Saturday, September 22, 2012

God became man... and babies died for it

As a little kid hearing the Christmas story, I remember being frightened at the idea of King Herod trying to kill Baby Jesus- how could someone kill a baby? And I was relieved to hear that Jesus' family escaped. I never realized that some of the other babies didn't.

Read the whole story here: Matthew 2:13-23.

My thoughts and observations:

Joseph as the leader of the family

It's very interesting that God directs Jesus' family to move by speaking to Joseph in a dream. Why didn't he speak to both Joseph and Mary? Why did he give such important, urgent instructions in such an internal, personal form, completely impossible for others to observe? How was Mary supposed to know if this message was really from God, or Joseph is just crazy?

"Joseph, what did you eat before bed?" Image source.
It meant that Joseph was the leader, the protector of Mary and her baby, and that God fully accepted him as the leader. I think this is very important- Joseph wasn't Jesus' real father, so he may have felt like he wasn't really part of God's plan- he just happened to be there. But no, God gave Joseph an incredible role- God depended on Joseph to keep Jesus safe.

(Or maybe I'm reading too much into this, and the real reason was everyone was horribly sexist back then- OF COURSE God would speak to the man, OF COURSE the wife had to do everything her husband said, even if he got the idea from some unverifiable dream. But I'd really like to think it's God's way of showing Joseph he's fully accepted and essential to God's plan.)

Herod is the most terrible person

King Herod gives orders to kill any male child 2 years old or under. Because he heard that the "king of the Jews" had been born, and he felt it was a threat to his power. Seriously?

I found some sources that say Herod also had his own wife and a few of his sons killed, and other people too, whenever he felt like it. Apparently kings used to just kill everybody. This guy is seriously messed-up.

Did he actually believe that "the king of the Jews" had been born, like the wise men said? Or was he just really paranoid? Did he kill those babies just in case it actually was true?

How could God let this happen?

Oh no, King Herod wants to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem! Fortunately, God knew about it- God intervened... and saved 1 of them.


I tend to think that God allows bad things to happen because he has a policy of not intervening, in general. God set things up so that people's actions have consequences, and he's not going to come micromanage everything. But in this case, he is willing to intervene- why didn't he intervene a little better?

I've always been skeptical of people concluding that surely it was God who stepped in and rescued someone, when so many others died- it just doesn't make sense to me- why didn't God just prevent the entire disaster? But that's exactly what happened here. And I don't like it. God, you allowed them to kill babies?

God saves his own kid, and leaves everyone else behind. What happened to putting others before yourself?

Some people might blame this on the wise men.

I can imagine there are some who say this is the wise men's fault. Because they're the ones who told King Herod about the whole "king of the Jews" thing. They should have been following the star all the way to Bethlehem; they should have never stopped at Jerusalem. It shows they didn't trust God. It shows they thought God's kingdom was an earthly kingdom, and his king must be in the capital city, Jerusalem.

See, the wise men didn't trust God, and their horrible horrible sin is the reason those babies died.

Jerks. Image source.
No! NO! Why do we always need to find someone to blame? This happened because King Herod was insecure and had way too much power- that's all.

"It's the wise men's fault" comes from the idea that the world is just and if we just did the right thing, bad things wouldn't happen. But that's not true. Sometimes bad things happen, and it's completely out of our control.

And was it really so unreasonable for the wise men to stop at Jerusalem and ask around? Was it really so horrible and evil and sinful that they assumed the new king would be in the capital city? You really think it shows a deep distrust of God? It was just a mistake. That's all. Just a factual error that was then corrected. It's not a sin, and it definitely does not make them responsible for those babies' deaths.

Some "prophecies" were "fulfilled".

Or were they?

Matthew mentions 3 prophecies in this passage. Let's look at them:

"Out of Egypt I called my son."- from Hosea 11:1. Okay, if you go read Hosea 11:1, it's obvious the "son" is the nation of Israel. Hosea is talking about how God brought Israel out of Egypt, and God cared for them but they rejected him, so he warns them about punishment.

"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."- from Jeremiah 31:15. Jeremiah 31 is about the celebration that will happen when God brings his people back from exile and shows kindness to them. The part about "Rachel weeping" refers to the mourning over those who had been killed or captured when the exile happened- and God says he will comfort them and end their weeping and start this whole new era of awesomeness.

Who is Rachel? She was one of Jacob's wives, and she had some troubles in life, so she is a symbol for the suffering of the Jewish people. (See Genesis 29-30, 35.)

"He will be called a Nazarene."- This is totally not a quote from the Old Testament. The commentary I looked at suggested that prophets had predicted the messiah would have humble beginnings, and Nazareth was a hick town in the middle of nowhere, so it fulfills the prophecy.

Perhaps they did this in Nazareth too? Image source.

So, none of these are actual legit prophecies being fulfilled (according to perfectnumber628's definition of "prophecy"). The first two are about things that happened in the past, plus they come from passages that are totally talking about something else (warning of punishment on the nation, and a promise of a new covenant). Reading Hosea or Jeremiah, you wouldn't even think they were prophecies at all. And the third one isn't even an actual quote.

We should think of these not as "prophecies being fulfilled", but as themes that consistently run through the whole bible. God brought the Israelite people out of Egypt, and God brought Jesus out of Egypt. God sees and understands the pain of the mothers of Bethlehem, just like he saw the mourning during the exile. And the messiah would be someone who didn't seem too remarkable, so it makes sense that he's from Nazareth.

The problem is that you can't use this to prove anything. Anyone can come up with similarities between Jesus' life and some stories from the Old Testament- so what? It doesn't mean he's the messiah.

So what's the point of prophecies?

These 3 prophecies that Matthew mentions cannot be used in an argument about whether Jesus is the Son of God. Their purpose is not to convince you to believe- their purpose is to show you that, given the assumption that Jesus is the Son of God, there are some pretty sweet connections you can make between his life and God's work in the Old Testament.

And here's another connection: As babies, both Jesus and Moses narrowly escaped being killed, when orders were given to kill male children.

Are all biblical prophecies like this? Are there ANY that can actually be used as evidence to argue that Jesus is the messiah?

Summary/ take-home message:

In this passage, we see God working and a few good things happening- Joseph takes on the role of protector for Mary and Jesus, Jesus is kept safe, themes from God's work in history reappear. But when God works and good things happen, there is opposition- from King Herod, maybe even from satan. Jesus came into the world, and it cost some other children their lives.

Perhaps it means that the world is so broken and intrinsically opposed to God that when God does something miraculous and wonderful- sending Jesus to earth- the world itself reacts against it.

In other words, this is why we can't have nice things.

Or maybe I'm trying too hard to find meaning in this tragedy. Maybe bad things happen, and there is no huge, cosmic explanation- it's just because Herod was a scumbag, that's all.


This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: The Wise Men Found Jesus In Another Religion (Matthew 2:1-12)

Next post: John the Baptist was Kind of Obsessed with Fire (Matthew 3)

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.

1 comment:

  1. Herod certainly did kill many of his relatives - that's well attested in ancient writings. But there is no mention anywhere outside Matthew of the alleged massacre of babies, no evidence whatever that the birth narratives of Jesus are anything other than fiction, and plenty of evidence that that is exactly what they are in the absurdities of the stories, and the contradictions between Matthew and Luke.

    God set things up so that people's actions have consequences, and he's not going to come micromanage everything.

    Well that sounds very enlightened and liberal. But think of the situation in which some child has been kidnapped, and is being raped and tortured prior to being murdered. Any person with a spark of decency would rescue the child if they could. But God, who could easily do so, does not feel he should "micromanage" by intervening, because that would go against his "policy". Do you ever listen to yourself?