The Slaughter of the Innocents in Matthew 2:14 is one of the most misunderstood stories in the New Testament. The few pastors who do preach on this passage spend most of their time trying to justify why Bethlehemite children had to be murdered to fulfill some obscure Old Testament prophesy. Yet, Matthew used these opening passages of his gospel to say something very different, and to understand him, we must understand the first two chapters of Matthew as a whole.

The unknown 12th century Latin hymn writer captures the essence of the theme that Matthew is seeking to introduce, a theme that will echo throughout his Gospel:

O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appears.[1]

Biblical scholars widely acknowledge that Matthew’s Gospel is written for a primarily Jewish audience — if not Jewish, at least more Jewishly-oriented — attempting to demonstrate Matthew’s conviction that Christ is the focus of the Old Testament Scriptures. Matthew explicitly quotes the Old Testament more than sixty times in his Gospel, more than any of the other three Gospels.[2] He also points back into Old Testament historical traditions, frequently alluding to themes which he sees as types of the realities experienced in the life of Christ.

The second chapter gives an example: the Slaughter of the Innocents, an event which echoes not just the prophecy of Babylonian aggression from Jeremiah 31, but also Pharaoh’s instructions to midwives to kill all the male Hebrew babies during the time Israel was enslaved in Egypt.

In exploring Matthew 2:16-18 we will show that Matthew’s intent in this passage was not only to demonstrate that Jesus is the second, better Moses but also to lay the foundation for the idea that Israel’s exile did not end with the return from Babylon and the building of the second temple. To Matthew, Jesus Christ is the real deliverer, delivering Israel from its spiritual exile through his birth, life, death, and resurrection, the one for whom Moses was only a type.

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, 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. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “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.” [3]

Somewhat surprisingly, the story of Jesus’ birth and the events that surround it are only described in two of the four gospel accounts, Matthew and Luke. Luke’s account gives the most detail about the actual birth of Christ, while Matthew directs his narrative to the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. In fact, Jesus’ birth itself is never described in Matthew. When compared to Luke’s opening chapters, we realize that Matthew is highly selective in describing the events surrounding the beginning of Jesus’ life.

Matthew writes as a Jew who has found in Jesus the fulfillment of all that is precious in his Jewish heritage. ‘Fulfillment’ is a central theme of Matthew’s gospel[4] and is clearly developed from the very beginning.

Matthew is motivated by his conviction that Christ is the focus of Scripture: “The first two chapters of the gospel are devoted primarily to setting out the scriptural grounds for seeing Jesus as the Messiah of Israel.”[5]  Five times Matthew quotes the Old Testament (1:23; 2:6, 15, 18, 23), each time illustrating how Jesus’ origins fulfill these various Old Testament prophecies.[6]

Yet this is not to suggest a superficial rummaging through the Old Testament in search of proof texts. Rather, Matthew’s quotations reflect his broader theological convictions that all Scripture speaks of Christ and the purpose of his ministry. For example, Matthew’s quotation of Jeremiah 31:15, “Rachel weeping for her children,” in our passage is taken from the middle of a prophecy about Israel’s return from exile. Although it seems almost misplaced in our text, it has been strategically selected to further the context Matthew develops in this passage.

In the opening passages of Matthew’s gospel, he does not spin a fabulous tale; he does not conjure up fantastic details or images; he tells Jesus’ birth story in fact in a rather mundane fashion, not at all like a fable. The Magi arrive in Jerusalem when a claimed Jewish king named Herod the Great was the Governor of Galilee. The Magi, seeing the Star of Bethlehem, had traveled to Jerusalem and were asking where the new King of Jews may be found.  Herod summons the Jewish priests to find out about this child and is informed, based on Micah 5:12, that it was prophesied that the child would be born in Bethlehem in Judea.

Threatened by this prophecy, Herod sends the Magi to find the child and report back so he might go and “worship,” too. The Magi find Jesus but, knowing Herod’s heart after having it revealed to them in a dream, do not go back to tell Herod of His whereabouts. Meanwhile, Joseph, warned by an angel in a dream, takes the family to safety in Egypt.

Herod, enraged at the Wise Men’s “betrayal,” kills all the baby boys in Bethlehem two years old and younger, presumably rounding up just to be certain he kills the child. Nor is this cruelty out of character; Herod the Great was an extremely cruel man who killed a number of his wives and his own sons when he suspected they were plotting against him. Challenges to his power were regularly met with a swift and final response.

Many claim the Slaughter of the Innocents is a fictional attempt by Matthew to mirror the story from Exodus regarding the killing of the Hebrew first born by Pharaoh,[7] a narrative meant to show Jesus as a new and better Moses, one that would have readily been understood in this way by his Jewish audience. They point to the fact that there exists no historical or archaeological evidence aside from Matthew’s account of this event having occurred. The Jewish historian Josephus, for instance, who wrote extensively about the period and specifically about Herod, makes no mention of it, nor do any of the Roman records. The Slaughter of the Innocents is not mentioned in the other gospels nor in any early apocryphal books except for the Protoevangelium of James. Hence, many scholars conclude that the account was invented just to glorify Jesus.[8]

Matthew’s account does not tell us how many children were murdered by Herod only that “he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under.” The early Church tended to exaggerate the number: Byzantine tradition sets it at 14,000; Syrian at 64,000; some have even equated it with the 144,000 of Rev 14. At the time of Jesus’ birth, however, Bethlehem was a small rural town with a population of approximately 1000.[9]  Modern writers reduce the number of deaths considerably, bringing it down to between ten and twenty children.

It is therefore not surprising that Josephus and other secular historians overlooked the death of a few Hebrew children in an insignificant village; for Herod’s infamous crimes were many.[10] Should they have recorded every small cruelty such as this, their accounts of Herod’s life would likely never end! Therefore, Matthew’s account is not contradicted by the mere silence of Josephus and other secular historians. History makes it clear that Herod was willing to commit such acts to protect his power against perceived threats, but there is no reason to expect that all such acts were recorded. Josephus himself suggested that Herod “never stopped avenging and punishing every day those who had chosen to be of the party of his enemies.”[11] “Such a massacre,” another writer suggests, “is indeed quite in keeping with the character of Herod, who did not hesitate to put to death any who might be a threat to his power.”[12]

Yet to conclude that the Slaughter of the Innocents is a historical fact is not enough, we must understand why Matthew includes it in his introduction to the story of Jesus. Perhaps we should take more seriously the possibility that the Matthean infancy narratives as a whole are using actual events as their starting point for a theological presentation of Jesus as the fulfillment of that which was written.[13]

Certainly, if we were to argue that Matthew is simply concerned to provide historical information, we should have missed the point of his infancy narrative… Matthew is not simply meditating on Old Testament texts but claiming that in what has happened they find a fulfillment.[14]

If so, then in what way does Jeremiah’s prophesy quoted in Matthew 2:18 find its fulfillment in this event?

Anyone who reads Matthew quickly will notice his emphasis on “fulfillment,” particularly in the first two chapters of his gospel. Yet when Matthew quoted Old Testament passages, the fulfillment he saw in them is not quite as evident to modern readers as it was to Matthew, himself. Bible scholar D. A. Carson suggests, “Untutored Christians are prone to think of prophecy and fulfillment as something not very different from the straightforward propositional prediction and fulfillment. A close reading of the NT reveals that prophecy is more complex than that.”7

According to the gospel of Matthew, the Slaughter of the Innocents (Matthew 2:16) fulfills Jeremiah 31:15:

Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “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.” [15]

From his New Testament perspective, Matthew sees Christ fulfilling the much broader context of Jeremiah’s prophecy. Chapters 30–33 of the book of Jeremiah constitute one of the most critical prophetic sections in the entire Old Testament, a cluster of prophecies, given during the last 18 months of the siege of Jerusalem, revealing a stunning vision of God’s plans for His people’s future including the end of exile and their full restoration.[16] How does Matthew see Jer. 31:15 in this larger context?

Rachel was the wife of Jacob, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin, who lived at least 1200 years before the fall of Jerusalem, so her name is evoked as imagery for a later event. In his prophesy Jeremiah pictured Rachel weeping for her children. To what was Jeremiah referring?

Ramah was a town five miles north of Jerusalem, and Rachel was Joseph and Benjamin’s mother. Joseph was the father of Ephraim and Manasseh, who became the two major tribes in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Thus, Jeremiah was picturing the weeping of the women of the Northern Kingdom as they watched their children being carried into exile in 722 B.C. However, Jeremiah could also have had the 586 B.C. deportation of Judah in view because Ramah was the staging point for Nebuchadnezzar’s deportation (cf. 40:1). In all likelihood these women were crying because they would never see their children again. But as the women of Israel and Judah wept for their exiled children, God offered a word of comfort. There was hope for their future because their children would return to their own land. God would bring about a restoration.[17]

Matthew wanted his Jewish readers to understand that God’s people were effectively still in that exile. Even though a remnant returned from Babylon and lived in the land, God’s people still lived in not only spiritual exile but remain under the physical bondage of sin and death.

In other words, Matthew uses this verse to point out that the promises of God spoken through the prophet Jeremiah were not fulfilled when the remnant returned from Babylon and rebuilt the temple, as that rebuilt people and temple still suffered from foreign domination. The most telling sign of this continued exile is the absence of the “glory of the Lord” in the second temple. Ezekiel witnessed the departure of the “glory of the Lord” from the first temple (Ezekiel 10) and it did not return with the building of a new temple after the Babylonian exile. The prophesy of restoration by Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the other prophets has not yet been completely fulfilled. Rachel wept and could not be comforted because her children remained in exile.

In the face of Rachel’s tears, Matthew looks back into the history of God’s people and reminds them of another time when they were in exile, when God raised up Moses who successfully delivered the people out of bondage. As successful as this first exodus was, it was not the definitive escape because God’s people have fallen back into exile. In the second chapter of his Gospel, Matthew draws strong parallels between Moses and Jesus to show that Christ is the fulfillment of the successful deliverer typologically signified by Moses.

Yet the people had fallen back into exile again, then returned, yet still suffered. The Exodus from Egypt had not been enough to fix their problem with sin. Therefore, D. A. Carson argues that when Matthew used this reference, he had in mind the broader context of the new covenant (Jer 31:31–34). The tears of the exile, he writes, “are climaxed and ended by the tears of the mothers of Bethlehem. The heir to David’s throne has come, the Exile is over, the true Son of God has arrived, and he will introduce the new covenant (Jer. 26:28) promised by Jeremiah.” [18]  Christ the Messiah, the better Moses will lead his people out of exile.

The New Testament concept of fulfillment is completely summed up in the person of Jesus Christ. [19]  Matthew is not saying that these children had to die to specifically to fulfill Jeremiah 31:15 but that the coming of Christ as the Messiah will finally comfort those still in exile who cannot be comforted, those whom Rachel weeping for her children typologically represents. The fullness of the promises of God spoken through the Prophet Jeremiah will now be fulfilled in God’s people through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

Matthew saw things as being much worse in his day than in the days of Moses. In those days most of the people followed Moses, but in Matthew’s day most of the people rejected Jesus. Yet this better Moses will lead “his people” out of exile into the fulfillment of all that has been promised by the prophets. And as Moses successfully lead his people out of Egypt to the Promised Land; Christ will lead the final exodus which will deliver his people from the exile of sin and death into the ultimate promised land, the new heaven and the new earth where:

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.[20]

Matthew is telling us that Jesus came, in part; to see that Rachel and all those who weep for the children in exile would finally be comforted.

             [1] Latin hymn, 12th century, tr. John Neale 1818-1866.

     [2] D. Alexander and B. S. Rosner, eds., New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Downers Grove: IVP, 2000) 265.

     [3] The Holy Bible: New International Version. electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, c1984) Mt 2:16-18.

             [4] D. A. Carson, Matthew (New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition. 4th ed.; Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), Matt Introduction.

             [5] Carson, Matthew, 1:1.

             [6] Craig Blomberg, Matthew, electronic ed. (NAC 22; Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001, c1992), 51.

                  [7] Brown, Messiah, 104-121.

             [8] E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, (New York: Penguin Putnam, 1915), 87-88.

             [9] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13 (World Biblical Commentary 33a; Dallas: World Publishing, 1988), 37.

             [10] Louis A. Barbieri, Matthew, (The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures; Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983-c1985), 2:16.

             [11] Josephus, Antiquities 15.2.

             [12] Francis W. Beare, The Gospel According to Matthew, (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981) 76.

                  [13] France, “Bethlehem”, 120.

             [14] France, “Bethlehem”, 120.

                  [15] The Holy Bible: New International Version. electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, c1984) Mt 2:18

              [16] Richards, Larry: The Bible Reader’s Companion, (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1991), 466.

              [17] John F Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983-c1985), 1:1170.

              [18]D. A Carson, “Matthew,” Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 95.

              [19]G. Delling, “πληρόω,” TDNT 6:286–297.

[20]Bible, Rev 21:4.

Hugh is the Executive Director of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics (“IFWE”). Founded by Hugh in 2011, IFWE has reached millions around the globe with the life-changing message that your everyday work matters to God. A native Floridian, Hugh earned a bachelor of arts in sociology from the University of Florida and a master of arts in religion from Reformed Theological Seminary. Hugh and his wife Leslie now live in Loudoun County, Virginia. As an ordained ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, he serves in leadership at McLean Presbyterian Church in McLean, Virginia.

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