Shortly after the time of Christ’s birth, King Herod the Great made an unsuccessful attempt to destroy the infant Jesus by ordering the slaughter of all male children age two and younger. The ecclesiastical name given to this killing of babies in Bethlehem and its surrounding regions is the Massacre of the Innocents.
The event is recorded in Matthew 2:16–18: “Herod . . . 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.’”
At the sign of the star, Magi from the East had come to Jerusalem asking for “the one who has been born king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2). Consulting with the Jewish priests and scribes, Herod told the Magi that Bethlehem was the prophesied birthplace of the Messiah (verses 4–5). He then sent the Magi on their way with an order to return to Jerusalem and give him the exact location of the newborn king. When it became apparent that the Magi had ignored his directive, Herod put his heinous plan into action, ordering the Massacre of the Innocents.
The Massacre of the Innocents was the result of King Herod’s extreme paranoia and cruelty. Herod would do anything to protect his own interests, including murdering all the little boys in Bethlehem. The wise men had alerted Herod to the arrival of a new king in Bethlehem. In his fear and morbid suspicion, Herod could not allow a rival king to live. Not knowing how old Jesus was, but certain the wise men had said they’d first seen the star less than two years before their visit, Herod took no chances and had all male children under two in Bethlehem killed.
Matthew 2:17–18 cites the prophecy of Jeremiah 31:15. In its original context, Jeremiah’s prophecy relates to Israel’s period of captivity in Babylon and the murder of children during the invasion of Judea. The mothers of Israel, portrayed as Rachel, are weeping for their sons who were led into exile. Rachel was considered a matriarchal figure to the nation of Israel, and her tomb is near Bethlehem (Genesis 35:19). Matthew links the prophecy by Jeremiah to the Massacre of the Innocents, and the parallel is striking. Eerie similarities also exist between the Massacre of the Innocents and Pharaoh’s order to kill all Hebrew male infants at the time of Moses’ birth (Exodus 1:15–16).
Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents was carried out, but his plan to rid the world of the Messiah was thwarted when God intervened to protect Jesus in yet another fulfillment of prophecy. When the Magi left Bethlehem to return to their homeland, Joseph had a dream: “An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up! Flee to Egypt with the child and his mother,’ the angel said. ‘Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’ That night Joseph left for Egypt with the child and Mary, his mother, and they stayed there until Herod’s death. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: ‘I called my Son out of Egypt’” (Matthew 2:13–15, NLT; cf. Hosea 11:1). God the Father saved His Son to fulfill His purpose of securing our salvation.
Some ancient Christian traditions claim that the Massacre of the Innocents involved tens to hundreds of thousands of children. However, based on the population of the small village of Bethlehem, the annual birthrate, and the high infant death rate at the time, most biblical historians and demographers estimate the total number of male children under the age of two to be no more than 20 to 40. The lower number makes the crime no less of an atrocity. The death of even one child is a tragedy.
The Massacre of the Innocents is not mentioned in secular histories of that era. The killing of forty Hebrew children in an insignificant village did not catch the attention of secular historians. Also, Herod’s acts of tyranny and cruelty were numerous, including the execution of some of his wives and his own children. The Massacre of the Innocents, involving a relatively small number of Jewish children, was just another ruthless act in a long list of ruthless acts by this ruler.
In Roman Catholic, Eastern Rite, and Orthodox churches, the Feast of the Holy Innocents commemorates the Massacre of the Innocents with the slain boys honored as Christian martyrs and saints. The feast is observed on December 28 in Western churches and on December 29 in Eastern churches. An old Christmas hymn, the Coventry Carol, was written as a lullaby for the children who died in the Massacre of the Innocents.
The Massacre of the Innocents was Herod’s attempt to thwart God’s plan and stop a biblical prophecy from being fulfilled. Of course he failed, and in the course of his failure he added to the misery and sin of the world. “The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together, against the LORD and against His Anointed One” (Psalm 2:2, BSB). But their fight is futile. The Christ is victorious. “Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. . . . Kiss his son, or he will be angry and your way will lead to your destruction” (verses 10, 12).