Without question, Christmas is a season of deep emotion. Admittedly, it is not a happy time for everyone and it can be extremely painful for those who are alone, who are separated from loved ones, or who have suffered great loss. Nevertheless, for the majority of people in the west, the overarching themes of the Christmas season tend to focus on joy, hope, and love. Our celebrations are an echo of the angels’ message of good news (Luke 2:10–14) and the shepherds’ joy at being welcomed to the scene of Christ’s birth (Luke 2:20). But, “good tidings of great joy” do not constitute the sum total of the events that we traditionally refer to as the Christmas story. There is one aspect of the story that is uncomfortable to the point of being disturbing.
Though the traditional nativity scene with wise men at a wooden manger is probably not historically accurate (nor is their song, “We Three Kings”), the arrival of wise men from the east is generally included as part of the overall infancy/early childhood narrative of the incarnation of Christ. Most of us are probably somewhat familiar with their story (see Matthew 2:1–10). The wise men (also known as “magi”) travel to Judea following a star, and, upon their arrival in Jerusalem, report to King Herod to ask for directions to the birthplace of the “newborn king.” The king’s advisors point them to Bethlehem with a charge from the king to return with word of what they find. Upon finding the Christ child, however, they are warned by God in a dream (Matthew 2:12) to not report back to the king, so the magi return home by another way. Meanwhile, Joseph (Jesus’ earthly stepfather) is also warned by God in a dream to take the child and Mary, and to escape to Egypt (Matthew 2:13).
These events set the stage for the moment of Christmas tragedy—a scene that, I suspect, you will never see in a church Christmas pageant or on a Christmas card:
16 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. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
18“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)
“Rachel weeping for her children” is a gut-wrenching scene to imagine. We celebrate Christmas as a remembrance of the birth of the Christ, but we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that, during the events following the birth of Jesus that we gladly celebrate, others mourned deeply. The brutal murders of these small children were committed for no other reason than to calm the paranoia of a deeply troubled ruler.
Herod clearly feared that this “newborn king” would someday take his throne. The Bible Knowledge Commentary tells us:
It is no surprise that King Herod … was disturbed when the Magi came to Jerusalem looking for the One who had been “born King” (v. 2). Herod was not the rightful king from the line of David. In fact he was not even a descendant of Jacob, but was descended from Esau and thus was an Edomite. (He reigned over Palestine from 37 BC to 4 BC…) This fact caused most of the Jews to hate him and never truly to accept him as king, even though he did much for the country. If someone had been rightfully born king, then Herod’s job was in jeopardy.
In addition, it seems that Herod was a corrupt and angry man. Bible teacher Warren Wiersbe wrote:
Herod was a cruel and crafty man who permitted no one, not even his own family, to interfere with his rule or prevent the satisfying of his evil desires. A ruthless murderer, he had his own wife and her two brothers slain because he suspected them of treason. He was married at least nine times in order to fulfill his lusts and strengthen his political ties.
It is this intensely dark aspect of Herod’s personality that precipitated what has become known as “the slaughter of the innocents.” At that time, Bethlehem was a fairly small community and so some have speculated that perhaps “only” 20 or so children were killed. That relatively small number is hardly the point. The lives that were taken in this act of savage cruelty were offered on the altar of one man’s pride, fear, and paranoia—with families left to grieve and mourn an unspeakable loss.
Herod’s murderous act is a reminder that, first, acts of self-protection usually involve harm for others. The more we selfishly seek to secure ours and ourselves at all costs, the more likely we are to bring harm—and in this case, devastation—to others.
Second, the inclusion of the slaughter of children in Bethlehem into Jesus’ nativity/early childhood narrative is a reminder of how badly broken this world truly is—which of course is why Jesus came in the first place. His birth was marked by all the characteristics of the world around us, including the worst kinds of evil.