04.05.03 Mt. 2:16-18 Bethlehem
HEROD ORDERS THE SLAUGHTER OF YOUNG BOYS
16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been outwitted by the wise men, flew into a rage. He gave orders to massacre all the male children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, in keeping with the time he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then what was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled:
18 A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more (Jer. 31:15).
There are three reasons why Herod decided to kill the Christ-child.
- He was not about to tolerate any potential threat to his monarchy. Under the slightest suspicion, he even murdered his own wives and sons.
- He realized that he was tricked by the magi when they failed to return to him as they had originally promised. This was an insult.
- It was an insult for the visiting magi, who represented royalty, not to present a gift to Herod. To meet a monarch of another nation, for whatever reason, and not present a gift was a supreme insult – sometimes considered worthy of death.
“Massacre all the male children … two years old and under.” In biblical times mothers often nursed their infants until the age of two. Herod was not about to let any unweaned infants threaten his throne. Therefore, he sent a military unit to the small village and they killed all infant boys under the age of two. Since Bethlehem was a small village, the number of innocent lives massacred was relatively few; scholars believe less than a dozen – but still a horrible and wicked act. This terrible action, known as the Massacre of the Innocents, is typical of the well-earned reputation of Herod the Great. While he was known for being one of the greatest builders the Roman Empire, he was also known for his immense cruelty to his family and those he ruled. This slaughter was typical of him. He even killed most of his ten wives and several sons. This single act of brutality in Bethlehem became the signature for which the great architect and builder is remembered. The account of Herod’s evil act was also recorded by Eusebius, who wrote the following:
Christ, then, having been born, according to the prophecies in Bethlehem of Judea, about the time that had been revealed, Herod was alarmed at the intelligence. Having ascertained, on the inquiry of the eastern Magi where the king of the Jews should be born, as they had seen his star and this had been the cause of so long a journey to them, glowing with zeal to worship the infant as God, he was under great apprehension supposing his own kingdom to be in danger. After inquiring of the doctors of the law in the nation where they expected Christ should be born and ascertaining the prophecy of Micah announcing that it would be in Bethlehem, in a single edict he ordered all male infants from two years and below to be slain, both in Bethlehem and all its parts, according to the time that he ascertained from the Magi. He thought, as seemed probably, that he would carry off Jesus also in the destruction with those of his own age. The child, however, anticipated the snare, being carried into Egypt by his parents who were informed by an angel of what was to happen. These same facts are stated in the sacred text of the gospel.
Eusebius, Church History 8.1-2
“A voice was heard in Ramah.” Ramah was a village situated about five miles north of Jerusalem in the land belonging to the tribe of Benjamin. After the forces of King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the temple in 587 B.C., they went north to attack Ramah. Matthew compared this horrific event as a “foreshadow” of the killing of children in Bethlehem by Herod the Great. In a similar manner, an unknown first century writer compared Herod the Great with the slaughter of innocent boys by the Pharaoh of Egypt.
There followed a bold king, not descendant from a priestly family, who was presumptuous and wicked. He killed old and young, and the whole country was terribly afraid of him. He ravaged the people with slaughter as had happened in Egypt.
Assumption of Moses 6:22
“Rachel weeping for her children.” These words by the prophet Jeremiah have raised some difficulties. At Ramah the Babylonians killed many and took children as slaves, but there is no evidence of similar atrocities at Bethlehem during the days of either the prophet or Rachel. So why did he make the connection. There are two possibilities:
- Some scholars have suggested that in Ramah the children were not slaughtered, but were taken from them, whereas in Bethlehem the mothers buried their little sons. So the similarity is not the killing, but the suffering.
- However, the most accurate interpretation may be found in the Talmud. It suggests that when the children of Israel were driven by the Babylonian army to Babylon, the road they traveled upon went past the grave of their mother Rachel and they cried bitterly. Hence, Rachel “heard the cries” of her children. In this cultural genre, Rachel heard the cries of the families of Bethlehem.
Comparisons were often made between events, even though they were not perfectly aligned in the modern sense of making comparisons.
Finally, critics have pondered that if the story of the Bethlehem massacre was true, why didn’t Josephus mention it? The answer is that Herod had murdered so many of his own family, friends and staff, that the Bethlehem event was not even a minor point. Furthermore, Josephus may not have known about it.
. Smith, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew. 43.
. Gilbrant, “Matthew,” 45; See “types and shadows” in Appendix 26.
. The reader is reminded that quotations from non-biblical sources are not to be understood as being of equal authority with the biblical narratives. See 01.02.04.
. Bock, Jesus According to Scripture. 72.
. Cited by Geikie, The Life and Words. 1:557.