The Slaughter of the Innocents

December 22, 2008 | 26 comments
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After the wise men came,

behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.

Then Herod slaughtered all the two-year olds and all the one-year olds and all the babies in Bethlehem.

Joseph and his family being saved from Herod is part of the Christmas story, and Herod killing the other children is part of the story of Joseph and his family being saved.

What does it mean? You can say that its just what happened, it doesn’t have to have a meaning–but while the Christmas story is true story, its still a story, and stories mean things. Humor me. What does it mean?

I know a gal who wanted to be merry and spiritual and happy at Christmas but who just felt oppressed by the whole, long Christmas season. She discovered that she could do it, but only if she set aside a day around Christmas to, I guess, mourn. She said she needed a day to be gloomy and somber and go to the temple and think about the dead, and that made the Christmas spirit in the rest of the Christmas seasons doable for her.

Maybe the slaughter of the innocents serves role of contrast. Its the dark night, in which a Star can be seen.

Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lullay, Thou little tiny Child.
By, by, lully, lullay.

O sisters, too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day;
This poor Youngling for whom we sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Herod the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young, to slay.

Then woe is me, poor Child, for Thee,
And ever mourn and say;
For Thy parting, nor say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay

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26 Responses to The Slaughter of the Innocents

  1. Kathryn Lynard Soper on December 22, 2008 at 10:13 am

    “One day my family sat watching the big screen production of The Greatest Story Ever Told. There you see a sinister Herod send his soldiers to Bethlehem. Then come the screams of mothers, glimpses of blood-smirched swords pulled from children’s bodies. Then you see Mary and Joseph, who have received divine warning, walking peacefully with their Babe toward the safety of Egypt. As this scene closed, the hand of my little girl came into mine and she whispered, confused and frightened, “Daddy, didn’t Heavenly Father care about those other children?” (Truman Madsen)

    A dark night, indeed.

  2. WillF on December 22, 2008 at 10:23 am

    My guess is that it means that people will do terrible evil things in an attempt to prevent God’s plan from coming to pass, but they will only succeed in damning themselves in the process.

  3. Eric Boysen on December 22, 2008 at 11:02 am

    #1 – Hard to explain to the child, but the slain babes went on their way back to Father. The ones who were left in pain were not the children, but their mothers. Why did God not love them?

  4. Julie M. Smith on December 22, 2008 at 11:21 am

    “I know a gal who wanted to be merry and spiritual and happy at Christmas but who just felt oppressed by the whole, long Christmas season. She discovered that she could do it, but only if she set aside a day around Christmas to, I guess, mourn. She said she needed a day to be gloomy and somber and go to the temple and think about the dead, and that made the Christmas spirit in the rest of the Christmas seasons doable for her.”

    Christmas is so hard for so many people. I’m glad this gal found something that worked for her. Maybe we should spearhead a movement to allow an official gloomyday before Christmas.

  5. Rameumptom on December 22, 2008 at 11:33 am

    We do need to put this into contrast. Bethlehem was probably a hamlet of 1000 people at the time. It probably only had about 20 male children under the age of 2 in it at the time. So, while it is terrible that innocents were killed, it was a very small number that would have been slain. (I learned this last night on the History Channel, btw).

    Any innocent death is a tragedy, until one considers the triumph that Christ creates out of it. Death and tears are for but a moment, and then comes the rejoicing and salvation of God’s children!

  6. Julie M. Smith on December 22, 2008 at 11:41 am

    Rameumptom,

    I’m imagining that that would have been absolutely no comfort whatsoever to their mothers. None.

  7. WillF on December 22, 2008 at 11:52 am

    #3 and #6: might not want to leave the fathers out of the grief either!

  8. Kathryn Lynard Soper on December 22, 2008 at 11:56 am

    amen, Julie.

  9. BTD Greg on December 22, 2008 at 12:15 pm

    Wait, why did Joseph and Mary have to go to Egypt, anyway? I thought they were just visiting Bethlehem during the census when Jesus was born. It wasn’t even Jesus’ home town. If the slaughter of the innocents was limited to Bethlehem, wouldn’t Jesus have been safe by the time Herod sent his assassins?

    Of course, another reason for Joseph to take his family to Egypt would be to fulfill the messianic prophesy that the savior would come out of Egypt.

    Can someone clear this up for me? It would all be so much easier if I had an etiological, stop-action Rankin-Bass Christmas special to explain it all in simple terms.

  10. NJensen on December 22, 2008 at 1:02 pm

    I know that in the liturgical calendar, my birthday corresponds with the Feast of the Innocents (Dec. 28th). In addition, in Spain and in some Latin American countries, Dec. 28th is actually a day for children’s pranks, a kind of recognition of the innocence of childhood. I think that’s another reason to be grateful for the season.

  11. Kevin Barney on December 22, 2008 at 1:02 pm

    I like dark things (film noir, for example), and Coventry Carol is actually one of my very favorites. As Christmas carols go I find it absolutely haunting.

  12. Bookslinger on December 22, 2008 at 1:54 pm

    BTD Greg, #9. Joseph may have made a name for himself at the inn and other homes by pleading that his very pregnant wife needed a room. Under the duress caused by the soldiers, someone may have said “Oh, you’re looking for that couple from Nazareth, whose wife gave birth in a barn.”

    Being a hamlet of 1000, they likely did not come and go anonymously. And, it being a census, their names and hometown were likely taken.

    IE, they were probably traceable back to Nazareth.

  13. stevo on December 22, 2008 at 2:30 pm

    I have just finished studying a bit about the history of the Roman Empire. One of the things that I was struck with was what care they took to keep track of everything. Good records were usually kept. It appears that Herod was a very poor Governor based on what we “know” from Roman history. Is there, however, any mention of this slaughter anywhere other than our scripture? The slaughter of infants, whether 20 or 200 ought to have merited mention and discussion. I am not saying that there isn’t mention of it; I am claiming total ignorance.

    Now as to the questions posed, the meaning of this part of the story is hard for me to understand except that it can make a number of points, some of which may have been more important to those who were the story’s immediate audience than to us:

    1. The Romans were bad and evil overlords of Palestine.

    2. The forces of evil were out to get Jesus from the very beginning.

    3. Jesus was rescued through miraculous means (a dream), with Joseph taking risks for him.

    4. Scipture prophesy was fulfilled.

    I also find it interesting to note that his time in Egypt is never mentioned in anyway by him, his followers, or by his enemies.

  14. Kevin Barney on December 22, 2008 at 2:45 pm

    Stevo, on your question re: the historicity of the slaughter, the answer is no, the slaughter is not mentioned in any contemporary ancient sources other than Matthew and sources derivative therefrom (such as the Protevangelium of James).

    One possible conclusion from this is that the slaughter is not historical.

    The other take is that that is an argument from silence, such a slaughter is absolutely in character for what we know of Herod, and Bethlehem was small and insignificant enough that there is no reason to assume this should be found in Josephus (the main place one might look for external confirmation).

  15. Adam Greenwood on December 22, 2008 at 6:01 pm

    It appears that Herod was a very poor Governor based on what we “know” from Roman history.

    Herod wasn’t a Governor, he was a client king.

  16. Marc D on December 22, 2008 at 8:32 pm

    Luke does not mention Egypt at all. He says they went back to Nazareth.
    Luke 2:39

  17. Ray on December 22, 2008 at 10:40 pm

    Brad wrote a beautiful post last year about this topic on that other blog that must not be named. It has lingered with me as much as any post I have read at any time. Rather than try to summarize it, here is the link:

    http://www.bycommonconsent.com/2007/12/thoughts-on-the-meaning-of-the-birth-of-jesus/

    Ronan’s comment #3 struck me when I read it for the first time, and I used it yesterday as the basis for my Sac. Mtg. talk on the lesson of Christmas for our time.

  18. SC Taysom on December 22, 2008 at 11:13 pm

    In one sense, Christmas is simply the opening of a mortal story that, by its end, is literally drenched in the blood of the innocent. So in that sense, the narrative device (historically accurate or not) prefigures an elemental aspect of Christ’s mission. This entire topic also brings to mind one of my favorite Christmas hymns, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” and the infrequently sung verses describing each of the three gifts. I am thinking specifically of this one:

    Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
    Breathes of life of gathering gloom
    Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
    Sealed in the stone-cold tomb

    [Ed. – great point, and great hymnody. Thanks.]

  19. Jim Donaldson on December 23, 2008 at 12:36 am

    I’m not sure that the slaughter was confined to Bethlehem. There are those verses (Matthew 23:35/Luke 11:51) where Jesus late in his ministry talks about the death of Zacharias, the father of John Baptist, who was murdered in Jerusalem (between the temple and the altar). Joseph Smith taught (in the, uh, original T & S, 9/1/1842) that Zac was killed for refusing to disclose to Herod’s henchmen the location where Elizabeth was hiding the baby John, but I don’t think that Zac and Elizabeth were living in Bethlehem at that point (if they ever were), they were in Jerusalem because Zac was the officiating high priest that year. So the net might well have been cast all over Jerusalem, not just Bethlehem, quite a bit bigger city. Historicity aside.

    One other point: it would have been important, I think, to Matthew to draw the parallel between the Toddler Death Sentence imposed at the time of Moses’ birth and that of Jesus. Matthew turns over every rock looking for prophecies and parallels. And that might be the explanation for the inclusion of the story there, but nowhere else.

  20. Jack on December 23, 2008 at 1:10 am

    The slaughter of the children of Bethlehem intensifies the meaning and depth of God’s condescension. It is a foreshadowing of the Savior’s death–in that he would die innocently at the hands of murderers who take away his precious life to secure their own power as they suppose. In the same way that we would mourn the deaths of those sweet little souls who did nothing to merit such barbarous cruelty from their oppressors we, perhaps, ought to mourn the death and suffering of Lamb of God who from his infancy until his physical demise would maintain his innocence crying “Abba Father” all his days.

  21. Adam Greenwood on December 23, 2008 at 8:09 am

    Great comments all. I especially appreciate the insight that the slaughter of the innocents points to Christ being the ‘Lamb slain from the foundation of the world,’ born to die in innocence.

  22. Kari on December 23, 2008 at 11:46 am

    The other take is that that is an argument from silence, such a slaughter is absolutely in character for what we know of Herod, and Bethlehem was small and insignificant enough that there is no reason to assume this should be found in Josephus (the main place one might look for external confirmation).

    Interesting. I’m wondering how this actually happened as Herod died in 4 B.C. and Christ was born in 1 A.D. (according to Talmadge).

    It appears that Herod was a very poor Governor based on what we “know” from Roman history.

    You should check out December’s National Geographic article about Herod. It is fascinating, yet brief, and certainly gives the impression that he was anything but a poor governor from the Romans’ perspective.

  23. Adam Greenwood on December 23, 2008 at 12:07 pm

    Drive-by Talmage snark. Yo.

  24. Kari on December 23, 2008 at 12:46 pm

    It wasn’t meant to be a snark, Adam.

    All I meant to say was that if a prophet has taught, in what is still an official Church publication, that our current dating is correct, and Jesus was born in 1 AD (although I will correct my original statement, Talmage actually states Christ was born in 1 BC), how can we believe that the account in Matthew (and nowhere else as Kevin Barney points out) is factual?

    Maybe the only meaning of the story is that Matthew wanted to make the rulers of Judea into the worst characters he could because it fits his narrative theme that Jesus is the rightful heir of the throne of David. Demonizing those you want to overthrow is a time-honored tradition of revolution.

  25. Pippin on December 27, 2008 at 5:26 pm

    National Geographic magazine published an article about Herod in December 2008 in which the author, Tom Mueller, says Herod is “almost certainly innocent of this crime”, referring to the slaughter of the infants, “of which there is no report apart from Matthew’s account. But children he certainly slew, including three of his own sons, along with his wife, his mother-in-law, and numerous other members of his court. Throughout his life, he blended creativity and cruelty, harmony and chaos, in ways that challenge the modern imagination.” It’s an interesting article if anyone wants to know more about Herod than just the caricature most of us have carried in our minds since our childhood.
    I also seem to need one good emotional breakdown during the Christmas season. I have never figured out why. Maybe it’s because the world is filled with a blend of “creativity and cruelty, harmony and chaos”.

  26. Pippin on December 27, 2008 at 5:28 pm

    Oops! I just noticed that Kari already commented on the National Geographic article. Sorry to be repetitive.