Matthew’s Gospel is the only one of the four which has the story of the killing of innocent children by Herod. A king is born, but a king is already here; and there is room for only one king. The birth of Jesus, the messianic king, precipitates a conflict with the kingship already present in this world.
It is not merely with the historical Herod with whom Matthew is concerned, however, but with Herod as a character in the story, who serves as a foil for the kingdom of God. When this Herod hears of the birth of the new king, he is “troubled”. Matthew is not describing Herod’s psychology but the clash of two claims to kingship that occurs in the advent of Jesus. Herod represents the resistance of this world to the divine kingship represented by Jesus. When “all Jerusalem” is troubled with him, this is not mere sympathy with or fear of Herod. Matthew is again looking ahead to the passion story and implicating Judaism’s capital city as a whole, not only its king, in the rejection of Jesus’ messianic claim.
When Herod asks the magi the chronological question “When?” to determine the time of Jesus’ birth, he acts hypocritically, claiming that he too wants to worship, but with murder in his heart.
Herod’s slaughter of the innocents is in character with the historical Herod the Great, who was ruthless in maintaining his grasp on power. There is no record of such an act among the detailed records of Herod’s numerous atrocities, nor is it reflected elsewhere in or out of the New Testament. The story seems to be part of Matthew’s Moses typology, with Herod cast in the role of Pharaoh.
Matthew does not sentimentalize the tragedy of the innocent victims or speculate on how the other mothers and fathers of Bethlehem might have interpreted the divine decision to warn one family. His attention is fixed on this event as a fulfillment of Scripture. Matthew does alter his usual formula in such citations of Scripture from his usual “in order that”, and thus avoids saying that the murders happened for the purpose of fulfilling Scripture.
Matthew’s third formula quotation in 2:18-19 is from Jer 31:15. In the New Testament only Matthew explicitly mentions Jeremiah. Jeremiah 31:15 pictures Rachel, matriarch of the tribes of Benjamin and Ephraim (but not of Judah) weeping at Ramah for her “children,” the Israelites, as they are led away captive to Babylon in Jeremiah’s time. Ramah (in the area of Benjamin, five miles north of Jerusalem) was chosen by Jeremiah because one tradition locates Rachel’s tomb there, at the site where Nebuchadnezzar’s troops assembled captives for deportation (Jer 40:1). Another tradition locates Rachel’s tomb at Bethlehem. Matthew combines these traditions to achieve the desired effect. The Jeremiah passage is in a context of hope; it is not clear whether Matthew interprets contextually or whether lamentation is the only note to be heard in this text. In any case, the child Jesus recapitulates the experience of Israel.
Like in Matthew’s day so in ours the war between the two kingdoms continues. Those who regard power as absolute will continue to massacre the innocent. They will continue to destroy others for selfish means. Our response has to be one of courage and hope. Though some will have to suffer because of the selfishness and egoism of a few, there are many more who live unselfish lives for the benefit of others. If each of us were to perform one unselfish act every day, the world becomes a better place for all.