Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the Wise-men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the male children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had exactly learned of the Wise-men.
Then was fulfilled that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet, saying, “A voice was heard in Ramah, Weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; And she would not be comforted, because they are not” (Matthew 2:16-18).
On Friday, December 14, 2012, a young man entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and began firing upon staff and children. When it was all over, 26 people were dead, mostly six and seven year old children, along with the shooter and his mother.
The news of this event stunned the nation even though this was far from the first mass shooting or even a mass shooting in a school. Yet this time the horror was incomprehensible since it was mostly perpetrated upon very young and innocent children.
There was, nor is, no truly appropriate response other than silence and the feeling of grief, sorrow, and compassion. Words truly fail in the face of such an evil.
Unfortunately, that rarely stops people from speaking. There have been no end of attempts to figure out what could have stopped this event from happening. For some, the availability of guns with such great magazine capabilities was the culprit; others were convinced that if only the school administrators and teachers had guns they could have stopped the shooter. Some have brought up the state of mental healthcare and its role. Others chalk it up as another result of the growing public secularism and public discomfort with Christianity in the United States.
Such responses tell more about the needs of those giving the response than the situation itself. We desperately want to have some solution, some way of “fixing” this “problem” so that we can return to a feeling of safety and “normalcy.” If we could only find some legislation, some response, some way to make sure that such things do not keep happening, then everything will be well.
But the horror of the slaughter of the innocents in Newtown puts to lie the motivation behind all of these responses. We want to respond so as to get rid of evils such as these, but such evils cannot be removed. We could pass any and every imaginable law and reinforce all kinds of spending on various programs, but none of these things could, in and of themselves, change the fact that this young man woke up on Friday morning and thought it would be a good idea to go and execute children.
Over two thousand years ago another man thought it was a good idea to execute some children. Herod, called “the Great,” was an Idumean, or Edomite, elevated by the Romans as king over Judea. According to Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus, after Herod learned of the birth of the “king of the Jews” in Bethlehem from the Magi, he sent his henchmen to Bethlehem to execute all children two years and younger (Matthew 2:16).
Few, if any, doubt the legitimacy of the story, even though no other historian corroborates Matthew’s account. The darkness in Herod’s mind is well attested in the historical record: ever fearful of any perceived threat to his rule, he had his brother-in-law and three sons, among others, killed (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 16.394, 17.187, 191, Wars of the Jews 1.550-551, 664-665). This paranoia only increased as he grew older: Jesus was born around 5-4 BCE, at the very end of Herod’s life, and therefore Herod proved willing to exterminate any threat to his power, even if those involved were innocent, harmless babies.
Matthew explains these events in terms of a prophecy of Jeremiah originally used to evoke the imagined distress of Rachel over the devastation of her descendants in Israel, Ephraim and Manasseh, leading to God’s promise of restoration (Matthew 2:17-18; cf. Jeremiah 31:15-18). Since Rachel died on the road to Ephrath, or Bethlehem, according to Genesis 35:19, Matthew associates her with the town, even though Bethlehem was populated by the tribe of Judah. The quotation of the prophecy accurately reflects the emotions and experience of the situation: young life extinguished leaving parents left to mourn with inconsolable grief.
“Evil” is the only appropriate word to describe such shocking brutality. All of our attempts to evade evil and pretend evil is someone else’s problem are foiled. Perhaps explanations can be found for why these men have acted as they have; “answers” provide no comfort. Attempts to prevent evil prove feeble: the human heart is terribly sick with sin, and no matter how much we may try, people will suffer evil, and suffer terribly. Safety precautions are well and good, but no one is ever truly safe. As long as we are in this world, evil lurks, and we do not know when or where it will strike.
Evil cannot be solved by legislation or through funding; evil can never be eliminated. Yet, according to the New Testament, evil can be overcome. The slaughter of the innocents, both in Bethlehem and Newtown, are terrible events, made worse in our estimation since those who suffered did not deserve to suffer. So it is with the slaughter of the Innocent One, Jesus of Nazareth: He did not sin, deceit did not come forth from His mouth, and yet He suffered all the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual evil which the forces of darkness could throw at Him (cf. Hebrews 4:15, 5:7-8, 1 Peter 2:21-24). He died, a victim of horrendous evil, as the result of political forces conspiring against Him, yet He overcame through the power of God, was raised on the third day, and took His place at the right hand of the Father as Lord of all (Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 2:14-36, 3:11-26, Philippians 2:5-10). He overcame evil by suffering evil without repaying with evil, and in so doing, provides the way for those who would follow Him to overcome evil as well (John 16:33, Romans 12:19-21, Revelation 12:7-12).
Evil cannot be truly explained away or eliminated. Evil is always there, reminding us that things on this planet are not all well and good, and the vanity of utopia or hope in this present world alone. In the face of evil, we often try to deny the evil within us, and it proves easier to succumb to evil than to overcome through doing good despite suffering evil. The way out of evil is not to perpetuate evil; the way out of evil is following Jesus, suffering in His name, loving all men and seeking their best interest no matter how they are treated in response. Let us stand firm against evil by doing good, and glorify the Lamb slain for the world!
Ethan R. Longhenry