely translated) “of the branch”? It stems from Isaiah 11:1 and other similar passages: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” This points back to the first verse of Matthew, that Jesus descended from David, and is therefore “the branch” of David.
For other verses about the branch to consider: