Let’s Put Herod Back into Christmas (A Meditation on Matthew 2:1-23)

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. (Matthew 2:16)


As long as I can remember, I’ve heard Christians bemoaning the commercialization of Christmas, the mad rush to buy gifts, the annual spending frenzy. “Let’s put Christ back into Christmas” was their recurring refrain. Although I’m sympathetic with the genuine concern here, I think it’s misplaced.

The commercialization of Christmas doesn’t actually exclude Christ. He’s there in the manger scenes we know and love, even in department stores and shopping malls. The Christ-child lies blissfully in a decorative, gilt-edged manger lit by neon and flashing colored lights, while the muzak drones, “Sleep in heavenly peace.” The problem is not that the commercialization of Christmas has displaced Christ. The problem is that this Christ doesn’t match the biblical portrayal. According to Matthew, Jesus did not sleep in heavenly peace. On the contrary he slept—if at all—in the midst of great danger and death. It’s difficult to sleep when you’re a refugee, fleeing for your life. It’s difficult to sleep with Herod around.

Unfortunately, the Christ that many Christians want to put back into Christmas tends to be a sentimentalized figure, strangely removed from the world of Herod—the real world of pain and brokenness. And so this Christ is largely irrelevant. A baby sleeping in heavenly peace is irrelevant to anyone grieving the loss of a loved one, to anyone who’s been sexually abused, to anyone living in a war zone. He’s irrelevant to the unemployed and the underemployed, to those struggling with doubt and disappointment. He’s certainly irrelevant to anyone sleeping downtown on a heating grate this winter. Tear-jerking manger scenes and soothing Christmas carols just don’t cut it in a world that’s full of the reality of Herod.

This is not to deny the traditional picture of the Christ-child lying vulnerable in Bethlehem with the wise men bringing gifts. But it’s important not to miss the point Matthew makes (quoting Micah) that the Messiah was born in small-town Bethlehem (no-place, Judah) because God bypassed glorious Jerusalem, the great city, where Herod ruled. And God bypassed Herod, king of the Jews, and chose to work through a poor peasant couple and a child of questionable birth-status.

And who comes to worship the child? Not Herod, nor any orthodox religious leaders, but pagan astrologers. This baby lying vulnerable in Bethlehem was perceived rightly by these “wise” pagans to be the true king of the Jews, whose birth had such cosmic significance that there was a new star in the heavens. Herod himself rightly perceived this baby lying vulnerable in Bethlehem to be a threat to his pretensions of power. So threatening, indeed, as to justify the frenzied slaughter of innocent babies.

This doesn’t mean we should never enjoy manger scenes or get teary-eyed when we sing carols or watch the kids acting out the nativity story. But let’s never forget why God showered his unfathomable love upon us at Christmas two thousand years ago: because he cared so much for our wounds, and for this suffering world, that he personally entered the fray, this bloodbath we call history, to redeem us—and history—from the bloodbath.

So, although I can appreciate the desire to “put Christ back into Christmas” in order to counter the commercialization of this sacred holiday, I want to suggest that we put Herod back into Christmas, and so counter the sentimentalized glitz with which the season has been papered over.

The fact is that Herod is integral to Christmas, because Herod places the birth of Jesus squarely in history. At one level that’s literally true. We date Jesus’ birth between 6 and 4 B.C. because Herod died in 4 B.C. and he ordered the slaughter of children under two. Herod places Jesus chronologically in history. But Herod also places Jesus in the harsh reality of history. Jesus didn’t come into some mythical, storybook, never-never land. He came into the world of Herod. The world we know only too well.

And he came to take Herod out. That’s what Christmas is all about: the decisive blow God dealt to evil, injustice, and suffering at the cross. But it started in Bethlehem, when a baby lying vulnerable in a manger threatened a tyrant. Can we, like the wise men, discern the cosmic significance of that this Christmas?

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This article by J. Richard Middleton first appeared in The Catalyst (Toronto), vol. 16, nos. 8-9 (November-December 1993) and received an award in 1994 for best “Theological Reflection—Inspirational” from the Canadian Church Press.

My Kick-off Interview for the “Imagers Podcast”

I was recently interviewed by Johnny Mejia, the host of the newly-founded Imagers Podcast, which addresses questions about human identity.

My interview, called “The Liberating Image,” was focused on what it means to be created in God’s image. Among the topics discussed were human dignity, the use and abuse of power, cultural resistance, and the sacredness of everyday life.

The discussion was generated by my book, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Brazos, 2005), though I went into aspects of the image of God that go beyond what I had written there.

I was honored to be the first interviewed in a series of podcasts on this topic. Other interviews will be with other Old Testament scholars, Iain Provan and Tremper Longman III.

Here is the interview on the Imagers website.

You can also access the interview through Apple podcasts.

I’ve also been interviewed on the topic of the image of God for a podcast called “God and Guns,” sponsored by the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence in the UK. The focus of this interview is how we should think about our creation in God’s image (and the God in whose image we are made) in relation to violence, whether in the Bible or in our world.

The interview hasn’t yet been posted. Stay tuned for information about this.

My Amazing Faculty Colleagues Presenting at the Society of Biblical Literature 2020

I am privileged to teach at a Seminary that is associated with a liberal arts college. I have wonderful faculty colleagues at both institutions.

Northeastern Seminary is on the campus of Roberts Wesleyan College (in Rochester, NY) and while they are formally separate institutions, there is much practical overlap and collaboration between both the institutions and the faculty.

Of late, there have been joint meetings of the Seminary faculty with the faculty of the Department of Religion and Philosophy at the College. And, although faculty members find their home primarily in either the Seminary or the College, some of us teach in both institutions.

Here I want to highlight some of my faculty colleagues (in both institutions) who are presenting papers at the 2020 annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, which is being held virtually this year (the first time in this format since I began attending in 1991).

Fredrick David Carr Presents on December 8

My colleague in New Testament, Fredrick David Carr, will present his paper on December 8 in a session on Healthcare and Disability in the Ancient World.

David’s paper, called “Experiencing Changes and Changing Experiences: Pauline Transformation and Altered Sensory Capacities,” addresses the apostle Paul’s account in Philippians 3:1–11 of how his sense of identity changed after he was confronted by Christ (which moved him from being a persecutor of the church to the status of apostle).

In his paper, David examines the changes experienced by those who receive cochlear implants, including new relationships and a different sense of selfhood, to “shed light onto the experiential and subjective dimensions of the transformations that Paul describes in Philippians 3,” including his sense that what he previously viewed as “gain” is now counted as “loss.”

Kristin Helms Presents on December 10

My colleague in Old Testament, Kristin Helms, will present her paper on December 10 in a session on the Literature and History of the Persian Period.

Kristin’s paper, called “The Roaming Eyes of Yahweh in Zech 4:10b and the Context of Persian Religions,” examines the background of the strange image in Zechariah’s fifth vision of a lampstand, which is identified with the “eyes of YHWH” roaming through the earth.

In her paper, Kristin examines competing suggestions for where Zechariah got his image, and ends up suggesting that it is drawn not only from the network of persons in ancient Persia known as “the eyes and ears of the king” (suggested by some scholars), but also from the portrayal of Mithra in Persian religion, who is “associated with fire, light, and eyes that roam throughout the earth for the sake of seeking out injustice.” She apples this background to Zechariah 4:10b, suggesting that the text uses this imagery “to encourage the people that YHWH, the Emperor of the cosmos and maintainer of justice, is at work to bring about a hopeful, purified future.”

Josef Sykora Presented on December 2

My colleague in Old Testament, Josef Sykora, presented his paper on December 2 in a session on Intertextuality and the Hebrew Bible.

Josef’s paper, called “A Different Kind of Crusade: Jesus’s Commissioning of His Disciples in Luke 10:1–24 as Reworking the Rules for Warfare in Deuteronomy 20:10–14,” examines the parallels and divergences between the texts in Deuteronomy 20 and Luke 10, to see if it is plausible that Jesus is intentionally drawing on the ancient rules of warfare.

He insightfully demonstrates that both Deuteronomy and Luke give similar instructions to those who are sent out, including an offer of peace to those they encounter and two possible outcomes depending on the responses of those they meet. Yet while Luke’s Gospel presents a battle with the powers of evil and the disciples are parallel to Israel’s soldiers, the texts diverge in that in Luke it is God and not the disciples who bring judgment.

My Own Paper Presented on December 1

Although I was scheduled to give a paper at SBL in a session on the Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures, the organizers decided to postpone the session until next year, when (hopefully) the SBL will meet in person (in San Antonio, TX).

However, I did present in the Institute for Biblical Research (an affiliated organization, which meets under the umbrella of the SBL), in a session on The Relationship between the New Testament and the Old Testament.

My paper, initially called “Herod as Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar: A ‘Political’ Reading of the Prophets in Matthew’s Infancy Narrative,” examined the way that Matthew’s Gospel cited Old Testament texts from the Prophetic books to address the political situation at the time of Jesus’s birth. The actual paper I gave had a slightly different title from what was listed in the program, since I adapted it to the timeframe I had for presentation.

The paper I presented was called “Herod as Pharaoh? Jesus as David? Matthew’s ‘Political’ Reading of the Prophets in the Infancy Narratives” (click here for the paper). I suggested that when we read Matthew 1–2 as a “feel good” story for the Christmas season, we miss the astute sociopolitical critique of the Jerusalem power structure that Matthew intended by his use of quotations from Hosea 11:1 and Micah 5:2 (with a line from 2 Samuel 5:2 spliced in). There is nothing sentimental about Matthew’s portrayal of the newly born king of the Jews, who would be a very different sort of leader not only from Herod, but also from David of old.

My Upcoming Presentation on December 7

I also have a short presentation coming up on December 7 (tomorrow) in a session on Science, Technology, and Religion at the American Academy of Religion (which meets in conjunction with the SBL).

This session is devoted to a recently published book, called The T&T Clark Companion of Christian Theology and the Modern Sciences, ed. by John P. Slattery, Bloomsbury Companions (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2020).

Everyone who contributed a chapter in this book was invited to give a brief presentation on their chapter. Of the many who contributed chapters, eight of us, along with the editor, agreed.

As part of this session, I will give a short explanation of my chapter, called “The Genesis Creation Accounts.”

I recently wrote a blog post (here) on the book and my article.

If you are registered for the AAR-SBL annual meeting, you are invited to attend any of these session that interest you.

Two Interviews with Terry Fretheim (on God’s Open Relationship with Creation)

Yesterday I posted a tribute to Old Testament scholar Terry Fretheim on the occasion of his death (November 16, 2020), where I commented on his impact on my life as a teacher and scholar of the Old Testament.

Here is a link to two interviews with Fretheim from a few years back, on Tripp Fuller’s website.

In these interviews, Fretheim unpacks quite carefully his understanding of God’s relationality (meaning that God enters into the sort of relationship with the world that gives humans and other creatures significant agency, so that what they do matters and that God is not the only one with power).

Tripp gives a brief introduction to Fretheim in the first three minutes or so.

The first interview (with Chad Crawford) starts at the 3 minute 23 second mark and goes up to about the 50 minute mark. The second interview (by Tripp Fuller) goes from there to the end.

I have found Fretheim’s emphasis on creation is the universal horizon of the Bible to be crucial for how we read the rest of the Bible, including the history of salvation.

Fretheim admits that although the Old Testament certainly focuses on Israel as God’s elect people, through whom blessing will come to the nations, Genesis opens with a universal horizon, addressing not only the creation of humanity and the cosmos, but also the development of human history prior to Israel. The story of Abraham (the ancestor of Israel) doesn’t begin until Genesis 12.

One of Fretheim’s most important statements, which crystallizes the above point, is that the election of Abraham and Israel was an “initially exclusive move” in the service of a “maximally inclusive end”—the redemption of creation. This statement is repeated many times in his book, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (2005), (pages 19, 29, 103 etc.), and I myself have quoted it many times in my writings.

In my tribute post to Fretheim, I mentioned the difference between his approach to the Bible and that of Walter Brueggemann, which I illustrated by reference to their commentaries on Jeremiah.

Interestingly, the second interviewer (Tripp Fuller), who had recently interviewed Brueggemann, asks Fretheim about the difference between their approaches to divine sovereignty. This fascinating discussion can be found around the 1 hour 30 minute mark.