King Herod hunts baby Jesus
Wise men follow a star to Bethlehem1 Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in the province of Judea, when Herod the Great was king of the Jews. Later, a group of sages known as magi showed up in Jerusalem. They came from a distant land somewhere in the east. 2 They started asking around, “Where’s the boy who’s going to become king of the Jews?” We saw the sign of his birth: a rising star. We came to honor him.” 3 When Herod heard about this, he was not a happy king. The people of Jerusalem got upset, too. 4 Herod called a meeting of all the top priests and Jewish religion scholars known as scribes. He asked them where the Messiah was going to be born. 5 They said, “One of the prophets predicted he would be born in Bethlehem, in Judea. Here’s what the prophets wrote: 6 ‘Bethlehem of Judea, you’re no smalltime prince of a town. You’re going to produce a king who will lead my people of Israel like a shepherd.’” 7 King Herod met secretly with the visiting sages. They told him when the star appeared. 8 Herod sent them to Bethlehem. He said, “Go there and look for the child. Do a thorough search. When you find him, come back here and tell me where he is. I want to go and pay my respects to him, as well.” 9 When the meeting was over, the sages continued on the next leg of their trip. As they traveled, the star they had seen earlier appeared in front of them. It eventually stopped above where the child was located. 10 When they saw that star appear in front of them again, it was hallelujah time. They celebrated, overwhelmed with excitement. 11 In Bethlehem, they went inside the house where the family was staying. When the sages saw the child with Mary his mother, they dropped to their knees out of deep respect. Then they gave him the gifts they brought: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 They had a dream warning them not to report back to Herod. So they bypassed Jerusalem on their way home to their own country.
Jesus goes to Egypt13 After the sages left, Joseph had a dream. In that dream, an angel of the Lord told him, “Get up and get out of here. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you it’s safe to come back. Herod is going to look for this child and try to kill him.” 14 Joseph got up. He left town, heading to Egypt under the cover of darkness. He took the child with him, along with the boy’s mother. 15 They stayed in Egypt until Herod died. This fulfilled something the Lord said through a prophet: “I told my son to leave Egypt.”
Herod kills babies in Bethlehem16 Herod flew into a rage when he heard that the wise men outsmarted him. He sent people to Bethlehem, under orders to kill every male child in and around Bethlehem who was under two years old. Herod based this age on the timeline he got from the sages. 17 The prophet Jeremiah predicted what happened as a result of this.
“A voice screams in Ramah,
weeping with piercing wails.
Rachel sobs for her children,
rejecting all efforts to comfort.
Her children are dead.”
Joseph brings his family home19 When Herod died, Joseph had another dream. In that dream, an angel of the Lord told him, 20 “Get up and go home. Take the child and his mother and go back to Israel. It’s safe now. The people who were trying to kill the child are dead.” 21 Joseph got up and took the child and his mother back home to Israel. 22 But he was afraid to go back to the territory of Judea because he found out that Herod’s son Archelaus ruled that region. After getting warned in another dream, Joseph moved his family back to the region of Galilee. 23 He settled in the town of Nazareth. The prophets predicted this about Jesus: “He’ll be called a Nazarene.”
It’s unclear exactly what they saw. One theory is that they saw a conjunction of planets that appeared like stars. In 7-6 BC the planets of Jupiter and Saturn came close together and appeared beside the constellation of Pisces. If the magi were stargazers, as many theorize, they interpreted the meaning of what they saw in the sky. Jupiter, the largest of the planets, represented kings, which suggested a king had been born. Saturn represented the Jews because they worshiped on the day that honored the god Saturn: Saturday. “Pisces” means “fish,” and it represented the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, where Israel is located. So the sages did the math: king plus Jews plus Jewish homeland. They figured a king of the Jews had been born. They went to the Jewish capital of Jerusalem to introduce themselves and pay their respects.
Herod (reigned 37-4 BC) did not have a newborn son. But he did have a reputation for paranoia and for killing people he thought threatened his right to rule. By this time, Herod had already executed two of his own sons, one wife, and one mother-in-law.
Scribes specialized in the Jewish laws. Each of the major groups of Jews had their own scribes. That included the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. But in the time of Jesus, most scribes were Pharisees. This was the branch of the Jewish faith well-known for its meticulous devotion to observing the Law as they interpreted it, and for insisting that everyone else do the same. In the Gospel of Mark, scribes represent the moral opposite of Jesus. If the Gospel of Mark were a cowboy movie produced in the early 1900s, the scribes would be wearing the black hats and starting fistfights in the saloon.
The Greek word hēgeomai, used twice in this sentence, can mean a leader: ruler, prince, or king.
The Greek word describing what the magi did is proskyneō. It’s often translated “worship.” But many scholars seem to agree that the magi were probably not worshiping Jesus in the way Christians do today. Instead, they were more likely showing the kind of respect they would show to a king or anyone else with a rank higher than their own. Kneeling like this is a way of gratefully acknowledging the authority someone else has over them. Some people in Eastern lands such as the Persians in what is now Iran, would bow low, touching their forehead to the ground as a show of profound reverence.
Hosea 11:1. Hosea was talking about the Jews who were enslaved in Egypt during the time of Moses. Matthew applies that same statement to Jesus, comparing him to the Jewish nation and perhaps to Moses, who led the Jews to freedom.
Apparently the sages told Herod they saw the star or the astrological event for the first time about two years earlier. If the event they saw was the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn lining up with the Pisces constellation in 7-6 BC, the slaughter of baby boys in Bethlehem may have taken place right around the time King Herod died, at around age 70, in 4 BC.
Jeremiah 31:15. Rachel was the favorite wife of Jacob, whose sons produced the extended families that became known as the 12 tribes of Israel. This prophecy was originally talking about Jews who had been deported to Babylon, in what is now Iraq, after the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in about 586 BC. Matthew borrowed that prophecy and applied it also to Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem.
Judea was a Roman province in what is now central Israel. Jerusalem was the main city in Judea.
Scholars say there is no such statement in the Old Testament or in any other Jewish writings before the time of the New Testament. Some scholars say Matthew was identifying Jesus as a Nazirite, a Jewish group known for living a no-frills, ascetic lifestyle. Others say Matthew may have been referring to a prophecy about the Messiah: “Out of the stump of David’s family will grow a shoot—yes, a new Branch” (Isaiah 11:1 NLT). The Hebrew word for Branch, Neser, is quite close to the word for Nazareth, Nasrat. They skipped vowels when they wrote. So we end up with nsr compared to nsrt. Matthew may have been presenting Jesus as the promised Branch from David’s family—the Neserite.
Most of us have heard stories about the wise men who came to visit young Jesus. Let’s compare notes for a moment. What have people told you about these wise men, known as magi or sages?
There are many theories about the star the wise men saw. The most popular theory at the moment is the first one listed below. Which theory seems to make the most sense to you?
- Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn appearing close together beside the Pisces constellation in 7-6 BC.
- Supernova that the Chinese observed for more than two months in 5 BC.
- Comet in 5 BC.
- Combo of several events: meeting of Jupiter and Saturn in 7-6 BC; meeting of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars in 6 BC; comet in 5 BC
- Glowing spirit being that may have appeared like a pillar of light that lead the Jews out of slavery in Egypt.
Luke told the story of shepherds coming to visit Jesus in Bethlehem. But Matthew told the story of wise men coming to visit Jesus in Bethlehem, perhaps a couple of years after Jesus was born, since they apparently told Herod they saw the star rise two years earlier (2:16). We can only guess why Matthew included this story. Why do you think he did?
If a rich person is going to bring gifts to someone they think is going to be a king, gold certainly makes perfect sense. Who doesn’t like gold? But why would you guess they brought frankincense and myrrh, too?
Matthew is the only Gospel writer who reports the slaughter of Bethlehem boys ages two and under, an execution ordered by King Herod. Matthew uses that short story to set up a reference to a prophecy that he suggests was being fulfilled. It’s a prophecy he may have thought helps confirm that Jesus is the Messiah. Some critics say this slaughter never happened, since we’ve not found anything else written about it. How do you react to that?
LIFE APPLICATION. When Joseph realized his family was in danger, he made the radical move to leave the country. What are some of the things we do when we realize that people in our family might be at risk?