The Temptation of Jesus in the Desert 

Exegetical Study of Matthew 4:1 – 11

By Simon Brummer (MDiv)

In the New Testament, there are many clear references to the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament). These references come in the form of direct quotations or allusions to certain verses and stories. Some of them, however, are not as visible to readers as others. One example of a less apparent reference to an important event that is described in the Hebrew Bible, is the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert in the Gospel of Matthew. 

This 3-part study analyses Matthew 4:1-11, while taking note of the underlying references to the Jewish scriptures. This is important because the Jewish Scriptures provide the framework for this biblical passage. Reflecting about this then helps us to read the story in a way that acknowledges its theological background, and this in turn leads us to a better understanding of the Gospel author’s reasoning when writing this passage.

Part 1: The Focus of the Gospel of Matthew and its expression in Matthew 4:1-11

Biblical scholars largely agree that the Gospel of Matthew was written by a Jewish author (or authors) and with a mainly Jewish audience in mind. This is both because of the book’s overall structure (e.g., the gospel’s division into five discourses, paralleling the 5 books of Moses, i.e., the Pentateuch) and its many references to the Hebrew Bible (quotes, customs, stories, etc.).

In Matthew 4:1 – 11, the very first verse provides such a reference to the Hebrew Bible which we will explore more below. Before that, we will take a look at verse 1 in its immediate context in the gospel of Matthew: 

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”*

This statement, considered against its immediate pretext, can strike the reader as surprising. At the end of chapter 3, the narrative describes how Jesus was baptized by John, the Holy Spirit was descending upon him and the voice of God the father from heaven was saying: “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased” (see Matthew 3:17). This seems rather a strong confirmation of the status of Jesus. In Matthew 4 verse 1, however, this “beloved son” is led up by the (Holy) Spirit into the wilderness (or desert) to be tempted by the devil. We may ask: Why so? Or: How does this fit in within the flow of the larger narrative? 

We can read 1) that Jesus was led up into the wilderness and 2) that he was fasting forty days and forty nights which made him hungry. These are the described circumstances, and they are quite helpful to answer our question. Remember, the Gospel was predominantly written to a Jewish audience. They knew their Hebrew Bible, and they could immediately see the parallels in the temptation story in Matthew to a major event including the people of Israel. 

In the Hebrew Bible, it is said that the Israelites were lead in the desert by God and remained there for 40 years (see Deuteronomy 8:2). This parallel is indicated in Matthew 4:1 – 2 through the number 40 and through the concept of being led into the desert. Moreover, like Israel, who God refers to as his son in the Hebrew Scriptures (see Exodus 4:22), Jesus as God’s Son in the Gospel of Matthew (see Matthew 3:17) would experience certain trials that would test his faithfulness towards God. As D.A. Carson helpfully put it: “

“Jesus’ fast … of forty days and nights reflected Israel’s forty-year wandering (Deut 8:2). Both Israel’s and Jesus’ hunger taught a lesson (Deut 8:3); both spent time in the desert preparatory to their respective tasks. … The main point is that both “sons” were tested by God’s design (Deut 8:3, 5; cf: Exod 4:22; …, the one after being redeemed from Egypt and the other after his baptism, to prove their obedience and loyalty in preparation for their appointed work.”

In Part 2, we will explore these parallels in more detail and take a closer look at the first temptation described in the narrative. 

To be continued…

 

*all Bible verses are taken from the NRSV Bible translation

Bibliography

A. Carson, “Matthew,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 8 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984), 112.

The Jewish Annotated New Testament: New Revised Standard Version Bible Translation. Oxford University Press 2017.