The heros of this section: the three wise men, a.k.a. the three Magi. I enjoyed listening to Amahl and the Night Visitors when I was growing up, glad to see them make their appearance here. (The night visitors, that is, not Amahl.)
Though I feel strangely conflicted about the gifts that they’re bringing. They’re giving riches to the son of God, to one whom they call “King of the Jews”: I don’t blame people for sucking up to the rich and powerful, but I don’t consider doing so to be a sign of good, either. The truth is, though, that Jesus and his family weren’t rich and powerful at this point in the story (at least I assume they weren’t, though I’m not sure what on the text I’m basing that on), and soon after the Magi show up, they have to leave town pronto: doubtless being able to sell the gifts was very useful to that end! So sure, let’s give the Magi the benefit of the doubt, and commend them for supporting those in need without worrying about their motivation in doing so.
And I’ll certainly enthusiastically support the Magi’s decision to not head back to Herod: he really was rich and powerful (and willing to kill to support that), so bully for those who work to foil the plans of the powerful who abuse said power. And, similarly, Herod is evil, boo Herod, to say the least.
Then there’s all the linking of various people’s actions with prior prophesies. If I were to take the most gratuitously ungenerous reading imaginable, I would wonder at the use of “that it might be” in Matthew 2:15, “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.” (Lattimore takes a similarly deterministic tone.) Is this all some sort of twisted game that God is setting up? I don’t want to emphasize that too strongly, though: it’s just a choice of words in this one sentence, other similar sentences use different words to link the actions with the prophecies (e.g. Matthew 2:17, “Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying,”).
So, while I do get uncomfortable (to put it mildly) at the idea of some God setting up chains of actions that include the massacre of innocent children, I don’t think it’s fair to read these sentences in such a fashion. But it is, perhaps, not quite so unfair for them to serve us as a caution against excessive fatalism, as a warning against what can come from saying that God is in charge and whatever he wants will happen, so we don’t have to worry about our actions ourselves.
And what about my use of that game metaphor in light of my status as a video game player and developer? Accepting for a moment the hypothesis of a God as powerful as the Christian God, he probably would be so different from us as to be almost incommensurable on moral terms. So maybe we should see this all potentially as one big game, a sort of Sim Universe, with this level of death no more of an issue to the player than are the fate of the units that I move around in a game of Civilization. Given my status as human rather than all-powerful divine being, though, I’d rather not go too far down exploring the morality of that point of view; and even if we were to do so, it would give a certain perspective on the moral issues behind such deterministic fatalism. After all, if the history of human civilization is a game, it’s probably not a game without constraints, so it’s probably very difficult indeed to reach a good outcome without some unfortunate events along the way.
This post has not been revised since publication.