28 Aug 2021

Temptation in the Wilderness: Jesus Reliving the Story of Israel (Mt 4.1-11)

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Exegesis, Holding On, Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds, Matthew, Patternism, Psalms, Worship
Matthew 4.1-11

The Evangelist Matthew begins his work on Jesus the King by insisting to the church, “Ya’ll cannot have Jesus without the Hebrew Bible and Israel.” We cannot have the person of Yeshua without his DNA. In fact Jesus is Israel in a very real sense. Matthew has been doing this from 1.1 and the entire “book of genesis of Jesus” that is so frequently skipped. Israel’s history is Jesus/Yeshua’s history with all that entails. So how does Matthew continue to establish this claim?

Through the Water

In Jesus’s baptism there is a voice that says “This is my Son” (3.17). These are words that had been spoken to the “son of David” for hundreds of years as each son was anointed as King.

I will tell you the decree of the LORD:
He said to me,
“You are my son;
today I have begotten you”
Ask of me, and I will make the
nations your heritage
.” (Ps 2.7).

But the reader of Matthew already knows that Jesus is the son because just a few short verses away the narrator tells us “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (2.15). This is a quotation from Hosea 11.1 which speaks of Israel coming out of Egypt. The prophet Hosea is himself pointing back to the events of the Exodus where Yahweh states Israel is God’s son. In words directed to the tyrannical Pharaoh we hear,

Israel is my firstborn son … Let my son go that he may worship me” (Ex 4.22-23).

Through the Water into the Wilderness

God’s son went through the water. Then God led the people with a pillar of fire into the wilderness. The pillar signified God’s indwelling presence with Israel. This presence would take up residence with Israel in the tabernacle at the end of the Exodus narrative (40.34-38). The pillar is “Immanuel!” (Matthew plays on the significance of the word “Immanuel” for Israel). Isaiah remembered Yahweh’s stunning grace on behalf of the exiles. Notice what he says about that pillar of fire.

I will recount the gracious deeds of the LORD,
the praiseworthy acts of the LORD,
because of all the that the LORD has done for us,
and the great favor to the house of Israel
that he has shown them according to his mercy
according to the abundance of his HESED
[steadfast love, NRSV]

It was no messenger or angel
but his PRESENCE that saved them,
in his love and in his compassion he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them all
the days of old.
But they rebelled
and grieved his HOLY SPIRIT …

Then his people recalled the days of old,
the days of Moses and his people—
where is he who brought them through the sea,
with the shepherd of his flock?
Where is he who set
his HOLY SPIRIT among them,
who sent his glorious arm of power
to be at Moses’ right hand,
who divided the waters before them,
to gain for himself everlasting renown,
who led them through the depths?
Like a horse in open country,
they did not stumble;
like cattle that go down to the plain,
they were given rest by the SPIRIT of the Lord.
This is how you guided your people
to make for yourself a glorious name.

(Isaiah 63.7-14)

God led the people through the water into the wilderness with his presence, with his “Holy Spirit.” Yahweh placed his “Holy Spirit” in the midst of the people to guide them and ultimately give them rest. God led them, by the ruah into the wilderness and instead of walking by faith they rebelled.

God fed the people the bread of angels. Moses ascended the mountain and fasted for forty days and nights. And God’s son failed. Instead of worshiping “me” (Yahweh), Israel worshiped the Golden Calf. In the words of Psalm 106, God’s son exchanged the glory of the redeeming God for “an image of a bull, which eats grass.

At Horeb they made a calf
and worshiped an idol cast from metal.
They exchanged their glorious God
for an image of a bull, which eats grass.
They forgot the God who saved them,
who had done great things in Egypt,
miracles in the land of Ham
and awesome deeds by the Red Sea

(Psalm 106.19-22).

An Ingrained Story

This story was ingrained into the psyche of Jews in Jesus’s day. First, the Torah was read through every three years. It is narrated in Exodus. It is preached in Deuteronomy 6-12.

Second, the Feast of Tabernacles takes Jews symbolically back to the wilderness remembering their lack of faith in Yahweh and his stunning grace in spite of their failure. The week of worship through Tabernacles highlights Psalm readings that speak of listening to Yahweh, avoiding “strange gods,” and that Yahweh will personally feed them the finest bread (Psalm 81 is not only the Psalm read every Thursday in the Temple but is read during Tabernacles). Psalm 81 contains a speech by Yahweh to Israel,

I [Yahweh] hear a voice I had not known:
I relieved your shoulder of the burden;
your hands were freed from the basket.

In distress you called and I rescued you;
I answered you in the secret place of thunder,
I tested you at the waters of Meribah.

Hear, O my people! while I admonish you;
O Israel, if you would but listen to me!
There shall be no strange god among you;
you shall not bow down to a foreign god.
I am the LORD your God,
who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.
Open your mouth wide and I will fill it

(Psalm 81.6-10)

For more on Psalm 81 see: Psalm 81: Thursday’s Psalm (and Tabernacles), Renewing Our Covenant.

The story forms a critical part of Psalm 78 and 106. Psalm 78 ends with David (the King) faithfully leading God’s people. Neither scripture nor liturgy allowed Israel to forget the “fall of Israel” at the Golden Calf. The story also forms a critical part of the Wisdom of Solomon. It was ingrained and it was well known.

Jesus the Faithful Son of David, the Son of Abraham, the Son of God

Israel failed. Israelites in Jesus’s day were very conscious of the fact that “we” (our ancestors and ourselves) have failed. When the reader of Matthew comes to chapter 4 and hears (and they would hear it!) what is happening it is like a deja vu moment: here we go again, will Israel fail?

Jesus recapitulates the Story of the Torah. Jesus is led through the water into the wilderness by the Spirit for testing. This recalls the Pillar of Fire, God’s visible presence. In Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach the Pillar that guides Israel is the dwelling and throne for God’s personified Wisdom (Wis 10.17; Sir 23.3-4). Moses said that God led Israel into the wilderness to “test” Israel’s “to know what is in your hearts” (Deut 8.2, 10; Ps 81 above). Will Jesus follow God’s lead?

But Israel put God to the test! The test regards mere food.

They tested God in their heart
by demanding food they craved.
They spoke against God saying,
‘Can God spread a TABLE

in the wilderness?
(Ps 78.18; cf. Deut 6.16).

They did not believe God would, or could, feed them. The problem is hit on the head in Ps 78,

they had no faith in God
and did not trust his saving power
” (78.22)

It is no accident that the first testing by the devil is after forty days of fasting (like Moses) and focuses upon food. Jesus knew this story. Every Jew knew the story. But the story is not really food beloved, not in Matthew nor in Deuteronomy not in the Psalms (78 or 81). The story is about trust. Will Jesus/Israel trust Yahweh.

The very text Yeshua quotes to the devil, Deuteronomy 8.3 is about both food and trust. The bread of angels was given to human beings to teach them to trust. Here are Moses’s words, the caps are the quoted part by Jesus.

He [Yahweh] humbled you by letting you hunger [Jesus is famished], then by feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, in order to make you understand that ONE DOES NOT LIVE BY BREAD ALONE, BUT BY EVERY WORD THAT COMES FROM THE LORD.” (Deut 8.3).

As Psalm 78 puts it, God commanded the heavens to rain down manna and “humans ate the bread of angels” (78.25) or as Psalm 81 (read on Tabernacles) “Open your mouth wide and I will fill it” (81.10).

Will Jesus test God over whether he can put a table out in the wilderness?

Or will he trust Yahweh to command and the angels will deliver food to him.

Will he trust in God’s saving power?

What is in Jesus’s heart?

The last test follows this Exodus story as well. Israel bowed and worshiped false gods in the Golden Calf. The devil promises what Psalm 2 promises, the inheritance of the nations. The “Son” is supposed to inherit the nations (Ps 2.7-9). Jesus can be King. Just “fall down and worship me” (4.9; recall the words of Yahweh in Ps 81 above).

But Jesus, who has been living in the Story listens to Moses. He is the faithful son. Jesus’s retort is “worship the Lord and serve him only” quoting Deuteronomy 6.13. Jesus will do what God called his Son to do way back in Exodus 4.22-23.

Triumph, the King is Faithful

God called his son, Israel, to worship him. Instead Israel made a calf and bowed before it. They did not trust in Yahweh. Jesus will do what Israel failed … he will worship God only. Israel failed. Even David failed. God’s people went into Exile (mentioned explicitly in the genealogy). But faith triumphs in Jesus. Yeshua the Son of David, the Son of Abraham, the Messiah (King) is indeed God’s faithful Son.

Jesus relives the Story of Israel in the wilderness. It is a familiar story for every Jew. Our ancestors failed to be the loyal trusting Son. But Yeshua, the Son of David, will trust, he will be faithful, he will worship. He will lead the people … as Psalm 78 closes with these words, (78.70-72).

He chose David his servant
and took him from the sheep pens;
from tending the sheep he brought him
to be the shepherd of his people Jacob,
of Israel his inheritance.
And David shepherded them with integrity of heart;
with skillful hands he led them.

(Psalm 78.70-72).

Jesus is the faithful “son of David.”

A Table Spread for the Faithful Son

It is not without significance that Matthew ends his testing narrative with the strange (to Gentiles) words, “then the devil left him and suddenly the angels came and waited on him” (4.11). Jesus/Israel did not stumble in the wilderness and God did in fact spread a table in the wilderness and the angels “waited” on Jesus. They brought the bread just like God rained it down on the faithless Israelites to take care of his Son.

We too are invited to live the Story each day and be faithful sons and daughters.

The Hebrew Bible is the Story Jesus lived. It is also the “ink” from which the New Testament writers not only write about Jesus but also the “doctrine” they proclaim.

Related Articles

Exodus: The Biblical Context of the New Testament (in Wineskins)


  1. The Peshetta-Appendixes #3 – Studying to learn, not prove

Leave a Reply