Herod Gave Orders to Kill all the Boys in Bethlehem Two Years Old and Under

Matthew 2: 13-18

DIG: What kind of a king was Herod? What does his response of fear and anger show about his view of the Messiah? What is Matthew’s point in emphasizing God’s loving protection and care of His Son? How was ADONAI orchestrating events and starting His plan of salvation through the fulfillment of Hosea and Jeremiah’s prophecies?

REFLECT: When, like Herod, have you felt threatened by the lordship of Christ when He wanted you to turn over to Him something you thought was yours? Your finances? A future husband or wife? Your spouse? A child? A job? How do you react in those times? How do you react when threatened by the world? From Joseph’s responsiveness, what do you learn about faith and obedience?

When the magi came, there was no doubt they were a source of great encouragement and assurance to both Joseph and Mary, confirming the incredible message of the angels to them (Matthew 1:20-23 and Luke 1:26-38), to Zechariah (Luke 1:11-20), and to the shepherds (Luke 2:8-14). It also confirmed the testimonies of Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-45), and of Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:25-38) about the child to whom Mary gave birth. Even the magi from far off Babylon had been told the news of God and came to worship Yeshua and give Him gifts.

But the rejoicing didn’t last very long. The first conflict in the story begins as Herod, the illegitimate king of the Jews, sought to kill Yeshua, the legitimate King of the Jews.164 No sooner had the magi gone, than an angel of ADONAI appeared to Yosef in a dream, giving him a warning from God. This was the second of Joseph’s four dreams (Matthew 1:20, 2:13, 2:19 and 2:22). Get up, He said: take the child and His mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child in order to kill Him (Matthew 2:13).

Herod’s rule was brutal because his kingdom was different than any other under Rome’s iron fist. The Jewish value system and the Roman value system were diametrically opposed. The Jews worshiped the one, true God, while Rome worshiped many pagan deities. Herod was in the middle of that mess. But the Romans didn’t care. They would hold him responsible for any problems caused by an alleged new king of the Jews. They would not tolerate a ruler that they themselves had not chosen. Rome didn’t tolerate any threat. And if the followers of that new “king” stirred up a rebellion, there was no doubt that Rome would immediately step in to brutally crush it. No, it would be better if Herod handled it himself.165

Now just as the magi had been warned by the LORD to disobey Herod, Joseph was warned by HaShem to flee the murderous king.166 When danger threatened, Yosef dropped everything that he was doing, shut down his carpenters shop, and relocated to another country to insure the safety of his family. He loved his wife as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25). No one will ever know how much it cost him.

So, immediately Yosef got up in the middle of the night (Matthew 2:14a). He understood the urgency of the situation. Even though traveling at night was potentially more dangerous, Joseph demonstrated exceptional faith and obedience that did not allow him even to delay until daylight. While Rome controlled territory as far north as Gaza, even the nearest parts of Egypt proper, the city of Pelusium and the eastern branches of the Nile delta would be at least 75 miles from Bethlehem, and another 100 miles or so would be necessary to get to Egypt and safely removed from Herod’s power. Traveling with a child made the trip even slower than usual and more difficult. Consequently, they would probably be traveling for more than a week.167

Under cover of darkness, Joseph took the child and His mother and left for Egypt (Matthew 2:14b). He told no one that they were leaving or in which direction they would travel. Mary mounted the donkey and held fast to her Child. Yosef yanked the halter strap and started the long plod along the white-stoned road south to Egypt. It stands to reason that during the long trip Joseph had plenty of time to think. It probably seemed strange to him that anyone would want to hurt a child. Any child. It seemed even stranger that ADONAI was keeping this one a secret. Before, it seemed that beside themselves, the only ones who knew this child was the Son of God were the Jewish shepherds and the Gentile magi. But the king of all Judea, Herod the Great, had heard about Him, and his reaction, according to the angel, was to plot to murder Him. They were in flight to spare the One who had come to save the souls of all mankind. Why? Joseph just didn’t understand.168

According to Mattityahu, all of these events had a purpose in the sovereign plan of God. They stayed there until the death of Herod. Matthew’s account is extremely brief and basic. He tells us nothing of the journey, except that it began at night. He gives us no details about where the family lived in Egypt, or how their time was spent although there has been much speculation. Some ancient writers, thinking they could improve the biblical account, came up with stories about the Child Messiah healing a demon-possessed youth by placing strips of burial cloths on the afflicted child’s head, of causing robbers to run away into the desert, and of causing idols to disintegrate as He merely walked by them. Others, like the second-century pagan philosopher Celsus, tried to discredit Christ by claiming that He spent His childhood and early adult years in Egypt learning about the occult. Like many of His Jewish opponents, Celsus argued that Jesus then returned to the Promised Land to impress people with signs and miracles to trick them into thinking that He was indeed the Meshiach.169

The typology between Moses the deliverer and Jesus the Messiah continues to be seen in Matthew. As if to retrace the steps of the Exodus, Yeshua left Egypt for the Land that God had promised to Israel. So was fulfilled what ADONAI had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called My Son” (Mattityahu 2:15). Indeed, the Holy One would be the Isra’el that the LORD had longed to call His Son. But Isra’el would choose to worship false gods and suffer repeated invasions until finally exiled from the Promised Land to Babylon. When restored to their homeland, they worshiped ADONAI outwardly, while worshiping wealth in their hearts. To judge that sin, HaShem withdrew His protection, gave them over to corrupt leaders, and stopped talking to them. Then by the time of Herod, four hundred years later, the religious leaders of Isra’el had erected a new idol to stand alongside that of wealth: their own self-righteousness.170

There are four ways that the New Covenant quotes the TaNaKh and two of them are found in this file. The second way is a literal prophecy and the fulfillment as a type. Matthew declares that Yeshua’s stopover in Egypt fulfills Hosea’s prophecy: Out of Egypt I called My son, comes from Hosea 11:1. The context is the exodus, where ADONAI says: Let My Son go (Exodus 4:2). So the literal meaning of Hosea 11:1 was that Israel came out of Egypt. But this also becomes a type of a future event when Jesus, a more perfect Son of God, a more unique Son of God, would also come out of Egypt.171 Mattityahu’s ability to quote Scripture accurately (here he ignores what was probably the most common Septuigant translation – His children – and translates the Hebrew directly) suggests the he and the Jewish community knew the context very well.172

Because the Jews do not believe in the Trinity, or believe that Yeshua was the Meshiach, the rabbis teach that when Jesus was down in Egypt He made cuts in His skin and inside these cuts He inserted the four-letter word for God, or YHWH. They say that since Jesus was not God and could not do miracles by Himself, by this cunning means His miracles were accomplished.

The king’s palace was a place of splendid courtyards and many oil lamps on the west side of Jerusalem, about three hundred yards from a place called Golgotha, or Calvary. Men of importance were rushing, on this night, in and out of the palace. When Herod realized that the magi had outwitted him, he was furious (Matthew 2:16a). Yes! They tricked him! More than likely he arose from his throne, a man with deep-set eyes like caves in a forest, and his gray beard parted as he spat out words. Many would pay for the trick that had been played on him. Many would die. His attendants trembled because if the lives of his loved ones could be sacrificed at a whim, their lives were less than worthless.

The king was seventy years old and very ill. He suffered from lung disease, kidney problems, worms, a heart condition, sexually transmitted diseases, and a horrible version of gangrene that had caused his genitals to rot, turn black, and become infested with maggots. Yet, his rage enslaved him and he lashed out at everything and everyone. Herod’s newest threat, though it came from a mere infant, seemed to him to be the most dangerous of all.173

No one was going to make a fool out of him! Those magi had no intention of keeping their promise to return to him with news of the newborn Messiah. “The census,” he roared. That would provide a solution to the problem of the make-believe Savior. “The census!” It would have the names of all the families who had children. If the magi could see the light in the sky, why couldn’t his councilors see it? Could they be in league with the little majesty that wanted his throne? He was extremely paranoid. Now he believed that there was a two year old out there somewhere conspiring to depose him! And he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the magi (Matthew 2:16b). Herod’s slaughter of helpless boys resembled the infanticide of Pharoah, as the “new” Moses motif of Christ’s birth continues to develop.174 From this verse we know that Jesus was about two years old at that time.

It was the shepherds that worshiped the baby Yeshua, and it was the magi that presented their treasures of gold and of frankincense and of myrrh (Matthew 2:11). Joseph and Miryam used these gifts to finance their escape to Egypt. Although they had been poverty stricken, the gold, frankincense and myrrh, gave them the means to travel and live in Egypt as long as they needed to. Then they would return to Nazareth after Herod’s death.

Some have said this massacre never happened, while others have exaggerated the number of children murdered.This slaughter of male children is mentioned only here in the Bible. Even the famous Jewish historian Josephus did not even mention it. But it is not surprising that he and other historians overlooked the death of a few Hebrew children in an insignificant village, for Herod had committed many more monstrous crimes than that. However, some have inflated the number of children slaughtered. There is a tradition that says fourteen thousand were slain. But estimates of the total population of Bethlehem in the first century are generally under a thousand, which would mean that the number of male children up to two years old at any one time could hardly be more than twenty. Catastrophic as it was for the local community and the individual families, it was not on a scale to match the more spectacular assassinations recorded by Josephus.175

Herod cannot see Beit-Lechem from his palace, a mere five miles away. He cannot see the blood flowing in the streets or hear the wailing of the terrified children and their parents. He believes he is doing what must be done.176 A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more (Matthew 2:18). This event too was said to be the fulfillment of a prophecy. Originally, Jeremiah 31:15 referred to the weeping of the nation as a result of the death of children at the time of the Babylonian Captivity in 586 BC. But the parallel to Herod’s slaughter was obvious, for again children were being murdered at the hands of Gentiles. Also, Rachael’s tomb was near Bethlehem, and she was considered by many to be the mother of the nation of Isra’el. That is why she is seen weeping over these children who were cut to pieces by Herod.177

A third way that the B’rit Chadashah quotes the TaNaKh is a literal prophecy and the fulfillment as an application. Matthew quoted Jeremiah 31:15 when he wrote: Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled (Mattityahu 2:17). The context is the Babylonian captivity from Jerusalem. As the captives went north, they went by Ramah where Rachel, the symbol of Jewish motherhood,was buried. Therefore, the Jewish mothers came out of Ramah weeping for sons they would never see again. Here, in the slaughter of the little boys, the event in the TaNaKh is applied to the New Covenant event. The application is seen in the fact that the Jewish mothers were once again weeping for sons they will never see again (Matthew 2:18).178

The response of Herod to the child Yeshua stands intentionally in sharp contrast with that of the magi in the preceding file. Surely the so-called Messiah was among the many who died,” Herod surely thought. There was no chance that any child had escaped the slaughter. There was weeping and great mourning all over the Land and Herod was well pleased.179 But just as Satan and Pharaoh were unsuccessful in their attempt to destroy Moshe, Satan and Herod were also unsuccessful in their attempt to destroy the Meshiach.

It seems astonishing that Miryam, Yosef, the shepherds, and the magi all did exactly as they had been told. Mary yielded herself to God; Joseph took her home as his wife; the shepherds went to Bethlehem to find the baby in a manger; and the magi followed the Shechinah glory. With no idea of the outcome, they all took the next step by faith in ADONAI. Amazing!

How is it with you? Will you trust God and follow His leading even when you face uncertainty and overwhelming circumstances? When you and I obey the Lord, the outcome is truly amazing! That does not mean that everything will turn our pleasant. It didn’t for Messiah’s apostles. And it may be that the fruit of obedience will not be seen in this life, but in the next. But as God said: Now if you obey Me fully . . . then you will be My treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for Me a kingdom of priests . . . a royal priesthood, a chosen people a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light (Exodus 19:5-6; Deuteronomy 28:1-14; First Peter 2:9-10). Could anything be better than that?

 

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