Catherine Mendenhall-Baugh examines the story of the Slaughter of the Innocents and what it teaches us about Joseph and Mary's faith.
There are only two events concerning Jesus’ childhood recorded in the Bible. This is because most of what is written concerns Jesus’ public ministry, beginning at the age of 30. However, there is a general comment recorded in Matthew’s Gospel telling us that after Mary and Joseph returned from Egypt where they had fled to avoid King Herod’s attempts to murder their young child, they ultimately settled in Nazareth where Jesus worked alongside Joseph, learning to be a carpenter.
As with other accounts in the Bible surrounding the birth of Jesus, Matthew’s story surrounding King Herod and the Slaughter of the Innocents has been questioned over time as to its validity. A few reports state that according to historical evidence, this was likely a biblical story only, not a true accounting of what occurred.
The Gospel of Matthew records this event as follows:
When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi, he became furious. He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi.
Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loud lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she would not be consoled,
since they were no more.” (Matthew 2:16-18)
In the massacre of newborn babies of Bethlehem found in the Nativity story, King Herod is depicted as a tyrant prepared to kill infants who could eventually challenge him for the title of “King of the Jews,” a reference he insisted was meant only for him. The number of deaths was once reported to be in the thousands; the number varied as time went on.
Herod was crowned “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate in 40 BC in Rome. When he returned to the Land of Israel he was given a Roman army and eventually captured Jerusalem. Aristobulus III, his brother-in-law, was drowned; Herod thought the Romans would favor Aristobulus as ruler of Judea instead of him. He also had his wife’s mother executed. Eventually he killed his wife, Mariamme. Later he killed two of his sons. Alexander and Aristobulus IV, the sons of Mariamme, were strangled. Five days before his own death, he killed Antipater, his third son. Herod had used killing to show he was a powerful man. He wanted the world to know he was a ruthless leader.
Herod wanted the wise men to go and find the “King of the Jews” and return and tell him so he could go and worship the young Child as well. (Matthew 2:7-9) He realized the wise men had tricked him and had returned home another way. They were warned in a dream of Herod’s evil intentions (Matthew 2:12). Herod calculated the age of the young child, based on the testimony of the wise men as to when the star first appeared. He ordered the killing of all male children in Bethlehem and its immediate vicinity who were two years old and younger (Matthew 2:16).
The title of “King of the Jews” for Jesus was likely made very public. Pontius Pilate knew about it. So, it’s not unlikely that Herod, a far shrewder man than Pilate, would have also known about the rumors about the child Jesus, and did exactly as was recorded in Matthew.
Whether this story of Herod actually occurred, I am nevertheless fascinated by what must have preoccupied Mary and Joseph and their need to leave Bethlehem. The story that they fled with their child who was being threatened by an evil ruler seems plausible. Keeping in mind they knew their Son was no ordinary child, they were aware that their Son was destined for greatness and they needed to use every resource to protect Him.
We know now that stories in the Bible are always going to be questioned. This is definitely the case with the birth of Jesus being born to the Virgin Mary, for example.
“Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means “God is with us.” (Matthew 1:23)
For 2000 years, the story of Jesus’ life and ultimate death will always remain the center of our salvation. Whether you believe parts of it or all of it, Jesus was born and died so that we can follow Him to the Kingdom of Heaven. Neither nonbelievers nor King Herod could stop this basic truth!
Copyright 2020 Catherine Mendenhall-Baugh
Image: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Slaughter of the Innocents (1565-67), Public Domain
About the Author
Catherine Mendenhall-Baugh (Cathy) completed her education in Special Education and English and now works as an Agent in the Insurance Industry. A mother and Grandmother, Cathy grew up in a large Catholic family and has spent the last 30 years as a caregiver for her husband, Jack. She is a cancer survivor which inspired her to begin writing six years ago.