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The Magi and an Arbitrary Massacre

On a cool fall night in Bethlehem, late in the 34th year of the reign of king Herod, a peasant family of five sleeps quietly in a one room shanty at the edge of town. They are startled awake as two Roman guards burst through their door shouting something about an edict from a king. The terrified couple sits up in their straw bed but are commanded to remain still by a soldier who holds his sword inches from the neck of the young mother. Nothing is said as the other solider holds his lantern up to each of the faces of the three frightened children, as if to inspect them. “How old is the boy?,” the soldier sternly asks as he leans over the couple’s youngest child. “He’s not even two,” the sobbing mother says with a quivering voice and a tone that pleads for mercy.

The soldier suddenly rips the boy out of his tiny bed with both hands and makes his way to the door. The husband lurches toward the soldier but is knocked unconscious by the blunt end of his comrade’s sword. The desperate mother manages to grab the leg of the soldier carrying her son out the door, but he shakes her off and then kicks her face. The woman cups her gushing nose, forces herself off the floor and stumbles outside. Lying in the path several yards from the house she sees her little boy lying on the ground.  She screams and falls to her knees beside the boy. Blood is trickling out of his mouth. He mutters something unintelligible as their eyes make contact, for just a moment, one last time. Her boy had been run through twice with a sword. She looks up at the two soldiers who are quickly making their way down the path to the next Bethlehem shanty.  At the top of her lungs she cries, “Why?”

It’s a question the mother and father would carry with them the rest of their lives. By sunrise the couple would learn that another seven boys in their small town had been murdered and that Herod and given the order. But why? Every peasant knew Herod was a paranoid, vicious tyrant, but what could have possessed him to view their toddlers as a threat? Predictably, some residents of Bethlehem speculated that God had brought about the nightmare for a reason, whether to judge parents for their sin or to teach them and the whole town a lesson. To the couple living with their two surviving children in a one room shanty on the edge of town, such talk adds insult to injury.

As we look back on this event in the light of Scripture, we are afforded a much fuller picture of what transpired that tragic night a year or so after Christ was born. We know about the three Persian astrologers who had somehow learned a world-changing king was to be born in the east. We know about the star that led them to Jerusalem and how they naively thought the local ruler (Herod) would want to pay homage to this recently born king. We know how Herod had tried to use the  Magi to kill Jesus, and how an angel warned them not to return. And we know why this enraged tyrant decided to kill all males two-years-old and under, based on information the Magi had given him. In fact, if we look closely, we can even discern in these events the machinations of an evil cosmic ruler who, like Herod, had a motive to snuff Jesus out before his threatening movement could get off the ground (Rev. 12:1-5).

We thus know much more about what transpired than our unfortunate Bethlehem couple. But does this really answer the woman’s desperate cry of “why?” Is her son’s murder any less random because we know some historical facts surrounding it? I think not.

Consider that, unless we are willing to accept the chilling and irrational conclusion that free will simply doesn’t exist, we have to believe that, given the exact same circumstances of his life, Herod could have at some point in his past chosen to become a different kind of person. Herod didn’t have to become evil. (Indeed, if Herod was fated to be “evil,” we can hardly call him “evil,” for it’s not his fault.) Had Herod earlier in his life made better choices, including yielding (however unconsciously) to God’s ever-present Spirit wooing him toward the good, as he does with all of us, this first century Bethlehem couple may not have tragically lost their child.

At the same time, while Herod bears primary responsibility for becoming the deplorable person he’d become, there surely were thousands of missed opportunities throughout his life in which relatives and friends could have exerted a more positive influence on him, any one of which may have (for all we know) made a slight directional difference in his life and might have averted this disaster. On the other side, there were undoubtedly a multitude of human and angelic evil influences on Herod, including Satan, as we noted above. Each holds a share of moral responsibility in helping Herod become the monster he eventually became. Again, unless we are willing to accept that the evil character of these agents was fated — in which case they are not truly “evil” — then we must accept that each could have turned out differently. Had any done so, it’s possible Herod would have turned out somewhat different and that this atrocity would not have happened. Clearly, while Herod is obviously the main culprit, the responsibility for this (and every other) evil is in reality shared by many.

There were countless other chance variables in play that terrible night as well, any one of which might have averted this disaster. For example, what if one of the Magi had persuaded the others that the prophetic evidence for this king was too speculative to warrant this long and expensive journey? Or what if one of these “wise men” had been able to talk some sense into the others and convince them that telling Herod about a recently born rival king was a bad idea? Going back before Herod’s time, what if the militant Maccabean John Hyrcanus hadn’t conquered Idumea in 130 BC, forcing all Herod’s ancestors to convert to Judaism? Had this not happened, none of Herod’s Idumean forefathers, including his father Antipater, would have been able to rise to power in the area that includes Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Someone else — perhaps someone more just and sane — would have been on the throne. At the same time, John Hyrcanus would never have embarked on this military campaign, which began in 140 BC, were it not for a countless number of contingent events that formed him into the kind of person he was and that made this campaign viable to him.

The fact of the matter is that, to comprehensively understand why this Bethlehem couple lost their child on that gruesome night, we’d have to exhaustively understand every single variable, including every human and angelic free decision, extending back to the beginning of time that came to bear on Herod’s decision to massacre the innocents. Had any of these been different, the barbarism might not have come to pass (but also could have turned out worse). Which means that neither this couple nor anyone else on this side of eternity will be able to answer the woman’s tormented cry, “why?” And for the same reason, none of us can ultimately answer the “why” of any episode of evil.

But it’s important, I believe, that we understand why we can’t understand why. When people fail to remember the virtually infinite chain of contingent influences that lie behind every single contingent occurrence, including episodes of evil, they often are inclined to pin the arbitrariness of the event on God. The unanswerable mystery of why things happen the arbitrary way they do then becomes a mystery about God’s supposedly inscrutable will and character. We are then asked to believe that God in some sense wanted all the little boys of Bethlehem to be slaughtered — along with the Holocaust and every other unthinkable nightmare in history!

I submit to you that, while every contingent event in history is ultimately inscrutable, God’s will and character are not. God revealed his will and character in Jesus Christ, and he did so unambiguously. Jesus is the exact representation of God’s very essence (Heb. 1:3). “If you see me, you see the Father” (Jn 14:9). Jesus never went around slaughtering toddlers and tormenting parents, so we have no reason to think God goes around doing this. The unanswerable nature of the question “why?” is thus not a question that we should attach to God’s will and character. It’s a question we should rather attach to the virtually infinite complexity of a creation that is populated with good and evil human and angelic free agents.

This last Sunday I was approached after service by an obviously distraught lady. She did not know how she was going to survive this Christmas season, since this was her first Christmas without her precious ten-year-old son who recently died of cancer. Among other things, she was tormented by the question “why?” I told her the story of the arbitrary murder of the son of the Bethlehem couple and explained why, this side of eternity, we can’t ever know why one child is murdered by soldiers or by cancer while others live long and happy lives. But we can and must know that God is not a thief who “kills, steals and destroys” (Jn 10:10). That is Satan. Rather, God looks like Jesus Christ, dying on a cross for the very people who crucified him.

And soon, when the reign of this crucified Savior is fully established, mothers will no longer be estranged from their children, and we’ll see how God ingeniously used even the nightmares perpetrated by evil-doers to accomplish his good purposes (Rom. 8:28; Eph. 1:9-11).

art: “Magi”
by: Pavel Filonov
date: 1914

Tags: ,

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