Jesus is Born and Bethlehem Mourns

A thought by Jason Duncan | 8 minute read

The cost of Jesus to take on flesh was high, at least for the town Bethlehem and the surrounding areas.

Imagine living in a present day small town. It’s June and the town gathers for the graduation of the class of 2018. As each child’s name is called to cross the podium and collect their diploma you notice that all the children are female. Not a male among them. The following year the same scenario plays out. No males. Worse yet, What if there was no graduating class of 2018 or 2019 male or female?

This would have been the case for Bethlehem, a small village about five miles outside of Jerusalem. You see while baby Jesus was in flight to Egypt, his birth town was being robbed of their newborns. This is the story of the massacre of the innocents.

In our subdivision, there are several homes that have nativity displays set up this Christmas season. The displays contain The basics, the manager, the shepherds, the star, Mary, Joseph, and a baby Jesus. Some displays inaccurately show three wise men (or kings, or magi). These three men didn’t show up until a few months later and it’s these three men who bring mourning to Bethlehem. In fact, the bible isn’t clear if it was 3, 2, or 50, Matthew just records wise men, it’s assumed three, because they gave three gifts, so we’ll just stick with tradition and say three.  

About the time Jesus was born, the magi saw his star and followed it until it stopped above Jesus (whatever that means). In their travels they stopped to inquire about the King of the Jews in Jerusalem. The current king Herod, worried about his throne or a potential uprising, gathered all the Pharisees and scribes to inquire where the King would be born. The scriptures told of Bethlehem, and Herod plotting to kill Jesus, asked that the wise men inform him when they had found the baby King.

It’s tough to guess at how well Mary and Joseph would have been accepted into Bethlehem. Joseph traveled with his pregnant wife to his hometown to be counted for the census, but seeing how Jesus was born in a “barn”, it didn’t seem like he had any immediate family still in town, or maybe they figured out the timing of Mary’s due date in conjunction with the wedding date, or maybe Joseph was just too ashamed to tell anyone. Or maybe the small family was marveled over. The shepherds, if they were to be believed by the townspeople, certainly had an angelic tale to tell everyone. Needless to say Mary and Joseph ended up owning a house, and they were moving on with life.

And then, out of nowhere, three wise men travel into town. Surely others saw them. What were these mysterious travelers doing here? Why were they visiting Mary and Joseph? Why did they bring gifts that were often used in burial practices?

The wise men deliver their gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and after having Herod’s evil intent revealed to them in a dream, they left Bethlehem by a different route. Not saying a word about what they thought about Herod or how Herod requested to see the child to worship him, or the dream which provided the escape route.

After the visit. Joseph also has a dream revealing the evil intent of Herod and instructions to flee to Egypt. He obeys and the young family packs up and leaves with haste. Good thing, they got those last minute parting gifts!

After Herod realizes that the strange magi aren’t coming back he orders his men to kill all the male babies ages 0-2 in Bethlehem and the surrounding areas. Depending on your translation Herod may have requested that all babies were to be destroyed. ESV and NIV say “all the boys”, while the KJV and NET say “all the children.”=

Because the village was small, scholars estimate the number of baby boys to be between 12 (Gaebelein, Vol 8, pg 94) up to 30 (Barclay, Matthew vol 1, pg 43). Outside of Matthew’s record, no non-biblical sources record the event. Regardless of the number of boys the village was so devastated that Matthew implies even the bones of Rachel wailed and refused to be comforted. The absence of these males or children would have been felt for decades as the village recovered from the devastation.

A mysterious young couple has their baby in a barn, they are visited by strange magi and soon after their house sits empty. Mary and Joseph never return to Bethlehem, instead they make their home in the town Joseph had originally come from, Nazareth. (Or as the middle eastern liquor store owner in my neighborhood calls it, “Jesus Town baby!”)

A quick search through the gospels doesn’t seem to show Jesus returning to Bethlehem. If he did, it isn’t recorded, and if he did during his ministry as a 30-32 year old, he would have been the only male (possibly adult) native in that town in that age range.

This event is so brutal and so mysterious, that many scholars claim that it never really happened. Alfred Edersheim even goes as far as contemplating whether or not the magi were evil! (Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus… , book 2, chapter 8, pg 146). Though the weight of text seems to indicate they had no evil intention (rejoiced when they found Jesus, God revealed Herod’s intent in a dream).

So if it did indeed happen as Matthew records, why?

Why did the birth of Jesus take so many innocent lives? Why did the magi come in the first place? Why kill all the children as some translations imply? Was Matthew simply trying to connect the prophecy dots for Jewish readers surround the origins of Jesus? Why did Jesus never return?

I have my own assumptions, but I’d love to hear your thoughts!


<bio> Jason is not a pastor </bio>

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