The Slaughter of the Innocents: The Dark Side of Christmas


The Slaughter of the Innocents: The Dark Side of Christmas
Brian Zahnd

As the Gospel of Matthew tells us, Jesus was born in the time of King Herod, and the history books tell us that most of civilization has been lived in the time of kings like Herod — that is, in the time of tyrant kings. I’m talking about the time of Herod, the time of Pharaoh, the time of Nebuchadnezzar, the time of Augustus, the time of Nero, all the way into modern times — the time of Hitler and Mussolini, the time of Franco and Salazar, the time of Pinochet and Putin. It’s tragically true that most people have lived their lives in the time of tyrant kings. But the gospel also announces the glad tidings that with the birth of Jesus heaven has invaded the time of tyrant kings!

Matthew tells the story of the first gentiles to receive the revelation (epiphany) of Christ the King. This is the beloved Christmas story of the Wise Men. These Oriental magi (or magicians) were most likely Zoroastrian priests from Persia skilled in astronomy, astrology, and dream interpretation who evidently somehow discerned in the stars an astrological sign announcing the birth of a new King of the Jews. The Zoroastrian priests regarded this birth as so auspicious that they embarked upon a dangerous and difficult thousand-mile journey from Persia to Judea in order to perform obeisance before the child and present their famous gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Because the magi were looking for a child king born in Judea, it made sense for them to inquire in the capital city of Jerusalem, but by doing so they unwittingly set in motion terrible events.

When Jesus was born, King Herod was nearing seventy and had reigned over Judea for more than thirty years. Herod was rich and powerful but increasingly paranoid. His paranoia may have stemmed from an anxious awareness of how tenuous his kingly position really was. Herod was the king of Judea but only as a vassal for the Roman Empire.

Herod had been born to an Edomite father and a Jewish mother and did not descend from either the Davidic or Hasmonean royal line. In 37 BC, around the age of forty, Herod was granted the kingship of Judea by the Roman Senate as a reward for his loyalty to Rome during the Parthian War. Following the installation ceremony in Rome, Herod walked out of the Senate building arm in arm with the two most powerful men in the world — Caesar Augustus and Mark Antony. Herod then led a procession up Capitoline Hill to the Temple of Jupiter where the newly minted King of the Jews offered a sacrifice to the chief deity in the Roman imperial religion. This should give you some idea why pious Jews were not thrilled with Herod as their king! It should also give you some idea of the kind of compromises a Jewish king would be required to make to stay in Rome’s good graces.

Throughout his reign, Herod had to navigate the treacherous politics of simultaneously quelling popular Jewish uprisings while maintaining the favor of his Roman overlords. As a client king unpopular with the local Jewish population but pragmatically useful to Rome, Herod was always just one political revolt away from being sacked by Caesar Augustus. It seems that the strain of constant political intrigue had made Herod a pathologically paranoid king.

So when a retinue of distinguished magi from Persia arrived in Jerusalem with the portentous news that a child had been born king of the Jews (not made king, but born king), Herod was more anxious than ever. The intelligence report from the magi informed Herod that the long-dead royal line of David had somehow revived and a legitimate successor to the throne of David had been born. Matthew tells the story of a child born in the time of tyrant kings owing tyrant kings nothing. This is the glad tidings of good politics brought to us at Christmas.

How did Herod take the surprising news of a revival in the lineage of King David? Not well. Herod had too much respect for the venerable magi to dismiss it as “fake news,” so, as Matthew tells us, “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” The birth announcement brought by the magi filled Herod with dread, and Herod’s fear of a baby shows just how fragile his ego was. And Jerusalem was afraid too. The citizens of Jerusalem were well aware of how dangerous life can be when a powerful ruler with a fragile ego is afraid. So all of Jerusalem was on edge — anxious about what the paranoid king might do.

What Herod did was commit one of the greatest crimes in the Bible — we call it the Slaughter of the Innocents. Though it’s true we have no corroboration of this atrocity outside of Matthew’s Gospel, the account is in keeping with what we know about Herod’s ruthless methods. Matthew tells us that the paranoid king sent death squads to Bethlehem — a tiny village just three miles from the Herodium palace — with the ghastly instructions to kill all male babies under the age of two.

The terrible massacre is commensurate with the predictable reaction of frightened kings and kingdoms who always deal in death — whether it’s death squads by night or Predator drones by day. In his terror Herod had targeted one baby for assassination, but many babies would end up dying. The church has called this horror the Slaughter of the Innocents, but modern day kings and kingdoms have sanitized it with the Orwellian term “collateral damage.”

I understand that most Christians don’t like to sully their sentimental version of Christmas with Matthew’s account of King Herod’s collateral damage; it too easily reminds us of drone strikes in Afghanistan gone awry that end up hitting wedding parties instead of terrorist cells. But this is the unflinching report given to us by the Evangelist.

So we let the dark side of Christmas speak to us. When contemporary superpowers adopt the ways of ancient tyrant kings, no matter how pragmatic the motives, we need to be honest about the fact that innocent people, even children, will be killed. We should always remember that the ends never justify the means; rather, the means are the ends in the process of becoming. If the means are death-dealing, the ends aren’t going to be life-affirming. You can bomb the world to pieces, but you can’t bomb the world to peace.

Offering a prophetic perspective on King Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents, Matthew gives us a Christmas text that will never be found on any Christmas card:

Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.
–Matthew 2:17, 18

Rachel, the wife of Jacob, is one of the matriarchs of Judaism. Rachel died in childbirth and was buried just outside of Bethlehem. To this day whenever I cross the walled border separating Jerusalem and Bethlehem I pass the still venerated Tomb of Rachel. The prophet Jeremiah, living six centuries before Christ, saw Rachel as a kind of patroness of Hebrew children. Anticipating the brutal slaughter that would befall even children with the invasion of Nebuchadnezzar’s armies, Jeremiah depicts Rachel weeping inconsolably over the slaughtered innocent children.

Six centuries later the Evangelist Matthew saw a further fulfillment of Jeremiah’s dark prophecy, a terrible fulfillment that came to pass when Herod executed the baby boys of Bethlehem who had the cruel misfortune of being born a little too close to the birth of King Jesus.

Of course we know the story, and we know the baby king escaped the gruesome infanticide ordered by the paranoid king. An angel warned Joseph in a dream to take the baby and his mother and escape to Egypt. In the flight to Egypt we see the Holy Family as refugees, and once we have seen the Holy Family as refugees fleeing a violent Middle East despot, it must forever influence how Christians view modern-day refugees in similar situations — in the eyes of God, they too are a kind of holy family.

These acts of prophetic imagination (to borrow a phrase from Walter Brueggemann) are necessary for those who would read the biblical Christmas story with contemporary relevance and not just romanticized sentimentality.

One of the remarkable things about the Bible is that it doesn’t paper over atrocity or shy away from giving vivid depictions of the brutality of life in the time of tyrant kings. We need to read the Bible as honestly as it is written and not try to domesticate it into the saccharine clichés of sentimental Christmas cards. For the light of the gospel to shine truthfully, we need to be honest about the darkness in which it shines.

Are we shocked by Herod’s crime? Of course. But though we are horrified, we should not be surprised. Tyrant kings and kingdoms have a long history of ruthlessly dealing with threat and dissent, and this is exactly what we find described in Matthew’s account of the Slaughter of the Innocents.

Stanley Hauerwas says, “Rome knew how to deal with enemies; you kill them or co-opt them.” Usually the rich get co-opted and the poor get killed. The Temple elite of Jerusalem are bought off while the peasant babies of Bethlehem are killed.

This is the darkness in which the light of the gospel comes to shine — “and the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” Or as the Christmas carol about the little town of Bethlehem says, “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light.”

Jesus’ invasion by birth into the dark time of tyrant kings gives us a choice: we can trust in the armed brutality of violent power or we can trust in the naked vulnerability of love. It seems like an absurd choice, but only one of these ways is the Jesus way. We have to choose between the old way of Caesar and the new way of Christ. It’s the choice between the sword and the cross. We have to decide if we’ll pledge our allegiance to the Empire of Power or the Empire of Love, but we can’t do both.

Following the Jesus way of loving enemies and doing good to those who hate us isn’t necessarily safe and it doesn’t mean we won’t ever get hurt, but it does mean the darkness won’t prevail.


(The artwork is Massacre of the Innocents by Giotto, 1305)