Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The Massacre of the Innocents

There's an interesting discussion about this. Jim McGrath is glad the story isn't historical, and God didn't really neglect to warn all those other families of what was going to happen. Tony Jones is glad it did happen; if you disbelieve it, he says, you silence the victims.

My own take is different. I'm sure it's not historical, but that's not the point. Matthew is reworking the story of Pharaoh killing the babies. In both cases, they're trying to get rid of a potential threat, by slaughtering infants. The threats are different; Jesus was a potential rival, while the Israelites were  breeding too fast, and could have become uncontrollable. But the reactions are the same.

I don't suppose the Pharaoh story is historical either, but both stories work because this is the type of paranoid reaction which might be expected from a king. If Josephus' story of Herod's last days - the king had the sons of the chief men in Jerusalem banged up, with instructions to kill them as soon as he was dead, to ensure that the city mourned - has anything in it, he must have been precisely the sort of tyrant who would react in this way.

So even if the story isn't historical, it still encapsulates truth. A new king is born, one who, simply by existing, poses a threat to the kingdoms of this world. When the authorities hear the news, they lash out. Jesus, not for the only time in Matthew, looks very like Moses. There's theological truth there which goes far deeper than mere history.

PS There's an update here from Jim McGrath.

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