In 40 BC the Romans appointed the Idumaean, Herod the Great, as the ruler of the Jews. With ruthless efficiency he kept order in Palestine till his death in 4 BC. When the visiting magi (three wise men) came searching for the new king, they naturally enquired at the Palace where you would expect a “king of the Jews” to be born. Herod called in those learned in Scripture and they were told the baby would be born in Bethlehem. Herod asked the magi to return to him after they had found the child so that he also could go and worship him. Herod’s real intention however was to kill Jesus, seeing him as a threat to his throne, no one was going to be King but him.
The magi were warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod and so they did not, Joseph was also warned, he followed the angels instructions, he took Mary and the Child and fled to Egypt. When Herod eventually realised that the Magi were not going to return he ordered the execution of all male children two and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding district. While there is no corroborating evidence of this massacre from other sources, it is in keeping with other actions of Herod the Great.
The story is included in Matthew’s Gospel. Just as Pharaoh had slaughtered the Hebrew children in Egypt, so now Herod kills the children of his own people. The incident takes place in Bethlehem, the city of David, where Jesus, David’s descendant, was born. The reference to Ramah recalls the mourning of the exiles to Babylon back in Jewish history. It was at Ramah that the exiles were assembled prior to their deportation to Babylon (Jeremiah 40:1). Ramah was also where Rachel was buried. So Ramah recalls another great moment of Israel’s suffering under persecution, which God again will turn to joy.
The church has commemorated the Holy Innocents since the 4th century as those who perished instead of Jesus, and in that sense gave their lives for him.