Why Is the Story of Herod’s Slaughter in the Bible?

This comes from a segment of a paper I wrote for a New Testament class in seminary. 

Perhaps Matthew includes the story of Herod because it paves the way for how Jews will respond to Jesus throughout his Gospel. The reason seems more significant, however. In this lesson, we will discern why Matthew included Herod in his Gospel and ultimately why God included him in Scripture. In other words, we will determine Herod’s role within the larger story of God’s redemptive plan.[1] Our focus will be two primary prophecies that were fulfilled after Jesus’ birth that directly involved Herod.  The first comes from Matthew 2:14-15 and the second from Matthew 2:17-18.[2]

“Out of Egypt I Called My Son”
After Jesus was born, an angel of the Lord warned Joseph to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt. He said, “Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him” (v. 13). Joseph obeyed, and they stayed in Egypt until Herod died. Matthew gives us a theological and prophetic insight in 2:14-15 when he writes that this was to fulfill what was written about in Hosea 11:1, which says, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

The context of Hosea 11 is important for us to know. The Lord had just given Hosea the word to speak to Israel that they would be punished because of their spiritual adultery against God (Hos. 9-10). In Hosea 11, God recounts his love for Israel, despite their rampant unfaithfulness to him as their true Husband. To begin the chapter, Hosea spoke these words of God, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (v. 1). The most important feature of this verse is that it shows how God relates to Israel as a father relates to a son. This would direct a Jew’s attention back to Exodus 4, when Moses spoke the words of God to Pharaoh in Egypt, saying, “Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, ‘Let my son go that he may serve me’” (Ex. 4:22b-23). Israel, God’s chosen and beloved child, spent years of bondage in Egypt. Despite this bondage, God promised deliverance because of the undying and unbreakable relationship he created with Israel. Thus, Hosea reminds Israel of God’s precious love for them as he commemorates God’s faithfulness in bringing Israel out of Egypt through the exodus.

What then is Matthew’s purpose in citing this Hebrew scripture? It is to demonstrate Jesus’ unique status as God’s Son. Even more, as God protected Israel from Pharaoh’s wrath, Matthew demonstrates God’s protection of Jesus from Herod’s wrath in sending him to Egypt. Turner writes, “What was true of Israel on a metaphorical level is more profoundly true of Jesus the Messiah…Matthew looks at biblical history with the conviction that it is organically related to Jesus the Messiah as the seed is to the harvest.”[3] This is true, for Jesus stated that all Scripture testifies about himself (Luke 24:27; John 5:39).

Because of Herod’s lust for power, control, and security, his initial reaction was fear and curiosity when a new king was allegedly born. He then acted foolishly and violently and called for a slaughter in Bethlehem. Had he not done this, Jesus would not have had to go with Joseph and Mary to Egypt, and thus would not have been shown to be God’s true Son who was called out of Egypt and identified with Israel at large. Unwittingly, Herod fulfilled his role in God’s redemptive plan.

“Rachel Is Weeping for Her Children”
The second prophecy in Matthew 2:17-18 says that Jeremiah 31:15 is fulfilled when the babies in Bethlehem were killed. Jeremiah 31 is a very joy-filled chapter, but verse 15 is a brief lament of the destruction that war brings to Israel during their exile in Babylon. Captivity is unavoidable, but the promise of deliverance will come through the Davidic line by a king who will “execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jer. 33:14-16). As Turner notes, “Jeremiah 31:15 is not a prediction but a present lament in the context of hope for future blessing.”[4]

This hope of a future blessing for the weeping mothers in Jeremiah is the new covenant (Jer. 32:40-41). The hope for the mothers in Bethlehem is also the new covenant, which will be inaugurated by Jesus, the one whom God protected from the slaughter, with his body and blood (see Matt. 26:27-28). Their hope, as Turner says, “is now about to be actualized through the sacrificial death and resurrection of the Messiah.”[5] Herod, in slaughtering innocent children, fulfilled the Scripture that pointed to the hope of the Davidic Messiah, the one who would usher in the new covenant and rule Israel as their true King.

Jesus: True and Better
What is God’s purpose for including this story in Scripture? It is two-fold. First, Jesus is shown as the true and better Israel. He is everything Israel failed to be. He is the perfect Son that Israel never could have been. He fulfilled the law’s demands, perfectly keeping the covenant that God made with Israel through Moses. At Jesus’ baptism, the Father declared, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17b). Immediately after this, Jesus passed his test in the wilderness in forty days, unlike rebellious Israel who wandered in the wilderness for forty years (Matt. 4:1-11, cf. Ex. 4:22-23).

Second, Jesus is Israel’s true and better King. Unlike Herod, who was violent and aggressive, Jesus is gentle and lowly in heart (Matt. 11:29). Unlike Herod, who was paranoid and fought to keep his throne in Judah, Jesus willingly surrendered his rights to an earthly kingdom (see Matt. 27:11; cf. Phil. 2:4-6) and gave up his flesh and blood to usher in God’s spiritual, covenant kingdom (Matt. 26:27-28; cf. Heb. 12:28).

Herod’s Response and Ours
Above influencing the younger generation, Herod teaches us that we must ask ourselves, “Will we respond to Jesus as Herod did?” Most likely, we will not respond by slaughtering innocent children in a small village. In fact, our response might not be noticeable to anyone else. Herod’s core problem was idolatry, but not the external idolatry that consisted of worshiping stone and wood images. He idolized power, security, and control. Herod shortchanged himself of eternal glory with God for the temporal glory of a puny, earthly kingdom.

We attempt to build our own kingdoms, too. Apart from God’s grace, we will seek to build our own reputation and increase our glory so that our dominion will spread, to the detriment of those around us. Our kingdoms are not advanced through slaughtering children, but we slaughter in other ways. We coerce others to bow at our throne through envy, bitterness, rage, anger, slander, gossip, impatience, manipulation, blame-shifting, self-indulgence, self-pity, and a thousand other sins. In the worst way, we march on through self-righteousness and religion: follow the rules, say the right things, prayer the right prayers, and keep a clean image. Christians are not exempt from this, but for us the victory is won. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ-likeness will come over time. The proper response then for both the Christian and the unbeliever is, unlike Herod, to believe in Jesus as the one who “will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

[1] “Redemptive plan” may also be referred to as redemptive history, story of redemption, salvation history, history of salvation, etc.  God’s redemptive plan is his universal plan of salvation to redeem a people for himself and restore all of creation.
[2] Carson and Moo write that Matthew “adopts a fundamentally christological reading of the Old Testament.” See D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005), p. 164.
[3] David L. Turner, Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Academic, 2008), p. 90-91.
[4] Turner, p. 94.
[5] Turner, p. 95.


One response to “Why Is the Story of Herod’s Slaughter in the Bible?”

  1. Outstanding article, James!

    The Holy Spirit convicted me of my ridiculously self-righteous attitude last night, so the message and timing on this is perfect. Thanks for taking the time to produce this.

    God bless,



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