“The Slaughter of the Children”
The second of the three incidents in Matthew’s Gospel is the account of the slaughter of Bethlehem’s young children, those “two years old and under” (v.16). It is a brief account, for apart from the note that Herod determined the age span for the slaughter “in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi,” Matthew does not elaborate on the details. The wise men must have told Herod that the star had appeared more than a year before their arrival in Jerusalem, which would have been about right. They would have needed time to make preparations for their journey and cross the desert. Herod decided to kill all males under two years to insure that his murders would include this unidentified young usurper to the throne.
But Matthew’s interest does not lie in the details of this story. He is interested in something said by Jeremiah in the thirty-first chapter of his prophecy (v.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.” verses 17–18
If we check Jeremiah, we find that the tears of this verse are for those who are being carried into exile. In Matthew the tears are not even for the holy family, who, in a sense, went into exile in Egypt, but rather for those who remained behind and were slaughtered. That might be a reason for tears, but it is not a clear or obvious fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy.
What is Matthew doing? What is he thinking? Why does he quote this seemingly unrelated passage?
Some think the connection has to do with hope, for that is the actual message of Jeremiah 31. At the beginning of the chapter God says that He will continue to be the God of the exiled people (v.1). He says that those who were not killed by the Babylonians will experience His “favor” (v.2). He says that His love is “an everlasting love” (v.3) and that He will “build you [the people] up” again (v.4). Verse after verse speaks of Israel’s future joy, referring to vineyards, flocks, herds, and dancing (vv.4, 5, 7, 12, 13). God speaks of regathering the people “from the land of the north” and “from the ends of the earth” (v.8). Then, after the verse that speaks of “Rachel weeping for her children” (v.15), there is a promise that God will bring the people back to their own land (v.17). In fact, the only reason for the reference to Rachel weeping for her children who have been taken into exile is the command to “restrain … from weeping” (v.16). Instead of looking back in sorrow, the survivors were to look forward in hope.
There was hope for the exiles in Babylon because they would return to their own land, and there was hope for Israel because the Messiah escaped Herod’s wrath and would return to His own land from Egypt. That may be what Matthew intends when he cites Jeremiah 31:15 as a prophecy.
Yet there may be even more to Matthew’s use of Jeremiah. Matthew has already made the exile a significant turning point in Israel’s history in his handling of the genealogy of Jesus in chapter 1. It is the break between the second and third sets of fourteen names in Christ’s family tree (vv.11, 12, 17). The exile marked the end of the line of David’s descendants who sat upon his throne and ruled from Jerusalem. Perhaps Matthew is saying that the true exile, with its lack of a Davidic king, is over now because the true King, the Messiah, has arrived.
This is how D. A. Carson sees it: “Matthew has already made the Exile a turning point in his thought (1.11–12), for at that time the Davidic line was dethroned. The tears of the Exile are now being “fulfilled” - i.e., the tears begun in Jeremiah’s day 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 (Mt.26.28) promised by Jeremiah.”
The third of the historical episodes chosen to fill the gap between the time the wise men appeared to worship Jesus and the moment, years later, when John the Baptist announced his arrival to Israel, is the return of Joseph and his family to Nazareth. Matthew explains that after Herod died (in 4 b.c.), an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream telling him to go back to Israel. Joseph seems to have thought about returning to Bethlehem in Judah, no doubt assuming that this was where Jesus, as a descendant of David and Israel’s future king, should be raised. But he had doubts. Archelaus, a surviving son of Herod the Great, had come to the throne in Judah, and he was known to be as ruthless as his father. Would Jesus be safe in Bethlehem? While he was still considering what to do, God warned Joseph that this was a real danger. As a result, Joseph withdrew to Galilee, where Archelaus’s somewhat milder brother, the tetrarch Herod Antipas, ruled.
At this point Matthew introduces the last of his references to the Old Testament: “So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: ‘He will be called a Nazarene’ ” (v.23). This verse presents difficulty, however, because a specific verse referring to this prophecy does not exist in the Old Testament.
Next week we will unpack what it means to “be wise and warned.” However, I cannot help but make a closing observation about the slaughter of children today and Matthew’s message – as we look back in sorrow, may we also look forward in hope.