The Christmas Story No One Wants to Talk About: The Holy Innocents

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A madman king. State-decreed infanticide. A fleeing holy family. What does all this have to do with Christmas? And how did a day of horror also become a day of hope? Today, December 28, the church remembers The Holy Innocents.

Around two years after the birth of Jesus, something happened that no one really wants to talk about. It’s not an eggnog-sipping topic of conversation while chestnuts are roasting on an open fire. Nor will a heart-warming Christmas carol be inspired by it, in which worshippers will sing:

O bloody town of Bethlehem,
How shrill we hear thee cry.
Your mothers shriek while fathers weep
The graveyard lullaby…

Imagine a church, twinkling in candlelight glow, singing that.

But sometimes—very often in fact—the very topics we assiduously avoid are those that we most need to discuss. So, take a deep breath, ready your heart, and walk with me into Bethlehem for a day of horror and a day of hope.

State-Decreed Infanticide

If every memorable story needs a villain, ours certainly has one. His name is Herod or, if you wish, “Herod the Great.” Sure, Herod was a great builder, but here is a snapshot of his ethical “greatness”: he had three of his sons killed; one of his wives executed, along with her mother and grandfather; and he left instructions that, when he died, there would be a mass execution of Jewish elders so as to cause great mourning upon his own passing.

That, at least, is what we know from Josephus. This first-century Jewish historian passed over one more murderous deed of Herod, either because it was unknown to him or because so “minor” a bloodbath hardly seemed to merit inclusion. We usually call it The Slaughter of the Holy Innocents or simply The Holy Innocents. The church traditionally remembers it today, December 28.

Some time after the birth of Jesus, when the star-guided magi showed up in Jerusalem asking around for the one born as “king of the Jews,” Matthew tells us that Herod was ταράσσω (2:3). This Greek verb can mean “troubled, agitated, vexed, terrified, disturbed.” Herod was indeed a “disturbed” man, in both senses of the word.

He did what any other unscrupulous, power-hungry, furious and “disturbed” politician might have done: “he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under” (Matt. 2:16). And the unsingable carol goes on:

Butchers clad as soldiers
At Herod’s mad behest
Aborted weal with blades of steel
They thrust in tender chests.

Matthew does not record this gruesome act of state-decreed infanticide for shock value or to reveal the cancerous soul of Herod. As with most recorded episodes of violence in the Bible, the context tells us why this or that particular event is included.

Let’s see what Matthew does with it.

Refusal to Be Comforted

Immediately after recording Herod’s evil action, the evangelist adds, “Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more’” (2:17-18).

Matthew is quoting the prophet Jeremiah, who employs Rachel as the personification of the northern tribes (Jer. 31:15). As one of the wives of Jacob, Rachel was the mother of Israel, one who “built up the house of Israel” (Ruth 4:11). As a mother who suffered much during her barrenness, then later suffered death during the birth of her second-born son, Rachel typifies grief, pain, loss, and mourning in Israel (Gen. 30:1-2; 35:16-21). Since she was buried in Ramah, a city through which exiles had to pass on their way to Assyria, Rachel is pictured as lamenting and weeping as her children “are no more.”

As Jeremiah used Rachel as the personified Israel, weeping over lost and exiled children, so now Matthew does the same. Lady Rachel is now Lady Bethlehem, weeping for her murdered sons, lamenting over the loss of their lives as they go into the exile of a much-too-early grave.

But the grief is not only for the slaughtered children; it is also for the exile that Jesus, the new and better Joseph, had to endure as he and his parents (one of whom was named Joseph!) fled to Egypt (Matt. 2:13-15). The same Hebrew words used by Jeremiah for Rachel’s refusal to be comforted, were earlier used to describe Jacob when he thought Joseph was dead, but, unbeknownst to him, Joseph had been “exiled” to Egypt. Rachel refused (מאן) to be comforted (נחם), as Jacob, “refused (מאן) to be comforted (נחם) and said, ‘No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning’” (Gen. 37:35).

The tears in Bethlehem were both for the sons that were killed and the Son that was exiled.

A Mosaic Twist

But there’s a biblical twist to this story.

The exile of Jesus to Egypt does follow the pattern of the exile of Joseph, and later all Israel, to Egypt. The Messiah, who is Israel-in-one-man, must follow the path of his forefathers. But he’s also, in a backwards sort of way, completing the pattern of the life of Moses.

The lives of both Jesus and Moses were threatened by tyrants (Herod and Pharaoh); both of their births were connected with state-decreed infanticide (Matt. 2:16 and Exod. 1:22-2:10); and both had to flee.

But here’s where things get interesting and backwards.

Moses fled from Egypt and Jesus fled to Egypt. What was a haven for Jesus was a hazard for Moses. When Matthew describes the return of Jesus to Israel, he echoes language used in Exodus to describe the return of Moses to Egypt. The Lord said to Moses, “Go back to Egypt, for all the men who were seeking your life are dead” (Exod. 4:19). And, parroting this, Matthew writes that the angel told Joseph, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead” (Matt. 2:20).

Jesus, as the new and better Moses, following the deaths of the children of God in Bethlehem, underwent a sort of double exile.

First, exile to Egypt to trace the path trod by Joseph and Israel. Second, exile to Israel – yes, to Israel – because the promised land was a land under slavery, with Rome serving the role of Egyptians. The Israelites were in exile on their own soil because they were an occupied people. To paraphrase both Nehemiah 9:36 and Ezra 9:9, “We may be living in the holy land, but we are slaves because foreign people are ruling over us!”

When Moses arrived back in Egypt, he began the great action of liberation in the exodus. When Jesus, the new and better Moses, arrived back in Israel, he readied himself for the greater exodus to come when he set us free in the exodus of his death and resurrection.

A Day of Horror and a Day of Hope

When Pharaoh decreed that all the boys born to Israelite mothers were to be cast into the Nile, little did he know that from the same Nile would arise a boy who one day who would bring liberation and life for Israel. Likewise, when Herod decreed that all the boys in and around Bethlehem were to be slain, little did he know that from death itself would one day arise a man who would bring liberation and life for Jews and Gentiles alike.

From his earliest years, therefore, Jesus was surrounded by two things that would thenceforth define his mission: death and exile.

His infant brethren, the martyred boys of Bethlehem, testified by their deaths just how wrong our world has become. When helpless infants are slaughtered, do we need further evidence of the brokenness of world? That cold, calculated, murderous episode defines the world—our world—that Jesus was born to save.

And how would he save it? By going into exile. First to Egypt, to redo what Israel had undone during their rebellious wilderness years. Second, to Israel, a “home exile,” where he would be persecuted by Rome and his own people, tortured and executed, then cast into the exile tomb of death itself. His resurrection is his repatriation to the fatherland of life everlasting. And it’s our homecoming as well.

On December 28, therefore, we commemorate both a day of horror and a day of hope. A day when children were butchered in Bethlehem. Horror indeed. But also a day that began a life of exile for the Messiah, who one day would be killed himself, and in that death, destroy death forever by his resurrection for us.

Ye martyred boys of Bethlehem,
From ‘neath the altar, pray
To Christ your Lord, whom Herod’s sword
Slew not that awful day.
O Rachel, Rachel, weep no more,
Your sons shall dry your tears.
For flowers bloom where darkness loomed,
Since Christ our Light appears.

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