The Killing of the Innocents

“Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. … Now when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, ‘Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead.’ Then he arose, took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel” (Matthew 2:16, 19-21 nkjv).

Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus includes the figure of Herod the Great. Matthew tells how, after the wise men came to Jerusalem seeking the child born “king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2), Herod ordered the murder of all male children in Bethlehem that were two years of age and under (Matthew 2:16). Herod’s actions as described by Matthew fit what we know of Herod’s personality from other ancient witnesses.

The story of Herod’s killing of the boys two and under in Bethlehem only appears in the Gospel of Matthew (2:1-18). Yet, Matthew’s portrayal of Herod’s character fits the paranoia of Herod at the end of his life and his use of brutal force in order to preserve his throne. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, relates a story that happened prior to the birth of Jesus that is relevant to the Gospel account of Herod’s killing the children in Bethlehem.

There were Pharisees who prophesied to the wife of Pheroras, the brother of Herod, that he and his wife would soon inherit Herod’s throne and kingdom. When Herod found out about the prophecy, he immediately acted and put those Pharisees to death. Then he killed everyone in his own household who had approved of the prophecy from the Pharisees (Antiquities 17.41-45). In response to the potential threat to his throne, Herod brutally killed those who had made the prophecy as well as any sympathetic to it.

Matthew presents an identical picture. When Herod heard of a potential messianic claimant to his throne, he used swift and brutal force to make sure that the child born in Bethlehem would not grow into a threat. Miraculously, God protected Jesus by warning Joseph in a dream and sending him and his family to Egypt until after the death of Herod (Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23).

The Bible reflects the historical realities of its world, but its message extends to us today. God protected Jesus and his family despite Herod’s designs for the baby’s destruction. The story of the Bible is about God acting in human history; that’s the message of the birth of Jesus. And, if God acted to protect His son, even in the face of the powers of the day, He will watch over and protect us.

Herod sought to use violence and coercion to protect his power and throne. Jesus willfully submitted to the will of God, and by His submission, He gained an eternal throne.


Father, thank You for Your nearness! Thank You for sending Your son Jesus to show us the way to You. May we live in submitted obedience to Your rule and reign every day. Amen.

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