CHAPTER IV The Flight Into Egypt, and the Massacre of the Innocents


The Flight Into Egypt, and the Massacre of the Innocents

Departure of the Magi—Legends of the Flight into Egypt—Massacre of the Innocents—Its Historical Credibility—Character of Herod the Great—Silence of Josephus—Death and Burial of Herod the Great—The Spell of the Herodian Dominion Broken—Accession of Archelaus—Settlement of Joseph and Mary in Galilee

When they had offered their gifts, the wise men would naturally have returned to Herod, but being warned of God in a dream, they returned to their own land another way.  Neither in Scripture, nor in authentic history, nor even in early apocryphal tradition, do we find any further traces of their existence; but their visit led to very memorable events.

The dream which warned them of danger may very probably have fallen in with their own doubts about the cruel and crafty tyrant who had expressed a hypocritical desire to pay his homage to the Infant King; and if, as we may suppose, they imparted to Joseph any hint as to their misgivings, he too would be prepared for the warning dream which bade him fly to Egypt to save the young child from Herod’s jealousy.

Egypt has, in all ages, been the natural place of refuge for all who were driven away.  “When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt. (Matt.ii. 14)” from Palestine by distress, persecution, of discontent.  Rhinokolura, the river of Egypt, or as Milton, with his usual exquisite and learned accuracy call it–” The brook that parts Egypt from Syrian ground.” might have been reached by the fugitives in three days; and once upon the further bank, they were beyond the reach of Herod’s jurisdiction.

On the flight, and its duration, Scripture gives us no further particulars; telling us only that the Holy Family fled by night from Bethlehem, and returned when Joseph had again been assured by a dream that it would be safe to take back the Savior to the land of His nativity.  It is left to apocryphal legends, immortalized by the genius of Italian art, to tell us how, on the way, the dragons came and bowed to Him, the lions and leopards adored Him, the roses of Jericho blossomed wherever His footsteps trod, the palm-trees at His command bent down to give them dates, the robbers were overawed by His majesty, and the journey was miraculously shortened.  The tell us further, how, at His entrance into the country, all the idols of the land of Egypt fell from their pedestals with a  sudden crash, and lay shattered and broken upon their faces, and how many wonderful cures of leprosy and demoniac possession were wrought by His word.  All this wealth and prodigality of superfluous, aimless, and unmeaning miracle—arising in part from a mere craving for the supernatural, and in part from a fanciful application of Old Testament prophecies—furnishes a strong contrast to the truthful simplicity of the Gospel narrative.  St. Matthew neither tells us where the Holy Family abode in Egypt, nor how long their exile continued; but ancient legends say that they remained two years absent from Palestine, and lived at Mataréëh, a few miles northeast of Cairo, where a fountain was long shown of which Jesus had made the water fresh, and an ancient sycamore under which they had rested.  The Evangelist alludes only to the causes of their flight and of their return, and finds in the latter a new and deeper significance for the words of the prophet Hosea, “Out of Egypt have I called my Son.”

The flight into Egypt led to a very memorable event.  Seeing that the Wise Men had not returned to him, the alarm and jealousy of Herod assumed a still darker and more malignant aspect.  He had no means of identifying the royal infant of the seed of David, and least of all would he have been likely to seek for Him in the cavern stable of the village khan.  But he knew that the child whom the visit of the Magi had taught him to regard as a future rival of himself or of his house was yet an infant at the breast; and as Eastern mothers usually suckle their children for two years, he issued his fell mandate to slay all the children of Bethlehem and its neighborhood “from two years and under.”  Of the method by which the decree was carried out we know nothing.  The children may have been slain secretly, gradually, and by carious forms of murder; or, as has been generally supposed, there may have been one single hour of dreadful butchery.  The decrees of tyrants like Herod are usually involved in a deadly obscurity; they reduce the world to a torpor in which it is hardly safe to speak above a whisper.  But the wild wail of anguish which rose from the mothers thus cruelly robbed of their infant children could not be hushed, and they who heard it might well imagine that Rachel, the great ancestress of their race, whose tomb stands by the roadside about a mile from Bethlehem, once more, as in the pathetic image of the prophet, mingled her voice with the mourning and lamentation of those who wept so inconsolably for their murdered little ones.

To us there seems something inconceivable in a crime so atrocious; but our thoughts have been softened by eighteen centuries of Christianity, and such deeds are by no means unparalleled in the history of heathen despots and of the ancient world.

Infanticide of a deeper dye than this of Herod’s was a crime dreadfully rife in the days of the Empire; and the Massacre of the Innocents, as well as the motives which led to it, can be illustrated by several circumstances in the history of this very epoch.  Suetonius, in his Life of Augustus, quotes from the life of the Emperor by his freedman Julius Marathus, a story to the effect that shortly before his birth there was a prophecy in Rome that a king over the Roman people would soon be born.  To obviate this danger to the Republic, the Senate ordered that all the male children born in that year should be abandoned or exposed; but the Senators whose wives were pregnant took means to prevent the ratification of the statute, because each of them hoped that the prophecy might refer to his own child.  Again, Eusebius quotes from Hegesippus, a Jew by birth, a story that Domitian, alarmed by the growing power of the name of Christ, issued an order to destroy all the descendants of the house of David.  Two grandchildren of St. Jude–” the Lord’s brother” –were still living, and were known as the Desposyni.  They were betrayed to the Emperor by a certain Jocatus, and other Nazarean heretics, and were brought into the imperial presence; but when Domitian observed that they only held the rand of peasants, and that their hands were hard with manual toil, he dismissed them in safety with a mixture of pity and contempt.

Although doubts have been thrown on the Massacre of the Innocents, it is profoundly in accordance with all that we know of Herod’s character.  The master-passions of the able but wicked prince were a st unbounded ambition, and a most excruciating jealousy.  His whole career was red with the blood of murder.  He had massacred priests and nobles; he had decimated the Sanhedrin; he had caused the High Priest, his brother-in-law, the young and noble Aristobulus, to be drowned in pretended sport before his eyes; he had ordered the strangulation of his favorite wife, the beautiful Asmonean princess Mariamne, though she seems to have been the only human being whom he passionately loved.  His sons Alexander, Aristobulus, and Antipater—his uncle Joseph—Antigonus and Alexander, the uncle and father of his wife—his mother-in-law Alexandra—his kinsman Cortobanus—his friends Dositheus and Gadias, were but a few of the multitudes who fell victims to his sanguinary, suspicious, and guilty terrors.  His brother Pheroras and his son Archelaus barely and narrowly escaped execution by his orders.  Neither the blooming youth of the prince Aristobulus, nor the white hairs of the king Hyrcanus, had protected them from his fawning and treacheous fury.  Deaths by strangulation, deaths by burning, deaths by being cleft asunder, deaths by secret assassination, confessions forced by unuttterable torture, acts of insolent and inhuman lust, mark the annals of a reign which was so cruel that, in the energetic language of the Jewish ambassadors to the Emperor Augustus, “the survivors during his lifetime were even more miserable than the sufferers.”  And as in the case of Henry VIII., every dark and brutal instinct of his character seemed to acquire fresh intensity as his life drew towards its close.  Haunted by the specters of his murdered wife and murdered sons, agitiated by the conflicting furies of remorse and blood, the pitiless monster, as Josephus calls him, was seized in his last days by a black and bitter ferocity, which broke out against all with whom he came in contact.  There is no conceivable difficulty in supposing that such a man—a savage barbarian with a thin veneer of corrupt and superficial civilization—would have acted in the exact manner which St. Matthew describes; and the belief in the fact receives independent confirmation from various sources.  “On Augustus being informed, “ says Macrobius, “that among the boys under two years of age whom Herod ordered to be slain in Syria, his own son also had been slain, “It is better,” said he, “to be Herod’s pig than his son.””  Although Macrobius is a late writer, and made the mistake of supposing that Herod’s son Antipater, who was put to death about the same time as the Massacre of the Innocents, had actually perished in that massacre, it is clear that the form in which he narrates the bon mot of Augustus, points to some dim reminiscence of this cruel slaughter.

Why, then, it has been asked, does Josephus make no mention of so infamous an atrocity?  Perhaps because it was performed so secretly that he did not even know of it.  Perhaps because, in those terrible days, the murder of a score of children, in consequence of a transient suspicion, would have been regarded as an item utterly insignificant in the list of Herod’s murders.  Perhaps because it was passed over in silence by Nikolaus of Damascus, who, writing in the true spirit of those Hellenizing courtiers, who wanted to make a political Messiah out of a corrupt and blood-stained usurper, magnified all his patron’s achievements, and concealed or palliated all his crimes.  But the more probable reason is that Josephus, whom, in spite of all the immense literary debt which we owe to him, we can only regard as a renegade and a sycophant, did not choose to make any allusion to facts which were even remotely connected with the life of Christ.  The single passage in which he alludes to Him is interpolated, if not wholly spurious, and no one can doubt that his silence on the subject of Christianity was as deliberate as it was dishonest.

But although Josephus does not distinctly mention the event, yet every single circumstance which does tell us about this very time two eloquent Jewish teachers, Judas and Matthias, had incited their scholars to pull down the large golden eagle which Herod had placed above the great gate of the Temple.  Josephus connects this bold attempt with premature rumors of Herod’s death; but Lardner’s conjecture that it may have been further encouraged by the Messianic hopes freshly kindled by the visit of the Wise Men, is by no means impossible.  The attempt, however, was defeated, and Judas and Matthias, with forty of their scholars, were burned alive.  With such crimes as this before him on every page, Josephus might well have ignored the secret assassination of a few unweaned infants in a little village.  Their blood was but a drop in that crimson river in which Herod was steeped to the very lips.

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