Brad Reads the Gospels: Matthew 2

Signs and wonders continue, as a troupe of wise men enter the great city of Jerusalem and approach the palace of King Herod in search of the newborn King of the Jews.  Here, again, there’s a gap between the mythology and the text.  The Scripture speaks not of kings, but of magi, astrologers who divined the future from the stars.  The same word is used in the Acts of the Apostles to refer to Elymas, the sorceror whom Paul blinded, and Simon Magus, the wizard who sought to buy the power of miracles.  And it is astrology which has led them to this place, and to this time.  Traditionally, they are depicted as following the star of the new King in the same way the Israelites followed the pillar of cloud through the wilderness, and this does seem to be implied over in verse nine.  However, before then, they go straight to Jerusalem, Israel’s capital city, reasoning that if a new Jewish king has been born, he will be born there.  And of course their numbers are indeterminate, the customary assumption being based on the number of different kinds of things they present to Jesus.  This assumption is really rather silly, when you think about it.

In any case, here they are, a group of wizards from the East, and while they’re not kings, they are rich enough to make a long journey laden with a gold, frankincense and myrrh, and important enough to get an audience with Herod.

Herod.  Herod the Great, presumably.  His claim to the title of “King of the Jews” was upheld by the Roman army, which helped him suppress all rival claimants.  He killed his wife, two of his sons, and a lot of other people, which did not endear him to the Sanhedrin, despite his massive expansion of the Temple.  All in all, he seems to have been a nasty tyrannical piece of work, and Matthew portrays him as such.  His response to the news of a new king?  Hunt and kill.

The scribes, Matthew tells us, were soon able to point out to Herod and his visitors that the foretold King was to be born in Bethlehem, the modest town where King David had grown up.  And so Herod got together privately with the wizards, and learned as much as he could about what they knew, especially when they’d first seen this new star in the heavens.

8And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.

And then one of the wizards whispered to another, “did you hear that ominous musical cue?  And that roll of thunder that went off when he said that, with the lightning flash silhouetting him in a particularly sinister light as he laughed maniacally?”  And the other guy whispered back “ah, it’s probably nothing.”

Now they follow the star, and in Bethlehem, they find the house beneath it, where they find the newwborn King, and prostrate themselves before Him.  Here’s our first indicator that time has passed, as the family has apparently found better accomodations than a feeding trough.

The prostration is significant, too.  In the Jewish tradition, it’s not something much done.  Note the story of Mordecai in the Book of Esther.  But kneeling, bowing and prostrating oneself before God is a very longstanding part of Christian tradition, and it seems to have roots here.

Luckily, the trusting nature of these astrologers didn’t lead them into any more trouble, for a dream warns them to take the long road home, away from where Herod was.  And another dream was sent to Joseph, warning him that now would be a very good time to flee to Egypt for a while.

15And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.

We have already noted that Matthew was pretty keen to underscore Jesus’ fulfillment of prophecy.

Unluckily, Herod had a general location, and an age range, and a willingness to do just about anything to hold on to power.

16Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying,

18In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.

Jeremiah was not the most comforting of prophets.

There is much debate about the Massacre of the Innocents.  For one thing, it doesn’t get mentioned in any other contemporary sources, none earlier than an apocryphal Gospel from around 150 AD.  And given Josephus’ antipathy for Herod, it seems like something he might have mentioned.  And the story does have a certain mythic quality to it.  With the flight into Egypt, there are some interesting connections to the story of the Exodus.  Personally, I do not think it’s wholly implausible that a few infanticides, kept as quiet as possible, might have been overlooked by the historical record, but that is something of a leap of faith.

Natheless, even regarded as pure myth, it’s a tale worth considering.  Grappling with theodicy is hard enough without contemplating the nameless, numberless children who died in place of the one who dies in our place.  “This is an hard saying; who can hear it?”

Herod, called the Great, died not long after.

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