The Slaughter of the Innocents 

“When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: 

‘A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.’”
(Matthew 2:16–18, NIV)

It is a genuinely ill wind that blows no one any good, or so the saying goes. But there are tragedies, atrocities, that we simply cannot countenance, in which we see no hope at all. The African slave trade. The death camps of World War II. The mass exterminations under Pol Pot. This is not even to mention the tidal waves of personal tragedy that strike.

But at Christmas, surely we should be free of such anxiety. Christmas is the time for joy, not anguish. Yet the Christmas story is set in tragedy, the slaughter of the innocents, the situation we all understand. Herod was a cruel man. It was safer to be a sow (hys) in Herod’s house than a son (huios). When he was dying, he plotted the murder of all Israel’s elders so that someone would mourn his death. So when the wise men came seeking Jesus, Herod decreed to kill all the boy babies in Bethlehem’s region.

Why would God allow such things? The question is utterly beyond us. The horror overwhelms us, and we adroitly pass over the terror in our Christmas celebrations. But three things are sure. When Israel’s first deliverer was born the same atrocities occurred, so Jesus is the new Moses (see Exodus 1:15–16; Deuteronomy 18:15; 34:10–12). Second, the horror was announced six hundred years earlier by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:15). And third, from the horror of Herod’s day came the Lord of life. God announced that a day would come when there would be weeping in Ramah (see Genesis 35:16–18). The birth of sons would be, to the mothers, Bene-oni, sons of mourning, but to the world, Ben-yemini, the Son of Honor. For the tragedy and the hope of Bethlehem is to the world the promise of the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31–34).