I can’t imagine the grief. I simply can’t.
I’ve been reading and studying about David, one of the most complex and human characters in the Bible. His story is told in 1 and 2 Samuel, as well as in the Psalms he wrote. David came from Bethlehem, and Bethlehem is (and was) known as the city of David.
David is one of three kings most directly associated with Bethlehem, the other two being Herod (“the great”) and the King whose kingdom was not of this world. David and Jesus were born there; Herod committed a crime there that was (and is) almost beyond comprehension.
The account of what is known as the slaughter of the innocents is found only in the Gospel of Matthew. In chapter two, Joseph is warned by an angel in a dream to escape to Egypt, because Herod was going to be searching for the child to kill him. Joseph listens, he takes Mary and Jesus to Egypt, and the family spends an extended period there, likely some years. (Novelist Anne Rice, who had best-sellers on vampires long before anyone had heard of "Twilight" and "New Moon," wrote a wonderful story imagining this time, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt.)
After the family leaves, according to Matthew, Herod – always insecurely paranoid when it came to his throne – orders the murder of every male child under the age of 2 in Bethlehem, to make sure the so-called king he had heard about was destroyed. There was room for only one king in Judea.
It was a brutal time, but this act stands out even for that era.
A number of scholars today discount the story. Only Matthew records it; Josephus doesn’t mention it in his histories; and so on and so on. (I have to remind myself that the Gospel of Matthew will still be read long after these scholars are forgotten.) But it is an act perfectly in keeping with what Herod was like and known for. If he didn’t hesitate to kill his own children, why should he worry about the children of people he didn’t know and for whom he cared nothing?
The movie The Nativity (2006) has a glimpse of the slaughter, but it’s only a glimpse. It’s hard to fathom the scene in Bethlehem. Very young children and babies struck down by soldiers, most likely with swords, along with anyone else who tried to protect them – fathers, mothers, siblings, relatives. The stories that died with those children; all the hopes and dreams replaced by unhealing wounds; the chaos as the attack occurred. How did the soldiers do it? Order all families out into the streets? Strip the children to identify gender? How many “mistakes” were made?
The mind reels and goes numb. And then the aftermath – the wails, the crying, the shock, the horror at what had happened. How do you survive seeing the murder of your child? And the question few if any in Bethlehem would have known how to answer – why was this happening? How did this happen in the city of David? How could it?
The contrast between what had just been and what came to be is enormous – the miraculous birth of the promised Messiah, and the slaughter of innocent children. Two poles of human experience. Two extremes of reality that happened in the same place, very close to the same time. The most extraordinary good, and the most extraordinary evil.
Because of the escape of his family, Jesus may well have been the only survivor of the attack – the one who was the intended victim.
And yet, in a way he wasn’t. Some three decades later, another innocent fell victim to a barbaric regime – the only survivor of that massacre at Bethlehem. And like those innocent children, the innocent man died in front of his mother.
I don’t know how to comprehend such grief. I’ve experienced the deaths of loved ones – a niece at age 2, my grandmothers in their 90s, my father at age 70, aunts and uncles, good friends. But I’ve never experienced what those families did in the city of David, and what the mother of Jesus watched happen in front of her – the grief of Bethlehem.
I can only be horrified by one, and grateful for the other.
(To read more about the topic of grief, visit the blog carnival at Peter Pollock's Rediscovering the Church.)