by Wendy Murray
A disastrous event that took place in Bethlehem related to Jesus’ birth that is also part of the picture of Christmas. Herod ordered the slaughter of all the boys two years old and under. Yet we tend to allow sleigh bells, evergreens, and shopping trips to push it out of view. It is nevertheless, in all its brutality, what Christmas is about: a Savior’s “invasion” (to borrow from C. S. Lewis) and confrontation with the forces of evil.
Matthew’s narrative of Christ’s birth juxtaposes noble and wretched characters in stark contrasts: stars and swords; majestic kingly visitations and twisted kingly agitation; Mary rejoicing, Rachel weeping; children who die and the child who gets away. How do we reconcile this glorious birth with the bloody death of those boys?
Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared. 8 Then he told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!” After this interview the wise men went their way. . . . They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. . . . When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod. . . Herod was furious when he realized that the wise men had outwitted him. He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, based on the wise men’s report of the star’s first appearance (Matt 2: 7-9; 11-12; 16).
There is no extrabiblical documentation of Herod’s heinous act, but Bethlehem, being a “little town” (with a population of between 300 and 1,000, according to some commentators), it is within the bounds of possibility that the deaths of a few children were overshadowed by the many other atrocities Herod committed during his turbulent, twisted reign.
The Magi, who played a seminal role in this episode, were not kings and may not have been three, but were, in any case, wise. Skilled astronomers and members of a priestly caste who may have been Zoroastrian, they were industrious, courageous, and truth-seekers from present-day Iran or thereabouts. One biblical historian suggests that they left Persia late in 3 B.C., after Jesus was born, and arrived in late 2 B.C., when Jesus was a toddler.
By the time they found the child, his family was ensconced in a “house” (Matt. 2:10) and Herod calculated that the child could have been born up to two years earlier.
Herod, in the meantime, suffered from “distemper,” which the historian Josephus said “greatly increased upon him after a severe manner.” “His bowels were also ulcerated” and he had “a difficulty of breathing, which was very loathsome, on account of the stench of his breath.” All this topped off his well-attested paranoiac ravings, which had already driven him to command that his wife, along with his two promising sons, be executed. This man “of great barbarity towards all men equally” had been confirmed “King of the Jews” in 40 B.C. by the Roman senate. Little wonder, then, that at this decrepit stage of life he was in no mood to hear word of one “born king of the Jews.”
Were it not for a faith rooted in things unseen, we might be tempted to conclude that during this savage episode God’s “controlling hand” must have been temporarily stayed. What does one say to the mothers of those boys? Their deaths made no sense: What did these children have to do with earthly thrones and messianic expectations?
Matthew summons the ghost of Rachel, as portrayed by the prophet Jeremiah in his lament, to express the grief of these mothers:
A cry of anguish is heard in Ramah— and weeping unrestrained. Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted— for her children are dead. —Jeremiah 31:15 (NLT)
A mother weeping for her lost children is as bad as it gets. It is God’s chosen metaphor for the apogee of anguish. Ramah was where the Jews gathered before they were carried off to Babylon. There, Jeremiah cites Rachel’s weeping as giving voice to God’s own lament over the loss of his children. Rachel herself died in sorrow as she gave birth to her second son, naming him Ben-Oni (“son of my trouble”); she died “on the way” (to Bethlehem), never securing a permanent home. Rachel was not comforted.
I’ve read about mothers in America who comb drug-infested streets in search of her lost children and of mothers in Africa who risk all they have to redeem their kidnapped and enslaved sons and daughters. There are mothers everywhere whose tidy worlds are shattered by brutalities of earth.
Ivan Karamazov, in Feodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, represents the intellectual agnostic who poses a question to his spiritually sensitive brother, Alyosha: “But then, what about the children? How will we ever account for their sufferings?”
Ivan acknowledges a kind of justice for humans who have made bad choices and suffer, and even for the suffering attendant to the general rebellion of the human race: These thinking adults “have eaten from their apple of knowledge; they know about good and evil and are gods themselves. And they keep eating the apple.” But, he says, “little children haven’t eaten it.
“Those tears [of children who suffer] must be atoned for…. How is it possible to atone for them?” he asks. “If the suffering of little children is needed to complete the sum total of suffering required to pay for the truth, I don’t want that truth, and I declare in advance that all the truth in the world is not worth the price.
“We cannot afford to pay so much for a ticket,” he says. “And so I hasten to return the ticket I’ve been sent. … It isn’t that I reject God; I am simply returning him most respectfully the ticket that would entitle me to a seat.”
Perhaps if the mothers of Bethlehem understood that the birth of a savior would cost the lives of their sons they might have returned their tickets, too.
Even Dostoyevsky admitted that when he wrote his dialogue between Ivan and Alyosha he wasn’t sure he would be able to answer Ivan’s question.
It could be argued—in a twisted way—that it might have been more “just” if Joseph and Mary’s son had perished with the rest of the boys. Thus, the aching question would not have remained unresolved: Why did God save him and not all?
But those of us who claim faith in the gospel must be willing to look at these kinds of movements with searching eyes and gospel logic, which often makes little sense. Gospel logic asserts that in saving the one, God did save them all. The one who got away is the ticket that Ivan handed back to God.
Jesus had to escape Herod’s decree in order to face the day when the angels would not intervene and when Joseph would not whisk him to Egypt; the day when Mary, not Rachel, would weep and could not be comforted.
Jesus “got away” so that later on he could “atone for” the blood of those children whom Ivan lamented. In The Lord and His Prayer, author N. T. Wright says that in “the prayer for Deliverance from Evil the dominant image . . . is that of the Waiting Mother.”
When Jesus delivered us from evil, he went, like the mothers I read about, to crime-ridden sewers to bring back his loved ones from slavery. He went, Wright writes, “solo and unaided into the whirlpool [of evil], so that it may exhaust its force on him and let the rest of the world go free.” Jesus, in the end, was the one “who was not delivered from evil.”
In the verse that follows Rachel’s lament, Jeremiah writes: “Do not weep any longer, for I will reward you. Your children will come back to you.” God’s portrait of grief—the weeping mother—is overruled by the picture of children returning.
See, I will give a signal to the godless nations. They will carry your little sons back to you in their arms; they will bring your daughters on their shoulders. —(Isaiah 49:22, NLT)
So Rachel will be comforted after all.
Dostoyevsky probed Ivan’s question through the godly Father Zossima, who comforts a grieving mother: “Don’t you know how bold these little ones are before the throne of the Lord? . . . Weep, but every time you do, remember that your little son is … looking down on you from where he is now, that he sees and rejoices in your tears and shows them to God. “You will shed a mother’s tears for a long time to come,” he says, “but in the end your weeping will turn into quiet joy.”
When we sing about the little town of Bethlehem, we too easily overlook the phrase that says that “hopes and fears” came together there. Fear — in fact terror — is also part of the Christmas narrative. It is not about “mere good cheer,” Wright says. For all the twists in the Christmas story, and for all its crushing contrasts, it ultimately is the story of “when darkness breaks with the human cry of a small baby, blinking up at his Mother in the sudden light, and seeing her face.”
(This post is adapted from an article that appeared in Christianity Today, Dec. 1997)