It seems strange to be thinking of the murder of the innocent children of Bethlehem just before we think of the visit of the Magi, for that visit and their failure to return to Herod triggered the massacre. However, it continues the theme of the difficulties surrounding the entry of God’s Son into the world; Jesus’ earliest experiences were not what would be expected for the Messiah. How old Jesus was when he went to Egypt is a moot point. It must have been after the visit to the temple when Simeon and Anna saw him (see Luke 2), and it could have been up to nearly two years afterwards – Herod murdered all the boys under 2 years old, because that was ‘in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.’ The Magi told him when the star first appeared – that was when Jesus was born – and that was less than 2 years beforehand. (It may have been a lot less – Herod probably played safe.)
The account raises all sorts of questions. Did it happen? There is no other historical record of the event. However, such massacres were common enough, and Herod at that time was certainly ruthless enough – he had already murdered one of his wives and three of his sons. If it did happen, why did God allow it? Why could he not have protected his Son, the Messiah, and all the other children of Bethlehem? Why did he allow innocent children to be massacred while warning the holy family to flee? Some people think the story was invented to fulfil the Scriptures; but the story reads well without the Scripture quotations, and those particular passages were not originally thought of as prophecies about the Messiah.
It is easy to blame God for allowing evil to happen to innocent children. It would be more appropriate to blame evil and the devil in particular; the world in which Christ was born was a world where evil reigned, and the whole point of his birth was to destroy the work of the evil one, a purpose that was fulfilled in essence on the cross. (The out-working of the victory of the cross is still going on today; Christ is reigning from heaven, and we are told he must reign until every enemy is put under his feet, the last enemy being death (1 Corinthians 15:25,26). That hasn’t happened yet.) Christ entered the world to do battle with the devil and all his forces of evil, and it is not surprising that evil fought back, and fought back as early as possible. Nor is it surprising nowadays when evil circumstances seem to overwhelm the good. What is surprising (but perhaps should not be) is that God chooses to conquer evil by exposing it and letting it do its worst, especially to his Son. That being so, we who follow Jesus must expect evil to attack us just as much as we seek to continue Christ’s work to overcome evil with good.
We do not know how long the family stayed in Egypt. It is probable that Herod died soon afterwards, so it may not have been long. If Joseph had found employment in his ancestral home, Bethlehem, it would have been natural for him to think about returning there. However, the presence of Herod’s son Archelaus put him off, and God confirmed his thinking; so back he went to Nazareth. This is the first time Nazareth is mentioned in Matthew’s gospel, so Matthew gives it an added emphasis by giving it prophetic backing. Nazareth was regarded as an insignificant place with too much Gentile influence. It was not mentioned in the Old Testament, and the words ‘he shall be called a Nazarene’ do not appear anywhere. It is more likely that Matthew is thinking of the prophetic message that the Messiah would be despised and rejected – and to be called a Nazarene was not complimentary.
1) How can we keep trusting God when he so often allows or causes things to happen which seem to us to be anything but good?
2) How much do childhood experiences affect our characters? Can bad experiences be healed or made good?