A Christmas Story, Matthew Style

(The Slaughter of the Innocents)

The Gospel of Matthew includes a bloody twist on the Nativity narrative. In Matthew 2, the three wise men, or Magi, find their way to King Herod, who has gotten word that a messiah has been born in Bethlehem. He tries unsuccessfully to trick the wise men into finding the Christ Child for him so that he can kill the baby. Instead, the wise men, feeling at unease and being warned by God in a dream, decide not to see Herod on their way home. Herod realizes he's been tricked, and out of anger and fear he orders his soldiers to go to Bethlehem and kill every male child two years of age and younger.

The historians of the era recorded a number of crazy and murderous things Herod did in an effort to protect himself and to keep control of his kingdom, which he ruled in the service of the Roman empire. But there are no specific records of Herod ordering the "slaughter of the innocents" in Bethlehem. If you do a little reading, you find that writers often note that such an act, though unsupported by fact, would not have been out of character for Herod.

Whether the slaughter of the innocents took or place or not, it's a disturbing part of Matthew's account of the birth and early years of Christ. I was curious how modern Christian religious thinkers explain the slaughter and its place in the story of the birth of Christ. I don't recall any explanations of this part of the story from my years in Catholic school, etc.

The slaughter of the innocents seems like an eerie blood sacrifice that the people of Bethlehem had to offer up to deliver Jesus to safety and to allow him to become the Messiah. Perhaps not surprisingly, I can't find any accounts among the Christian sources I looked at online that supports that notion, though in a narrative sense, the murder of the male babies of Bethlehem seems to foreshadow the eventual crucifixion of Christ, "the lamb of God." I also realize that simply searching for online sources for theological issues is probably an exercise akin to skating on thin ice, and is inherently foolish. I should find a few serious and respected sources and read those. However, I think I vetted the sources I looked at online closely enough to get a sense of the general directions that Christian thinkers take when they approach Matthew 2: 16-18--if they approach it at all! A few writers I found online candidly admit that they don't really know how to deal with this part of the story. Who can blame them?

In a brief search, there were two general approaches for explaining Matthew 2: 16-18 that kept coming up. The first is, essentially, "the workings of the Lord are inscrutable," but one has to trust that there's a purpose for everything, even the worst possible things that can happen to people. Here's an example of that approach.

The second approach is an interesting one that says "look how much anger and hatred there is when people are faced with the truth of Christ." In essence, Herod couldn't deal with the truth, so he tried to kill it. When the world rejects the Truth or reacts in anger or violence, it only proves just how real the Truth is. The story is a reminder that evil is real and active in the world, and that we need Christ to counteract that evil.

Another analysis that both of the above approaches seem to accept is that the Matthew 2 narrative works to show that Old Testament prophecies, particularly from the books of Hosea, Jeremiah, and Isiah, came to fruition with Jesus. There's also a clear parallel between the Moses/Exodus OT narrative and the birth of Jesus, the fleeing of the Holy Family to Egypt, and their eventual return following Herod's death.

Regardless of the explanations, it's still difficult to conceive of the workings of a mind that would purposely and maliciously destroy innocent human life . . . and from there it's no large step to wonder why anyone would purposely destroy any human life. Incredible effort is spent to understand human suffering, particularly of innocents, but it still remains difficult to explain the purpose of that suffering. Even assuming one has faith in Christ or a so-called higher power or a human leader, it remains a tremendous proverbial leap of faith to accept that suffering, regardless of how it arises, is part of some larger purposeful plan, particularly when it always seems so random and cruel, and especially when it strikes people who have no idea it's coming, no comprehension of what could be behind it, and no ability to defend themselves.

Matthew 2:16-18:

16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: 18 “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.”

(Photo from the Cincinnati Enquirer, May 5, 2005)