Matthew 2:20–21

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Jacob Jordaens's The Return of the Holy Family from Egypt

Matthew 2:20 and 2:21 are the twentieth and twenty first verses of the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament. The young Jesus and the Holy Family are in Egypt. An angel has just informed Joseph that King Herod, his persecutor, is dead. In this verse the angel gives him further instructions. The wording of this verse is extremely close to that of Exodus 4:19.[1][2]


In the King James Version of the Bible the text reads:

20: Saying, Arise, and take the young
child and his mother, and go into
the land of Israel: for they are dead
21: which sought the young child's life.
And he arose, and took the young child and
his mother, and came into the land of Israel.

The World English Bible translates the passage as:

20: "Arise and take the young child
and his mother, and go into the
land of Israel, for those who sought
the young child's life are dead."
21: He arose and took the young child and
his mother, and came into the land of Israel.

For a collection of other versions see BibRef Matthew 2:20, BibRef Matthew 2:21.


Like the rest of the infancy narrative these verses are careful to not refer to Jesus as Joseph's child. The angel refers to him as "the young child" not "your young child", but freely refers to Mary as his mother.

The main point of contention with this passage is why it refers to multiple people being dead when only Herod has died. The plural is unambiguous in the original Greek and in all surviving versions. This may link with the earlier part of the chapter where Herod colludes with the Jewish leaders to kill Jesus, but is unlikely the leaders would all have died in this brief period, and historical records demonstrates that many remained in office throughout this era. A number of explanations have been advanced to explain this problem. One proposal is that there was a secondary figure who died at the time. The most mentioned candidate being Herod's son Antipater, who died five days before the king. The problem with this theory is that there is no evidence in Matthew, or any other contemporary work, that Antipater had any involvement in the persecutions.[3] The standard explanation is that most scholars believe the plural is due to Matthew's basing this section on Exodus. Raymond E. Brown sees this as an unlikely explanation. He argues that the author of Matthew was competent enough to change to the singular if he had so desired. Brown argues that the passage should more accurately be read as "the plot by those who wanted to kill is dead."[4]

Robert H. Gundry notes that the phrase translated as "child's life" literally means "child's soul." At the time seeking someone's soul was an expression for trying to kill someone.[5]

The reference to "Land of Israel" in this verse and the next one is important.[citation needed] This is the only place in the New Testament where this phrase is used, i.e. the only place where "Israel" is used to refer to a geographic location, a usage which was common in the Book of Exodus on which this passage is based.[2] This is the usage that is employed today by the State of Israel. The word translated as land can also be translated as state or country.[citation needed] Elsewhere in the New Testament the term Israel more often taken to refer to the kingdom of God or the Jewish people as a whole. Gundry notes that the author of Matthew rejects the more accurate terminology "land of Judah" as he was looking for a term that would encompass both Judah and Galilee, where the family would end up.[5]

Verse 21 is an almost exact copy of verse 20, except it is in the past tense. It is also very similar to Matthew 2:14. The similarity to the last verse shows that Joseph promptly and exactly obeys the instructions of the angel, obedience is an important virtue throughout Matthew.


  1. ^ Albright, W.F. and C.S. Mann. "Matthew." The Anchor Bible Series. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1971.
  2. ^ a b Goldberg 2001, p. 147: “The parallels between this narrative and that of Exodus continue to be drawn. Like Pharaoh before him, Herod, having been frustrated in his original efforts, now seeks to achieve his objectives by implementing a program of infanticide. As a result, here - as in Exodus - rescuing the hero’s life from the clutches of the evil king necessitates a sudden flight to another country. And finally, in perhaps the most vivid parallel of all, the present narrative uses virtually the same words of the earlier one to provide the information that the coast is clear for the herds safe return: here, in Matthew 2:20, "go [back]… for those who sought the Childs life are dead; there, in Exodus 4:19, go back… for all the men who sought your life are dead.”
  3. ^ Craig S. Keener. A commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999. pg. 112
  4. ^ Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke. London: G. Chapman, 1977.
  5. ^ a b Gundry, Robert H. Matthew a Commentary on his Literary and Theological Art. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.

Further reading

  • Clarke, Howard W. The Gospel of Matthew and its Readers: A Historical Introduction to the First Gospel. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.
  • Goldberg, Michael (2001). Jews and Christians: Getting Our Stories Straight. Wipf and Stock Publishers. ISBN 9781579107765. 

Preceded by
Matthew 2:19
Gospel of Matthew
Chapter 2
Succeeded by
Matthew 2:22
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