Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river, and every daughter ye shall save
alive. (Exodus 1:22)
When the Three Wise Men brought their gifts to the Divine Baby, they were warned by God not to return to Herod but departed into their own country another way (Matthew 2:12). According to an unnamed interpreter of the distant past, it wasn’t appropriate for the wise men, who had seen the Heavenly King and worshipped him, to return to the earthly king and bow before him.
The Gospel narrative goes as follows, Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men. (Matthew 2:16). This passage is hard to read without feeling terrified and outraged. Herod was so scared of losing his power! He was so afraid of the newborn baby whom the three wise men had inquired about and became so insane as to commit this heinous crime. The death toll of the babies is unknown. Blessed Jerome believes there were thousands of the innocent babies slaughtered at the behest of the cruel king. Syriac sources speak of sixty-four thousand babies. Some Western sources count as many as 144 thousand massacred babies. Traditionally, the Orthodox Church commemorates fourteen thousand Bethlehem babies. Regardless of how many children were murdered on that day, this tragedy exceeds any description.
According to some versions of Apostle Nathaniel’s biography, that disciple of Christ almost died at the hands of Herod’s soldiers but his mother managed to hide him under a fig tree. In that case, the Savior’s words Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee (John 1:48) acquire a totally different angle. The future apostle immediately recognizes Jesus as the Son of God because he must have remembered his mother telling him how he was miraculously saved under the fig tree. However, Saint John the Evangelist writes that Apostle Nathaniel hailed from Cana of Galilee, a town next to the Sea of Galilee, that is, far from Bethlehem and nearby villages. The testimony of the Lord’s beloved disciple should be more trustworthy for us.
Many Holy Fathers and exegetes of the Holy Scripture have attempted to explain why God had allowed such an appalling act of terror to happen. Saint Peter Chrysologus,
Bishop of Ravenna (†450) expressed the general opinion of the Fathers:
What did Jesus do? He who foresaw the future in advance and knew all secrets, He who judges intentions and supervises thoughts, why did he abandon those who, as He knew, would be searched because of him and then killed? The Newborn King, the King of Heaven, why did He neglect his soldiers for his own safety? Why did He neglect the army of his peers? Why did He abandon the guards, taken out of their beds, so that the enemy, sent to find only the King, had to attack the entire army? Brethren, Christ didn’t give up his soldiers; rather, He exalted them. He made it possible for them to triumph before they even started to live; He allowed them to gain victory without going into the battle; He granted them crowns before they got their bodies. He let them skip vices and acquire the heavenly before the earthly. Consequently, what Christ did was sending his troops in front of him and not giving them up; He accepted command over his army, not refused it. (Homilies 152.7)
Although Bethlehem babies were crowned with glorious crowns of the first martyrs for Christ and are now jubilant together with all saints in the heavenly abode, the parents and families of those innocent martyrs had to endure immense suffering. Holy Evangelist Matthew sees it as the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy, “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rahel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not.” (Jeremiah 31:15; Matthew 2:18)
Shocked by the crime of King Herod, we can’t help recalling a similar story, which had happened long before but pointed at Christ like everything else in the Old Testament. When Pharaoh saw that Jewish population had multiplied too much in his land, he ordered his subjects to throw newborn Jewish boys into the Nile and leave only girls alive. There was a Jewish mother who managed to keep her male baby alive by putting him into a basket and leaving him on the riverbank. The Pharaoh’s daughter found the baby and decided to adopt him. Like Moses, Baby Jesus was rescued from deep water, i.e., the threat of a new Pharaoh who was afraid to lose his power. Thousands of innocent children suffered both at the times of Moses and the times of Christ. The Satan used the Pharaoh in an attempt to kill the future leader of the Israeli people and Herod in an attempt to kill Baby Jesus.
The dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born. And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne. And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days. (Rev. 12:4-6)
As soon as Jesus was born, the chthonic and ruthless ancient evil was agitated. Massacre of thousands of innocent babies—that was how the world that lies in darkness responded to the light that shone from the Heaven. Darkness had prevailed in the world for centuries but thirty years from that moment, people saw heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man (John 1:51), the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. (Is. 9:2). Jesus Christ appears and wields a mighty blow to the dark forces when He descends into the water of the Jordan and, as the Orthodox Church sings, “The Lord, the King of the ages, restoreth corrupted Adam with the streams of the Jordan and crusheth the heads of the serpents who make their nest therein, for He hath been glorified.” (Troparion of Ode 1 of the Theophany Matins Canon by St. Cosmas of Maiuma). Now, the Light wins.