Jesus’ Birth: The infanticide prophecy

This post is part of a larger series on Jesus’ birth. This particular post evaluates the relationship between the birth of Jesus and the prophecy of Herod’s infanticide.

What do we know?Massacre of the innocents

The fulfillment of prophecy is claimed in Matthew 2:16-18

 2:16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he became enraged. He sent men to kill all the children in Bethlehem and throughout the surrounding region from the age of two and under, according to the time he had learned from the wise men. 2:17 Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: 2:18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud wailing, Rachel weeping for her children, and she did not want to be comforted, because they were gone.”

The referenced passage is found in Jeremiah 31:15

” 31:10 Hear what the Lord has to say, O nations. Proclaim it in the faraway lands along the sea. Say, “The one who scattered Israel will regather them. He will watch over his people like a shepherd watches over his flock.” …  31:14 I will provide the priests with abundant provisions. My people will be filled to the full with the good things I provide.” 31:15 The Lord says, “A sound is heard in Ramah, a sound of crying in bitter grief. It is the sound of Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are gone.” 31:16 The Lord says to her, “Stop crying! Do not shed any more tears! For your heartfelt repentance will be rewarded. Your children will return from the land of the enemy. I, the Lord, affirm it! 31:17 Indeed, there is hope for your posterity. Your children will return to their own territory. I, the Lord, affirm it!”

The infanticide is not referenced anywhere else in the New Testament and there is no other record of the event. As before, the difficulty here is that the passage in Jeremiah is claimed to be a prophecy of the infanticide when a plain reading of the text sees the pronouncement as an allusion to the Babylonian exile of the Jews.

There is also a bit more information that might help us interpret the prophecy:

  1. Ramah was located about 5 miles north of Jerusalem, near Gibeah. Bethlehem is about 5 miles south of Jerusalem.
  2. Ramah is located in the territory allotted to the tribe of Benjamin. Benjamin was the youngest of the 12 tribes of Israel and one of two sons born to Rachel (the other being Joseph).
  3. Rachel was buried somewhere near Bethlehem. (Genesis 35:19)
  4. Ramah was a staging area for the Jews that were being exiled to Babylon after the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. (Jeremiah 40:1)
  5. The context of the passage in Jeremiah is a larger prophecy of Israel’s restoration.
  6. A similar event is recorded Exodus 1:15-22, when Pharaoh commands that all newborn boys be killed.

What is the Christian interpretation of the data?

The Christian view here is very similar to the view given for the out of Egypt prophecy, which is to see the passage in Jeremiah as a foreshadowing of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. Support for this view comes from a few possible connections:

  1. In Matthew, Rachel could be seen to be symbolic of the mothers in Bethlehem. Rachel birthed Benjamin at a location near Bethlehem and was then buried there after dying in childbirth, thus establishing a connection with the mothers of Bethlehem.
  2. In Jeremiah, it’s not exceptional that Rachel is identified as the matriarch crying in Ramah since she is the mother of Benjamin and Ramah lies within Benjamin’s territory.
  3. Some commentators have suggested that since Ramah was a staging area before deportation to Babylon, it may have also been the site of mass executions of Jews. This would be a parallel to Herod’s infanticide.
  4. The context of the passage in Jeremiah is a prophecy of a future restoration of Israel and the joy that will be found despite the tragedy over which Rachel was weeping. This again would be a parallel to the salvation brought through Jesus in the period after Herod’s horrible massacre.

I should also point out that a common objection to the claim in Matthew is that there isn’t any historical corroboration of the slaughter of innocents. The Christian apologist’s response is that the population of the area affected by the decree would not have been very large, so the number of infants put to death might actually have been relatively small and, as such, would not rise to the level of meriting mention by the likes of Josephus.

What is the naturalistic interpretation of the data?

A naturalist view asserts that this is just another example of a larger theme in Matthew wherein the author is injecting meaning in order to establish a link between Jesus and the Old Testament. In this case, the most likely candidate is that the author is trying to reinforce Jesus as the messiah in two ways.

First, one must recognize that Moses was regarded as a prototype of the coming messiah. He was the first deliverer, prophet and ruler for the Jews. By reflecting on the events surrounding Moses’ birth it is not difficult to see how the infanticide event may have been introduced in order to present a parallel between Jesus and Moses, wherein both are spared from an infanticide and then grow to become the savior of Israel. The result is to reinforce Jesus as the messiah.

Second, the context of the passage in Jeremiah is clearly prophesying the restoration of Israel after the Babylonian exile. The restoration is intimately connected to prophecies of Israel’s rise to dominance and prophesies of the restoration and the rise of Israel are also often associated with the arrival of the messiah. By suggesting that Jesus’ birth parallels the passage in Jeremiah, the author may be suggesting that the messianic kingdom is imminent and, by association, that Jesus is the messiah. This argument would be directed toward the Jews of the day who did not accept Jesus as the messiah.

Regarding the lack of external corroboration of the slaughter, in this case the naturalist sticks to the idea that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” and so does not affirm that the event never occurred. Even so, the parallel to Moses provides clear motive for fabricating such an event and if the event was so insignificant that it was not well known then it seems an odd choice for divine foreshadowing.

Which interpretation seems more probable?

As with the out of Egypt prophecy, the passage quoted in Matthew is clearly taken out of context in the sense that the text in Jeremiah is mostly plainly read as a reference to the conditions during the Babylonian exile. However, unlike the Egypt prophecy, there are some additional parallels that can be used to argue for a connection between the text and Jesus’ birth. Ultimately, I find the notion of divine foreshadowing to be an unsatisfactory explanation and it is not difficult to see the author’s motivation for introducing the story as a parallel to Moses and then supporting it by claiming it as fulfillment of prophecy. When the text in Jeremiah is viewed on its own, irrespective of the claims in Matthew, it in no way implies the type of fulfillment that is claimed in Matthew. The connection feels forced and to accept it requires one to ignore the obvious discrepancies. In this case, I am assigning the probabilities as follows:


What do you think?

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