Saturday, 29 December 2007

Bethlehem, magi, Herod and the massacre of the innocents

Matthew, like Luke, affirms that the Jesus was born in Bethlehem. According to the Amarna Letters, one of the oldest sources for the story of Palestine, Bethlehem was known as Bit‑Lakhmi or house (temple) of Lakhmu. Lakhmu was a pagan god. This name became subtly changed to the more acceptable Beth Lehem or house of bread. This was totally appropriate because, as we learn from the story of Ruth, around the town were fertile crop‑growing fields. Its earliest mention in the Bible is as the tomb of Rachel, the mother of Israel. But Bethlehem's main claim to fame was that it was the birthplace of the one great international man of note that Israel had ever produced: David. However, after the exile, its significance was merely symbolic. A new David would one day arise and restore Judah, perhaps even reuniting the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah and re‑establishing the old Davidic empire. Bethlehem had a past and it had a future: what it lacked was a present. For now, all that Bethlehem had was its routine of everyday living: its annual harvest; its daily baking. It was a prosperous town: its vineyards were as noted as its grain, but its prosperity was by no means renowned beyond the confines of the desert within which it was set: it was a fish large only in the goldfish bowl of Palestine. 'Not least of the cities of Judah' comes as near as possible to damning with faint praise. At this point of its history what lingering hope the people had was centred on the other great Davidic city, Jerusalem. It was therefore to Jerusalem that the magi came. They came from the east. At the time of the Babylonian exile was born the hope that one day even the kings of the sophisticated super‑powers who enthralled them at that time would come and bow before their king; for he would come from God with power and his glory would know no bounds. By the time Jesus came, the world's centre of gravity had decisively shifted west, first to Athens then to Rome. But the east remained an important source of luxury goods through the trade caravans: roads linked Ephesus with Susa, and Babylon with Kabul, and about 120 Greek ships a year linked India with Egypt. The world of the east was shrouded in mystery; but travellers had returned with stories of fabulous temples, astonishing technology, and elegant living. Roman cooking depended on eastern spices and the aristocracy craved oriental silks. Two of the gifts the magi brought, myrrh and frankincense, commonly came from Saba, in the South of Arabia, where it is likely that the Queen of Sheba had once had her palace.

The magi were probably astrologers. As such it is unusual to find them being treated favourably in the text. Balaam serves as an Old Testament example. He was a foreigner from the east whose prophecies included a star and a sceptre. Balaam is treated as a bit of a comic turn in the Book of Numbers, being shown as the wise man who was less wise than his ass. These magi are misled to Herod’s palace, but there is no attempt by the writer to portray them as anything other than serious scholars, obedient and humble before their learning, sensitive to the traditions of the Jewish people, for protocol would have dictated that a king was to be searched for first in Jerusalem: perhaps they would have felt honour bound to start their inquiries with the king. Indeed the humble, honest and diligent searching of these Gentiles is compared most favourably with the lazy, casual and devious methods of Herod, whose negative attitude sets the tone of hostility among the Jewish ruling class which is to mark out the rest of the gospel.

Herod reigned from 37- 4 BCE. He was not king by birthright - he was not even completely Jewish: he owed his position to his courting of the Romans. His servile attitude to Augustus was accompanied with paranoia towards his own people. Married ten times, he systematically eliminated not only political opponents but any who might have seemed to have a rival claim to the throne. he was determined to build for himself an eternal name by initiating architectural works: baths, aqueducts, stadia, theatres, palaces and fortresses. His greatest and most costly project was to rebuild the temple. This was not finally completed until 63 CE, and then survived only 7 years before it was totally destroyed by the Romans.

Herod’s motive in rebuilding the temple was probably three-fold: a desire to copy the temples of Athens and Rome, a desire to make a name for his dynasty and a desire to curry favour with the people. But despite rebuilding the temple he was not particularly interested in Jewish tradition. His appointments to the priesthood were mainly men steeped in Greek philosophy and learning rather than their commitment to Judaism. His chief advisors were also mostly those schooled in Greek philosophy. He was therefore not trusted by the orthodox Jews who plotted against him with sons of his various wives. He had two of his sons murdered in 7BCE and another murdered just five days before his death. To counter any threat Herod built massive fortresses through the country and a fortress palace on the hill of Masada to which he could retreat. Towards the end of his reign, as opposition became more pronounced, the golden eagle was torn down from the Jerusalem temple by conservative Jews and their followers. Herod retaliated by having them burnt alive.

So when the magi asked "Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw his star in the east and have come to worship Him," it was the sort of question Herod had been dreading all his life. And Matthew’s portrayal of the anxiety that this question brought both to him personally and to the political establishment rings true with what we know about him from other sources. The words ‘born’ and ‘Jews’ would have been particularly threatening to a king who had been placed in office by a Roman emperor and relied on his relationship with the Romans for his office.

For centuries from Socrates to Voltaire the whole world believed in the Great Chain of Being. Events on earth were accompanied by events in the heavens. Matthew’s gospel is written within such a framework. The interpretation of scripture quoted by the scribes is affirmed by the heavenly sign. The star which signified the birth of a king reappears over Bethlehem; the magi’s quest is confirmed. But what was the star? Halley’s comet appeared in 11-12BCE: Jupiter and Saturn were in conjunction three times in 7BCE. Given that Jupiter was the star of kingship and Saturn the star of the Jews, their conjunction may well have created the ‘star of the King of the Jews’ which was understood by eastern astrologers. The fact that this phenomenon happened three times in the year may account for the re-appearance of the star when the magi turned to leave Jerusalem.

So the magi found their way to Bethlehem and the house of Joseph, Mary and Jesus. Gentile wise men, using their wits alone, would never have found the king for whom they were looking. The Hebrew scriptures were necessary to help them read the signs of the world correctly. Matthew seems to be giving us a clue to how we are to find the Messiah in his gospel, too. Looking for signs in the heavens will not be sufficient; those signs - even the signs of the deeds of the Christ - will need to be interpreted in the light of scripture. Herod had the scriptures but did not read them and would not obey them. The scribes had the scriptures, read them, understood them, taught them correctly to others, even to these wise men, but did not follow to worship the child whose birth they acknowledged was important. They preferred to keep in with the corrupt and paranoid Herod than to worship at the feet of the Messiah. The wise men did not have the scriptures but when the words were opened to them they believed, obeyed and worshipped. Matthew will therefore provide those of us not versed in Hebrew scripture with the relevant texts along our way so that we might be guided aright and not have to depend on stars and signs alone in our quest for the whereabouts and significance of the one born to be not just King of the Jews, but Lord of all.

Matthew seems to suggest that Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem. Nazareth is the place in which they finally settle to keep out of the way of Herod’s family. Not only is there no inn or stable but there is not even a manger. They live in a house, presumably Joseph’s house where they had always intended to live when they were married. The climax of the story has been reached. The magi go into the house, throw themselves in worship at the feet of the child who is with Mary his mother and open their treasures before him. By opening their treasures to him they show him and us where their hearts are.

The treasures that they opened were the treasures of worship. Frankincense and myrrh were both essential ingredients of incense. Pure frankincense was kept in two vials before the sacred bread in the tabernacle and the temple. Myrrh was used as an essential ingredient in the ointment of purification used by priests before they could perform sacrifices. Gold also played a significant role in the furnishing of the temple. Frankincense and myrrh came almost exclusively from the South of Arabia. The Gold of Sheba is referred to in Psalm 72. So in the visit of the magi to the infant Jesus we see echoes of the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon. It had probably been the building of the temple and the consequent requirements of gold, myrrh and frankincense that her kingdom produced that made it important for Solomon to make an alliance with her to secure supplies. These magi now come to pay homage to great David’s greater son, bearing the same signs of worship. By presenting them to Jesus rather than to Herod, who was building a temple to surpass even that of Solomon, they prepare us to see in him the one whose temple will outlast that of stone.

Once the magi have worshipped at the feet of Jesus, they receive direct guidance from God himself. Up till now they had been guided by a star and by scribes. That guidance had been equivocal and not always clear. Now they received guidance in a dream that was decisive. Their encounter also opened up for them new routes in life. After encounters with Christ we do not leave by the same door through which we entered.

The literature of the ancient world is packed with stories of gods and heroes, mythical and historical, whose life was threatened soon after birth and had to flee to distant lands or be hidden in caves. There was, of course, above all, a parallel in the story of the baby Moses. The plan of Herod to kill all the male children under the age of two is also reminiscent of that story in Exodus. The urgent flight by night of Joseph, Mary and Jesus to Egypt recalls (in reverse) the hurried night escape from Egypt of the Jewish slaves in the exodus. Matthew accentuates that allusion by quoting the famous verse from Hosea 11: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’. Jesus, who has already been introduced as the son of David, and the son of Abraham, is now identified as the new Israel. In ancient times the king personified his people. Thus Jesus experiences the alienation of his people, their fragile existence, their exiles. So this story also resonates strongly with all who are driven from their homes today: refugees, asylum seekers, the homeless and the threatened.

Herod’s massacre of the innocents at Bethlehem is not found in any other texts. But from what we know of Herod from other sources it would not have been out of character. At the very least the story shows the kind of vulnerable society into which Jesus was born. But the Hebrew scripture with which Matthew chooses to illuminate this story takes us straight into a passage deeply significant in the development of New Testament doctrine: Jeremiah 31. The verse he quotes is the one sad verse in the chapter. The chapter bristles with texts that became Messianic in hope. It is as if Matthew is pointing to the weeping in Bethlehem as the tears which will give way to joy as the Messianic promises are fulfilled. Rachel’s tomb was reputedly in Bethlehem: in the place of her sorrow, her son - the New Israel - was the one sign of hope. But that hope was as sure as a covenant of God written upon the heart. Even though the temple was in ruins (as Matthew wrote) and the children of Israel were going through an agony of grief, God’s son had been given, and the days of dancing would not be far behind. The cries of Rachel weeping for her children would be but the beginning of the story which would end with a new exodus into a kingdom of heaven.

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