Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”Matt. 2:13-23
Today’s passage tells of a horrific event that happened in Bethlehem. After hearing from the visiting Magi that the Messiah had been born in Bethlehem, King Herod became exceedingly fearful. Herod was an unstable and insecure man who was obsessed with securing his rule. He had even executed family members, including his sons whom he thought were conspiring to usurp the throne. Now he was concerned that this Messiah would later rise in power and overthrow his dynasty, so he sought to get rid of him by force, sending his soldiers to kill the children in and around Bethlehem.
Here, Matthew the Evangelist aligns Herod with the “bad guys” in the Old Testament. His killing of the Bethlehem children alludes to Pharaoh’s command to kill off all the newborn Hebrew boys in the book of Exodus. Then when Matthew views this event as a fulfillment of Jeremiah 3.15 about the Babylonian exile, he makes Herod out to be an oppressor of God’s people.
As much as Herod may think he is the King of the Jews, his actions show him to be that of a madman, a despot, and a cold blooded murderer. His megalomania goes against the grain of what the Messiah is to be and instead of fulfilling the messianic prophecies of the OT, he his actions fulfill those of Israel’s enemies. His obsession with power and prestige ends in a whimper within the salvation story: “When Herod died…” His life “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (Macbeth), remembered only by the dead monuments that bear his name.
Interestingly, the children killed by Herod are remembered in the church as the Holy Innocents, particularly within the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. They are considered martyrs who gave their lives to protect the Christ child. Perhaps this speaks of the pattern in God’s Kingdom, that the lowliest of the lowly who give of their lives for God will always be celebrated, if not here on earth as living memory then in heaven as living presence. On the other hand, those who seek to preserve their power, privilege, and prestige at all cost end up having no place in God’s Kingdom.