[K:NWTS 3/3 (Dec 1988) 27-35]

A Babe and the Babes of Bethlehem

Matthew 2:1-18

James T. Dennison, Jr.

Angels came that night. "Gloria in excelsis!" they sang. And frightened rustics huddled close to shield their faces from the awesome glory of the Lord. Yet with trepidation and expectation, they did the bidding of the heavenly choir and discovered a newborn babe. A life bundled in swaddling cloths–slumbering in a feed trough. "A Savior," they declared; "Messiah!" they proclaimed. So that on their return to the fields, they sang, "Gloria in excelsis!"

O Bethlehem Ephratah . . . .

There was another night in Bethlehem. No angel chorus was heard that evening. No Gloria in excelsis. The air that night was rent with shrieks–shrieks and cries; sobs and tears. A hellish horde had done the bidding–the bidding of a paranoid devil. These thugs search–not for life–but to deal out death. And newborn babes lie bundled in grave cloths–laid to rest–cradled in fresh-turned earth. None to save them; so that the streets of Bethlehem echo–Miserere, miserere!

Poets, painters, commentators have described this incident as "the slaughter of the innocents." Innocents? Yes–innocent of any crime against the person of Herod. Still they die. Death falls upon them; the curse consumes these little ones. Children–infant children–touched by the blighted malediction. This is one of the hard sayings is it not! Newborns–exposed to death. Why, oh why?

You know why, don't you! "The wages of sin is–death." "For as in Adam all die; death spread to all because all sinned" (RSV). Yes, even little infants. How did the New England Primer put it? "In Adam's fall we sinned all." Even our children–even Bethlehem's children. They sinned in Adam and in Adam all die–all in Adam are exposed to death; all in Adam are susceptible to death. Tragically, sadly–truly the children in Bethlehem died because they were sinners. God is not unjust! The soul that sinneth not shall live!

Slaughter of the innocents? Innocent of Adam's fall–No! Innocent of original sin? No! Innocent of offending their Creator in the transgression of their first parent? No! Innocents before God do not die. God does not execute the penalty of the curse against the truly innocent.

But death at the point of a sword? It is brutal. But is death by meningitis, by pneumonia, by spinal bifida–is infant death by these means any easier to explain? Death for any infant–regardless of the means–raises the whys, doesn't it? And any pastor seated by an infant crib–gaze fixed on the anxious eyes of mother and father–will know that when that tiny breast stops heaving–the whys will pour out with tears and sobs.

Matthew's account brings us face to face with these whys–for we must be prepared to face the question of infant death. Do we believe in the sovereignty of God? The funeral of an infant will put our Calvinism to the test. Notice Matthew's narrative: the bold indications of God's design, God's plan, God's direction of the events in chapter 2. In verses 13, 19, 22, the angel of the Lord directs Joseph to act and each of those acts is anchored to an Old Testament prophetic passage. Did God foreordain the flight to Egypt–the exodus from Egypt–the settlement in Nazareth? All these things happened that the Scriptures might be fulfilled. Is the death of Bethlehem's babes any less a part of the divine plan? Verses 17, 18–"then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah . . . Rachel weeping for her children because they were no more."

But beyond the pathos of infant death, Matthew focuses on the life of an infant–an infant spared (at least for a time) from the point of sword or spear. The life of one babe predominates and that life finds itself inseparably meshed with the story of Israel.

You will notice that Matthew's gospel begins with a genealogy which summarizes the major eras in Old Testament Israel's redemptive history: from Abraham to David (14 generations); from David to the Exile (14 generations); from the Exile to Christ (14 generations). Matthew's gospel elaborates this development by way of Messianic fulfillment. Messiah Jesus–is seed of Abraham, seed of David, seed of remnant Israel.

Abraham's seed is conceived in a virgin womb–the angel declaring what God will do in the woman's life. The incredulous husband-to-be is instructed in naming the new born. This son of Abraham–Jesus–becomes a blessing–a Savior. A covenant pledge to father Abraham is sealed–the seed who is benediction is this Emmanuel!

David's seed is visited by eastern seers; guided by a bright and morning star, leading–resting–over Judah's land. A king in Judah hears of a new king. While suppressing his fury, he asks the 'magi' of his court about his competitor. A shepherd-king–David-like–from Bethlehem, city of David. Shepherd-king? Herod was no pastor. Sheep were for driving, or worse–slaughtering. A king to lead his flock? a king to shield his flock? A king to carry his flock? What drivel! Herod was a master of the practical–lie through your teeth, snooker your enemy and eliminate the opposition.

But Matthew presents more to his reader. Great David's greater son is qualified by birthplace–Bethlehem; qualified by role–shepherd-king; qualified by homage–regal gifts bestowed upon the infant God. Jesus is son of David.

Yet in addition to Abrahamic and Davidic themes, Matthew has presented Mosaic themes in his gospel. This is particularly true of chapters 2-4 where the Exodus pattern is explicit.

Notice the drama of the Herod narrative as a parallel to the pharaoh of the Exodus. A hostile king intent upon destroying the Lord's agent of deliverance. A child become the object of a tyrant's wrath and blood-thirsty oppression, yet a child saved from death by God's wonderful intervention. Is Jesus a new Moses? Perhaps. But perhaps the meaning goes deeper–the theological content more fundamental. The exodus motifs in Matthew 2-4 are not strictly chronological; that is, we do not move directly from Egypt to Midian to Egypt to the Red Sea to the Wilderness to the Jordan. But each movement is present in Matthew. The descent into Egypt is there–the ascent from Egypt is there–the passing through the waters is there–the entrance into the wilderness–the 40 day sojourn–the crossing of the Jordan. Matthew's Jesus experiences the drama of the exodus. In fact, Jesus virtually relives the exodus pattern in his own experience. Why? Why has the Holy Spirit inspired Matthew to portray Jesus as undergoing the Exodus experience of Old Testament Israel? What is more fundamental than Jesus as a second Moses?

It is sonship. Jesus is the Son of God. But Son of God incarnate. He takes flesh and flesh puts him in the arena of history. And the historical arena in which the incarnate Son lives out the drama of his own history is the arena of Israel. Israel's history and Jesus' history are intertwined–woven together; for you see the history of Israel and the history of Jesus is the history of God's Son. Matthew 2:15–"out of Egypt have I called my Son." Exodus 4:22–"Israel is my first-born son, Let my son go!"

Matthew presents Jesus' Sonship in terms of Exodus era sonship because he wants his Jewish readers to see that sonship for Israel was not a thing in itself. Sonship for Israel was modeled on the relationship between the eternal Father and his eternally begotten Son. The historical declaration of Israel as God's son was based on the already existing relationship between the Father and the Son and all who were in the Son as his elect people. Thus, when the Son of God–Jesus Christ–comes into the world, he makes plain and clear what Sonship in history means. True divine Sonship means: leaving the land of bondage, passing thru the waters of separation–the waters dividing two eras–old and new; true divine Sonship means sojourning–living as a pilgrim in the wilderness–the land in-between; true divine Sonship means crossing over Jordan–entering into the everlasting rest.

Jesus comes as the true Israel–the true Son of God. As such, he embodies the sonship of Israel–embodies and incarnates that sonship even to the point of reliving it. Israel–God's son–went down to Egypt. Jesus–God's son–went down to Egypt "in the fullness of the times." Israel–God's son–comes up out of Egypt. Jesus–God's true Son–comes up out of Egypt "in the fullness of the times." Israel–God's son–passes thru the waters. Why? "to fulfill all righteousness" (Mt. 3:15). Israel–God's son–sojourns in the wilderness for 40 years. Jesus–God's true Son–goes to the desert for 40 days and 40 nights.

Here is the point! The sonship of Old Testament Israel was not an end in itself. How could it have been when it was such a miserable failure! The exodus was a failure–the passage of the Red Sea was a failure–the sojourn in the wilderness was a failure–the entrance into the land was a failure. Why? Because Israel hardened his heart and showed his nature to be not that of a son, but a bastard. And Israel rejected his Father at the Red Sea–in the desert–and in the land of milk and honey. A Son of righteousness was needed; a Son who would fulfill–fulfill in righteousness the pitiable record of the Israel of old.

The birth of Jesus–God's true Son–is nothing less than a new beginning–a new Exodus–a new crossing of the Sea–a new sojourn in the desert. The birth and life of Jesus–God's true Son–is a testimony to Israel. Here is what sonship means. Sonship means to be sons of God in Christ Jesus the Son. To be free of bondage to sin–because the Son has made us free indeed. To be baptized in the waters which divide–separating old from new–Egypt from Sinai; the life of slavery behind us–drowned; the life of obedient sonship under the law of God before us. Sonship means to be ushered into a land flowing with milk and honey; as Van Til said, "to be blessed possessors."

Matthew tells us Jesus fulfills–fulfills Israel's history by embodying it in his own history. He is the seed of Abraham–fulfilling the promise of the covenant because he is the Savior of the world. He is the son of David fulfilling the promises that a descendant of the house of David would sit on the throne of Israel forever and ever.

But where does the slaughter of the innocents fit into this redemptive-historical pattern? Davidic theme; Exodus theme; patriarchal theme–where does Mt. 2:16-18 fit? I think the answer to that question lies in the genealogy of chapter 1 and the quotation from Jeremiah 31 in Matthew 2:18.

Note first the citation of Jeremiah 31:15. Rachel's weeping in Ramah occurs in Jeremiah in the face of the Exile. Rachel weeps over the destruction and captivity associated with the Babylonian Exile of 586 B.C. Ramah, according to Jeremiah 40:1, was the gathering place for the Judean exiles as they were marched off to Babylon. The poignant representation of the tragic mother in Israel–sobbing at the tragedy of her children–what consolation could quiet her? Jerusalem in flames–captives herded to the point of departure–long lines of Jewish sons and daughters marching to the East. And for the children put to sword in Judah and Jerusalem–what/who would deliver them? As the curtain falls on the nation of Judah, Rachel weeps–for all seems lost and destroyed. When Israel wept for Rachel, she died giving life. Now Rachel weeps for Israel, for the living are dead and the rest are marched off to a grave in a far away land. Indeed, the children to whom she gave life are no more.

But death does not have the final word. Exile is not the end of the story. God has other plans. A remnant will return–an elect and chosen remnant will be preserved and will come back to the land. The kingdom of darkness conspires to destroy the son of God–to chain him and bind him and carry him captive to Babylon–to Babel, citadel of the prince of darkness. But God says–Babylon the great will not crush my son. For God has destined–yes, God has predestined–the return of his son from exile. Israel shall return to Canaan.

So, when Herod vents his fury against the Son of God, God preserves his remnant by sending him into exile in Egypt. Rachel weeps over her children who have perished in Bethlehem–she refuses to be consoled because the sons of Jacob are no more. And from her perspective, the embodiment of anti-Christ–Herod the Great–has destroyed the chosen seed. But God has saved his elect one–the true Son of God is delivered thru exile so that on his return to the land, the true Son of God may fulfill his destiny.

At the death of many in Jerusalem, some are spared thru exile. At the death of many in Bethlehem, one is spared thru flight to Egypt. God's true Son–the definitive elect remnant–God's Son relives the exile experience of the history of Israel. Sent away–recalled!

Now you see why Matthew structures his genealogies around the three great eras: age of Abraham, age of David, age of the Exile. Jesus–God's true Son–fulfills each.

Wonderfully conceived in the womb of his mother (even as Isaac was)–he is the benediction to the covenant with Abraham: he saves his people from their sins.

Lion out of the tribe of Judah–he is the shepherd-king envisioned by Isaiah. The gentle king who feeds his flocks like a shepherd and gathers the lambs in his bosom. The protector of his people–even to the point of laying down his life for his sheep.

Remnant child of Bethlehem–he is the exile who leaves the land only to return. The remnant preserved by exile and return–the returning exile who rebuilds the house of God (even as Zerubbabel).

Jesus sums up the history of Israel from the time of Abraham–from the time of David–from the time of the Exile. He is the final (last) Jew–he is the final (last) David–he is the final (eschatological) remnant.

Yes in the fullness of time, God's Son comes–the seed of Abraham, the seed of David, the seed of remnant Israel.

In him–in this true Son of God–we become the children of Abraham–we become a nation of kings–we become the remnant according to the election of grace.

On another day, the daughters of Jerusalem–the daughters of Rachel–wept; wept and mourned as a lone figure–whipped and scourged–with bloodied head–trudged wearily before a wooden cross–up a hill to Golgotha. Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for this remnant Son! What he does this day shall enable you to sing–Gloria in excelsis!

Westminster Theological Seminary
Escondido, California