The Slaughter of the Innocents: Did Herod Make a Mistake?

Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents.

A while back in my prison Bible study we were studying through the gospel of Matthew.

Early on we were in Chapter 2. Matthew 2 is all about a clash between two kings. The clash is right there in the opening three verses:
Matthew 2.1-3
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.
Two kings. King Herod--ostensibly the king of the Jews--hearing about "the one who has been born king of the Jews." No wonder he was disturbed.

We know the rest of the story. Upon hearing about this other king Herod orders the death of all young boys in the town of Bethlehem. The Slaughter of the Innocents.
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.”
Alerted by an angel Mary, Joseph and the baby escape to Egypt until they get word of Herod's death. Even then Joseph is still wary of the new king, causing him to move north, far away from Jerusalem:
But when Joseph heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. 
So from beginning to end in Matthew 2 there is this violent and bloody clash between kings. King Herod on the one hand and King Jesus on the other.

Having noted all this, I asked the men out at the prison a question.

I asked, "Did King Herod make a mistake?"

The men looked puzzled, so I elaborated.

"Well," I continued, "we always say that Jesus' Kingdom is 'not of this world.' Jesus didn't want to take Herod's throne. So it doesn't seem that Jesus was a political threat to Herod. So it was all a big misunderstanding on Herod's part. The Slaughter of the Innocents all a big mistake. Right?"

Some of the men begin to nod, seeing my point.

So I continue, "So Jesus was no threat to Herod?"

Now the men are unsure and some reverse their answers. "Wait," they say, "Jesus was a threat to Herod."

I agree. I point out that all the blood in Matthew 2 seems to make that point. Jesus was a huge threat. We pause to read Psalms 2:
Why do the nations conspire
and the peoples plot in vain?

The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the Lord and against his anointed.
I go on to bring out the tensions in Matthew 2.

"I asked the question 'Did King Herod make a mistake?' because I think we tend to over-spiritualize Jesus and his Kingdom.

"That is, we think that Jesus' Kingdom has no political implications for the world, for the allegiances we offer to the world, to the state in particular. To be sure, in one sense Jesus isn't interested in Herod's throne. And in that sense Herod horrifically misunderstood Jesus' mission and wickedly shed innocent blood. So, yes, Herod made a evil mistake.

"But Jesus was a threat to Herod in a deeper sense. In this sense Herod rightly discerns a threat to his power and acts accordingly. In this sense the Slaughter of the Innocents was no misunderstanding. The birth of the true King of Jews was a climactic and disruptive event. King Jesus was dangerous.

"How so, if Jesus wasn't going to try to overthrow and take Herod's throne? How was Jesus a legitimate political threat to Herod?

"I think it has to do with how political power is built upon our allegiances, how we swear ultimate loyalty. At root, patriotism is an act of worship. Consequently, while Jesus may not have attempted to seize Herod's power he did radically undermine his power, dissolving it and reducing it to nothing.

"And when the state sees its allegiances weakened, changed, called into question or vacated it will respond. Violently.

"In that sense, Herod didn't make a mistake."

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