The Slaughter of the Holy Innocents

In chapter 2 [of St Matthew’s Gospel] Herod’s order to do away with the male infants of Bethlehem (2:16-18) is like Pharaoh’s order to do away with every male Hebrew child (Exodus 1).  And if Herod orders the slaughter of Hebrew infants because he has learned of the birth of Israel’s liberator (2:2-18), in Jewish tradition Pharaoh slaughters the Hebrew children because he has learned the very same thing (Josephus, Antiquities 2.205-9; Targum Ps-Jonathan on Ex 1:15).  Further, whereas Herod hears of the coming liberator from chief priests, scribes, and magi (2:1-12), Josephus (Antiquities 2.205 and 234) has Pharaoh learn of Israel’s deliverer  from scribes, while Jerusalem Targum on Exodus 1:15 says that Pharaoh’s chief magicians (Jannes and Jambres, the sons of Balaam) were the sources of his information.  The quotation of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15 further evokes thought of the exodus, for in its original context ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’ concerns Israel.  And then there is 2:19-22, which borrows the language of Exodus 4:19-20:  just as Moses, after being told to go back to Egypt because all those seeking his life have died, takes his wife and children and returns to the land of his birth, so too with Jesus:  Joseph after being told to go back to Israel because all those seeking the life of his son have died, takes his wife and child and returns to the land of his son’s birth.”

(Allison, Dale C, Sermon on the Mount:  Inspiring the Moral Imagination, pgs 17-18)