Moses typology and the Sermon on the Mount: laying the ground for Matt. 5.17-20

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May 23, 2013 by jmar198013

Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them. I say to you very seriously that as long as heaven and earth exist, neither the smallest letter nor even the smallest stroke of a pen will be erased from the Law until everything there becomes a reality. Therefore, whoever ignores one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called the lowest in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever keeps these commands and teaches people to keep them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. I say to you that unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the legal experts and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5.17-20 CEB)

That Jesus’ teachings—especially as we find them epitomized in the Sermon on the Mount—stand in radical continuity with the Mosaic law  should come as no surprise to us. This is especially true when we pause to consider the deliberate parallels drawn by Matthew between Moses and Jesus, particularly in the events leading up to the Sermon on the Mount.

Christian Rohlfs. Sermon on the Mount (Bergpredigt). (1916)

 Matthew’s use of Moses typology is probably patterned after Deut. 18.15: “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brethren—him you shall heed” (cf. Deut. 18.18). As Deuteronomy concludes, the text tells the reader, “And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and the wonders which the LORD sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land” (Deut. 34.10-11). To the extent that Matthew wishes the reader to identify Jesus as the prophet like Moses, whose words are to be heeded, he uses the life of Moses as a paradigm, highlighting parallels between the two. If the designation “like Moses” (Deut. 34.10; cf. 18.15, 18) seems too vague, Kaiser offers clarity by noting that this means that the prophet like Moses would enjoy unusually intimate fellowship with the Father (Deut. 34.10); perform public miracles (Deut. 34.11); be a lawgiver (Exod. 32.31‑35), and deliver his people out of bondage (60).

Matthew begins his typological comparison of Jesus and Moses in the birth and infancy narratives of his Gospel (Matt. 1.18-2.23). R. Brown offers us a tidy diagram of the events surrounding Jesus’ arrival in relation to their parallels in the life of Moses (113):

·         Herod sought to destroy the child Jesus, so Joseph took his wife and the child and left for Egypt (Matt. 2.13-14).

The Pharaoh sought to kill Moses, so Moses left Egypt (Exod. 2.15).

·         Herod had all the boys in Bethlehem under the age of two massacred (Matt. 2.16).

The Pharaoh ordered that every male born to the Hebrews be cast into the Nile (Exod. 1.22).

·         Herod died (Matt. 2.19).

The king of Egypt died (Exod. 2.23).

·         The angel of the Lord told Joseph in Egypt to “go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead” (Matt. 2.20).

The LORD said to Moses in Midian: “Go back to Egypt; for all the men who were seeking your life are dead” (Exod. 4.19).

·         Joseph returned to Israel with his wife and the child (Matt. 2.21).

Moses returned to Egypt with his wife and children (Exod. 4.20).

By highlighting these parallels between Jesus’ birth and infancy and the Mosaic biographical material in Exod. 1-4, Matthew signals to his audience that the prophet like Moses, anticipated in Deut. 18.15, 18; 34.10, has finally arrived. For the reader who has discerned Matthew’s intentions via this typological approach, this announcement invites further development. “Matthew’s readers, at the end of the infancy narrative, are left anticipating a new Exodus, i.e., they are left anticipating the rise of a new deliverer to lead Israel out of exile” (Baxter 71). That this is Matthew’s intention is confirmed by two further clues within the infancy narrative. The first is that even though Matthew follows a three by fourteen generational pattern, from the deportation into Babylon, which interrupted the Davidic dynasty, there are only thirteen generations (Matt. 1.12-17 cf. Brown 82-83). By this device, Matthew intends the reader to understand that Israel is still in exile (Baxter 71). The second clue is to be found in the naming of the child in Matt. 1.21. Says Swartley: “The naming of the baby Jesus, ‘for he will save his people from their sins’ (1:21), fuses exodus (salvation) and conquest (Jesus=Joshua) traditions” (62, italics original). By implying that the people of God are still in exile, and then highlighting the liberational name borne by Jesus, Matthew prepares his readers to see Jesus as a Moses figure.

 The next development in Matthew’s use of Moses typology is to be found in the baptism narrative of Matt. 3.1‑17. Matthew indicates that the ministry of John the Baptist has been foreshadowed in Isaiah: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Matt. 3.3; cf. Isa. 40.3). This echo from Isaiah would have brought to mind the immediate context of these words:

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isa. 40.1-5)

Considering that we have noted above that Matthew wanted the reader to know that Israel was still in exile, and that Jesus had been sent as the nation’s liberator, Baxter’s evaluation of Matthew’s use of the Isaiah passage is appropriate: “For Isaiah, the immediate reference was to the Babylonian exile. But for Matthew, Israel was still in exile and awaiting a final exodus. Hence, for the Evangelist, the time for this final exodus had come: ‘the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ (3:3; cf. 4:17; 10:7; 12:28)” (72). Simply stated, the baptism of Jesus is a recapitulation of the Red Sea narrative (Exod. 14; cf. Davies 40-43). That the crossing of the Red Sea was understood in terms of a baptism by early Christians is confirmed in 1 Cor. 10.1-2: “I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.”

 Understanding the baptism of Jesus as a parallel to the Red Sea event, whereby a reconstituted Israel is being formed in the same manner as the first Israel, may indeed help us understand the significance of Jesus’ rather puzzling response to John’s initial hesitancy to baptize him: “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3.15). John’s reticence is natural, insofar as his baptism was associated with the remission of sins (Matt. 3.6; cf. Luke 3.3). How then does the sinless Messiah’s submission to this act “fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3.15)? We think the answer, at least partially, lies in a concept of Jesus in solidarity with the people. “It is because Jesus . . . went down into the Jordan to identify himself with the unredeemed, and continued that process of identification unto the cross and resurrection, that we can share His sonship” (Beasley-Murray 65). Davies comments, “In this, Jesus is like Moses. Nothing is more clear in the Exodus story than the identification of Moses with the people of Israel and, at the same time, his moral transcendence over them, which nevertheless, so far from securing for him a treatment different from theirs, demands of him the readiness to die on their behalf”. Yet, Davies is hesitant to place the baptism of Jesus under the rubric of Moses typology. “It may be argued that the New Exodus motif is implicit in the baptism of Jesus,” so that Jesus is representative of “a New Israel, [who] undergoes a New Baptism corresponding to the first Exodus” (44). We are, however, uncertain that the Moses and exodus motifs can be so neatly unwound. One necessarily implies the other.

Immediately after his baptism Jesus, who has just been declared by the Father, “my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3.17), is led by the Spirit to the wilderness (Matt. 4.1). This parallels Israel’s Exodus experience: Israel, God’s “first-born son” (Exod. 4.22), had also found itself in the wilderness after its baptism (Exod. 16.1). The parallels between the wilderness experiences of Jesus and Israel may be neatly summarized as follows. Israel was in the wilderness for forty years (Exod. 16.35), Jesus for forty days (Matt. 4.2). Israel was tested by hunger (Exod. 16.2-8) and idolatry (Exod. 32.1-9), as well as the temptation to test God (Exod. 17.1-7). Jesus was met with these same temptations (Matt. 4.2-10). “The first Exodus, led by Moses and ending in failure, anticipated the final exodus, accomplished by Jesus, who never fails” (Baxter 73). By being “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted” (Matt. 4.1) for forty days, Jesus is fulfilling Deut. 8.2-3 (Allison “Jesus,” 204):

[T]he LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments, or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger . . . that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD.

Beyond this exodus motif, we should note that wording relating to Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness, indicating that he did so for “forty days and forty nights” (Matt. 4.2), is in direct parallel to Moses’ forty-day-and-night fast at Sinai (Exod. 24.18; Deut. 9.9; cf. Allison New, 165-72). Recognizing the significance of this image ensures that we will not miss the function of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus ascending a mountain to deliver community-forming instructions to his disciples (Matt. 5.1-2) parallels Moses’ ascent of Sinai to deliver the Torah (Exod. 19.3).

A final use of Moses typology in Matthew’s Gospel has been suggested by Kenton Sparks in the so-called “Great Commission” of Matt. 28.16-20 (651-63). The text reads thus:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

The location of the commissioning words, “the mountain” (v 16) recalls Jesus’ instruction delivered from the mountain in chs. 5-7, thus forming a concluding inclusio. On the first mountain, Jesus taught as one with “authority” (7.29) and on the last, he declares that he has been given “all authority.” This second mountain parallels the mountain at Moab where the disqualified Moses died before he could lead the Israelites into the land of promise. “From their respective mountains, Moses and Jesus delivered their final earthly charges to the people, each in his own way exhorting them ‘to obey everything I have commanded you’ (Matt. 28:20; cf. Deut. 11.28; 31.5, 29)” (Sparks 660).[i] Moses died without leading his people into the land of promise; Jesus, meanwhile, promises his disciples, “I am with you always” (Matt. 28.20). While Moses commanded the people to kill “all the nations” (Deut. 11.23 LXX), Jesus commands his followers to make disciples of “all the nations.” The so-called “Great Commission” could actually be labeled “the Great Conquest.” “For Matthew, the ultimate ‘conquest’ of the nations would be accomplished not by the sword, but by going out, baptizing and teaching” (Sparks 661).[ii]

By tracing the Mosaic imagery in Matthew’s Gospel, we may observe that Matthew intended the Sermon on the Mount to function in the church in much the same way as the account of Moses ascending Sinai did for the Israelites. The goal is community formation for a reconstituted Israel, so that they may engage in a conquest of the nations. In our next section, we seek to confirm and this observation by studying the literary-structural arrangement of Matthew.


[i] Allison (New 262-63) has noted a tidy linguistic echo between Matt 28.20 and Joshua’s praise of the people in the aftermath of Moses’ death (New 262-63): “You have kept all that Moses the servant of the LORD commanded you, and have obeyed my voice in all that I have commanded you” (Josh 22.2 italics mine).

[ii] This “conquest” motif is presupposed in Jesus’ exchange with the Canaanite woman in Matt 15.21-28. Now instead of slaughtering Canaanites, Jesus is a missionary to them.

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Works Cited

Allison, Dale C., Jr. “Jesus and Moses.” Expository Times 98.7 (1987): 203-05.

The New Moses: A Matthean Typology. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993.

Baxter, Wayne S. “Mosaic Imagery in the Gospel of Matthew.” Trinity Journal 20.1 (1999): 69-83.

Beasley-Murray, George R. Baptism in the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962.

Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. Anchor Bible Reference Library. Ed. David Noel Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Davies, W. D. The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount. London: Cambridge University Press, 1966.

Kaiser, Walter C. The Messiah in the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.

Sparks, Kenton. “Gospel as Conquest: Mosaic Typology in Matthew 28:16-20.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68.4 (2006): 651-663.

Swartley, Willard M. Israel’s Scripture Traditions and the Synoptic Gospels: Story Shaping Story. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994.

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