When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.” -Matthew 2:16-18 (NIV)
Herod’s thugs came in the middle of the night. They hammered on the door with the butts of their spears for just a few seconds, then kicked it in before I had a chance to get up and open it. They said they had some questions to ask. Clearly, though, they were men who were looking for trouble.
They started by demanding to know who owned the house1. When I spoke up, the leader of the group took me into a room away from everyone else. I could hear what was going on out there, though. The others were searching, waking everyone up. I could hear them yelling, something about children, baby boys.
Obviously, this was not going to end well.
“Who else lives here?” the Head Thug demanded. I ticked them off. My wife. Our children. Our elderly parents. My wife’s uncle. He cut me off when I mentioned the children; “How old are they?” he asked.
“15, 13, and 11,” I told him.
He dismissed that with a wave of his hand. “And has anyone else stayed here recently?” he demanded.
I laughed. He obviously didn’t care for that, so I laughed again, just for emphasis. “Everyone who owns a house in Bethlehem has had someone staying with them recently,” I explained. “The census. Everyone with family ties to Bethlehem had to come back. All our guests have left, though.”
As I said this, I heard something strange. It sounded like wailing, a sound like the grieving would make at a funeral. My hair stood on end. I started to walk past the soldier to see what was happening in the rest of the house, but he stepped between me and the door. “We’re not finished here, yet,” he growled.
Then I realized that the sound wasn’t coming from the house. It was coming from outside.
The soldier leaned close, scowling. “Did any of your guests give birth while they were here?” he asked.
I thought immediately of that young couple. What were their names? They were friends of our neighbors. I knew when they got here that three of them would leave. Joseph and Mary - I think that was it.
All that wailing was making it hard to think.
Wailing. Like young mothers mourning the deaths of their sons. Rachel, weeping for her children.
I understood, suddenly. Or, at least, I knew what was happening. Joseph and Mary had left in such a hurry with their newborn son. Right after those foreigners had visited. First them, and now Herod’s soldiers. What about a peasant couple from up north and a newborn baby could attract such attention from foreign magi and King Herod himself?
Joseph and Mary leaving so quickly, the soldiers coming - Well, Herod had murdered his own sons when he thought they might be plotting against him.2 This should come as no surprise. My eyes stung with tears as I listened to the voices of those grieving mothers, the cursing of angry fathers. Something shattered outside, and the soldier interrogating me looked away for an instant. Then he turned back to me.
“You have children,” he said. “Did any of your guests give birth while they were here?”
It was too much to risk for a lie that wouldn’t matter one way or another. Joseph and Mary had a couple of days’ head start. They were likely out of Herod’s reach by now anyway.
“Yes, there was a couple who had a baby boy while they were here. They’re gone now, though.”
“And I suppose you don’t know which way they were headed,” the soldier asked.
I shrugged. “They might have been heading north.”
Well, they might have been.
The soldiers left, and we went to comfort our grieving neighbors. I drank with the fathers, and listened to their ranting against the corrupt king who would murder innocent children like that, against a world in which the poor and powerless get ground into the dust under the heel of the rich and powerful. Even against a God who doesn’t do anything about it, who continues to punish the children for the sins of their fathers.
And I prayed. I prayed that God would do something for those grieving families. That he’d comfort them in the loss of their sons, and that he’d make the tyrant responsible pay. I prayed that somehow he’d save his people from the sin and death which had defined us for generations now. And I prayed that he would scatter the proud, arrogant rulers for whom the world was a personal playground, that he’d lift up the humble and broken and grieving, that he’d sweep away the kingdoms of the world and make his own kingdom a mighty mountain that fills the whole world.
That he’d remember to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever.
Take care, Joseph and Mary. Take care, little boy. May you grow up in a world where tyrants like Herod can’t hurt you.
1I’m assuming here that the “inn” in Luke 2 was the guest room of a private home, already full because of the large number of visitors in Bethlehem for the census. Bethlehem was probably not a large enough town that anyone would have expected to find an inn, per se.
2Alexander and Aristobolus IV in 7 B.C., and Antipater II in 4 B.C.