King Herod and the Original War on Christmas
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. (Matthew 2:16)1
It is once again that wonderful time of year when the snow comes down, the decorations and trees go up, and the lyrical sound of media pundits debating America’s “war on Christmas” fills the airwaves. Much like Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas”, the outrage and counter-outrage is inescapable. For example, we have Bill O’Reilly’s bizarre circus of excitable talking heads,2 the equally bizarre knee-jerk reaction to O’Reilly from Salon,3 and Franklin Graham’s recent message that secularization of government property is tantamount to waging war against Jesus Christ. Now, as a military veteran who very much appreciates the provisions of the Constitution he swore to defend, I might point out our government has no obligation to kowtow to Christianity. As a student of church history, I might even point out that Christianity as an official component of the state has an abominable track record. As an observer of the Middle East, I might discuss how I am very, very glad that no lips in our nation are forced to pay service, whether by the barrel of a soldier’s rifle or the blade of a fellow citizen’s sword, to any religion they do not affirm.
I could say all this and more. Today, however, I would like to dial back the clock a couple millennia and turn to the real story of the war on Christmas. The protagonist of this story is not a community of believers protesting their crumbling cultural cachet, but a helpless young child and his terrified mother and stepfather. Our antagonist is not the mainstream media4 or an atheist political action group, but the king and steward of Jerusalem, Herod the Great. Our setting is not a modern democracy but a province of the Roman Empire. This is the story of a man who did declare war on Jesus, a man who, in a very literal sense, tried to kill Christmas.
We join our heroes in ancient Judea. It has been perhaps two years since the birth of Mary’s son, whose time on the earth has already been divinely marked. Beyond Gabriel’s visit, beyond the fulfillment of prophecies, we see many echoes of God’s work throughout history. Jesus is born in a stable, in the midst of animals, as Adam was created in a land already filled with animals. Mary, a virgin, could not possibly have given birth to a child without divine interference, much like the barren Sarah and Rachel. Once again, the deliverer of Israel was born in enemy territory: Moses in Egypt and Jesus in a land that witnessed centuries of foreign domination. As in Egypt, the ruler of Judea was a man divorced from God and married to power, and he sought to protect his position through the eradication of a generation of male children. As Pharaoh ordered the extermination of the Israelite boys, so Herod ordered the extermination of males under the age of two in and around Bethlehem.
Our sole source for King Herod’s order is the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. According to the text, three pagan wisemen from the East appeared in Jerusalem, “following yonder star”, as the song goes. They inquired where they might find “he who has been born king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2). Herod, troubled by the news, summoned the priests, who informed him of Micah’s prophecy that a king to Israel would be born in Bethlehem. He then sent for the wise men and asked that they return with news of the child, should they find him. It was not to be so; the magi found the child, and we read in the text “they fell down and worshiped him” (2:11). Being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, these great pagan thinkers departed for their homeland. Upon hearing this news, Herod grew furious and issued the bloody command.
While Herod’s order to kill the children of Bethlehem is unattested in the remaining Gospels and other historical sources, his cruelty and propensity for violence is well-known. In particular, he’s known for the murder of much of his own family, including his beloved wife, Mariamne.
“Despite his affection for Mariamne, he was prone to violent attacks of jealousy; his sister Salome (not to be confused with her great-niece, Herodias’s daughter Salome) made good use of his natural suspicions and poisoned his mind against his wife in order to wreck the union. In the end Herod murdered Mariamne, her two sons, her brother, her grandfather, and her mother, a woman of the vilest stamp who had often aided his sister Salome’s schemes.”5
Given the independent attestation of Herod’s propensity to such violence, we have good reason to trust Matthew’s account of the slaughter.6
What came of all this? We read in Matthew that the king carried out the slaughter, an act of brutality that fulfilled the prophecy of Jeremiah (2:18). In a twist of irony, Mary and Joseph took Jesus and fled the Promised Land for the safety of Egypt. There, they waited for the death of Herod. The mad king’s death was not far off. “He was in great pain and in mental and physical disorder. He altered his will three times and finally disinherited and killed his firstborn, Antipater… After an unsuccessful attempt at suicide, Herod died.”7
Rather than celebrate the birth of the prophesied messiah, Herod waged war upon the child. His efforts were in vain. His slaughter did nothing, except bring the sound of “Rachel weeping for her children” (Matthew 2:18) and, as Chesterton notes, evoke the child sacrifices to the pagan gods of Canaan.8 He was a man of violence and madness, perhaps more devil than man. Herod, pretender to the throne of Israel, sought to slay the rightful heir in his infancy by means of a massacre. In doing so, Herod waged war on Christmas with such violence and cruelty that the modern mind reels at the very thought of it.
How then do we declare it a war on Christmas when a checkout clerk does not say “Merry Christmas”? What comparison is there between a government that removes red poinsettias from a courthouse and a government that spills the red blood of its children? The contrasts are ludicrous because the situation is ludicrous. Christmas is not, as my television says, all about surprising my wife with a luxury car or experiencing generic “magic.” Nor is it, as some of the most dour Christians insist, all about the atoning power of Jesus’ blood. Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, is about the hope and renewed courage brought by the rightful king of the world. Broken, defeated, and overrun, Israel cried out for one last deliverer, a Judge of judges and a King of kings.That cry was answered by a wailing newborn on a dirty stable floor. The powers of the world fought against this child to no avail, for they had no power that could trump God’s. This is a season of celebration and inspiration, not fear and paranoia.
That is, unless you’re King Herod.View Sources
1. All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright © 2000; 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2. O’Reilly’s guest argues atheists protest Christmas because they’re bitter over their minority status.
3. The Salon article implies the Crusades “spread Christianity”, a claim that, at best, is utterly divorced from reality.
4. Fox News, by the way, dominates television news viewership. I believe we may reasonably qualify it as a part of mainstream media, if not its leader.
5. Encyclopedia Britannica, “Herod.” http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/263437/Herod
6. We also rely on the authority of Scripture, but independent verification is always beneficial.
7. Encyclopedia Britannica.
8. Chesterton, G.K., “The God in the Cave,” in The Everlasting Man http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks01/0100311.txt. Project Gutenberg text.
Photo taken by Lawrence OP at Flickr Creative Commons. Used under (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)