The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is one of those overly-familiar gospel episodes that reward a fresh reading with open eyes. In terms of history and theology, this is one of the more difficult passages to analyze. Questions abound: who is meant to have witnessed and recorded this event? Is this a pale description of a spiritual or psychological experience, or a literal throwdown between Jesus and an embodied “devil”? Was this some kind of legal gauntlet that Jesus had to pass to prove himself the son of God, or just a dramatic manifestation of his anxiety and doubt?
Those are all fascinating questions, but they lend themselves largely to speculation. Approached as a work of literature, on the other hand, the text has much more to offer. This is a carefully and creatively composed piece of storytelling with many observable features which provide structure and impart meaning. All three of the synoptic gospels offer a version of this episode, while John’s gospel omits it. I’m going to focus on Matthew’s version and its appreciable literary form.
Matthew 4:1-11: Jesus Wanders in the Desert
The opening chapters of Matthew present the birth and early life of Jesus as a series of fulfillments and echoes of the story of Israel. Each episode is ordered and detailed to invoke elements and themes from Genesis and Exodus (and from Talmudic expansions on those stories): Jesus, a descendant of Abraham, flees to Egypt with his family. There are dreams and intrigue with kings and diviners, and Jesus passes dramatically through a body of water at his baptism. Then here, in chapter 4, he wanders the desert in an ordeal that lasts “forty days and forty nights,” and next he will go up on a mountain and talk about law.
So what is Matthew’s agenda in casting Jesus in a remake of Exodus? In a general sense, of course, he wants to establish Jesus a true Jew and Israel’s true Messiah. But the significance of the temptation story in particular is best understood if we pay attention to the details. The short text can be broken down into five units; an introduction, three temptations, and a conclusion. Each of the temptations includes a specific allusion to a text from Exodus and a rebuttal from Jesus that quotes Deuteronomy 6. Here’s the broad outline, with more details below:
- Introduction (Matthew 4:1-2): Jesus fasting in the desert
- Temptation 1 (Matthew 4:3-4): Stones into bread
- Reference: Exodus 16:3 (“bread”)
- Rebuke: Deuteronomy 6:3
- Temptation 2 (Matthew 4:5-7): Throw yourself down
- Reference: Exodus 17:2,7 (“to the test”)
- Rebuke: Deuteronomy 6:16
- Temptation 3 (Matthew 4:8-10): Bow down
- Reference: Exodus 32:8 (“bow down”)
- Rebuke: Deuteronomy 6:13
- Conclusion (Matthew 4:11): The devil left him
Like the Israelites those millennia ago, Jesus is “led” into the desert where he faces three specific temptations that his ancestors also faced there. But where they failed, grumbling and rebelling, Jesus is faithful and true. And his source of inspiration is Deuteronomy 6, the defining expression of Jewish identity and belief. He essentially defeats the devil with Judaism.
Now let’s consider the actual temptations in a little more detail:
Temptation 1: Magic Bread (Matthew 4:3-4)
The identity of Jesus’ adversary in Matthew’s text is rather slippery. He is first called “the devil,” but usually just “the tempter,” and eventually Jesus calls him “you satan!” Whoever or whatever he is, the tempter begins by challenging the “famished” Jesus to turn some stones into bread to nourish himself. Jesus answers with his first quote from Deuteronomy: “It takes more than bread to keep you alive, you actually live on every word that comes out of God’s mouth.” (Deut 6:3)
This temptation involves the miraculous provision of dirty bread. For the Israelites (in Exodus 16 and following) God provided manna, and the temptation was to hoard or grumble or otherwise fail to appreciate the provision. For Jesus the circumstance is different but the temptation is the same. He is dared to exploit his privilege in order to instantly gratify himself rather than staying hungry and continuing to trust in divine providence.
Temptation 2: Go Jump Off a Cliff (Matthew 4:5-7)
Next the tempter takes Jesus up onto the temple mount and dares him to jump off, so that God might “command his angels” to come down and save him (a quote from Psalm 91). Jesus rebukes him with another Deuteronomic comeback: “You mustn’t put the Lord your God to the test!” (Deut 6:16)
This is another reference to Exodus, specifically Exodus 17 where the Israelites demand a miracle and Moses responds with a similar warning about putting God “to the test.” (Exo 17:2) But the Israelites intensify their protest and Moses capitulates in an incident with his staff and a rock that will see him banished from the promised land. The temptation here is not just ingratitude but a complete lack of faith manifested as a demand for religious signs and proofs, an exchange of reason and trust for insecurity and superstition. For Jesus the choice is between triumphant religious spectacle or quiet humanity, and he chooses the latter.
Temptation 3: Bow Down (Matthew 4:8-10)
Finally, Jesus’ devil takes him to a “very high mountain,” where they survey the “magnificent kingdoms of the world.” “I’ll give them all to you,” he says, “if you’ll bow down and worship me.” Jesus must have been listening to the audiobook of Deuteronomy on his phone that morning, because he is ready with one more quote: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him alone!” (Deut 6:13) The devil leaves him.
Here is an allusion to the famous incident in Exodus 32 when Moses ascends Mount Sinai and within five minutes the people below are “bowing down” to worship a fertility idol in the form of a golden calf. For the Israelites, this was simply the temptation to return to the glamorous and expedient type of local religion to which they had been accustomed. For Jesus, the temptation is to embrace the glamorous and expedient type of power and glory afforded by the empires and kingdoms of the world. To this day, political and military power are the only way most humans can imagine anything resembling justice to be accomplished. But Jesus knows there is a better way.
The Big Picture: Jesus the Good Jewish Human
Most readers of the New Testament, missing the literary clues and references, have imagined that these trials were unique to Jesus and his heavenly vocation as savior and messiah. But Matthew’s point seems to be that these three temptations – instant gratification, superstition, and power politics – are all common. They are common to Israel and common to humankind. What makes Jesus extraordinary is his transcendent response to these universal temptations, grounded in humility, faith, and an ongoing trust in divine goodness. Matthew is inviting his Jewish readers to place their trust in Jesus, the true Israelite and the true human. He portrays Jesus as “one of us,” which ought to make his goodness all the more relevant and inspiring.