Blood on the ground
God recurrently dealt with idolatry amongst his people by bringing to birth a righteous remnant. However, as Matthew portrays Herod’s actions, it reminds us that idolatry was only half of Genesis’ deadly duo and that after Adam came Cain. Shedding of innocent blood had consequences in its own right. The massacre’s bloodshed was therefore incontrovertible evidence of a spiritual problem that faced both Herod’s nation and any Messiah born into it. For Jesus, it cut directly across the promise of his Davidic legacy, leaving an uneasy mix of curse and blessing. However, God had a consistent way of dealing with the dynasties of men, like Herod, who shed innocent blood. From the accounts of Cain, Noah, Jacob and Moses a way of salvation emerges, a way to preserve those who were innocent yet tarnished by their country’s corporate crimes. In the time of Joash this would preserve David’s line from the curse-driven destruction of Ahab’s heirs and in the first century it would do save Jesus from the corporate accursedness of Judah. Moreover, inherent in this method of salvation was a means by which a branch of the olive tree, once sprouted from the stump, could develop through the grafting in of the repentant (cf. Isa 6:13, 11:1, 4:2, Rom 11:17).
Herod’s response to the magi’s message was both typical of the man and symptomatic of the malaise that gripped his kingdom. He was not afraid of immoral bloodshed when it serves his purpose1. Yet, as none of the victims in Bethlehem was above the age of two, their youth added a theological dimension to the event. Such young children are incapable of knowing right from wrong (Isa 7:15-16, 8:4) and so, as with the children sacrificed to the gods of Canaan (Ps 106:37-39), their death was undeserved. Thus, Herod was shedding innocent blood and, as Judah’s leader, he was inviting a curse upon his nation and everyone in it.
Walking in the ways of Jeroboam
Herod’s tactics were not new, for the murder of heirs was characteristic of the insurrections that litter the history of the Northern Kingdom. Thus, when Baasha deposed Nadab, he struck down his entire household at the earliest opportunity (1 Kgs 15:27-29), when Zimri deposed Baasha’s house, he acted quickly and left no male relatives alive (1 Kgs 16:8-12), and when Jehu assassinated Joram, he arranged for the murder of Ahab’s other seventy sons (2 Kgs 9:24, 10:1-7).
In the case of the deposed northern dynasties, the fate of their children was consistently the God-instigated outcome of their cursed behaviour2. Each dynasty had contracted the same spiritual disease, an illness whose diagnostic symptoms were spiritual adultery, shedding innocent blood and a lack of respect for God’s commands (1 Kgs 15:25-26,34, 16:31-33). The scriptures refer to this ailment as ‘walking in the ways of Jeroboam’ (1Kgs 15:30,34, 16:30-31). The disease was terminal and the dynasties of Jeroboam, Baasha and Ahab all succumbed (1 Kgs 14:7-11, 16:1-4, 21:18-24), beasts and birds eating their remains in accordance with the ancient curses uttered at Mt Ebal (Deut 28:25)3. Jehu’s dynasty also, in effect, ‘walked in the ways of Jeroboam’ (2 Kgs 10:31, 13:1-2, 10-11, 14:23-24, 15:8-9) and, but for his zealous action against Baal worship, his dynasty might have met a similar end (2 Kgs 10:18-30). Nevertheless, right up until the demise of the Northern Kingdom, the ways of Jeroboam continued to bear their terrible fruit (2 Kgs 17:21-23).
According to Moses, God gives each nation, group or family at most three or four generations in which to repent of their ancestor’s wickedness (Exod 20:5, 34:7, cf. Gen 15:16, 2 Kgs 10:304). Thus, none of the dynasties that chose to walk in the ways of Jeroboam survived much beyond that period before God arranged for them to succumb to the consequences of their actions. Similarly, when the Lord passed over Egypt those who died were the grandchildren of the generation that murdered the Israeli infants (Exod 12:12-13)5.
Like those northern kings, Herod ‘walked in the ways of Jeroboam’. Aside from his murderous activities, he espoused ‘foreign’ ideas, promoted an increasingly liberal way of life and surrounded himself with foreign academics6. He also showed a fondness for other gods and supported the activities of various Greco-Roman religions. Thus, as Matthew claims fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophecy, he portrays a Judah that resembled the Northern Kingdom. Moreover, he then makes sure we notice that Herod’s grandson Archelaus was no better. On Herod’s death, Archelaus inherited Jerusalem, even if not the formal title ‘king’. However, in six C.E., having failed to depart from his grandfather’s ways, he was tried in Rome on a charge of savagery toward his subjects, found guilty and sent into exile leaving Jerusalem under direct Roman rule7.
The meaning of the mark
When the behaviour of leaders brings a sentence of death, then those who do not deserve to die need a way of escape. The account of Cain (Gen 4:3-15) introduces both the spiritual consequence of shedding innocent blood and the means God uses to save innocent people from it8. As with Adam’s idolatry, Cain’s folly brought a curse upon his land that forced him to flee from it. However, it also left his life under threat from anyone he met (i.e. Abel’s relatives). Cain could do nothing but lament that his punishment was too much to bear or, to use the alternate translation of these words9, his sin was too great to forgive. His statement was both an acceptance of guilt and an appeal for mercy. Thus, in response to Cain’s remorse, God set a mark on him that ensured the continuation of divine protection.
The intent behind Cain’s marking becomes apparent when Joab interceded on behalf of fugitive Absolom (2 Sam 14:1-20). After Absolom murdered his brother Amnon and fled from justice (2 Samuel 13:28), David was inclined to forgive him (2 Sam 13:39). Seeing this, Joab sent a wise woman to deploy Cain’s precedent of two sons struggling in a field (2 Sam 14:6, cf. Gen 4:8). As part of her argument, she observed, “We will all die someday. We’re like water spilled on the ground; no one can gather it back. But God doesn’t take away life. Instead, he plans ways that those who have been sent away will not have to stay away from him!” (2 Sam 14:14, NCV). Cain’s marking therefore provided the protection necessary to allow the banished one to continue to enjoy God’s presence.
In antiquity, the typical reasons for one person to mark another (enslavement or confirmation of tribal membership) all implied acceptance, willing or otherwise, of the lordship of the mark giver. Thus, Cain, whilst he was no longer able to experience God as a free man in his own land, could avoid exile and separation from his Lord by agreeing to serve his deity permanently and accepting a mark (cf. Exod 21:6). This ensured his safety, as anyone who killed a bond-servant was automatically answerable to his master (cf. Exod 21:32). Confirmation, that such an arrangement indeed provided protection from the sentence of death, comes from Joshua’s resolution of a later dilemma (Josh 9:1-26). The Gibeonites, who shared a death sentence with their Canaanite relatives, tricked Israel into making an oath that guaranteed them safety. Whereupon, Joshua concluded that, as they were accursed, the only way for them to continue to live safely in the land was as bond-servants of God (Josh 9: 23).
Shut in with God
Whilst Cain’s experience demonstrated how God held individuals accountable for shedding innocent blood that of Noah (Gen 7:1-16) introduced the dimension of corporate responsibility. Noah lived amidst a wicked society and came under their corporate curse. However, Noah was blameless and in his generation and so God organised a place of sanctuary, both for that precious seed Noah represented and for every living thing that accepted his authority. Therein Noah waited, shut in and foetus-like amidst the waters, until divine recreation had cleansed the land and brought about a birth. As Noah emerged, with the impact of bloodshed fresh in his mind, God reminded him of mankind’s corporate responsibility to prevent such a cataclysm recurring, where necessary by judicial bloodshed (Gen 9:5-6). Thus, God empowered those in authority to wield the sword in defence of the way to the tree of life (cf. Rom 13:3-4), even if that meant overturning an Eden (cf. Jer 25:8-9).
Just as Noah’s period of confinement allowed him to return to the world in safety, at Rimmon the Benjamites found salvation by shutting themselves away under the authority of God. Thus, Isaiah, envisaging the remnant birth that would overcome the sentence of death upon his nation, applied those precedents to the conditions of his day (Isa 26:17-20). The faithful were, he said, to enter their innermost chambers (their sanctuary), and then to shut the door (as God did for Noah) until the indignation had passed and God had punished the inhabitants of the land for the blood disclosed from the earth (as was Abel’s).
Jacob’s forced flight to Egypt
The Covenant of Noah clarified humanity’s responsibility to police itself and the flood experience amply demonstrated how failure to do so led to disaster. However, the life of Jacob, by demonstrating how a leader can bring corporate guilt upon his people, earths that message on more familiar ground. Following the rape of Dinah at Shechem, Simeon and Levi went too far in their reprisals and, whilst their zeal for the honour of the vulnerable within their family was laudable, their inappropriate response brought a curse (Gen 34:21-25, 30, 49:6). The Covenant of Noah demanded that Jacob punish his sons and the judgement of Cain provided sufficient legal precedent. However, whilst Jacob recognised that his neighbours would hold the family corporately accountable (Gen 34:30), he did no more than bemoan how his son’s actions had made him (and by implication his whole family) odious to the other inhabitants of the land. Jacob’s failure as a judge left the curse precipitated by Simeon and Levi to come upon his whole family (cf. Eli and his sons, 1 Samuel 2:1, 22-25, 29-33). Thus, Psalm 105 portrays them behaving like Cain, wandering from one nation (Canaan) to another (Egypt), a people under the authority of God with God preventing anybody oppressing them (Ps 105:13-1510).
The account of Joseph confirms that the shedding of innocent blood played its part in Israel’s corporate woes. When Joseph revealed his second dream (Gen 37:9-10), Jacob’s response, “what! Shall I and your mother serve you,” underlined that he was no longer listening to God. Then, after Joseph’s brothers turned on the lad, Reuben wisely counselled them to avoid shedding blood (Gen 37:22). With Reuben’s rescue bid coming to naught, the family’s troubles escalated as God highlighting that Canaan was under a curse by calling for a famine (Ps 105:16). When the brothers then found themselves in trouble with Egypt, Reuben (who appears unaware of Joseph’s real fate) astutely observed that Joseph’s blood might be the cause. With Ruben’s observation, the family finally made the link between their suffering, the curse on the land and their casual attitude toward violence (Gen 37:20, 42:21-22). Eventually, the curse forced Jacob’s family to follow Cain’s example, seeking sanctuary under the authority of God in a place of exile. As they left Canaan to find sanctuary in Egypt, the family’s sixty-six members became marked people under the godly authority of Joseph (Gen 46:26-27). Jacob’s family did not return until their father’s death, and then only under the authority of Joseph (Gen 50:7-8). Similarly, first century Egypt would see a later day Joseph, son of Jacob, leading his family to sanctuary in its bosom. Perhaps we can now appreciate why Matthew stresses that Jesus did not return to Palestine until after Herod’s death and then not to Judea, where his son, Archelaus, was still shedding copious blood (Matt 2:22).
Moses the manslayer
Whilst Cain could only escape the impact of shed blood by coming directly under God, others could escape its corporate impact by coming under the protective authority of God’s Spirit anointed leader. Thus, God sent leaders to prepare a place, Noah into the ark in anticipation of the flood, Joseph into Egypt in anticipation of the famine and Moses into Sinai in anticipation of the Exodus.
Before a leader could prepare a place, God first had to prepare the leader, thus, as with Joseph, Moses embarked upon a painful path of preparation in which shed blood and exile would both play their part. Born amidst Pharaoh’s massacre of Hebrew children and raised as Pharaoh’s son, Moses initially followed his human father’s example by shedding innocent blood (Exod 2:11-14). Like his forefather Levi, Moses zeal to defend the vulnerable (in this case a Hebrew slave) was commendable, but he also went too far in killing the Egyptian11. However, for Moses, a great grandson of Levi, this third generation was high time to leave behind his forefather’s ways (cf. Exod 34:7).
Following the Egyptian’s murder, events in Moses’ life began to show telltale parallels with that of Cain. His bloodshed made him odious in Egypt, forcing him to flee into exile (Exod 2:16-22, esp. 15 & 22). He then came under divine authority, as a son-in-law in the household of Reuel. Thus far, Moses’ treatment was similar to that of Jacob, however, unlike Jacob, Moses was to return to his land within his lifetime and to do so safely. That meant the covenant of Noah became an issue, for, as Moses later stated, once innocent blood had polluted the ground, only the death of the guilty party could restore its cleanliness (Num 35:33-34).
As Moses attempted to return to Egypt, the Lord met him at a lodging place, probably his first on Egyptian soil12, and sought whether to harm his party (Exod 4:24-26). Whom God sought to kill is ambiguous but who needed circumcised is clearer, for under the Covenant of Abraham Hebrews circumcised their children on the eighth day (Gen 17:11). In his infancy, Moses would have undergone the rite. However, the Egyptians practised adult circumcision (cf. Jer 9:25-26), at either puberty or marriage13, and this uncircumcised son implied that Moses still accepted the authority of Egypt and was still subject to the sentence of death14. Furthermore, this passage, following God’s warning concerning Paraoh’s firstborn (Exod 4:23), implies that Moses son was also under threat.
It was time for another woman to take authority over her husband and save a heritage. Thus, Zipporah swiftly corrected her husband’s omission, then touching the foreskin at Moses’ genitals15, she emphasised that this was his son and let his bloodied organ confirm that Moses was legitimately under the authority of her Kenite house16. The priest Reuel, by taking Moses into his family, had become accountable for his new son’s bloodshed, just as Jacob was accountable for that of Levi. However, by the time God sent Moses back to Egypt, Jethro had replaced Reuel as both Priest of Midian and head of the household (implying, as did the forty-year ‘generational’ period, that Reuel was dead)17. Because of Moses’ marriage, Reuel’s death satisfied the terms of the covenant of Noah (that the one responsible for the death must die), leaving his son-in-law free to return to Egypt unharmed. By granting Moses membership in his extended family, the priest had exchanged one death for another and made a way for the banished one to return.
The principals established through Cain, Noah and Jacob found their way into the Mosaic Law, right alongside death for death exchange (Num 35:10-29). Murderers faced execution and the role of Avenger of Blood fell to the victim’s family. However, there was still corporate responsibility for ensuring that this happened. Thus, any unsolved murder requiring village elders to absolve their community of guilt (Deut 21:1-8). As justice had to take account of motivation and remorse, the Law allowed manslayers to flee to one of the six cities of refuge (Josh 20:7-8). Once there, the priests judged the manslayer’s case and the Levites protected those who did not deserve to die18. Under Moses’ rules, residence in a city of refuge ensured that the manslayer remained in exile from their land. It also replaced the mark of Cain, a permanent mark being no longer appropriate, for following the death of the high priest the manslayer could return to their land without repercussions (Num 35:25).
Preceding Judah’s exile into Babylon both idolatry and uncalled for bloodshed affected her at the national level. The prospects for the nation were not rosy. Thus, the only hope for the innocents who feared God, lay in applying the precedents of Cain, Jacob and Moses, voluntarily departing from the cursed land and seeking sanctuary elsewhere under the authority of God.
Those who lamented the idolatry and shedding of innocent blood that polluted their nation did not deserve to die. Thus, we find the prophets called them to leave the land, to go voluntarily into exile in Babylon and surrender to the authority of the Lord’s servant Nebuchadnezzar (Jer 25:9). There they settled down and lived under the watchful presence of God, as manifest by his Glory’s appearance to Ezekiel (Ezek 1:1, 28).
The corruption of illicit idolatry required re-commitment and a rebirth whilst the shedding of innocent blood required commitment to serve God and flight from the unclean land. When a leader walked in the ways of Jeroboam, then the two collided and the gestation of any remnant inevitably happened in a place of sanctuary under the authority of God. In Jesus infancy, such a collision was underway and the cursed ways of Jeroboam were threatening to destroy the heir to David’s throne. It was a scenario that had happened before in the time of Ahaziah on which occasion, as we might expect, the ‘Gibeah principal’ combined with flight from the unclean land to ensure that David’s line survived. Thus, the events of that time help set the flight of Jesus’ family within its proper context.
Preserved in the presence of God
Whilst the Northern Kingdom were going astray, Judah was consistently better at adhering to God’s commandments and avoiding idolatry. However, then Judah’s King Jehoram came under the influence of the northern dynasty of Ahab, married his daughter Athelia and espoused the ways of the northern kings (2 Kgs 8:16-18). In Jehoram’s son, Ahaziah, the heritage of David’s line collided with the legacy of walking in the ways of Jeroboam, for although the lad was a king of Judah, he was also a grandson of Ahab.
When Jehu deposed the dynasty of Ahab, his zeal for executing God’s judgement extended to Ahaziah’s family. Therefore, he was swift to take his opportunities to assassinate them (2 Kgs 8:28, 9:22-28, 10:13-14). Nevertheless, he could not wipe out all of Ahab’s descendants for Athelia, now Queen of Judah, was still safely beyond his reach in Jerusalem.
As Athelia sought, by slaughtering all of Ahaziah’s offspring, to secure her position, the curse of Jeroboam’s legacy seemed set to whittle away even the last of Ahab’s descendants. Yet, God’s promise to David stood in its way. Loving kindness to thousands was about to overcome the visitation of iniquity upon the third or fourth generation (cf. Exod 34:7).
When Jehosheba snatched her brother Ahaziah’s newborn son from the jaws of death (2 Kgs 11, 2 Chr:8-12)19, she began the process that would separate Joash from his cursed heredity. Placing the condemned child under the authority of the Chief Priest was the equivalent of the Benjamites submission to righteousness at the Rock of Rimmon. The Sanctuary, like Noah’s Ark or the cities of refuge, was a place of internal exile from the unclean land. For Joash, the curse was broken as he came under the authority of the High Priest, and then continued to accept that authority until the priest’s death (2 Chr 24:17-18). The child was no longer at the mercy of an inexorable curse activated by the rebellious actions of his forefathers. Joash should have died in accord with the prophetic declaration spoken against Ahab. Yet, when Jehosheba entrusted the child to the authority of God it was mercy and salvation that he received. Joash became a remnant, preserved by God in his intimate presence, the hidden seed of David’s line.
Matthew’s text underlines how the Herodian dynasty was walking in the ways of Jeroboam; thereby reminding its readers that there was only one way for Judah to avoid the fate of the Northern Kingdom. Before Herod’s idolatry-blighted harlot of a nation died, she had to birth a righteous remnant. However, because of the bloodshed, this would have to happen outside the land. It would also require that God appoint a leader, a latter day Joseph or Moses, who would once again be prepared in a place of sanctuary to establish a place of sanctuary. Those who had inadvertently caused bloodshed, come to accept the folly of their violent ways or been tarnished by the actions of their leaders, could then escape the curse upon their land by committing themselves to serve this leader.
Because of God’s promise to David, any remnant would have to contain an heir to his throne, the Son of God who would atone for the sins of the priesthood. If idolatry or intermarriage had not already brought David’s royal line under a curse, then living amongst bloodshed had. Therefore, whilst Jesus’ flight to Egypt was the equivalent of Joash’s rescue, his submission to John the Baptist was not unlike flight into a city of refuge.
The shedding of innocent blood taints a nation and leaves it accursed, but a nation is its people and they share that taint. Cain found salvation from that curse through submission, so did Joseph, Moses and Joash. Once she who was in labour had born a child (Micah 5:3) called Jesus, the massacre left him as the only possible heir to the promise of the Magi’s rising star. Like those before him, he would likewise humbly have to become a bond-servant (cf. Phil 2:7), not because of his own sin, but because of the sins of his people. Whatever curse born contamination might have afflicted the bloodline of David’s house, the precedent of Moses meant that, by serving John until the prophet died, Jesus freed himself from it.
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1For example, fearing that people might not mourn his death, he ordered the execution of one from every family to mark the event, though fortunately this was never carried through (Josephus, Ant. 17.180-183).
2God is wise and acts against evildoers (Isa 31:2), so the Lord anointed Jehu to cut off the house of Ahab (2 Chr 22:7, 2 Kgs 9:6-10) and Jehu did what was on God’s heart (2 Kgs 10:30).
3These curses start with one upon idolaters, and finish with one on those who fail to obey the law (Deut 27:15,26).
4Cf. Psalm 109:13, where the psalmist pleads with God to make an exception and lower the limit to two years for his betrayers.
5Moses returned at age eighty, thus two nominal generations after those who had sought to kill the Israelite children.
6 Hoehner, “Herod,” ISBE, 2:688-98.
7 David C Braund, “Archelaus,” ABD, 1:367-68.
8 God’s acceptance of Abel’s sacrifice proclaimed him innocent of any crime deserving death.
9 Edward L. Greenstein, “Wordplay, Hebrew,” ABD, 6:968-71, in particular 969.
10 Psalm 105:18 clarifies that Jacob is the primary subject here.
11 The desire for concealment infers the death was undeserved (Exod 2:12-14).
12 See the use of the term in Joshua 4:3, 8, Isaiah 10:29 and Jeremiah 9:1.
13 Robert G Hall, “Circumcision,” ABD, 1:1025-1031, in particular 1026-1027; T. Lewis and C. E. Armerding, “Circumcision,” ISBE, 1:700-702, in particular 700.
14 Matthews, Chavalas and Walton, IVP Bible background commentary, n.p., Exod 4:26.
15 For which ‘feet’ was a euphemism, see Swanson, “8079 רֶגֶל,” DBLH, n.p.
16 The LXX seeks to assert Moses authority by having Zipporah place herself instead of the foreskin at Moses feet, however the Hebrew text is more in keeping with the precedents already set.
17 The term usually translated ‘Father-in-Law’ means no more than a close male relation by marriage. The son and heir of a Father-in-Law would meet that criteria and bear the sort of responsibility to care for his father’s daughters that Jethro fulfils. See Matthews, Chavalas and Walton, IVP Bible background commentary, n.p., Ex 3:1.
18 Joshua assigned each city to either a Levite clan or the priests (Josh 21:13, 20, 27, 32, 36, 38). Therefore, they were under the control of God’s servants, rather than the control of Israel.
19 Joash was hidden in the first year of Jehu of Israel, he was kept hidden for six years, and it was in his seventh year when he took the throne, this was also the seventh year of Jehu of Israel. From this it would seem that Joash was less than a year old when these events happened. The text mentions that his nurse (literally his ‘suck’) was retained with him.