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Matthew 2:16-18 – “The King’s Reception, Part 3b: The Necessity of a New Exodus”

Updated: Dec 15, 2022

Then Herod, seeing that he had been mocked by the magi, became exceedingly angry, so sending he destroyed all the boys who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity from two years old and under, according to the time which he had carefully inquired from the magi. Then the word through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled, saying; ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and much lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children and not wanting to be comforted, because they are not.’

The momentum of the narrative swings back to Herod from Joseph. The faithful followers give way to the hostile Herodians. The following verses not only reveal the hostile reception granted to Messiah by Jerusalem and Judea, but also explain why the anticipated exodus mentioned in the previous verses (vv. 13-15) is necessary. According to Matthew, there are two reasons why Israel requires a second Exodus.

To Expose the Heart of Israel (v. 16)

Then Herod, seeing that he had been mocked by the magi, became exceedingly angry, so sending he destroyed all the boys who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity from two years old and under, according to the time which he had carefully inquired from the magi.

Commentators use a lot of ink in justifying whether or not we should believe the events recorded in this verse took place. Liberals deny that Herod ordered the death of the Bethlehem babies on account that no other gospel account or secular history records it. In doing so, they deny that Matthew is God-breathed Scripture and is thus insufficient to state its own case. Along with this event’s validity, the scale is also hotly debated. Some argue for hundreds if not thousands of innocent children being murdered while others estimate between one and two dozen. Because Bethlehem was a very small village at this time, it is best to acknowledge that the scale is likely somewhat smaller than many have originally stated. Yet, to camp out on such details misses the entire point of the verse.

Back in v. 3, Matthew made a point to connect Herod with all Jerusalem. Here is an example of corporate solidarity, the king representing the people. The response of Herod indicates the heart of the people. Herod fulfills all Old Testament villain stereotypes when he is here presented as a king who rages against Yhwh and His Anointed as well as one who attacks the promised Seed.

Raging against Yhwh and His Anointed

Most English translations emphasize Herod’s realization of being deceived (Then Herod saw that he had been tricked/deceived). The term in question (ἐμπαίζω) is more mean-spirited than it is secretive and sinister having the meaning “to ridicule, make fun of, mock.” It is possible to translate this as “to deceive, trick” but only in the context of making a fool of someone. The point of any deception is to ridicule them like the deception needed in a practical joke. Ἐμπαίζω is used 5 other times by Matthew (2:16; 20:19; 27:29, 31, 41) and is only translated as “tricked” or deceived” here. In other words, Herod realizes that he had been used by the magi and feels that they are even now laughing at him behind his back.

Matthew uses the temporal adverb τότε to indicate subsequent action. The events of these verses occurred after both Joseph and the magi departed (ἀναχωρέω). The time frame of events probably looked something like this:

· Day 1 (evening): Herod calls magi to secret counsel (2:7-8)

· Day 1 (late evening): Magi follow the re-appeared star to Bethlehem & Jesus (2:9-11)

· Day 1 (night): Magi and Joseph warned in dreams and depart (2:12-15)

· Day 2 (evening): Herod, having received no report from the magi and not knowing where they are, concludes they have skipped town (2:16)

There was a reason Joseph took the child and His mother by night and fled to Egypt. They have less than a twenty-four-hour head start. Even if they are aided by a beast of burden (the pictures always show Mary riding a donkey…why is that?), their progress would be limited to 20 miles a day at the most, likely closer to 10. Getting out of Bethlehem is the easy part. Would they put enough distance between themselves and Herod to no longer be considered in Bethlehem’s “vicinity”? This distance is literally the difference between life and death because while it is true that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, this scorn pales in comparison like a narcissistic psychopathic antichrist’s bruised ego.

The phrase “then Herod, seeing that he had been mocked by the magi” is a causal participle[1] phrase that explains the reason or cause of his rage. His realization of being mocked stirred his rage. The passive verb ἐθυμώθη (he became enraged) is modified by the adverb λίαν (exceedingly, excessively, very much so). It is no coincidence that Herod’s anger and wrath is poured out on the proclaimed Messiah. Ironically, the cognate noun (θυμός) of this same term is used in an Old Testament context: “Then He speaks to them in His anger and terrifies them in His fury” (Ps. 2:5). And again: “Kiss the Son, lest He become angry, and you perish in the way, for His wrath may soon be kindled. How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!” (Ps. 2:12). The context of Psalm 2 is the outpouring of wrath from Yhwh and His Messiah (Anointed - מָשִׁיח) upon human kings who rail against Yhwh’s sovereign reign. Herod is literally railing against Yhwh’s Anointed.[2]

Attacking the Promised Seed

The participle sending (ἀποστείλας[3]sending) reveals the means by which Herod destroyed the babies of Bethlehem. He may not have personally spilled blood, but his orders brought it about. The blood of Bethlehem’s boys stain Herod’s hands. There is a wide range of opinions regarding the extent of the carnage. Older voices suggest that Herod’s slaughter swept up hundreds of baby boys while modern sages fail to see the possibility of more than a few dozen boys younger than two years old living in the village of Bethlehem (population between 500-600 and certainly under 1000 in the first century) and its vicinities. The age is not an arbitrary line in the sand but was determined based on the information gleaned from the magi. It is interesting that Matthew uses the same term from v. 7 (ἠκρίβωσεν) to describe the careful inquiry Herod made of the magi. Jesus was born somewhere between six months and two years before this ghastly day.[4] The number of boys is irrelevant. Matthew’s point is that Herod is now presented as the most recent member of the league of antichrist.

Biblical Precedents of Attacking the Seed: Ever since the fall of man and the promise of a savior (Gen. 3:15) there has been an unrelenting attack upon the promise of the coming seed of the woman. Sometimes this attack was carried out overtly through assassination as in the case of Abel (Gen. 4:1-16), and Athaliah (2 Kings 11:1-3). Sometimes this attack was more cleverly executed through means of polluting the chosen line as in the cases of the Angels (Gen. 6:1-4), Abimelech (Gen. 20:1-18), and Absalom (2 Sam. 16:20-23). In other words, Matthew presents the murder of children in Bethlehem by Herod in the same vein as all other satanic attempts to destroy the promised Seed. Herod now joins the ranks of men and women like Cain, Pharaoh, Saul, Jeroboam, Ahab, and Athaliah. Of the names mentioned here, Pharaoh and Athaliah bear the closest resemblance with regard to the shared method of infanticide. If Jesus is the new Moses who will lead a new Exodus as well as the new David who will rule His people, then Herod is the new satanic antagonist whose policy is firmly anti-christ.

Biblical Precedents of Attacking Yhwh’s Chosen People: It would be a mistake to miss the point that Herod’s atrocity is committed against the residents of Bethlehem; i.e., Israelites living in the land of Judah. While it is true that God historically used evil men and nations to judge His sinning people, it is also true that those evil men and nations were subsequently judged. Assyria judged the northern kingdom of Israel and was subsequently judged by Babylon. Babylon judged the southern kingdom of Judah and was subsequently judged by Persia. Persia was judged by Greece, and Greece by Rome. The reason God judged the tools of judgment He used was because they overstepped their bounds. Their pride and hostility needed to be put in check. In other words, Herod now stands along names like Sennacherib, Nebuzaradan, Nebuchadnezzar, and Antiochus Epiphanes. The Edomite king of Israel takes on the role of one of Israel’s enemies. But the worst part is that the heart of Herod has already been linked to the heart of all Jerusalem (v. 3). The satanic attack against Yhwh’s Seed and Yhwh’s people is not coming externally from the Gentile nations but from within. Israel needs to be led in a new Exodus because their collective heart is turned against Yhwh and against His Anointed.

To Extinguish the Curse over Israel (vv. 17-18)

Then the word through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled, saying; ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and much lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children and not wanting to be comforted, because they are not.’

This is the third of Matthew’s ten “fulfillment formulas” and the first to mention Jeremiah as the source. Matthew will mention Jeremiah by name a total of three times in his gospel (2:17; 16:14; 27:9) and is the only New Testament writer to do so. Clearly Jeremiah (a prophet pleading with a nation on the brink of destruction to repent) is of significance to Matthew’s argument. The fact that this word is from the Lord (ὑπό κυρίου) is assumed because this word only came through (διὰ) Jeremiah and not from (ὑπό) him. Jeremiah is still presented as the intermediate source rather than the ultimate source.

Because the scene’s location (Bethlehem vs. Ramah), subject (Bethlehemite mothers vs. Rachel) and objects (murdered infants vs. exiles) are all different, it is difficult to see how this scene fulfills (πληρόω) Jer. 31:15. As we saw in the previous section, the answers to our questions will be found in the prophet. We must turn to the context of Jeremiah in order to understand the content of Matthew.

Jeremiah’s Content and Context

Jeremiah 31 contains several motifs that overlap many of the themes already mentioned in Matthew. Jeremiah refers to Israel as (a) a virgin (vv. 4, 13, 21), (b) God’s son (vv. 9, 20), and (c) explicitly reveals God’s plan to forgive the nation of their sin via a new covenant (vv. 31-34).[5] The concept of a new covenant corresponds to a new exodus in that the original exodus concluded with the Mosaic Covenant at Mount Sinai. The question of geography is explained by carefully reading Gen. 35:19 and 1 Sam. 10:2 along with Jer. 31:15. Rachel, the beloved wife if Jacob, died in between Bethel and Bethlehem and was buried en route. The specific location of Zelzah is provided in 1 Sam. 10:2 which is near Ramah, about 5 miles north of Jerusalem.[6]

In the days of the divided monarchy, Ramah stood on the border between north and south. What was heard in Ramah would be heard in both kingdoms. A similar reality is true of Rachel, who bore to Jacob (or Israel) both Joseph (from whom came Ephraim and Manasseh, tribes of the north) and Benjamin (one of the two loyal southern tribes). Both the city of Ramah and the person of Rachel are seen as representative of the collective nation of Israel.[7] To this we can add that Ramah appears to have been used as a staging place for the collection of exiles after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem (Jer. 40:1). The point then is this: “Rachel” is weeping for her children (literally: “her sons” – בָּנְיהָ) who are about to be carted off into exile. She refuses to be comforted because they will never return, they are no more. There are two important observations that must be made.

The first observation is that v. 15 is the only “gloomy” verse to be seen in Jeremiah 31. The chapter begins with promises of restoration and rest (vv. 1-6), repentance and reclamation (vv. 7-9) as well as redemption and reconciliation (vv. 10-14). The chapter continues with commands to cease weeping and directs all attention to following Yhwh because “days are coming” for judgment and restoration (vv. 16-30). The chapter concludes with a promise of a coming New Covenant that will be far superior to the Mosaic Covenant because each man will have the law of God written on the peoples’ heart (vv. 31-34). This one verse that alludes to the exile (v. 15) lies in between promises of rest (vv. 1-14) and exhortations of faithfulness (vv. 16-30). In other words, a new exodus (exile) precedes restoration, but the sorrow which that exodus brings is not permanent because the children will return (v. 17). Our understanding of Jer. 31:15 must remain in the context of this overall “positive” text.

The second observation is that Jer. 31:15 is not exclusively historic in context or scope. The piel participle מְבַכָּה (Rachel is weeping for her children) is used to show an action that is characteristic rather than a single and simple act. The difference is between saying, “Rachel wept” vs. “Rachel is a weeper”. While the Babylonian exile is the catalyst that initiated this weeping, the grammar allows for an understanding that this weeping continued well beyond the exile and even after the return. The context of Jer. 31 reveals that only the establishment of the New Covenant (vv. 31-34) will put an end to this weeping (vv. 16-17).[8]

Matthew’s Content and Context

The language Matthew uses here is closer to the Hebrew of the MT than the Greek of the LXX. For the most part, it is a likely assumption that Matthew prefers to offer his own Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. We should first make a few comments about the text of Matt. 2:18 and then explain the connection to Jer. 31:15.

Observations of the Text: The noun φωνή is an excellent translation of the Hebrew קוֹל. Both nouns carry the nuance of the extremely generic “sound” or can indicate something a little more specific as in a “voice.” The passive ἠκούσθη (was heard) is an accurate representation of the niphal participle נִשְׁמָע. The voice/sound that was heard is specified as “weeping and great lamentation” (κλαυθμὸς καὶ ὀδυρμὸς πολύς). Jeremiah identifies “Rachel” as the source of this weeping as he explains that she weeps for her children. The present participle κλαίουσα (weeping) shares the same root as the noun κλαυθμὸς (weeping) that appears just before. This active participle describes what Rachel does while the negated imperfect verb οὐκ ἤθελεν (not desiring/wanting)and complement infinitive παρακληθῆναι (to be comforted/encouraged/exhorted) describes what she does not do. She weeps while not wanting to be comforted. The use of the participle along with the iterative/repetitive imperfect presents these dual actions as ongoing. The causative ὅτι reveals the reason for this continuous and unceasing lamentation; the sons of Rachel are not (ὅτι οὐκ εἰσίν).

Connecting Matt. 2:18 to Jer. 31:15: The text of Jeremiah states plainly that the establishment of the New Covenant will be put an end to “Rachel’s” weeping. Yet Matthew seems to think that Rachel’s weeping continues. In fact, the weeping on account of the Babylonian exile is now reaching a climax. The tears of Israelite mothers have flowed for hundreds of years without ceasing and without comfort because their sons are no more. They have not yet been brought back into the land (Jer. 31:16-17) because the New Covenant has not yet been established (Jer. 31:31-34) because the New Exodus has not yet occurred (Matt. 2:15). During this dark hour, Matthew expresses hope. The agony of the Bethlehemite mothers can be eased with the knowledge that the Davidic king has left to begin a second Exodus. With the second/new Exodus comes a second/new Covenant which will be established/inaugurated by this same Davidic king who will cause all weeping to cease. The exodus is necessary not only because Israel is in a dark state of unrepentance, but also because the new exodus will extinguish the curse.

Soli Deo Gloria!

[1] Charles Quarles, Matthew, Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2017), p. 29. [2] David Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), p. 93. [3] This participle is from the verb ἀποστέλλω (to send) whose cognate noun is ἀπόστολος (sent one, delegate, envoy, messenger, apostle). The men Herod sent are literally apostles of death. [4] D. A. Carson, Walter Wessel, and Mark Strauss, Matthew & Mark, Revised, vol. 9, 13 vols., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2010), p. 121. [5] Turner, p. 94. [6] Carson, p. 122. [7] William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1973), p. 184. [8] Abner Chou, The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers: Learning to Interpret Scripture from the Prophets and Apostles (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2018), p. 137-8.


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