The Temptation of Jesus in the Desert 

Exegetical Study of Matthew 4:1 – 11

By Simon Brummer (MDiv)

Part 2: Matthew 4:1 – 11: The temptations of Jesus in light of Israel’s trials in the desert

In the first part of our exegetical study on the temptation of Jesus in the desert as portrayed in the gospel of Matthew (see Matthew 4:1 – 11), we looked at some underlying references to the Jewish scriptures which provide the framework for this biblical passage. 

Most prominently, the references to the number 40 and the concept of being led into the desert are clear pointers to the story in the Hebrew Bible where the Israelites were led in the desert by God and remained there for 40 years (see Deuteronomy 8:2). 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.

In the second part of our study, we first take a closer look at the underlying references to the Hebrew Bible regarding the specific temptations that are described in the narrative before discussing the first trial of Jesus. We will see that the parallels to the narratives in the Hebrew Bible are even stronger and more detailed than observed so far.  

According to verse 1, Jesus was tempted by the devil who is also referred to as “the tempter” and “Satan” in this passage (see verses 3 and 10). This figure was known to Jewish audiences as an adversary to God (see Job 1:6; ‘Satan’, literately translated from Biblical Hebrew, means adversary) which tried to bring godly people to fall and sin against God (see most famously in the book of Job). In our text, it is three times that Satan tempted Jesus in the desert. 

First, Satan asks him to command that the stones become bread (v3). This seems to be a very obvious attempt. We just observed in verse 2 that Jesus was hungry after fasting 40 days and nights. It seems perfectly obvious that the devil would try to tempt him in this way so that Jesus would break his fast for God in order to feed his natural desire of hunger. However, there is more to it than ‘just’ a natural desire, and we will see this in a moment.

Second, the devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple. Most likely, this refers to a location “on the temple’s southeast corner where it looms directly over a cliff some 450 ft (135 m) high” (NET Bible note). The devil’s goal here was that he wanted Jesus to test God’s presence with and favour towards him. 

Thirdly and finally, the devil takes Jesus to a high mountain where he shows him all the kingdoms of the world. It is most likely implied that this happened in the form of a vision. Satan asks Jesus to worship him so that he would give him the power over all these kingdoms.

So, why exactly does the text explore these three specific temptations? I think that the key to answer this question is to see how Jesus replied to the devil in the narrative. Three times Jesus quotes from the book of Deuteronomy, chapters 6 and 8. In their context, these chapters of Deuteronomy referred to the people of Israel during their time in the desert and how God intended them to act like during this time. According to the Hebrew Bible, Israel as God’s son failed to be faithful, especially in these three areas which are mentioned in the narrative. Now, it was on Jesus to face these same trials. Davies and Allision summarized this helpfully,

“In each temptation Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy, from Deut 8:3 in 4:4, from Deut 6:16 in 4:7, and from Deut 6:13 in 4:10. This is the key to the narrative: we have before us a haggadic tale which has issued forth from reflection on Deut 6–8. Jesus, the Son of God, is repeating the experience of Israel in the desert.”

Hence, following this logic, it was not only necessary that Jesus would remain faithful to God but that he would succeed over these trials where Israel had failed. 

We will now take a look at the first temptation.

When God gave them the Manna as food, the people of Israel rebelled and regarded good, natural food more important than the spiritual food, namely the words of God. As Davies points out:  “Israel, when hungry in the desert, had murmured against the Lord and Moses (Exod 16; Num 11). The devil now finds Jesus in a similar situation, and he wishes to make him become groundlessly anxious about his physical needs (cf. 6:34). …The devil’s aim is to break Jesus’ perfect trust in his Father’s good care (cf. 6:24–34) and thereby alter the course of salvation-history.” However, as it is described in Matthew 4:4, Jesus remained faithful by putting obedience to God over satisfying his own, physical needs. In that, he distinguishes himself from the pattern of the past.

In Part 3, we will further explore these parallels in more detail by taking a closer look at the second and third temptations described in the narrative, and we will end with some final considerations on the passage in Matthew 4:1-11. 

To be continued

*all Bible verses are taken from the NRSV Bible translation

Bibliography

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2005.

Davies, W. D., and Dale C. Allison Jr. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Vol. 1. International Critical Commentary. London; New York: T&T Clark International, 2004.