The Massacre of the Innocents by Angelo Visconti, 1860-1861, depicts a soldier with one hand on a dagger, using his other arm to try to pry a child away from his mother. In the background, another mother holds her dead son.
Preached on Sunday, Feb 5, 2023 at New Creation Fellowship Church
Readings: Jeremiah 31:2-22 and Matthew 2:13-18
Above, an artistic rendering of Mary and Joseph presenting Jesus at the temple. Mary, wearing blue, hands the baby to the priest while an older woman looks on. Are they Anna and Simeon, Jesus’s cousins? Behind Mary, Joseph stands holding a staff and carrying a basket with two live doves, an offering required of women who recently gave birth and also an offering associated with poor people. Luke 2:22-24 tells us that Mary made this offering when she brought Jesus to the temple to be circumcised. Mosella-Verlag, 1913
Today, we take up one more story from Expecting Emmanuel: Eight Women Who Prepared the Way by Joanna Harader and illustrated by Michelle Burkholder. In early February, it can feel like the anticipation and wonder of Advent and Christmas are far behind us. But, by some ways of measuring, the season only ended on Thursday, the day on the liturgical calendar that celebrates Jesus’ Presentation at the Temple as a baby. This occurs 40 days after Christmas and would have been the first time that Mary was permitted into the Temple after childbirth. For this reason, it is also sometimes called the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin. In some churches, it is also when the candles that will be used in services for the coming year are blessed–Candlemas. It also, conveniently, lands halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.
What I’m saying is–if you, like me, still have Christmas decorations up, you’re just following tradition. And if you have kept them up because the long nights of winter are hard and you like a little extra cheer at home, know that we’ve rounded the corner and are now closer to the start of spring than to the start of winter.
Today, I am going to walk us through the story of the Slaughter of the Innocents.
We knew before the magi arrived that King Herod, a Jewish king who served as a puppet of the Roman empire, already had it out for Jesus. In fact, his plan in sending the magi was to use them to figure out where Jesus was–so he could then go kill him. The magi are warned in a dream of this dastardly plan and so “go home by another way” to protect Jesus, now a toddler, and avoid Herod. However, they don’t warn Mary and Joseph of the bad news that Herod is out to kill their son. No matter, because Joseph is visited by an angel who warns him to take his family and flee to Egypt.
Above, Joseph’s Dream, by Rembrandt, 1645.
The story doesn’t tell us about Joseph’s feelings, just his faithfulness to God’s plan for him and his family. So, off they go to Egypt.
In the meantime, Herod discovers that the magi have tricked him. The scripture says, “When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious.” Why was he furious? Obviously, his plan to kill Jesus had been thwarted, so he was angry that this threat to his crown–which is how he saw Jesus–was still out there. Now, Herod had already killed his favorite of his ten wives, along with many others in her family, because he feared they would gain power. He killed at least three of his own sons for the same reason. As a client king of the Roman empire, he answered to Caesar Augustus, who famously remarked that it was better to be Herod’s pig than to be his son–a joke because the words for son and pig sound similar in Greek but also because, as a Jew, Herod was not to eat pigs, so they were literally in less danger from him than were his own children.
Above, a 17th century rendering of Herod the great. During his time, Herod was careful not to erect statues of himself or place his image on coins in areas where his Jewish subjects would have seen them because this violated Jewish law against graven images. However, several statues honoring him were erected in other areas of the Roman empire.
So, yes, he was constantly on the lookout for rivals to his crown, and killing one more baby boy, just to keep that crown safe, would not have been a problem for him. To know that the child was out there would have left him seething.
But I think that Herod didn’t just hate the fact that Jesus was alive because he feared Jesus. Healso hated it because he hadn’t gotten his way. And he hated, I imagine, the fact that the magi knew it. It wasn’t just that Herod lost–it was that others knew he had lost. He was defeated in the eyes of other men–wise men, men we sometimes call kings, just like Herod. These kings knew something that he did not, had a power he did not have. Herod was humiliated. And Herod hated that feeling.
Here is a fact about narcissists: they must be admired, or else they must be feared. As just one example, the historian Josephus tells us that Herod was so obsessed with being mourned and so fearful that, at his death, the people he had so violently ruled over would not grieve him that, at the end of his life, he sent out a call that the most distinguished men of Judea “wheresover they lived,” would report to him, under penalty of death if they refused to come. Josephus tells us “Now the king was in a wild rage against them all, the innocent as well as those who had afforded him ground for accusation.” As he nears the end of his life, he is angry with everyone, and he locks the men who dutifully respond to his call away in the hippodrome–the stadium. He calls his sister and brother-in-law and instructs them:
“I shall die in a little time … but what principally troubles me is this, that I shall die without being lamented, and without such mourning as men usually expect at a king’s death.”
Herod the Great has good reason to fear that he won’t be mourned: while he had initiated some remarkable infrastructure projects, he was also intolerably cruel.
And so he directs his sister and brother-in-law to execute the men who answered his call–one from every family, regardless of their innocence and even their loyalty to them.
Herod intends for the decimation of the Jewish population to be a sign of his power. But we know that it is not. It is a sign of his weakness. A powerful king does not so desperately need the public performance of deference, worship, or, at his death, mourning. A powerful king can tolerate criticism and even dissent.
But this is Herod through and through: a man with actual power–the ability to erect monumental buildings, including the Second Temple, where Mary and Joseph would have presented Jesus as a newborn. (Imagine that!–imagine Herod’s anger if he knew that his rival was formally brought into their shared faith at a place Herod directed to be rebuilt.)
Above, James Tissot’s Reconstruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of Herod, from between 1886 and 1894.
Here is another way that we know that Herod is actually weak: Remember how furious he is with the magi? Again, Matthew tells us “When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious. Note what he does–or, rather, what he doesn’t do–next. From Matthew: “he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.”
Above, stained glass from early 15th century France showing Herod and three magi–all wearing crowns, just as he does.
That’s right–he is furious with the magi, but he doesn’t go after them. Why not? We don’t know, but I suspect it’s because Herod doesn’t take on his equals, much less those he knows to be wiser or stronger than him. The magi have something he does not–God’s direction–and he knows it. Herod is the kind of man who murders children, not the kind of man who will take on someone he can’t beat.
In other words, like all bullies, he’s a coward.
Cowardice makes him dangerous. Because he’s a coward, he directs his anger at children. Note, though, that “all of Jerusalem” was nervous about this outcome, from the very start. Listen to Matthew 2:1-3, which kick off this story:
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. [Italics mine]
We know why Herod was upset: because he did not want a new “king of the Jews.” But why was “all of Jerusalem” upset? Wasn’t a new king of the Jews exactly what they wanted?
They were upset because they knew what Herod was like. They’d already seen him murder his own sons and his wife. They knew that, like all bullies, he’s most dangerous when his power is threatened. His insecurity controlled their lives.
Herod was disturbed because he feared losing power. All of Jerusalem was disturbed because they feared his fear of losing power.
So I think they would not have been surprised to hear his plan to slaughter all boys under age two in Bethlehem.
Now, there are three historical notes I want to make:
First, despite Herod’s command that men from every house in his kingdom be sacrificed at his death, his sister and brother-in-law did not follow his instructions.
Second, Herod’s legacy and character are debated by historians, but, among Christians and Jews alike, he is reviled. This story isn’t a story about Judaism trying to kill of Christianity in its literal infancy. It’s about how an insecure obsession with power leads people to cruel and destructive behavior.
And, third, lots of Bible scholars don’t think the Slaughter of the Innocents ever happened. They note that there are no references to it outside of Matthew, neither in other books of the Bible nor in historical accounts from the time period. They argue that the story of the slaughter is a literary device. It illustrates how evil Herod is. It echoes the story of Moses, placing Herod into the role of Pharaoh and Jesus into the role of baby Moses, who will grow to become the deliverer of God’s people. It also allows Jesus to fulfill the prophecy of Jeremiah, that one day the Jews will return to Jerusalem, that their lost children will return to them, and that, one day, God will turn their mourning into joy.
Others, though, argue that there isn’t any reason to think it didn’t happen. The murder of toddlers certainly fits with the character of Herod. And Bethlehem would have been such a small city that the murder of a dozen or so babies there wouldn’t have necessarily made it into all surviving documentation.
I’m going to ask us to consider some perspectives on this story and its long term impacts. I invite you to think about them and to offer new ones, too. This is a sensitive, difficult story, especially if you have lost a pregnancy or a child. In the typical order of life, parents and elders outlive our children, nieces and nephews, and grandchildren, and for those of us who have experienced loss on a different timeline, the grief can feel–and may well be at points be–inconsolable. I think today especially of those in our congregation who have felt this loss. And I think of those who Christy mentioned at the start of worship who live in our community here in Harvey County and face such barriers to healthy pregnancies and safe childhoods. I think of all the Rachels mourning for their lost children, and I remember, too, though Jeremiah doesn’t mention it, that Rachel herself died in childbirth, a mother lost to her own children.
For that reason, it may be most useful to think of the story of the Slaughter of the Innocents as a literary device, not a true history, if that helps you approach it.
Here are the questions I wonder about:
I wonder how Joseph felt when he realized that he had saved Jesus–but with the consequence that all the other infant boys in Bethlehem were murdered. I wonder if he had wished that he’d raised an alarm when he woke from the dream where the angel warned him. Or perhaps the crime was so unthinkable that he couldn’t have conceived of a need to warn the other parents of Bethlehem.
I wonder how Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were treated in Bethlehem, Joseph’s ancestral home, after this. If they never returned, how were they remembered? Were they seen as the ones who had brought a curse to the city? Were they considered lucky because they escaped it?
I wonder how it felt for Jesus, in adolescence and adulthood, to be the only man his age from Bethlehem. I wonder how he faced the parents of the deceased children who should have been his playmates and friends. I wonder how they saw him. Were they angry as they remembered their own losses? Did they see him as a precious reminder of their own children? Did they grieve their own sons every time they saw him, or did they rejoice that at least one of the boys of Bethlehem survived?
I wonder about the girls of Bethlehem, if they experienced survivors’ guilt. How did they cope with the gender imbalance? The absence of boys, then men, must have been noticeable. Where did they find husbands for themselves and fathers for their children? How did they explain to those outside their community why they had to travel to find partner’s? Does anyone want to marry a girl from a village where all the boys were massacred?
I wonder about the children who lost their brothers, both younger and older. What did it mean to be an older sibling, knowing you could not protect your younger sibling, or a younger sibling, knowing only that there once was an older brother who “is no more.”
I wonder about the mothers, who would have still been nursing. How many days until their milk dried up? How did their husbands comfort them when the fathers would have been in such deep grief themselves? Some of the women would likely have already been pregnant again. How did they find the will to try to keep that baby safe, knowing that safety was only a matter of a tyrant’s insecurity? For women for whom this was their last pregnancy, how do you make peace with the fact that your fertility ended this way? For those for whom this was an only pregnancy, perhaps after years of praying to conceive, like Hannah and Sarah, how do you grieve not just the loss of this child but the loss of hope for any children?
And I wonder about the trauma that a people feel when they cannot keep their children safe. Because that is the larger purpose of Herod’s actions–not merely to find the one baby who could be the newborn king of the Jews but to remind all the Jews everywhere, starting in Jerusalem and extending to the edge of his kingdom, that his power was limitless. His goal was not just to murder Jesus but to ensure that the people understood that they could never successfully challenge the status quo, even if the challenge came in the most innocent and powerless form–the form of an infant lowly, wrapped in swaddling clothes, placed in a manger.
Maybe this is just a story in the Bible and we have talked enough about it to satisfy our obligation as Christians to know our Scriptures
But I am also talking about America, where children are regularly sacrificed to protect an unjust status quo.
I’m talking about enslaved children being sold away from their parents to build wealth for whites.
Above, sketch of an auction of enslaved people. The auctioneer holds a Black infant in one hand, tossing the baby about as he calls for bids. The child’s mother is on her knees, begging a white man for her child. Smithsonian archives.
I’m talking about indigenous parents sleeping in teepees outside of the residential boarding schools where their children were forced to assimilate into white ways.
Above, a photo of the US School for Indians on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Indigenous families set up tents by the school as they wait for the return of their children. Photo held by the Library of Congress.
I’m talking about children too young to speak being brought before US immigration courts, without any lawyer appointed to them, separated from their parents because of inhumane immigration laws.
Above, a still from Linda Freeman’s Unaccompanied: Alone in America, about children who are forced to represent themselves in America’s immigration system since undocumented people have no right to a public attorney.
I’m talking about our collective ignoring of climate change because we cannot imagine an alternative to a system of capitalism that demands unsustainable consumption.
Above, a woman wades through floodwaters in Sindh Province, Pakistan, in 2022. A period of intense heat was followed by severe monsoons and the melting of glaciers. Unicef.
I’m talking about more than 10.5 million children–including about 200,000 children in the US–who have lost one or more parent or other caregiver due to COVID because we cannot admit that the work necessary to ending our ongoing pandemic will require us to re-think our healthcare and economic systems.
Above, a map from Hillis et al, 2022, showing numbers of children who have lost a parent or primary or secondary caregiver due to COVID infections. Data collection ended in May 2022; current estimates bring the US total closer to 200,000 children affected.
I’m talking about poverty and racism that create such high rates of maternal and infant mortality across the US, especially for women of color.
Above, a bar chart comparing the US’s maternal mortality rate to that of other Western democracies. The US loses 23.8 pregnant people per 100K live births. The next highest rate is France, with 8.7 deaths per 100K people. Graphic by The Century Foundation from CDC data.
And I’m talking about Tyre Nichols and about George Floyd and about every other Black man in America who has called out for his mother as he was being murdered by police. I’m talking about the mothers of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and Emmett Till and all the Black mothers before, between, and after these child martyrs to white supremacy.
Above, a photo of Tyre Nichols, hunted and killed by police in Memphis, dying on January 10, 2023 after three days of hospitalization.
When we protect the most vulnerable, we necessarily protect ourselves. This is why the poet and activist Emma Lazarus wrote “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” When we bind our future to the future of children, we can all have a future. When we take care of their health, we take care of everyone’s health. When we keep them safe, we keep all of us safe. When we secure justice for them, we secure it for all of us. The Jews living under Roman rule knew this, which is why they were so terrified of what Herod’s actions meant for them: if they could not keep their own babies safe, they could not keep anyone safe. And in contrast, if we prioritize caring for the most vulnerable, the ones who cannot return the favor, then we can care for everyone.
For Christians, however, solidarity with children is not merely a strategy to keep communities safe. It is also a command from Jesus, who tells us that as we treat “the least of these,” we also treat him. Thus, as Christians, we should not consider it a sacrifice or a burden to care for our most vulnerable but an act of worship. How wonderful God’s kingdom is that we can see Jesus in the face of others. How tragic it is when we see them–and him–crucified to white supremacy, greed, exploitation, and racism. And how easy it is, when we understand that we are protecting Jesus, just as Joseph did when he woke his wife and child and fled to Egypt, to take up this work.