A Massacre in Bethlehem

“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.” —Matthew 2:16

What ran through Joseph and Mary’s mind when the first dispatches came back of the massacre in Bethlehem? Did Joseph steel his emotions in front of Mary, working out his disquiet in whatever punishing day labor was afforded him in this new country? Did Mary crumble into spontaneous fits of tears muddled with snot and laughter as baby Jesus smiled at her sideways like he was up to something? Were household chores interrupted intermittently as names of family they had recently reacquainted themselves with came to mind? Did they succumb to survivor’s guilt contemplating the fates of distant nieces and nephews? Why Jesus? Why us? Why weren’t the parents of the other infants and toddlers warned like they were?

The angel was clear. Go to Egypt. It’s a curious choice, Egypt. The readings of Torah and the daily prayers offered by every first-century Jew told and retold the story of Jacob sending his sons to Egypt when the promised milk and honey had turned sour and dried up. Egypt had provided refuge to Joseph and Mary’s ancestors before.

But the call to go to Egypt cast a long, long shadow in Israel’s collective memory. Much more so than a place of refuge, Egypt represented their ruin. What Jewish person would have escaped to Egypt were it not for an angelic messenger making it unquestionably clear?

Joseph and Mary would never have contemplated leaving home unless home had chased them away. Warsan Shire, the British-Somali poet, said it this way: “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. You only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well.” The little town of Bethlehem would not lay still in dreamless sleep for long. A nightmare would send the whole city running.

Clever historians, assured by their letters and publications, like to remind us that there’s little extra-biblical evidence that the Massacre of the Innocents ever actually occurred. “The tale is not history, but myth or folklore,” writes Cambridge classist, Michael Grant. Had Grant ever spent any time with victims of genocide or other egregious crimes against humanity, he might have seen things differently. The erasure of massacres from the historical record isn’t a unique feature of first-century Palestine. Massacres disappear even today.

From Cameroon to Mexico

On our way down to Mexico last year where my wife and I had served for many years, we went to a migrant shelter in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Father Enrique was pleased to see us. More than 100 English-speaking Cameroonians had descended upon his border-town ministry in the past few weeks. Each of the Americans in our group listened as migrant after migrant shared their own story of how their home in Africa turned into a mouth of a shark. Brandon was a college student with his own little electronics store when his father was murdered. His uncle took him in to offer protection. When the ruling francophones came looking for him, and Brandon’s uncle refused to give him over, they killed his uncle too. 

William Churchill is often attributed with the quote, “History is written by the victors.” Massacres disappear because they get written out from the official account. Cameroonian government despots predictably dismissed their accusations, gaslighting the victims through feigned outrage. Villages were burned. Families destroyed. Yet the phenomena of thousands of migrants independently risking their lives on a six-month journey spanning three continents isn’t evidence enough. The burden to prove massacres to the world’s consciousness or, more substantially, to a U.S. immigration judge, is on the victims alone. As the kids say, “Pics, or it didn’t happen.”

But whatever newspaper clippings or photos of dead relatives or any shred of evidence to contradict the Cameroonian government-sanctioned accounts existed, these precious relics were often lost. Papers dissolved by sweat or were swept away in river crossings; money and belongings were stripped by organized crime cartels; identification cards were seized by police; people were humiliated and laughed at by those authorized to protect. This is how massacres disappear.

We met one couple, Luis and Cristal, who had fled their home state in Mexico after her brother was killed by an organized crime syndicate. But like Joseph and Mary, there was no returning home for them. Every Jewish peasant living under the spectre of Herod’s reign of terror knew just how far the tentacles of Herod’s neurosis could reach. Like Herod, the mafia has eyes and ears everywhere. There was no hiding in Mexico. Their kids were all born in the U.S. Against all odds, maybe they might find some miraculous favor. Amber gave Luis and Cristal her number in case they made it through. 

On Thanksgiving, we received a phone call. Luis, Cristal, and their three kids were at a cheap motel in San Antonio. Their papers were being sent up to Kansas City. Could we help them out? Within days we had housing, a job, a car, an immigration attorney, and got the kids enrolled in school. The gifts were lavished like frankincense and myrrh. Breadcrumb coincidences dressed in unassuming clothes, coded like celestial texts read by attentive wise men, left small reminders that God was on the move.

‘Home is the Barrel of a Gun’

A couple of weeks have gone by now and the relief and magic of those first few days out of a migrant shelter have subsided. Now, as they settle in, the first dispatches of other migrants Luis and Cristal met in Nuevo Laredo are coming in. A phone call at the museum. A text during the first snowfall. Not a single other family had made it across. How does one describe the sense of gratitude, the decadence of others’ generosity and then the sudden, manic drive to melancholy? I could see the collision of emotions. This is what we wanted, right? I could feel the frustration. All they wanted was to be at home, but home was the barrel of a gun. This is Egypt.

The Massacre of the Innocents is the Christmas story that gets buried. You can’t tell it to a soundtrack of Bing Crosby.  No swirl of a cinnamon stick can cover up its bitter notes. No freshly cut pine boughs can mask its odor. And yet this is probably the truest of the Christmas stories. The weeping voices in Ramah are the ones who sing, “Come Thou Long, Expected Jesus” most convincingly. Rachel, refusing to be comforted because her children are no more (Matt. 2:18), sounds the soulful plea to ransom captive Israel with aching urgency. The huddled masses at the border join as a choir who sing with an authority that I cowardly hope to never imitate. 

We bury this story with its attendant pains because we hold out hope that there is something or someone more powerful than Rome. We make our pilgrimages to migrant shelters afar believing that God is somehow incarnate there. And when that one family actually makes it out before all of Bethlehem burns, we shower our gifts as if it were the holy family because we’re desperate for signs of good news in our newsfeeds. This is the Christmas story we’ve been waiting for.

About the Author

Kurt Rietema and his wife, Emily, and sons Luke, Perkins, and Leo live in Argentine, a diverse, under-resourced neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas, where Kurt leads Christian community development efforts for the CRCNA and also leads Youthfront, an organization dedicated to bringing youth into a growing relationship with Christ.

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Thanks, Kurt, for your account that likens the Massacre of the Innocents (at the time of Jesus) to the massacres of innocent victims of our day.  But I think you are comparing apples to oranges.  You suggest that clever historians like to remind us that there is little extra Biblical evidence for the escape of Jesus or for this Massacre of the Innocents.  Apparently these historians are suggesting a made up story or greatly embellished account of Jesus’ early history.  Reputable archeologists suggest the size of Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth was approximately three hundred people with a likelihood of six or seven children under the age of two.  Now when you suggest that historians are clouding the facts of history by not including a record of this massive massacre, I wonder who is clouding the facts. Half of six children would likely mean three boys were killed if such Biblical account is true, hardly an earth shaking event that it would make historical record.  On top of that, the gospel of Matthew was written some 60 to 70 years after the birth of Jesus, plenty of time for a simple birth to become embellished into the story you or the Bible is suggesting.  Fact or fiction.   By faith, you decide.

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