The Unexpected Gospel of the Slaughter of the Innocents

With the recent school shooting in Connecticut, I wouldn't be surprised if Christmas sermons leaned a little more than usual this year on the incident of Herod slaughtering the baby boys in Bethlehem.

I would however be surprised if many Christian sermons bothered to talk about the Old Testament verses being referenced by Matthew (or whoever authored/compiled/redacted/whatever the Greek text of The Gospel According to Matthew--but for ease of reference I'll go with Matthean authorship hereafter).

That's because many Christian preachers would have good reason to be nervous about looking into why Matthew cites this incident as fulfilling a prophecy from Jeremiah.

I on the other hand think Matthew's reference is hugely important and relevant, not only in regard to Christian hope for innocent victims, but also in regard to Christian hope for those who slaughter the innocent!

...what? Hope in Christ, and in the grace of God, for Herod and for his murderous thugs?! Hope for modern murderers, too, even if they have already died in their sins?!?

If you aren't already tired of Christian preachers piggy-backing on horrible tragedy for our sermons, and want to read something you probably aren't going to hear from most of us this year (plus a few apologetics along the way in favor of the historicity of the Bethlehem Slaughter), click here on the jump to proceed!

First, a bit of catchup for those who don't have a Bible handy.

Herod the Great, probably in his final days of murderous paranoia, has heard from a group of (probably pagan) astrologers that the Messiah has recently been born. Naturally they thought they ought to check his palace first, but Herod's own wise men indicate the Messiah is supposed to be born in Bethlehem--either way, Herod is not of the line of Davidic kingship, but is actually an Idumean: basically he descends from Esau, the older son of the Jewish patriarch Isaac, not from Jacob Esau's (slightly) younger twin, much less from King David (descended from Judah, son of Jacob). So the news of the Branch of David having finally been born is something he would regard as a threat.

Allow me a moment of digression: the term "branch of David", sometimes used by the Jewish prophets to talk about God's coming Anointed King or King Messiah, is probably what Matthew is referring to when he connects Jesus growing up in Nazareth and being thereby called "a Nazarene" to Jewish prophecy: in Hebrew "branch" would be a pun for Nazarene. That's admittedly rather a stretch to find some way to fit the Messiah coming from Nazareth, but in terms of ancient Jewish "midrash" commentary it works well enough, and more importantly it indicates that the Gospel reports of Jesus coming from Nazareth weren't opportunistically invented to fulfill prophecy after the fact: it's an embarrassing historical detail the authors had to work around in various ways. This method of dealing with annoying historical details will come back soon in a far more important way!

Anyway, at this time, late in his life, Herod responds to threats by making sure those threats stop living: he has already slaughtered enough of his own friends and family (including his beloved wife) thanks to irrational paranoia, as we can discover from non-Biblical sources, so killing this baby fits his historical attitudes. He decides to use the Magi (the wizards, as we might call those astrologers) to find the child and report back so that he can come worship, too--except by 'worship' he really means 'kill dead'.

The Magi don't suspect foul play, but are later warned by an angel in a dream not to go back to Herod, so they leave the area by another route. Joseph, the father of the baby Jesus, is also warned about Herod in a dream, and flees with Jesus and mother Mary to Egypt.

By the time Herod realizes the Magi aren't coming back, Jesus is safely out of the way, but Herod doesn't know that. Since he doesn't know which baby to target, he tells a group of soldiers, most likely from his own court guard (thus fellow Jews, not part of the Roman cohort stationed in the region to support him), to go kill every boy in and around Bethlehem, from two years old down.

That wouldn't actually be many boys, considering how small Bethlehem was; and if Herod sends his own troops they could be easily disguised as Idumean raiders--thus explaining why only Matthew out of other surviving sources (even in other Gospels) records the raid. For non-Christian historians it might not be important enough to even have heard about; but even Christian historians would be edgy about including it, because innocent children died as an apparently unintended side-effect of the birth of the Messiah!

I'm not just speculating about Christian historians being uncomfortable about including it either. There's evidence in GosMatt itself that Matthew thought it was an embarrassing historical detail: he has to reach really reeeaaaally hard to find some way of demonstrating that the tragedy had some kind of meaningful purpose after all.

Specifically, Matthew thinks he can show that the Slaughter of the Innocents was allowed by God as another sign that the Messiah had at last been born. So he quotes Jeremiah 31:15 as a prophecy fulfilled by their deaths:

A sound in Ramah is heard! 
Lamentation and much anguish;
Rachel lamenting her children;
and she would not be comforted,
--_for they are not_.

That seems very impressive, right? And so, his purpose accomplished, Matthew moves along with his version of the Nativity story.

But there's a big problem.

That verse, and its surrounding prophecy, has less than nothing to do with mourning over innocent children slain unjustly by a murderer.

In fact, there's nothing in that prophecy specifically about the coming Messiah either.

Instead, that particular verse is about righteous Israel (poetically typified by Rachel, wife of the Patriarch Jacob) wailing in lamentation and anguish over the deaths of her rebel children slain in their sins by God in the Day of the Lord to come!

Now, one could argue that even this vastly huge difference would be par enough for the course by standards of Jewish midrash commentary. But on the other hand, vastly huge differences of this sort are why most Christians (and most non-Christians!) don't have a particularly good opinion of rabbinic midrashing.

I can guarantee this is one big reason why most of my readers won't be hearing about the Old Testament contexts of Matthew's application of the Slaughter of the Innocents as fulfilled Messianic prophecy. Not from Christian preachers or apologists anyway: it looks a lot more like evidence against taking Christianity seriously! A canonical author is willing to go this far off base in a desperate attempt to deal with a bothersome historical detail?!--how can we trust him to be fair and honest or even accurate about interpreting other historical details!?

But then comes a subtle and important corollary to that criticism:

It can't be made without acknowledging that Jesus' birth in Bethlehem and the subsequent slaughter of the baby sons in and around that town are at least most likely historical details!

You see, it's very popular among anti-Christian apologists to try to argue that Luke and Matthew invented the Bethlehem stories in order to fit a prophecy that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem, not from Nazareth--a concept even John's Gospel seems embarrassed about.

This in itself would be strong internal evidence that Jesus not only existed but (at least) grew up in Nazareth!--thus also that Nazareth existed in some (apparently insignificant) form in those days. As I previously noted, we can see Matthew trying hard to make Nazareth fit prophecy somehow by appealing to a pun on one of the nicknames of Messiah Son of David.

But he has to try hard about such things, because Matthew regards the details of Jesus' childhood as facts he feels obligated to work with rather than ignore; thus if the facts are inconvenient, he does his best to provide them with a proper justification. This, by the way, is how prophecy-after-the-fact normally works: important historical events happen, and they're attached to prophecies after the fact. The more of a reach to fit the prophecies, though, the more likely we afterward can regard the disputed detail as being actually historical (where we don't have corroboration otherwise).

"He shall be called a Nazarene"?--definitely a reach to match a prophecy with an unexpected embarrassing historical fact: Jesus grew up in Nazareth. (Similarly, if Jesus is rejected by His fellow Nazarites in embarrassing ways, and bases His ministry out of Capernaum, that points toward His childhood in Nazareth and various embarrassments in His ministries there as annoying but historical facts.)

"Out of Egypt I shall call My Son"? -- that prophecy from Hosea 11 isn't at all about God calling the Messiah to come to Israel from Egypt, much less as God's son. It's about rebel Israel, typified as Ephraim, being called out of Egypt, and then being ungratefully treacherous and unjust, and then being handed over to the king of Assyria to be slain for his sins. Yet despite God outright promising to hand rebel Ephraim over to die in his sins, He also (in the same chapter) declares He still loves Ephraim and somehow won't kill him but will have mercy on him and restore him instead! This will be even more relevant later, but anyway it definitely isn't about the baby Jesus going to a Jewish colony across the Egyptian border to flee an insanely murderous king from Edom's heritage. It isn't a Messianic prophecy at all!--so why would Matthew have invented the flight to Egypt and call it a fulfillment of this prophecy?! Rabbis in the Talmud sure weren't impressed by the notion Jesus came from Egypt: they attribute His miraculous power to pagan magic learned there instead! It looks more like the shuffling to Egypt and back again, realistic enough in the confused and hostile political climate, was an embarrassing fact Matthew thought he ought to try to prophetically justify.

"Rachel lamenting her children, for they are not"? -- absolutely not about innocent children being slain by an unjust king instead of the Messiah while He escapes an otherwise helpless fate.

So what, then? Am I not sacrificing theological relevance for historical verification? And how does any of this amount to good news in God through Jesus for innocents unjustly slaughtered?!--much less for those who unjustly slaughter the innocent!

I did say the good news would be unexpected, didn't I?

You see, the story of Ephraim, rebel Israel slain in sin (and probably meant to recall King David's son Absalom, slain by a spear while hanging from a tree with a bleeding scalp, during an armed rebellion against his father), isn't over yet in that prophecy.

Rachel, righteous Israel who survives the coming of God in the Day of YHWH, refuses to be comforted concerning the death of Ephraim. Apparently she isn't comforted by explanations like how her children were warned they'd be zorched if they continued on, and they continued on, so God zorched them, and they were rightly zorched because they were evil unjust men and women, oppressors of the poor and weak, slayers of the innocent, ungrateful and treacherous. She isn't comforted that they got the punishment they deserved. How much less would a mother be comforted that her innocent children had been slain!

Would she be comforted by God telling her that her apparently innocent children were also sinners who deserved to die? That might in some way also be true, but what mother could be comforted by that?

Would she be comforted by God telling her that He had never had any intention of saving her wicked children from their sins to begin with?

Would she be comforted by God telling her that although He had intended to save them from their sins, that time is now forever gone, because He failed to get it done in time, or other people failed to get it done, or He had in fact never made any provision to get it done for them even though He had intended to save them, too?

Would she be comforted by God promising to give her new children better than those worthless (or innocent?) ones she has lost?

Maybe some mothers would be comforted by one of those things.

But God doesn't promise any of those things in that prophecy from Jeremiah.

What He does promise, is that He still does love rebel Ephraim, and still loves His rebel daughters, and that even though "they are not", Ephraim will finally learn repentance, and learn to do justice instead of injustice: God promises that Rachel's slain rebel children will one day be restored to her, no longer bad children, but good children instead.

That's how God comforts Rachel, weeping in anguish over her slain rebel children.

It's one thing to comfort someone over a lost child slain in their innocence (or their relative innocence), that they weren't bad children and so God will one day restore them to their mothers who love them. That may be true, but it doesn't help comfort the mothers of evil children, and anyway what does it do to offset the horrible fact that God allowed evil children to murder the good children!?

Okay, maybe God allowed it because He refuses to make His children into puppets, even when they make horrible contributions to the story of history. He lets them be bad children rather than not children at all. But if those bad children never learn better, then the good children were sacrificed for nothing!--less than nothing, because it turns out God didn't love the bad children enough to keep leading them to be good children. Or God never loved them at all to begin with, in which case this must all be some inscrutable plan for God to show off how powerful He is by providing Himself someone to punch on for doing bad things.

But if the bad children learn to do better someday: that's good news for everyone!

Or it's almost good news. God sits up high above and allows (or fosters?!) such tragedies for other people to suffer, the innocent suffering for the sake of the guilty?!

No. That might be some other kind of theism; that might even be a non-orthodox kind of Christianity.

But it isn't orthodox Christianity.

We think God voluntarily suffers with the innocent, too, in being victimized by the guilty.

We even think God Most High voluntarily suffers with the guilty, too, while they are being rightfully punished!

If we're right, that's the point of Immanuel: God being with us in and as Jesus Christ.

It's also something, if we're right, that undermines the one best argument of the unfaithful: that God, if He exists, is only a most powerful tyrant on high, imposing His will on those who are weaker than He is.

Instead, to help bring about the restoration of rebel Ephraim, justly slain, as well as innocents slain by the unjust....

...Jehovah has begotten a new thing in the earth:
a woman will encompass a man!

That is the riddle with which God ends the particular prophecy through Jeremiah, quoted by Matthew in regard to the slaughter of innocent children by guilty children in Bethlehem.

It's also probably why Matthew was inspired to refer to this as a Messianic prophecy.

Because on that day long ago, in historical Bethlehem, in a cave that was used as a manger stall...

God did something new in the earth
as a woman encompassed a man.

God's hope to all our readers around the world
this Christmas weekend
and every day

Jason Pratt
Dec 21, 2012


Jason Pratt said…
Note: I can't figure out how the new Blogger code allows jump-cuts, so until then I guess the whole sermon will just have to be visible on the main page. {wry g}

Also, a little more seriously: this article shouldn't be taken as indicative of what all Cadre members believe about the importance and/or interpretation of Jeremiah 31, in regard to the Nativity story in GosMatt or otherwise. But I reserve the holidays for working Christian universalism into sermons, so here's my contribution this year. {g}

It's a good article I link to it on my message boards.
Anonymous said…
It is interesting that you have a thread right now about Herod and the slaughter of the innocents.

I frequent this board called (mostly to talk about sports "what-ifs" with others), and I just saw a thread in the pre-1900 section about Herod and what would have happened had he killed Jesus.

This one person said that the slaughter wasn't out of character for Herod, and that the reason it wasn't recorded by Roman sources is because it wasn't that big of an event. Here is what someone said in response:

Quote"We have no material evidence and the only reference to it is from one Gospel. Archaeology has discovered no mass graves; Roman, Greek, and Jewish sources are silent. Though Josephus mentiones an Augustan Census said to have taken place six years after Jesus is supposed to have been born (and did not require people to return to their birthplaces), he does not at all mention the alleged "Massacre of the Innocents" or any sort of Jewish infanticide, which one assumes a Jewish Chronicler would do.

Herod was nasty. Okay. That does not mean we should believe a verse of messianic propaganda from only one of the Four discrepant Gospels as a historical fact, espeically when the overwhelming majority of modern scholars and biographers of Herod dismiss the entire myth as just that"Quote.
Jason Pratt said…

Merry Christmas, not incidentally! {g}

Yeah, the guy writing the response just sort of overlooks the "not that big of an event" factor, and bases practically all his response on the assumption it would have been a really big event.

So not really a "response" per se--more like his own mythic propagandizing. {wry g}

Anyway. You're welcome to refer back here if you want. Even on a skeptical theory of messianic propaganda, GosMatt's method doesn't make sense unless he's trying to work around data he regards as annoying facts.

But those facts have corollaries (such as Jesus really being born in Bethlehem after all). The overwhelming majority of modern scholars and biographers just haven't looked at the situation closely enough. That may seem surprising, but it does happen: people get into a rote (literally a rut) where they see a box instead of nine dots, so don't even think of looking outside the dots--even when there are pointers.

(I don't mean that as a moral condemnation. It just happens. Christians do it, too.)

Weekend Fisher said…
Hi Jason

There is another difference in how that Jeremiah prophecy is handled between Matthew's context and the first context: in Jeremiah, Rachel was weeping over the children who were gone not into death but into exile; a remnant would return.

The JPS study notes have a helpful note there on v15: "According to 40:1, 4, the Babylonians assembled the Judeans destined for exile to Babylon at Ramah." The whole context of chapter 31 is exile and return.

Though for Matthew's usage, as the Talmud says, "All prophets prophesied for the days of the Messiah". That is, all prophecies were considered to have a legitimate double-meaning for the Messianic age, if that wasn't their primary meaning. It's tempting for modern readers to throw Matthew (or his integrity) under the bus when he simply had a different religious context where there were different interpretive rules.

Take care & God bless
Anonymous said…
Merry Christmas, Jason.

I put this up on the Yahoo Cadre group, and Meta said that there would be no mass graves because there were probably only 25-30 infants murdered. So, it seems like this guy on the Alternate History board is making a bigger deal of it than it is.
Jason Pratt said…

I would have figured less than that even. Maybe more like three or four. Bethlehem was a feeder village for local shepherds raising sheep for sacrifice in Jerusalem. Its population would have increased at the time of the census, especially if this coincided with the Festival of Tabernacles (thus no room for privacy in the caravanserai, the ring of temporary tents where caravans disbanded and formed), but after the Feast the population would have dropped back off sharply. And the wise men (presuming historicity for both GosMatt and GosLuke) couldn't have come earlier than the first 8 days, thus no earlier than after the end of 8 days of Tabernacles (and its attendant grand finale feast), because there are no problems with the Family going to Jerusalem to have the firstborn son offering.

Jason Pratt said…

You're right of course about the double-meaning context of the "Days of the Messiah"; but the context of Jeremiah 31 seems pretty clear that Ephraim has been slain for his sins. It would be Rachel who is being put on the bus for the diaspora: her children who-are-not, don't exist any longer to be mustered into exile.

That phraseology was obviously strong enough to have inspired a connection to the slaughter of the innocents: they weren't being sent off into exile in the diaspora (although then again neither were their mothers), they had been killed.

(Now I wonder if the LXX version of that verse in Jeremiah reads the same as the Greek of GosMatt--I'm away from the office this week and don't have my resources handy, if anyone wants to look that up...?)

Leslie said…
Very interesting article, but it leads me to a different question I'm kinda surprised no one else has asked (and that you didn't really address unless I missed it):

How does this impact reliability of the text? Not just historically, but theologically. Orthodox Christianity says these writers were inspired by God. But it sounds like you're saying Matthew stretched some prophecies incorrectly for his own purposes, which seems to me to undermine divine inspiration. It does sound thoroughly human though.

I'm not saying this as an accusation but just as a question. If the writers did this, how does it impact our view of God's role in directing them to write it? Because just on the surface it seems to me something a skeptic would be happy to accept but would challenge the authority of at least the Gospel of Matthew.
Jason Pratt said…

I'm not sure I would use this data as evidence for inspired authorship; but I don't have any problem believing God inspired Matthew to point back to those verses: they may not fit as prophecies of narrated events very well, but they fit as unexpected reminders that God cares strongly about saving His own worst enemies from their sins.

Since the prophecies not only don't fit the events very well, but actually run opposite the events in some important ways, I think it's worth considering whether someone and/or Someone intended us to factor those apparent discrepancies into the meaning.

This fits with Anne's observation about rabbinic expectations of multiple fulfillments in the Days of Messiah, too--although even by that standard the particular way Matthew has tried to connect one prophecy with another doesn't fit inventing the 'history'.

(There's also a rabbinic habit of quoting one verse, especially in rebuke, and testing to see if disciples will catch the extended contexts of it. Jesus Himself does this to various religious opponents on occasion, both in GosJohn and the Synoptics. GosMatt's author frequently acts like a rabbi in other regards; he may be doing this here, too.)

Jason Pratt said…
Fwiw, a few years ago (over on Victor's DangIdea site if I recall correctly, although it may have been here in a comment thread), I noted eight or nine different kinds of inspiration testified to in the Judeo-Christian scriptures. It's a broad enough topic that just about anything can be safely slotted into one or another mode (or modes).

Leslie said…
That's an interesting point ... as you said, it may not be evidence for inspiration, but that doesn't mean it's actually evidence against. It's hard sometimes to understand all of these things in our modern context as they were reflected upon at the time, I suppose.

I remember reading a book by a Jewish convert to Christianity from the 1800s (I forget his name now) where he described many of the prophecies which were considered messianic outside of Christianity. I always thought that was a really useful point, because skeptics often assume the Biblical writers are taking things totally out of context, but frequently in those accused areas non-Christian Jewish writings suggest the same thing. So as you're suggesting here, early Christians weren't breaking traditional views or practices even though it may sometimes seem odd to us.
Jason Pratt said…

That sounds like Alfred Edersheim, from The Life And Times Of Jesus The Messiah. He (and his daughter) compiled and published it in the late 1800s, although he spent many years writing it.

As research it's a little out of date now (and is written with a triumphalistic evangelical tone that would be totally inappropriate in modern critical works), but at the time it was as up to date on contemporary research as possible.

Edersheim had originally trained in Germany to be a rabbi, and had converted to Christianity at that time largely based on his studies there. He ported his research into Talmudic data into his Gospel harmonization / historical commentary project. Took me about a year to read the whole thing.

(Despite modern critics who regard him as being too naive about the accuracy of Talmudic information, I found him to be fairly reasonably cautious about it.)

Jason Pratt said…
Now that I've remembered Edersheim, out of curiosity I've gone back to his very useful and informative tome, specifically appendix 9 where he reports some of the numerous applications of OT scripture to the Messiah by Talmudic authors, to see if Jeremiah 31:15 (Rachel weeping for her children and the chapter more generally) and Hosea 11 (God's son called out of Egypt and the chapter more generally) were interpreted Messianically by the (mostly post-Christian) Jewish rabbis.

Edersheim quotes extensively from what appears to be the Yalkut commentary of Isaiah 9:1, where the compilers connected traditions there to Jeremiah 31 (E. isn't entirely clear of the provenance trail, unfortunately). While he mentions nothing about the slaughter being a rabbinic messianic expectation, the gist of generations of rabbinic interpretation of the prophecy as a whole are entirely in line with what I wrote in one regard, namely that it is about God somehow saving all Israel, living and dead, from their sins and restoring them to faithfulness.

Their interpretation regarded this as being done through the suffering of the Messiah, rejected by 140 nations (including in bearing the sins of Israel). I find this interesting because even to my Christian eye the Messiah per se seems nowhere in view in Jeremiah 31; but the rabbis very peculiarly interpreted rebel Ephraim (slain in his sins by God) as the righteous Messiah!--thereby finding (I would say placing) the King Messiah in this passage.

They at least do not regard Ephraim as righteous Israel per se (putting themselves in the place of their own positive interpretation of Ephraim), but specifically as the King Messiah to come; how they treat the apparent repentance and consequent restoration of Ephraim, if they noticed it at all, is not reported by Edersheim. The theme of rebellion and punishment for Ephraim seems to be folded by the rabbis into the concept of the sins (and rebellions) of others being borne voluntarily by the Messiah at the request of God. (Who, in a colorful touch, promises that Messiah only has to bear such a burden for a year, while also reassuring the Messiah that if he find the burden onerous at any time He will remove it at once!--to which the Messiah answers that he gladly bears it for the sake of all Israel, living and dead.)

In his brief comments on Matthew's appeal to these scriptures as prophecies fulfilled by Nativity events, Edersheim basically admits they are not to be taken as literal fulfillments, but as "prophetic" in some sense he is not overly clear about.

He obliquely mentions Anne's note that Ramah was the staging ground for the march into captivity, where many were slaughtered (including apparently young babies) who would have encumbered the march; and adds the detail that Ramah is also where the historical Rachel was buried. Thus, they were slaughtered more-or-less over her grave, from where she weeps for them.

This lends further credence to my (rather standard) interpretation that Rachel is crying for slain children in Jeremiah 31; but Edersheim doesn't notice that the context of the prophecy involves rebel Israel being punished by God in the Day of the Lord to come. (Typologically prefulfilled by the dispersion into Assyria though that may have been. In the prophetic tradition of which this is a part, God saves remnants of besieged Jerusalem from the Assyrians, whom He personally slays in rescuing Jerusalem. To be blunt, this hasn't happened yet. {wry g})

Jason Pratt said…
In regard to Hosea 11, appealed to by Matthew: Edersheim, in lieu of finding any Jewish expectation this applies to the Messiah (and he reports none in appendix 9), tries to connect it topically to a set of verses across the OT connected to Exodus 4:22 "Israel is My first-born son", which the rabbis did interpret Messianically by connection to a number of other scriptures attempting to unify the Messiah and Israel: the Midrash on Psalm 2:7 connects 2:7 topically to Ex 4:22, Is 52:13, Is 42:1, Ps 110:1, and Dan 7:13.

If it seems strange that Hosea 11 was not included in that midrashic connection list, I suggest that even a casual glance at the topic will explain why: even the ingenuities of the rabbis weren't up to the task of figuring out how the clearly rebellious Israel, slain in his sins for being unfaithful and treacherous (and ungrateful for having been called out of Egypt) could apply to the Messiah!!

(This is despite rebel Israel being called Ephraim in Hosea 11, and being promised restoration after repentance--a theme that is repeated shortly afterward in later chapters, quoted by St. Paul in 1 Cor 15 as part of his justification for why Christians should keep on evangelizing in hope of God's coming resurrection, by the way. The rabbis managed to flipflop rebel Ephraim and his repentance and restoration in Jer 31 into being the righteous and loyal King Messiah bearing the sins of the rebellions of Israel and the nations. Edersheim doesn't report they did the same for Hosea 11, though the actual topics on-the-page are quite similar: arrogant rebel Ephraim is warned that God will surely kill him, but God still loves him and will spare him somehow, too, leading to restoration in light of Ephraim's coming repentance.)


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