The Magi knew how to treat the king. After seeking him far beyond the bounds of their country, these astrologers, “when they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” The word translated as “paid him homage” means an act of reverence, in which people fall to their knees and place their heads upon the ground. The Magi acted toward Jesus with the reverence due the divine king. Jesus was, after all, an epiphany, a word derived from the Greek epiphaneia, which described the manifestation or appearance of divinity and was usually applied to Hellenistic and Roman rulers.
Reverence was not the response of Herod the Great, however, who after gathering information slyly from the Magi, decides to put an end to this supposed king, a manifest threat to his own power. Once the Magi are warned by a dream of Herod’s plan, they do not return to him. Herod desires the death of the newborn king and will go to any lengths to bring the deed to pass. Herod’s response is brutal and savage: “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men” (Mt 2:16).
Matthew’s infancy account has at its heart a theological and narrative structure that draws us to Moses and the Old Testament narratives in which his life as an infant child was threatened, and he was adopted into the pharaoh’s family, which saved him from the threat of death. So, too, is Jesus’ life under threat from Herod; and Jesus is adopted, as it were, into the family of Joseph (thus becoming a son of David) who then spirited him away to save him from death. The purposes of the Gospel of Matthew, without question, are to present Jesus as the new Moses, the one who fulfills the prophetic hopes of Israel—Chapter 2 alone presents three prophetic fulfillments (2:15, 17, 23)—and is the divinely promised Messiah, the son of David and Abraham.
But could Herod have done such a thing, killing infants and toddlers to preserve his kingship? We have no historical record of this event beyond Matthew. Yet, even after we account for the theological and literary purposes of Matthew’s infancy narrative, the event that grounds the narrative is not as historically remote as has sometimes been considered. There is much that rings true to a reader.
That Herod would be “greatly troubled” would make sense for a king who had an obvious personal stake in remaining king and whose kingship depended upon the patronage of the Romans. Why would Herod be troubled at the manifestation of true kingship? He would be troubled at any sort of manifestation of a king, real or imagined, that would have upset the status quo. To be a king like Herod was to be always in a state of anxiety, since one’s position was dependent upon the favor of those even greater than you, the Roman Empire, and the need to maintain order was tantamount for the Romans.
Still the question remains, could Herod have been a type of pharaoh killing all the children under 2 years of age around Bethlehem? Historically, the answer must be yes. Herod had three of his own children killed and one of his wives, Mariamne. If he had his own children killed, he could have killed other people’s children. Besides, Herod is not himself drawing the sword and doing the dirty work, and Bethlehem was small, so we have no idea how many children were actually killed in this way—if it did indeed take place.
This is the easiest way to tell whether your king is making divinity manifest or simply clawing to maintain power: when earthly rulers are threatened, they seek to destroy. Herod came to destroy life and preserve power; Jesus came in weakness to bring life. Herod did not know how to treat the true king because he did not understand the source of true kingship or true power. If he had, he would have fallen to his knees.