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God and the Slaughter of the Innocents

Sermon - 12/30/07
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Matthew 2:13-23

The text for this sermon is the story that comes from Matthew's gospel after the birth of Jesus, after the Magi have been warned in a dream to go home by a different way.  To not reveal anything to King Herod.

So, reading from the second chapter of Matthew, verses 13-23:

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

18‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
   wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
   she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’


The flight to Egypt is depicted in one of our windows, with it's rather purplish-looking donkey that Mary and Jesus are riding on.  And anyone who has ever worked with refugees, or who has themselves been refugees, realizes what that picture represents.  Giving up one's family, relatives, home, belongings, leaving everything behind to go and flee to seek safety in a foreign country.

It's striking that Luke presents the holy family as being stranded travelers without shelter, just prior and during the birth of Jesus.  And Matthew presents the holy family as refugees without a home after the birth of Jesus.

In either case, it's a rough start for the baby Jesus.  Not anything like the way that most of us celebrate Christmas, I suspect.

In Matthew's account, however, Jesus is the lucky one.  The 'classmates' of Jesus don't fare too well.  The slaughter of the innocents, as it is sometimes called in Matthew, is another one of those scenes that you're likely not going to find on any Hallmark greeting card.  If nothing else, this story serves as a stark reminder to us that not all would welcome the coming of the Christ child.  Worldly power is often threatened by divine power.

Hence, the Prince of Peace will be opposed by the violence of war.  And before we get to the end of the second chapter of Matthew's gospel, we are given a glimpse of the conflict to come between Jesus and the rulers.  That much is clear, for just about any reader of Matthew's gospel.

Less clear is the 'why'.  Why should any ruler be threatened by the adult Jesus let alone the infant Jesus?

To answer that question, we need to take a deeper look at Matthew's story of that flight to Egypt.

Now, recall what I said last Sunday (or was it the Sunday before?  I don't recall -- but I'm sure you will!), quoting that catchy phrase from Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan in their new book "The First Christmas", in which they said:  "If you get the birth stories, you will get the gospel story".

There stories can not be reduced to holiday greetings and bedtime stories.  They carry the DNA of God's incarnation on earth.  The very essence and meaning of the gospel are right here in these stories.  So pay attention, pay close attention to how Matthew tells the story.

And when you do, you discover that there are some, well, challenges here.  First of all, there's Matthew's use of the Old Testament.  In this particular portion of the story, Matthew has 3 quotations from scripture to conclude each section of the story.  I want to throw those up on the wall for us to follow along so that we can see what Matthew is doing.

In the first section, Joseph is warned to take his family to Egypt.  And so we are told:  this was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet "Out of Egypt I have called my son".

In the second section, we have the slaughter of the innocents.  Herod is infuriated, he's been tricked by the Magi, and so he kills all the male children under the age of 2 in and around Bethlehem.  That section also concludes, then, with this word:  Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

'A voice was heard in Ramah,
   wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
   she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

And then in the third section, Joseph, now told in a dream he can go back home, and did you notice that Joseph intends to go back where?  To Bethlehem.  In Matthew's gospel, that's where Joseph and Mary come from.  He goes back there, but can't because the son of Herod is on the throne, he fears him, so he is warned to go up north to the region of Galilee, and he settles in Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled -- he will be called a 'Nazorean'.

Now, what is interesting is when we look at the texts behind each of these citations.

The first one comes from Hosea 11:

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
   and out of Egypt I called my son.

Well, "son" there represents Israel.  Israel is depicted as this child being led out of Egypt.  When you continue that citation in Hosea 11, you read:

The more I called them, [it changes to the plural]
   the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
   and offering incense to idols.

In other words, the prophet is contrasting the faithfulness of God in leading the people out of captivity in Egypt to the faithlessness of the people when they turn to worship other Gods.  That's the first quote.

The second quote ('A voice was heard in Ramah. . ') comes out of Jeremiah 31, and when you read Jeremiah 31 it reads pretty much the same as Matthew quotes it (slight variation because of the differences in translation).  Keep reading in that section from Jeremiah 31 and you see the Lord says (through the prophet):

Keep your voice from weeping,
   and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the Lord:
   they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
17there is hope for your future,
says the Lord:
   your children shall come back to their own country.

In other words, the prophet is saying the children have not been slaughtered, they have been taken away into captivity.  And Ramah is a town north of Jerusalem:

Notice Jerusalem is in the middle of the map, Bethlehem is to the south.  Ramah is the place where those exiles' were gathered up before they were taken by Babylonia into exile.  Ramah is the place where Rachel, the mother of two of the northern tribes, was believed to have been married.  So she is depicted then as the mother of these lost tribes that are taken away into captivity.  The passage of scripture (from Jeremiah 31) says they shall return -- there is hope, not to give up on them.  That's the second passage.

Then the third:  "He will be called a Nazorean".  Does not occur anywhere in scripture!  Where does Matthew get this?  The best scholars can come up with is from Judges 13, the story of Samson.  And an angel appears to the mother of Samson and says to her:

‘Although you are barren, having borne no children, you shall conceive and bear a son. 4Now be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, or to eat anything unclean, 5for you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a nazirite'.

A 'nazirite' meaning "one consecrated to God, from birth".  Sounds like 'Nazorean', you see.

So what do we have here?  Matthew quotes 3 verses that have nothing to do with the coming of a future Messiah.  Does he not know his scripture any better than this?  Save that thought for just a moment, I'll come back to it.

In addition to those textual challenges, there is this theological one:  not only does an angel appear to Joseph to warn him of the danger of Herod, but also to the Gentile Magi -- to warn them not to reveal anything to Herod.  So, let me ask you -- if you are a parent of one of those children in Bethlehem slaughtered because of this child, how do you read this story?  If you are a parent of any child killed by tyrants, terrorism, invading armies, occupying forces, or whatever it may be, how should you read this story?  God saves his son, but not mine?

Here's my proposal:  when we understand what Matthew is doing in the way he tells this story, we will not only resolve those theological and textual difficulties, we will understand the true nature of the threat posed by the infant Jesus, and what his birth then means for us now.

You may recall that Matthew begins his gospel with the genealogy of Jesus -- I spoke a little bit about that last week (or was it two weeks ago, I don't recall?  But I'm sure you will J).  Whereas Luke's genealogy begins with Jesus and goes back all the way to Adam, Matthew begins with Abraham and goes forward to Jesus.  It is a deliberate means to show that the work of God (what scholars and theologians sometimes call 'salvation history'), begun in Abraham, continues in Jesus.  To show that it is in fact all part of the same on-going effort to save God's people.  Matthew intentionally connects each part of the story with a passage from the Hebrew scripture that tells that story of how God saved the people of God.

In the Exodus, God led them.  In the exile, God went with them.  In the power of Samson, God was there.  And so we see, that same power, that same presence is now in Jesus.

That Matthew has to creatively re-interpret these passages to do that would not be unusual to the original audience.  We wouldn't think of interpreting scripture that way, but that was a very common technique in that time.  Not because the majority of ancient people were illiterate, and they didn't know what these stories were about in the first place -- to the contrary, they probably knew those stories much better than we do.  But rather, that they saw scripture as a living witness to God's work that therefore had to be continually re-interpreted, updated to be made news for each age.  And thus a passage which originally had nothing to do with the future coming of a Messiah could take on new meaning.  And as used by Matthew, is properly understood not as the future predicted, but as history re-interpreted -- to make the present illuminated with the presence of God.

Now this becomes especially evident when you see the way in which Matthew portrays Jesus as the Moses, who has come to save his people and is spared as an infant through divine intervention from an evil ruler who kills all of the male children under the age of two.  If you know your story of the Exodus and the birth of Moses, you will immediately recognize the framework of that story.  And you will see Herod depicted as the new infant-killing Pharaoh.

The slaughter of the innocents, incomprehensible as it may be, is not hard to understand.  It is the way tyrants hold on to power.  The Pharaoh's, Herod's, or anyone else.  Using fear and terror to maintain control of the masses.

And Herod was well known as a tyrant.  But is his tyranny, the one that Matthew reveals as morally bankrupt and theologically illegitimate with this story, the one intended?  We do not know of any such massacres by Herod in any other historical source.  What we do know, is that right around the time Jesus was born (in the year 4 BCE), there was a serious rebellion in the capital of Galilee, which was Sephoris, a town just 4 miles north of Nazareth.  According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Rome had to send 3 battalions of 6,000 troops each, plus 2,000 cavalry, 1,500 infantry -- that's over 20,000 of Rome's best soldiers -- to quell that uprising.

Josephus dispatches Sephoris with one terse sentence:  "Commander Gaius routed all who opposed him, captured and burnt the city of Sephoris, and reduced its inhabitants to slavery".

The intent was not just to defeat but to punish.  Not just to win the battle, but to annihilate the enemy, so that there would be no question of future rebellions for generations to come.  We can only imagine how swift and terrible that counter-insurgency might have been -- shock and awe comes to mind as an apt phrase to describe its psychological effect.

Josephus gives a fuller description of another campaign, 70 years later, when those same Syrian troops (well, I suppose they wouldn't have been the same troops, they'd be a little old by then) had to return a second time to another part of northern Palestine, in which the Romans, Josephus writes:  "Put to the sword a thousand of the youth who had not already escaped, made prisoners of women and children, gave its soldiers license to plunder the property, and then set fire to the houses and advanced against surrounding villages.  The able-bodied fled, the feeble perished, and everything left was consigned to flames".

One decade later, Matthew wrote his gospel.

So I ask you:  who would be utmost on the mind of his readers when Matthew tells of the slaughter of the innocents?  One long-deceased tyrant of Jerusalem, or one still reigning in Rome?

In the Exodus story, God hears the cries of the people and sends not only Moses to save them, but a plague that killed the first-born sons of Egypt, and a divided sea to drown the armies of Pharaoh.  Would it not, therefore, seem reasonable to expect divine retribution against those who slaughtered the innocents?  Holy terror to stop or punish the unrighteous slaughter?  Divine violence against an un-godly empire?

Is there any other way to peace than through victory and war?  To the Kingdom of God, than through overthrowing the kingdom of men?

Borg and Crossan imagine Mary taking the young Jesus up on a ridge overlooking those ruins of Sephoris, just 4 miles from his home, where we learn why Joseph does not appear again in the story of Matthew's gospel (though he figures so prominently in the birth):

"We knew they were coming", Mary said.  "But your father had not come home.  So we waited after the others were gone.  Then we heard the noise and the earth trembled a little.  We did too.  But your father had still not come home.  Finally we saw the dust, and we had to flee, but your father never came home.  I brought you up here today so you will always remember that day we lost him and what little else we had.  We lived, yes, but with these questions:

Why did God not defend those who defended God?  Where was God that day the Romans came?"


You see, the slaughter of the innocents, the flight to Egypt, is the answer that Matthew gives to that question--the new way for understanding how God's kingdom would come.  For God's response to such unmitigated evil was not to send plagues and legions, but to send one. 

And that one, not to kill his enemies but to die for them. 

Not to conquer armies and empires, but to conquer death and evil. 

Not to declare war but to proclaim peace. 

Not to rule through violence but to reign through justice. 

Not to wield the sword but to offer a meal. 

Not to spread terror and fear but to share love and hope.

For Matthew, the birth of Jesus meant that there was at last a very real alternative to worldly terror and earthly evil.

That alternative is God's gift to us this Christmas.  May we live it.


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