A terrible event is summarized in Matthew 2:16: “Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.”
I want to observe the specifics of his decree and the reasons for them.
- The target will be “male children.” Herod knows that the Magi entered Jerusalem asking about the newborn king–not queen–of the Jews (Matt 2:2a), so the girls are not the target here.
- The males aren’t located just anywhere but “in Bethlehem” specifically. When the Magi asked where the newborn king was, Herod summoned chief priests and scribes and asked them where the Christ would be born (Matt 2:4). “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they told him (2:5). So Herod communicated this information to the Magi, and they were supposed to return to him with the address of the child’s home (2:8). When the Magi didn’t return, Herod was angry (2:16a), so even though he didn’t know the address of the child, he still knew the specific town because of what the chief priests and scribes told him. Male children in Bethlehem.
- The soldiers who were dispatched to Bethlehem were also to search “in all that region.” After all, what if the child wasn’t staying in the inner parts of the town but rather its outskirts? If they neglected “all that region” in their search, Herod’s effort to extinguish the child might fail. The addition of the phrase “and in all that region” suggests how thorough Herod wanted his soldiers to be.
- The male children in Bethlehem were to be killed if they were “two years old or under.” Herod probably rounded up, but why to that number? His decree took into account the time when the star appeared to the Magi (Matt 2:7, 16). The star evidently appeared to them less than two years earlier. Children older than that weren’t a threat because they wouldn’t be the rumored king, but any male boy two or younger could be possible competition someday. The specifics of Herod’s decree would eliminate this contender.
How many children would’ve fit Herod’s description? It’s hard to say. Scholars estimate that Bethlehem in the first century had approximately 1,000 people, and perhaps 20 of them were male children two years old or under. In the end, it’s impossible to be certain. If your mind initially pictured the massacre of hundreds or thousands of children, then 20 may seem remarkably low. Wouldn’t you agree, though, that 20 is still 20 too many?