The Cowardly Wise Men: A Reflection for Epiphany and the Holy Innocents

Creative Commons Copyright Shyn Darkly (Flickr)
Creative Commons Copyright Shyn Darkly (Flickr)

When the Magi chose to deceive Herod, return home a different a way, and save the child Jesus, they unwittingly doomed countless children to slaughter and countless more parents to lives of eternal grief.

Their choice may have saved the One but it killed scores.

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the Magi, he flew into a fit of rage, and he ordered all children in and around Bethlehem to be slaughtered who were two years old or under, according to the time he had learned from the Magi. 

The Magi had offered Herod just enough information to make the ruler dangerous and to earn them a free pass through a foreign land. In doing so, they had become unwitting accomplices.

The warning signs, though, should have been clear to any wise man.

Herod’s fear.

His secret meeting with them.

His exacting questions about the star’s timing.

The ludicrous suggestion that the ruler would pay homage to his infant usurper.

Then, after locating Jesus, a dream had warned them about Herod.

They had thought they were clever, going home by a different route and avoiding danger.

Maybe they had thought they had been transformed by their journey to Jesus.

Perhaps they had even felt like they had experienced an epiphany of sorts in meeting the great light shining in the child.

But really they were simple cowards who had colluded with a tyrant rather than to stand up to him when given a chance, who had chosen to skulk away rather than speak truth to the powers that be, who had offered information enough to make Jesus and anyone his age a target for the machinations of power and death.

In the end, the Magi had chosen to save only themselves.

So it frequently is with the wealthy and privileged few who see injustice and a gathering storm of violence against the innocent and chose to return home another way where they won’t have to bear witness to the bloodshed, the deprivation, the weeping.

Where they won’t have to listen to the voice in Ramah, the wailing and loud lamentation of Rachel who wept for her children and refused to be comforted because they were no more.

In the end, the Magi returned to a life of comfort and luxury, content that they had seen something important and had been a small part of history.

They had seen a great light, been in its presence. But they simply couldn’t see the long shadow they had cast while standing in it.

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  • Benjamin Krauß

    hmm,
    interesting reflection on privilege and how we as elites are bound up in webs of power..
    But you could mention that you are going against
    the text here which claims that the decision was made by divine
    consultation (Matthew 2,12: “And being warned in a dream not to return
    to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.”).
    This puts the whole story in a different light. You can still interpret it differently, but one should mention the reasons.
    Are you using a hermeneutics of suspicion, are you omitting it for
    reason contextual to your situation, or simply a sloppy reader?

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

      On the whole, a discussion on hermeneutics makes for poor reading just as calling someone a sloppy reader makes a poor conversation starter.And typically, I chose not to engage in conversations that begin with pejoratives.

      The text is clear that the Magi’s deception causes the order for the massacre. This is an exploration of that.

      • i12know

        The text didn’t say the Magi deceiving but rather Herod thought that he was deceived by them. Like typical sinners, Herod failed to see his own deceifulness (telling the Magi to comeback and let him know so he could go and worship the child himself).
        He started with hating the Child and end with hurting the Children. Ungodiness will end in being inhumane.

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

        “When Herod saw he had been tricked by the magi …” 2:16. Other translations say when he realized the magi had mocked him, deceived him, or outwitted him. I’m not excusing Herod’s actions, but exploring the Magi’s role as well.

      • i12know

        Perhaps you have some cultural bias in regarding to the Magi. Being from a different culture (and don’t even know about God’s standard), you can’t fault them for not behaving like 21st century Americans would like to do. I remember the 1992 “City of Joy” movie of Patrick Swayze. He (as an American tourist) encouraged the poor to rise up against the slumlord of India. You should have seen the retaliation they received. Tourists move on but natives stay to endure the trouble with the oppressive government. If you didn’t fault God for failing to protect the innocents, why faulting some transient pagan Magi?

      • steeg of their own

        The text is clear on no such thing. If the Magi had come back and said, completely truthfully, “Hey Herod, we saw an infant kid, but he was born in a barn that was in back of an inn, so who even knows where he is now. I mean, he could be anywhere from here to Egypt.” do you think that a better outcome would have occurred? Jesus was the son of indigent people with no home to speak of. Herod eradicated all male children below the age of two, just to make sure he’d gotten rid of a threat. There is no reason to believe he’d have acted any differently if the Magi had gone back and reported. The Magi did what they could to protect an infant savior. There’s nothing cowardly about that.

    • Rich Neal

      It seems to me that “being warned in a dream” does not infer “divine consultation.” The dream warning could have come as easily, or even more probably, from a fearful ego.

  • Eve Fisher

    A very interesting post. They definitely had options: they were warned to not return to Herod, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t think about what they should do next. They undoubtedly knew that Herod and his ilk would do something, anything, probably bloody, to stop the birth and eventual takeover of another king. They could have offered to take the child and family with them; they could have warned the good people of Bethlehem (a very small town – just tell the innkeeper, and word would spread) that Herod would be out for blood. There were options. Thanks for making me think about this, both in respect to the Bible passage and in respect to life today.

  • Arthur Frymyer Jr.

    So let’s say they had manned up, went and told Herod what they had found, and got Jesus killed as an infant. Then they would have doomed all mankind to perish for their sins without a savior. But at least they wouldn’t have been cowards. Is that really what you are suggesting should have happened?

  • Gary Andrew Woodruff

    I am concerned with violence and indifference to the poor, but that concern does not give license for violence and indifference toward the Scriptures.

    First: the magi were powerful only in their context (if at all). We have no reason to believe they could have stopped Herod from doing anything he wanted to do.

    Second: there is no call to believe the magi knew there was any danger from Herod at all. Complete strangers to the context, they clearly assumed that the newborn king would be with Herod in Jerusalem. They are just as surprised as Herod, and when they are warned in a dream there is no specification that they are aware of what exact danger they are avoiding. They are simply told not to return to Herod . Your hang-up orients on the term “tricked”, though “thwarted” or “defeated” also works. The motive of Herod has nothing to do with what the magi know or do not know; only with the fact that his plan to find the child failed. Since your assumption is that they had knowledge the text does not tell us they had, it is at best a midrash.

    Third: The slaughter of the innocents, much like the flight to and the return from Egypt, is a narrative device intended to connect Christ’s origins to the origins of Israel. It is not a point about how people should stand up to power and do not. That is a modern construction that is fairly alien to the biblical worldview; Paul commands that we obey authorities so long as they do not contradict God, and Jesus command that his disciples do what the Pharisees tell them to do because of their office.

    Fourth: Ignoring the foregoing points, we still have to ask how it is that we read this text in light of its stated purpose. The author specifically claims that these things were “to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.'” The slaughter of the innocents ensures that Joseph, upon returning, does not go back to Judea (and Bethlehem) but to Galilee and Nazareth. Why? “So that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.'”

    In Luke, Jesus needs to be born in Bethlehem, but travel to Egypt, but then get raised in Nazareth from an early enough age that all these prophetic statements might be fulfilled. To turn the visit of the magi into a sociopolitical commentary on injustice and indifference of the rich toward the poor is eisogetical at best. The story of the birth of Jesus is about who Jesus is, and that is the primary focus; the interpretation of the narrative should keep this focus at center. But what’s most alarming about this doubtful interpretation is that it’s totally unnecessary. You want to write about this issue, why not cite parts of the Scriptures that actually, specifically, speak to it – because there are many.

    Amos 2:6 (and so on)
    Thus says the LORD:
    For three transgressions of Israel,
    and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
    because they sell the righteous for silver,
    and the needy for a pair of sandals –
    they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
    and push the afflicted out of the way…

    • jbarlow

      I was enriched by Henson’s article, even if it has “eisogetical” or midrashic elements. But I am no better a person having read your critique. It might even be academically correct, but that hardly matters. Why might I, your reader, have reacted in this way? (For clarity, that is a rhetorical question.)

      • Gary Andrew Woodruff

        If the identity of Jesus as interpreted by Luke doesn’t matter to you, I’m not sure questions of academia are what this conversation is about.

        There is no such thing as irrelevant accuracy. Something being true matters. And if you don’t think so, there is a much bigger problem under the surface – namely, the nihilistic approach to truth and meaning required for a statement such as “It might even be academically correct, but that hardly matters.”

        That’s much like saying “my math might be technically correct, but that hardly matters.” Yes, it does, because there is truth and there is untruth. The author uses a text against itself, contrary to the explicit intentions of the text. That is a problematic school of interpretation to say the least.

        I don’t know what you mean by “enriched”, but my response was to point out that the misuse of the text was not only problematic but also completely unnecessary, as other texts could be used to actually support the main socio-critical point of the author. Why might I, the author’s reader, have reacted that way? (For clarity, that is not a rhetorical question.)

    • Peggy

      Thank you ! My reading of the original post that you replied to left me stunned. So many leaps in thought that I agree were not biblical. It seems to me that there are a lot of suppositions… Like after being warned in a dream they went home a different way makes them cowards… I think not!! since we were not there to ask the magi exactly what the dream was like or if they thought about going home by way of Herod… I would think that the dream was very compelling just like following that star had been for them. I agree with you that scripture was fulfilled in the magi returning home in a different way. Herod was a small man in a mighty position who was full of fear & a brute… His actions were his own not the work of the magi!

  • Tami Terry Martin

    Lots of interesting critique. After reading through the comments, I come away with a greater certainty that the Bible is not a collection of Precious Moments stories you give your children. There is so much of ugly humanity in it but God still manages to bring about His salvation. Kinda makes me wonder about folks today and the ugliness of humanity that still exists. Can God still work His plans? Probably.

  • http://newyorker.com/books/page-turner/science-fiction-classic-still-smolders Isaac Edward Leibowitz

    So simple. Cancel the silly star beacon and decline the gifts.

    Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.

    Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.

    Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?

    Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

  • http://reverendmom.blogspot.com Cynthia Robinson