Kelley Nikondeha, the author of The First Advent in Palestine: Reversals, Resistance, and the Ongoing Complexity of Hope, wrote this reflection on Matthew 2:1-18, the slaughter of innocents, with a particular focus on verses 16-18.
Caesar’s Peace, Then and Now
“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem” (v. 1), there were political refugees, covert routes home, infanticide, and mourning women. In short, multiple traumas for the people of Palestine during the first advent. Of course, this was just one atrocity in a string of such atrocities for Palestine under Roman occupation.
With Matthew 2 in full view, we stand between the Pax Romana and the Pax Americana, eyes fixed on Palestine. Caesar’s peace – one that came by violence, targeting the vulnerable and benefiting only the elites—seemed to be the only game in town. Then and now.
Jesus is safe in his mother’s arms and surrounded by family. But Matthew does not let us linger long on this scene. We are quickly told to focus on the danger afoot. The Magi come from Persia and inadvertently alert Herod to the presence of a possible threat to his throne. Herod is shook. All of Jerusalem is. What if there is a new ruler who draws the lines differently and we lose what we have and end up on the wrong side of things? They are all shook.
Even without the help of the Magi pinpointing the exact location, Herod’s men do some research and realize the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem. His surveillance apparatus, which includes a vast network of informants, an apparatus for which he is famous, should be more than sufficient to find the child in the small town. They calculate the likely age of the boy and his likely location, and they are off to apprehend him with surgical precision. In and out with minimal trouble. Problem solved.
Except, that is not what happened. Herod “killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years or under” (v. 16).
Now, an angel had alerted Joseph ahead of time, so the Holy Family had already fled to Egypt as political refugees at the same time the Magi took an alternative route back to Persia. But all those families in Bethlehem and the surrounding villages were trapped. They had no idea what was coming.
What happened was NOT a surgical operation. Though Herod had the capacity for a limited campaign, he chose to widen the scope and kill all the boys in multiple villages. It began to look like collective punishment, reckless violence fueled by his own fury and determination to defend his throne.
So many villages were traumatized by ruthless militias, children torn from their mothers’ arms, and fathers killed for standing between soldiers and their sons. Local legends say that this is how Zechariah died in a nearby village, while protecting his boy, John.
The aggression grew. Not unlike today in Palestine, where certain Israeli leaders say the same about the children in Gaza. And the aggression grows there, too.
Limiting violence is hard for empires, but leveraging violence into greater acts violence is a hallmark of Caesar’s way to peace. Then and now.
This is the very kind of peace God critiques in the Advent narratives. Jesus was born amid the Pax Romana, Caesar’s brand of peace. Our Advent conversations happen against the backdrop of a peace that comes by killing and is maintained by violent occupation. It’s a peace that is meant for some, but not all. And the first advent, and every advent since, confronts us with the nature of peace we accept as normal.
But God’s peace requires of us a heavy lift. Because the way we think of peace has become quite calcified over the centuries, set in the mold of Caesar. We cannot imagine a peace that does not require violence in one form or another. We call it just-war theory; we talk of its companion, foreign policy, in our universities and our political parties. We speak of diplomacy among the nations in the halls of the UN. But our thoughts and tactics related to peace are all tethered to violence. We remain captive to Caesar’s peace, all these centuries later.
When the prophets like Isaiah speak of swords melted into plowshares, we smirk because it’s lovely as poetry but not at all practical. We need armories, not granaries. We need tanks, not tractors. We need guns, not garden tools.
Or we at least can agree we need all of the above. We cannot quit the tools of violence. Or we have not tried. But the prophets remain insistent that we reconsider their serious proposal that we imagine the world differently, the arc of peace differently.
We don’t know how the killing campaign ended; obviously, Herod never found the child. Maybe it never ended – the ongoing military surveillance, interrogations, periodic kidnappings. Or maybe it came to an end when Herod finally died.
In the aftermath of the massacres, Matthew tells us, there was collective weeping at the massive loss of innocent lives in Bethlehem and the surrounding villages. That’s what it means when he invokes Rachel, the quintessential mother of Israel.
He pulls a thread from the prophet Jeremiah:
A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because her children were no more. (Jeremiah 31:15)
And Matthew’s readers would have known the word of hope that comes next in Jeremiah’s text:
There is hope for your future, Rachel.
Your children will return to you. (v. 17)
This is poetry. Obviously, Rachel had long since passed, as had her children. But she’d become a symbol to Israel, the bereft mother lamenting the loss of all children at the hands of all the empires. And so, she weeps for the children of Bethlehem and the nearby villages. I imagine she weeps for the children of Gaza today.
And Matthew wants us to know that all our children lost to such violence will return to us, too. Not literally; again, it’s poetry. But the poet means that there will come a day when all the deaths due to violence will come to an end. It will be like our children have returned home and we will weep no more. It will be like women and children released from Israeli prisons returning to their families in the West Bank; like the hostages held in Gaza returning to their loved ones in Israel. Someday, Jeremiah says, we will know more homecomings and fewer massacres.
The losses will be reversed—or ended—by future generations. The story will be different. Generations in the future will figure out how to put an end to violence and all the atrocities connected to it.
That could be us. That should be us. Why isn’t it us? Isaiah asks, Why are you still reaching for the tools of violence? Jeremiah presses us further: Why do you still stand for the killing of innocents in your national disputes?
The prophets wonder why we have not forged God’s peace yet. Security, equitable economy, viable lives for families, and no violence or domination—what is taking us so long to realize God’s peace? Why do we keep opting for variations of Caesar’s familiar peace—even as it creates more bereft mothers?
Maybe we ought to join Mother Rachel and weep for the children of Gaza, and those in the West Bank, too. Lament remains the proper response to a world not immediately changed by God’s arrival—or our commitment to forging God’s peace instead of Caesar’s.
But maybe we should also follow Mother Mary. She knew that hardship of living under imperial occupation. Galilee was a region roiled in protests, funerals, skirmishes with imperial soldiers. She and her neighbors were daily targets of harassment and humiliation. She knew that Caesar’s peace would never include her or her kin. So when Gabriel arrived with an invitation to join God’s peace initiative, preposterous as it sounded, she accepted. A campaign that involved a birthing stool instead of a battlefield sounded absurd—but she was willing to try something new to bring a peace that was for all. She joined God, willing to innovate peace.
I think we don’t give her ample credit for trying to break with Caesar’s brand of peace and collaborate with God in a novel peace that could really be good news for all of us—if others joined in. Sadly, we have not fully embraced the Advent invitation to innovate peace. We attempt variations of Caesar’s peace and wonder why the outcomes don’t change, why this Advent season is filled with atrocities like the first advent in Palestine. But maybe we need to be bolder, like the prophets envisioned, like Mother Mary modeled in her wild collaboration with the Spirit.
A ceasefire seems to be anathema to those in the State Department and this current administration. They veto a ceasefire resolution at the UN Security Council and hours later approve artillery for tanks to be sent to Israel for the ongoing campaign in Gaza. That sounds like people held captive to Caesar’s thinking. What if a ceasefire is a way forward . . . and then we innovate the next step and the next . . . Would we see more homecomings and fewer innocent children killed?
LOW STOCK ALERT: The First Advent in Palestine: Reversals, Resistance, and the Ongoing Complexity of Hope is available wherever books are sold. It’s popular this season and if you can’t find it at your favorite bookseller, more copies will be available in January.