With the Christian festival of Christmas just two days away, this Shabbat, I’m going to talk to you about the connections between the stories of three nice Jewish boys: Joseph, Moses, and Jesus. Of the three, Joseph is the odd one out, since there are no tales about him as a baby – Joseph’s story begins when he it’s already 17 years old.[1] What we read about Joseph also suggests that he wasn’t simply a boy – but I’ll have to leave that for another sermon.

The story of Joseph is rather exceptional, but nevertheless, as we shall see, there are links between the narratives of Joseph, Moses and Jesus. In this week’s Torah portion, Va-yiggash, we learn about how Joseph finally revealed his identity to his brothers. And that’s not all he revealed. We read:[2]

Then Joseph said to his brothers: ‘Come near to me, I pray you.’ They came near. And he said: ‘I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. / Now do not be aggrieved, nor angry with yourselves, that you sold me here; since God sent me before you to preserve life. / For these two years famine has been in the land; and there are still five years, in which there shall be neither ploughing nor reaping. / God sent me before you to give you a remnant on the earth and to save your life for a great deliverance.’

Joseph could be considered as the first Jew to make it in the Diaspora. The dreamer who accomplished the survival of Egypt and of his family by taking practical measures to save the people from famine with the help of the Eternal One – who also had another purpose: the future deliverance of their descendants from slavery. Of course, that later deliverance begs some questions. Why did Jacob and his family need to settle in Egypt only for their descendants to be liberated from Egypt centuries later? Just so that they might experience Divine redemption?[3] I will leave you to ponder these questions, as we continue exploring the links between Joseph, Moses and Jesus.

First: Joseph and Moses. Just as Joseph saved the people, so did Moses. In the account of the burning bush, when Moses is addressed by the Eternal One for the first time, we read:[4]

‘Now, behold, the cry of the Israelites has come to Me; moreover, I have seen the oppression with which Egypt oppresses them. / Now therefore, I will send you to Pharaoh, that you may bring My people, the Israelites out of Egypt.

So: In the cases of both Joseph and Moses, God’s work is accomplished through human agency.

Jesus, by contrast, is presented in the Christian Gospels in a very different way. The Nativity stories suggest that Jesus was destined for a sacred purpose. But that is not all. We read in the Gospel of Matthew, the first Book of the Christian Scriptures, known as the ‘New Testament’:[5]

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. 20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”’

That last phrase is key, so let’s keep it in mind: Jesus is destined “to save his people from their sins.” The Christian Scriptures were originally written in Greek. Significantly, when we translate ‘Jesus’ into Hebrew – Yeshu – we find that it is based on the root Yud Shin Ayin, to ‘save’. The names of two other significant Biblical characters are also based on this root: Joshua – Y’hoshu’a – Moses’ successor, who led the people into the land beyond the Jordan;[6] and the prophet Isaiah – Y’shayahu – who, as we learn in the opening verse of the Book of Isaiah, inspired by a vision – chazon – proclaimed the word of God to the people of Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Yotam, Achaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.[7]

The notion of Jesus as the one who ‘saves’ is utterly different. What the Gospel of Matthew relates about Jesus before he is born, sets him apart as utterly unique; a child conceived by the ‘Holy Spirit’. The Gospel of Luke which follows reinforces this message, and also provides details of the circumstances in which Jesus was born. We read:[8]

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while. Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

So, according to the Gospels, conceived by the ‘Holy Spirit’, Jesus is unique – and he also has a lineage: he is a descendant of King David – who was also a ‘messiah’. But King David was a Messiah in the Hebrew sense of the word: mashi’ach, an ‘anointed one’; that is, anointed with the oil of kingship.[9]

Interestingly, in addition to presenting Jesus’ Jewish credentials, the Gospels also include a story that has parallels with the tale of the circumstances surrounding the birth of Moses. Let me quote the passage found in Matthew in full:[10]

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, wise men[11] from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod called the wise men secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. 13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” 14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” 16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the wise men, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: 18 “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

Before we explore the similarities and differences between the Jesus and Moses nativity narratives, let’s note the way in which this passage explains events by reference to biblical prophecy in the Hebrew Scriptures – so, to repeat three sections:

First: The Messiah was to be born ‘“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” This is a quotation from the Micah, chapter 5, verses 2 and 4.

Second: Jesus had to brought to Egypt, so he could come out of Egypt: ‘So, he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”’ This verse is found in Hosea, Chapter 11, verse 1.

Finally: When Herod ordered the murder of the baby boys: 17 ‘Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: 18 “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”’ This verse appears in Jeremiah, chapter 31, verse 15.

For the Gospel writers, it is not enough to establish the lineage of Jesus as a descendant of the House of King David, he must also be seen as the fulfilment of the Hebrew Scriptures – which brings us back to the connections between the narrative of the birth of Jesus and the narrative of the birth of Moses. Just as Pharaoh gave orders to kill all the new-born baby boys of the Hebrews, King Herod gave orders to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem, who were two years old and younger. Both Pharaoh and Herod were motivated by fear. And both of them were outwitted by those commanded to follow their orders: the midwives, in the case of the Hebrew baby boys, and the wise men, in the case of Jesus. But of course, there is a crucial difference between these two narratives. Herod is primarily exercised by the claims about one particular baby boy. As ‘King of the Jews’ himself, he must get rid of any potential contender for his crown; and so, when outwitted by the wise men, he resolves to kill all the baby boys.

By contrast, fearing that the Hebrews will become too numerous and pose a threat to Egypt, Pharaoh resolves from the outset to kill all the new-born baby Hebrew boys.[12] Moses was not a special target. And yet, the actions of his mother and sister – unnamed in the story[13] – set Moses apart. Moses wasn’t simply saved from death by the courageous midwives,[14] Moses’ mother and sister ensured his survival. First, his mother made a water-resistant basket, and placed it in the reeds by the river. And then, when Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe, Moses’ sister, who had been standing guard to see what would happen, had the initiative to offer to fetch a Hebrew wet nurse – and brought the baby’s mother.[15] And so, Moses survived and thrived in the Egyptian court, suckled by his mother until he was weaned.

The next time the Torah mentions Moses’ sister, following the crossing of the Sea of Reeds at the beginning of the exodus from Egypt, she is named – Miriam – and more than that, she is described as a n’vi’ah, a prophet.[16] What did Miriam prophesy? Commenting on Miriam’s designation as a prophet, the sages explained that when Miriam saved her baby brother she had foreseen subsequent developments and his future role in the liberation of the slaves.[17] While, the narrative of the baby Moses provides the back-story of the future reluctant leader of his people out of slavery, the narrative of the baby Jesus, with its echoes of the Moses tale, aims to provide the evidence of his unique status as the one born of the Holy Spirit, destined ‘to save his people from their sins.’ As the account of the life story of Jesus turned out, ultimately, to do this Jesus had to die. In the figure of Jesus, the imperative of redemption is spiritualised. By contrast, it’s not just that both Moses and Joseph are fully human, the redemptive work they do on behalf of God is bound up with the material conditions of life: people need food and the slaves must go free.

It may seem rather strange to explore New Testament passages in a Shabbat morning sermon. Perhaps, it should strike us as equally strange that while most Christians are familiar with the Hebrew Bible, which is read in churches, apart from RE lessons in school, most Jews have little knowledge of the Christian Scriptures. Of course, this is hardly surprising, given the long history of Christian persecution of Jews and defamation of Jewish teaching. Nevertheless, in today’s more pluralistic culture and in the interests of greater understanding between Jews and Christians, perhaps the time has come for Jews to read the New Testament – including, the explicitly anti-Jewish passages – and even better, for Jews and Christians to read the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament together. Who knows what Jews and Christians might learn from one another and about our own particular religious traditions by reading our respective sacred texts in each other’s presence. As the other New Year beckons, let us all resolve to take steps towards finding out. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue

23rd December 2017 / 5th Tevet 5778

  1. Va-yeishev, Genesis 37:2 ff. The simple fact of Joseph’s birth to Rachel is mentioned in Va-yeitzei, Genesis 30:22-24.
  2. Va-yiggash, Genesis 45:4-7.
  3. Note: Lech L’cha, Genesis 15:13-14: When God comes to Avram ‘in a vision’ – ba-machazeh – he learns that his descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and be afflicted as slaves before being liberated when God judges the nation that they serve. Again: no reason is given.
  4. Sh’mot, Exodus 3:9-10.
  5. Matthew 1:18-23. I’m using the NIV translation.
  6. V’zot Ha-b’rachah, Deuteronomy 34:9.
  7. Isaiah 1:1.
  8. Luke 2:1-12.
  9. 2 Samuel 5:3.
  10. Matthew 2:1-18.
  11. The NIV translation is ‘Magi’. I’ve decided to use the more familiar designation.
  12. Exodus 1: 8 ff.
  13. Moses’ mother was Yocheved: see Numbers 26:59
  14. Their story is related in Sh’mot, Exodus 1:15-22.
  15. Sh’mot, Exodus 2:1-10.
  16. B’shallach, Exodus 15: 20-21.
  17. There are many rabbinic commentaries concerning Miriam’s powers of prophecy. For example:Who are the seven prophetesses? Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Channah, Abigail, Chuldah, and Esther (M’gillah 14a). She prophesied and said, “My mother is destined to bear a son who will redeem Israel” (M’gillah 14a).When Moses was born, the whole house was filled with light. Her father kissed her on her head and said, “My daughter, your prophecy has been fulfilled.” (M’gillah 14a).