The Massacre of the Innocents
The nativity scene includes easily identifiable figures: the infant Jesus, Joseph and Mary, shepherds and angels, and the three wise men (or “magi”) delivering their gifts. The scene combines different gospel stories. The manger, the shepherds, and the angels all come from Luke’s account. The magi come from Matthew’s account, and their presence in the nativity scene alludes to one of the most gruesome stories in Scripture.
In Matthew 2, three sorcerers from the East arrive at the court of King Herod seeking the newborn King of the Jews, whom they intend to worship. The sorcerers know that it is time to worship the King—His star has risen—but they do not know the place. This is all news to Herod, who fancies himself the King of the Jews. Herod consults with the priests and scribes, and they tell him from the prophet Micah that the Messiah will come from Bethlehem.
At this point, it becomes apparent that Herod is hatching a scheme. “Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him’” (Matt 2.7-8). Herod makes an exchange with the sorcerers: he will tell them the place of the King’s birth if they will tell him the time.
God knows Herod’s scheme. The magi go and worship as they planned, lavishing rich gifts upon the newborn Christ, but God warns them in a vision not to return to Herod, so they return to the East by a different way. In another vision, God warns Joseph, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him” (Matt 2.13). Herod has been foiled.
The atrocity that Herod commits in response has been known ever since as the Massacre of the Innocents. “Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men” (Matt 2.16).
Though it might seem strange to pair the joy of the Savior’s birth with the slaughter of toddlers, it’s important that we remember the Massacre when we think about the Nativity. For one, it was an important enough association that Matthew chose to include it in his account, and its inclusion is no small matter.
Matthew’s account of the Nativity is sparse. Whereas Luke includes many details about Christ’s birth and the celebrations which occurred around it, Matthew barely describes the Nativity at all. In fact, Matthew’s account is so sparse that the birth itself seems merely an afterthought: “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but he knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus” (Matt 1.24-25, emphasis mine). The Nativity doesn’t even get its own sentence in Matthew’s account. Herod’s murder plot, on the other hand, takes up all of Matthew 2. We are to remember that a tyrant tried to murder the newborn Christ by massacring a city’s young boys.
Why do the Scriptures insist that we think on this horrible event whenever we consider the birth of Christ?
For one, it connects the work of Jesus to God’s broader work of salvation. Just as Pharaoh attempted to kill the savior, Moses, so too did Herod attempt to kill the Savior, Jesus. God delivered Israel from Egypt through Moses; He delivers us all from sin through Jesus.
In the Massacre of the Innocents, Matthew gives us a horrifying image of just exactly what Jesus came to save us from. It’s easy to say that “Jesus saves us from our sins” without contemplating what that means. The Massacre forces us to confront the horror of our own sin.
It also puts a name on our sin: oppression. The children Herod murdered were completely powerless, and Herod murdered them to protect his own power. It is one of the most enduring motives for sin, so much so that it is an apocalyptic trope ascribed to the Adversary himself (Rev 12). Punishing the oppressions of the powerful is the central message of the prophets.
Our culture has memorialized the Massacre in several paintings; spend some time looking at the versions painted by Pieter Brueghel the Elder and by Rubens. The Massacre is also the subject of a Christmas carol, the haunting “Coventry Carol.” And, of course, it is suggested in every nativity scene that includes the magi. When we see the magi joining the shepherds, the angels, Joseph, and Mary in worshipping the newborn Christ, we should remember the heaps of dead children in Bethlehem, we should repent of any part we have played in the oppression of the powerless, and we should pray for the justice of God to come quickly.