In these final days of the year, Christians who follow the church calendar remember that children were massacred by Herod 2000 years ago.
Life stopped. We are always shocked whenever life stops because of events like this, 9/11 or US drone bombings in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The surviving victims and the onlookers stammer as they ask, how this could happen? How can people do this?
From what I know about Herod, who ruled when Jesus was born, the story of the murder of children is entirely plausible. As a politician and Roman vassal, Herod was caught between the demands of an empire and his unpopular regime at home. His dynasty ruled because of Roman blessing, not because of the grace of God.
The local Jewish population distrusted his intentions and had grown restive over his taxation policies and cruelty. In foreign affairs, he cleverly used a combination of diplomacy and good guesswork to convince Roman rulers, sometimes in the midst of their own power struggles, that he was reliable and could deliver strong political rule that would not cause the empire headaches. That is what empires want from their vassals.
Herod’s rule included territory roughly equivalent to ancient Israel. It brought him power but little favour with the people who disliked his decadent lifestyle. Herod claimed to be a Jew but his mother was Arabic. His tenuous claim to Jewish faith was further eroded by his compliance with Rome’s public religion, emperor worship, in shrines created at his monumental construction sites. These facts fed unrest.
The gossip that a new King of the Jews had been born was a mortal threat to Herod’s rule. Around 30 years earlier, Herod had been elected to that office by the Roman Senate after angling for the position in the midst of Caesar Augustus’ rise to total power. He may have known of this new threat through his police, palace guards or intelligence service before the arrival of the wise men.
However, a diplomatic call by foreign dignitaries called Magi with access to mysterious knowledge from the stars, alerted him that there might be serious trouble ahead and still manageable ways to crush another impending rebellion. Always on the lookout for a coup or a usurper of royal office, Herod, like his contemporaries today, had an insatiable appetite for intelligence information and its first cousin, the popular gossip sometimes called news. Information meant that suspects disappeared, often for good.
To be safe, the dignitaries slipped away by “another road” without checking in with King Herod after they had visited the new King in swaddling clothes. This act of avoidance, perhaps rude in the context of routine diplomatic niceties, awakened Herod’s deeper suspicions and the action he settled on was the killing of all children born in the previous two years in or near Bethlehem, the site of the usurper’s birth.
A political killing of infants was Herod’s preferred option, given the restive and rebellious nature of public opinion. There were precedents for the use of infanticide as an instrument of national security in the history of Jewish life in Egypt and in other nations.
This sequence of stories in Matthew’s first two chapters includes five dreams and a message from the stars. In times like these, when life and death nudge one another, access to all the insights available to those seeking to do the right thing is urgently required. The break through of wisdom from the unconscious were gifts which illuminated the journey of escape to Egypt and provide the prologue for Matthew’s story of the community of liberation.
Politicians caught in dilemmas which threaten their regimes, resort to brutality. The killing of all children under the age of two was a fear-based warning to the population: no regime change, not now, not ever. Looking tough in the midst of unpopularity is essential. Despite the collateral damage, death to mostly innocent children meant that the gains from a limited massacre, only in the area of Bethlehem, outweighed the risks. There was no time to consider the long term effects on political culture.
Behind this story recorded in Matthew, though not mentioned, was the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus. Every nation and principality in the Empire understood the non-negotiable demands made of vassals: demands for stability, reliability, ideological harmony and access to material or human resources when the need arose.
The empire had financial and military limits and local rulers were left to their own devices, including the use of secret police to create at least the fiction of security and prosperity. The empire preferred to have its local strong man to carry out the heavy lifting of domination and cruelty to manufacture order. The interrogation, torture, and killing of enemies, often called terrorists, is work for lesser tetrarchs. The empire’s troops were only sent in as a last resort. The imperial heartland was reserved for pomp and the endless repetition of the myths of its glory.
But there is another thread in this story of empire, client states, vassals, intrigue and massacre. It involved the parents of the King baby, who listened the their dreams. It involved unexpected partners who offered protection and generous help along the way. The story of escape, return and new life is happening today too for those who have eyes to see, ears to hear and wise instincts to recognise the signs of the times.