Matthew 2:12-23


By Johnny Tatum





Scene Three: While the royal family was still in Egypt, the scene shifts to Jerusalem.

Herod the king was still waiting for the magi to report to him. After all, he had sent them away to search for the Child a long time ago. Ever since, he had been pacing the halls while waiting for their return. Finally, Herod caught on, after weeks had gone by, Wait a minute! I do not think they are coming back.


16 Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its environs, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the magi.

This verse was so simply written, the fact of the matter was stated. It is difficult to imagine the horror there. Matthew stressed the killing of the children as a matter of fact.

My problem with understanding how horrible this was is that I cannot find parallels. Even Hitler -- who I think committed the worst atrocities of this century and who killed millions of Jewish people -- even that did not compare to this. Hitler was killing Jews indiscriminately; even he did NOT target just infants.

Or think about the mass murderers of our day. For example, consider Timothy McVeigh (a mass murderer and bomb maker who successfully targeted a federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA) whose assignment killed a lot of children. McVeigh was not going for the kill; he was destroying the building and the government. Even he did NOT target just infants.


We must answer two questions about Herod's Bethlehem massacre:

  1. Why was there no more spoken about this? You open any book and read the noted atrocities in history, and you will not see the killing of these infants. Why?
  2. Why did God allow this?

Notice: I am NOT trying to ask the global question of Why does God allow evil? I AM asking Why now? Why at the birth of His Son would the Lord God juxtapose (place together) this death of innocent infants at Bethlehem? Did He [sort of] ruin this picture?


Question One: Why is the Bethlehem massacre of the infants not known? Why is there no more spoken about this event in history?


There are almost no other accounts of this massacre. Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, who gave a detailed account of many Biblical events, did not mention the massacre of the infants in his descriptions. Actually, I did find a secular account by Latin historian Suetonius who made reference to this event.

That intrigued me even more. I thought If one person mentioned it then why was it not a huge event? Actually, we will understand why if we understand more about Herod.


We have already seen that Herod was paranoid because:


What is really intriguing is to look at all of the references to Herod in secular history. He is very well known in history, and his record is outstanding. I found one negative comment about him; a comment made by Caesar Augustus who said It is better to be Herod's pig than his son.

Notice: That comment is better stated in the Greek, because in the ancient Greek there was just one letter difference between pig and son. And then I thought Well the way to make that work in English is to say, "It is better to be Herod's sow than his son."

Except for that one comment, there is nothing but glowing praise in secular history for Herod as a ruler. He is NOT seen as a bad guy, but as a very GOOD guy. And many of the Jews thought so too. Is that not strange? Why did the Jews think that? In some ways, he was a good ruler. Consider the following examples:


So Herod was considered a great ruler, but he was Jekyll and Hyde (a person having two conflicting personalities). He reminds me of Adolf Hitler who would cry and agonize over the suffering of the lobsters as they were dropped into the cooking water. But we know what horrible atrocities he was capable of doing.

That was Herod. He could do all of those wonderful things, but his deeds of cruelty were beyond belief. Consider the following examples:


With that background, does it make more sense why the massacre at Bethlehem did not make the secular historical records? Compared to everything else Herod did (if we are going to "rank" atrocities) -- he did not flinch at killing 700 Maccabees, his wife, his three sons, or 3,000 Judean citizens -- the killing of the 15 babies did not rank.

Notice: I think we tend to think that there were hundreds and hundreds of male infants who were two years old and under in Bethlehem at the time. There were probably 15 infants. Please know that I am NOT making light of the number of babies killed!

It was NOT the number of innocents murdered; it was NOT the nature of that massacre that gets us; however, it was the TARGET -- Helpless INFANTS! And, of course, it was the untold grief that the act caused the families.



Was the Evildoer the Flesh or Satan?


Many people have said Well this cruelty was so horrible that it had to be Satan. To me the killing of the infants could have been the flesh, because there is nothing so bad that flesh cannot do it. Consider the 18 pictures of the unrestrained flesh:

For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, braggarts, arrogant, lovers of insult to God and man, disobedient to parents, ungrateful to God and man, unholy, without human affection, unrelenting in bitterness, slanderers, uncontrollable in their desires, savage, haters of good, treacherous, impulsive in words and deeds, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied the resurrection power of Messiah. (2 Timothy 3:2-5)

However, I agree that it had to be Satan, NOT because of the degree of the crime, but because of the TARGET. Messiah Jesus was Satan's mark.

We look back and we see that Satan has a long history of crimes to accomplish a mission in one of the following two ways:

  1. Keep Messiah from being born, or
  2. If Messiah would be born, then kill Him.


In the Garden of Eden, God said to Eve Your seed will kill Satan (Messiah shall bruise Satan on the head -- Genesis 3:15c). From that point on, Satan was determined to prevent the Seed from coming. Consider the following events:

Who was doing all of this? Satan was trying to prevent the virgin birth from happening. Once the virgin birth occurred, what was step two? Kill Messiah. That was what Satan was trying to do. The Bethlehem massacre of the innocents was just one more attempt for Satan to accomplish his mission. And the grief must have been overwhelming.



Matthew, speaking of this massacre (again, here is the key phrase) says…

17 Then that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled, saying,

18 "A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she refused to be comforted, because they were no more."

Throughout the Book of Matthew, it seems as though Matthew was taking Old Testament verses out-of-context. He was NOT, but it can appear as though he did.

What was Matthew doing? He was matching up events in Messiah Jesus' life with events in the Old Testament. We think Well this is a little bit strange. Let us take a closer look…



Matthew quoted Jeremiah 31:15 which spoke about the exiles in Babylonian captivity. Jeremiah was picturing Rachel as the mother of the Jewish nation. Why? Because Rachel was the mother of Joseph (the father of Ephraim and Manasseh) and Benjamin. Though Rachel was not alive during the Babylonian captivity, she remained a symbol.



Why Ramah? Rachel did not live at Ramah nor was the massacre of the innocents there. Ramah was located about five miles north of Jerusalem.

Israel was taken captive by the Assyrians in 722 B.C., and Judah was taken captive by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. During both of these events, the armies who lead the Israelites and the Judeans off to captivity assembled at Ramah. So all of the exiles were rounded up from the north and the south and were brought to Ramah, the staging ground for both the Assyrian and Babylonian captivity.

Matthew takes that Scripture and gives it a second application. The mothers in Bethlehem were grieving over the loss of their children.

A Note of Interest: There is added symbolism here because Rachel was buried in Bethlehem.


Question Two: Why did God allow this death of male innocents? Why at the birth of Messiah Jesus do we have this horrible episode of the death of infants?

This is another question that is easy to answer: I do not know. However, I do know the result.


Narrowing the Possibilities


Matthew took events from the Old Testament and matched them up with Jesus' life to prove He was the King, specifically, the true King of the Jews. One of the Old Testament prophecies was that Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity. (Micah 5:2)

But what if God had decided that Messiah was to be born in Jerusalem? How many males could that have been? Hundreds of thousands! The fact that Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem narrows the possibilities.

Let us suppose that there were thousands and thousands of males born in Bethlehem. We could narrow down the possibilities because the Book of Daniel gives us a timeframe for when Messiah, as a grown man, would present Himself as King. (See the Daniel 9-10 study.) So now we have a birthplace and we have a timeframe.

But we still have hundreds of males born in Bethlehem during the Daniel timeframe. However, those horrible infant deaths narrowed the possibilities even more.

Think about this. When Jesus was two years old, how many two-year old males in the entire world had been born in Bethlehem? ONE. When He was 12 years old, how many 12-year old boys in the whole world had been born in Bethlehem? ONE. When He started public ministry at 30 years old, how many other 30-year old men in the world had been born in Bethlehem? He was the only ONE. Why? Because all the other male children, who were born in Bethlehem, from two years old and under, and under, had been murdered -- eliminated -- by Herod.

Did the people of the day take notice of that? When He was 12 years old, Messiah Jesus was in the Temple and the teachers asked Him Where were you born? He said Bethlehem. When the teachers asked Him How old are you? He said 12. They missed the significance:

Messiah Jesus was the Only ONE!

Is this why God allowed the massacre of the innocents? Herod thought I have got Him, and maybe Satan thought I have got Him.

What really happened?

The babies went to be with the Lord God. Again, I am NOT making light of the parents' grieving.

What was actually accomplished?

Herod eliminated every other possible candidate for Messiah, and Jesus exposed that He was the Only ONE.






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