The Life of Jesus Christ and the Art He Inspired: The Massacre of the Innocents, and the Flight Into Egypt
Coventry Carol - The Massacre of the Innocents
Chapter Seven: The Holy Family Flees While Herod Murders the Children of Israel
This is the seventh installment in my series of hubs about important events in the life of Jesus Christ and the great art that His life inspired. Here we have one of the most horrific stories in the entire New Testament. Perhaps it would have been better for everyone if the Wise Men had not come to see the Christ child, because they stopped to ask King Herod the Great for directions. When they did not return to report on Jesus' whereabouts, Herod ordered a massacre of all boys under the age of two in the area around Bethlehem. The fact that this brutal butchery was actually carried out, and there was no uprising among the bereaved parents of Israel, shows the level of oppression being borne by a broken people who longed for a Messiah. The evil of Herod's decision is matched only by its ineffectiveness. While he decimated his people, leaving thousands of precious boy children dead, the child he truly feared was beyond his clutches. Joseph was warned in another dream to go to Egypt, and so the Holy Family found refuge from the carnage.
The Flight Into Egypt by Rembrandt Van Rijn
Matthew 2: 13 - 18
13 And when they had departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, and take the young Child and His mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.”
14 When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed into Egypt,
15 and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt have I called My Son.”
16 Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked by the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth and slew all the children who were in Bethlehem and in all the region thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.
17 Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying,
18 “In Ramah was there a voice heard, lamentation and weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and would not be comforted, because they are no more.”
The Flight to Egypt by Maestro di Campi
Historical Note: Herod the Great
In order to understand the Massacre of the Innocents, it's necessary to go back to the cause - the personality and ruling style of Herod the Great. This Herod was the first of a particularly cruel dynasty who presided as puppet rulers over Israel from 37 BCE to about 100 CE. He first came to power when his father Antipater named him governor of Galilee in 47 BCE. He curried favor with such Roman authorities as Marc Anthony and Octavian and was declared the King of the Jews by the Roman Senate in 37 BCE.
He may have been appointed as King of the Jews, but the Jewish people hated him. He was only half Jewish; his father was of Edomite descent. He kept control of a people who despised him through tyranny and brutality. He invoked heavy taxes, with severe punishments for those who could not pay. Even Herod's only family was not safe from his ruthlessness; he killed one of his fathers-in-law, two of his wives, and several of his sons in his relentless push to stay in power. Herod's primary political accomplishment lay in his ability to please the Roman authorities.
Herod is praised by some historians for for some very impressive building projects. He is best known for his reconstruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem. He built amphitheaters, temples (including some pagan temples), and an elaborate palace for himself. He was a great financial backer of the Olympic games.
By the time of Jesus' birth, Herod was suffering from hardening of the arteries, and he was in declining health. He was becoming more and more mentally ill, and his growing insanity, coupled with his inherent tendency towards tyranny and violence, almost certainly contributed heavily to his decision to murder the little boys in the Bethlehem region. Herod died of his illnesses less than a year after making that decree. Since we know he died in 4 BCE, we can therefore surmise that the calendar is wrong by several years, and Jesus was also born before the year 1 CE.
Massacre of the Innocents by Matteo di Giovanni
The Massacre of the Innocents by Angelo Visconti
Meditation: The Cruelty of the Ruling Class During the Roman Occupation
What a heartbreaking juxtaposition we see in the images that depict the Holy Family's escape from the Massacre of the Innocents! Rembrandt offers us a furtive glimpse of Joseph leading his family away from danger in the dead of night. They are anxious, cautious, but even as they flee the child who is the Light of the World illuminates the darkness with the halo that seems to light their way and keep them from stumbling. Matteo de Giovanni gives us a picture of the massacre that shows Herod as someone just short of demonic, a sneering, grinning presence who presides over death in a manner that suggests almost glee. His people scream and moan in anguish, but their cries are not heard in the merciless onslaught. In some ways, I prefer the painting by Visconti. Here, the tragedy becomes a bit more personal. Herod does not show his face as others carry out his loathsome commands. We have a mother, terrified and furious, trying desperately to shield her baby from the soldier about to overtake her.
How could Herod have given such a malevolent order? What kind of mental illness can render a man so utterly vile as to slaughter babies? This is a man who rebuilt the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, but the outward show of piety suggested by that accomplishment is completely annihilated by this true show of his character. He fears loss of power more than he fears God. And yet, all this violence was to no avail. Not only did Jesus escape safely with his family to Egypt, but Herod himself was dead very soon after this massacre.
Le repos pendant la fuite en Égypte (Rest During the Flight to Egypt) by Michelangelo Carravagio
Flight Into Egypt by Sano di Pietro
Throughout history, we have constantly faced the outbreak of senseless violence and cruelty in the world. In your day, a puppet king murdered children; in this day, we face the terrorist attacks of ISIS and deranged gunmen. When we encounter such senseless acts of cruelty, it can be difficult to believe that a loving and benevolent God holds dominion over creation. Give us the faith to remain steadfast our commitment to You, to trust that You will pass judgement on the guilty and give vindication to the innocent, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Previous Chapter: The Song of Simeon
- The Life of Jesus Christ, and the Art He Inspired: The Song of Simeon
Jewish elder Simeon sings a song of thanksgiving to God in the temple when Jesus is presented to the Lord. With artwork by Cornelis de Vos, James Tissot, and with art from Notre Dame and Hosios Loukas
- The Life of Jesus Christ and the Art He Inspired: His Childhood and the Discussion with the Doctors
The Bible only records a single incident from Jesus' childhood. At the age of twelve, his parents find him missing from their caravan and discover him discussing theology with scholars at the Temple.
More on Herod the Great
Where it is located
The Massacre of the Innocents
Angelo Visconti, 1861
Fondazione Musei Senesi
Flight Into Egypt
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Tours
The Flight to Egypt
Maestro di Campli,14th Century
Capitoline Museums, Rome
Massacre of the Innocents
Matteo di Giovanni, 1482
Le Repos Pendant la Fuite en Égypte
Michelangelo Carravagio, 1597
Galleria Doria-Pamphili, Rome
Flight Into Egypt
Sano di Pietro, 1445