At the time of Jesus’ birth, particularly as depicted in Matthew’s Gospel, there was enormous drama. The story juxtaposes stark contrasts: stars and swords; majestic kingly visitations and twisted kingly agitation; children who die and the child who gets away.
Mary rejoicing — Rachel weeping.
“Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!”
Yet how do we reconcile this glorious birth of a savior with the bloody death of innocent boys?
Herod, who was the Roman king of Judea when Jesus was born, got word that royal visitors were passing through the region and called for a private meeting. The Magi, as they are denoted in the Gospel, were not necessarily kings and there may not have been three of them — but they were, in any case, wise.
Skilled astronomers and members of a priestly caste who may have been Zoroastrian, they were industrious, courageous truth-seekers from present-day Iran or thereabouts. One biblical historian suggests they left Persia late in 3 B.C. directed by an astronomical phenomenon — and arrived in late 2 B.C., when Jesus was a toddler.
Herod learned from these “wise men” the time when an unusual star first appeared, indicating the birth of someone destined to be a king. He told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!”
After this interview, the wise men went their way and finally “entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.” By this time the child and his family were ensconced in a house (Matthew 2:10), and Herod calculated the child could have been born up to two years earlier.
The visitors then “returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod.” As a result of this slight, “Herod was furious when he realized that the wise men had outwitted him. He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, based on the wise men’s report of the star’s first appearance” (Matthew 2: 7-9; 11-12; 16). Joseph was warned about this in a dream and escaped to Egypt with his wife and son before the slaughter commenced.
It was well-known at the time that Herod suffered from “distemper,” which the historian Josephus said “greatly increased upon him after a severe manner.” This topped off his well-attested paranoid ravings, which had already driven him to command that his wife, along with his two promising sons, be executed. This man “of great barbarity towards all men equally” had been confirmed “King of the Jews” in 40 B.C. by the Roman Senate. Little wonder, then, that at this decrepit stage of life, he was in no mood to hear word of one “born king of the Jews.”
“A cry of anguish is heard in Ramah — and weeping unrestrained. Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted — for her children are dead.”
Matthew summons the ghost of Rachel, wife of biblical patriarch Jacob, quoting the prophet Jeremiah to express the grief of these mothers: “A cry of anguish is heard in Ramah — and weeping unrestrained. Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted — for her children are dead” (Jeremiah 31:15, NLT).
Ramah was where the Jews gathered before they were carried off to Babylon. There, Jeremiah cites Rachel’s weeping as God’s own lament over the loss of his children. Rachel herself died in sorrow as she gave birth to her second son, naming him Ben-Oni (“son of my trouble”); she died “on the way” (to Bethlehem), never securing a permanent home.
Rachel was not comforted and this became God’s chosen metaphor for the apogee of anguish: the picture of a mother weeping for her lost children.
Ivan Karamazov, in Feodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” echoes the sentiment as the intellectual agnostic who poses a question to his spiritually sensitive brother, Alyosha: “But then, what about the children? How will we ever account for their sufferings?”
Ivan acknowledges that thinking adults may “have eaten from their apple of knowledge; they know about good and evil and are gods themselves. And they keep eating the apple.” But, he says, “little children haven’t eaten it.”
“How is it possible to atone for them?” he asks. “If the suffering of little children is needed to complete the sum total of suffering required to pay for the truth, I don’t want that truth, and I declare in advance that all the truth in the world is not worth the price.”
He adds, “It isn’t that I reject God; I am simply returning Him most respectfully the ticket that would entitle me to a seat.”
Perhaps if the mothers of Bethlehem understood the birth of a savior would cost the lives of their sons, they might have returned their tickets, too.
It could be argued — indeed, in a very twisted way — that it might have been more “just” if Joseph and Mary’s son had perished with the rest of the boys. Thus, the question would have been resolved: Why did God save Him and not all? (He didn’t — all were killed.)
But those of us who claim faith in the Gospel must be willing to look at these kinds of movements with searching eyes and Gospel logic, which often makes little sense. Gospel logic asserts that the one who got away is the ticket that Ivan handed back to God.
Jesus had to escape Herod’s decree in order to face the day when the angels would not intervene, and when Joseph would not whisk him to Egypt — the day when Mary, not Rachel, would weep and could not be comforted.
Author N. T. Wright, in “The Lord and His Prayer,” writes that when Jesus delivered us from evil, He went “solo and unaided into the whirlpool [of evil], so that it may exhaust its force on him and let the rest of the world go free.” Jesus, in the end, was the one “who was not delivered from evil.”
Rachel’s lament as it appears in the book of Jeremiah concludes optimistically: “Do not weep any longer, for I will reward you. Your children will come back to you.”
In its fullness, God’s portrait of grief — the weeping mother — is overruled by the picture of children returning: “See, I will give a signal to the godless nations. They will carry your little sons back to you in their arms; they will bring your daughters on their shoulders” (Isaiah 49:22, NLT).
Terror, too, is part of the Christmas narrative. For all the twists in the story, and for all its crushing contrasts, it ultimately is the story, as Wright notes, of “when darkness breaks with the human cry of a small baby, blinking up at his Mother in the sudden light, and seeing her face.” Rachel is comforted after all.
Wendy Murray served as regional correspondent for TIME magazine in Honduras in the early 1990s, and later as associate editor and senior writer at Christianity Today. She is the author of 10 nonfiction books and a novel.