I had an interesting conversation with the 7th and 8th graders in religion class this past Monday. With Advent on the very near horizon, the season that will inevitably carry us to Christmas, we wrestled with whether or not Herod’s slaughtering of the infants in Bethlehem was a part of God’s plan. It’s a good question to ask, especially following Michigan’s recent election, one that enshrined infanticide in Michigan’s Constitution. In utter disbelief, people are asking, “Why would God do this?”
This, too, is a worthwhile question, primarily because Saint Matthew shows God’s engagement throughout the Christmas events by quoting from the Old Testament four times. Doing this, the Gospel writer stirs a sense of divine orchestration, especially as he remembers certain things revealed to God’s prophets. The slaughter of the innocents is one of them. Matthew tells of Herod’s troops storming Bethlehem, and as he does, he points to Jeremiah’s description of the scene six hundred years prior. It’s a dreadful one describing torrential tears, the piercing sounds of unrestrained wailing, and in between each gasping cry, a mother—Rachel—pushing back against any human words of consolation (Matthew 2:17-18).
In other words, Jeremiah knew a moment would come when the sound of inconsolable mothers would haunt a city and its surrounding hillsides. Matthew stakes the claim that this disturbing vision was relative to Christ’s birth and fulfilled in the slaughter at Bethlehem. But because God revealed this to Jeremiah so long ago, does that mean God planned and enacted it?
The answer is no. I’ll get to the reason in a moment.
The current effort in my religion class is the study of hermeneutics—the “how” of interpretation. As you can imagine, hermeneutics is taking us anywhere and everywhere in the Scriptures. It’s also taking us into what we read and hear in our culture. I do this with the students because language matters. Narratives matter. The intentions inherent to these things matter. They must be interpreted. When the broader horizon of genre, speaker/writer, context, history, and so on can be thoroughly examined, a person is better equipped for discernment leading to genuine wisdom. Simply applying hermeneutical principles to Proposal 3, its dreadfulness was easily detected. Teaching the students to do this is essential. The children who can do this as adults will be the ones worth trusting with critical things.
As far as the answer to the question, again, it’s no. God neither designed nor intended for all those children to die. It happened because that’s how things work in our appallingly corrupted world. Sin has a blast radius, and no one—innocent or guilty, good or bad, believer or unbeliever—is beyond its temporal effects. Therein is the interpretive key to the question’s answer, as well as the key to its relevance for us today.
Forget God’s foreknowledge for a second. While you’re at it, stop ascribing to Him authorship of everything that happens. Instead, remember what He said at the very beginning. His words to Eve and the serpent communicate His direct action. To Adam, however, His tone changes. He speaks in a resultant way, saying that because of what Adam has done, the ground is now cursed (Genesis 3:17). In other words, from now on, life will be harder, and bad things will happen. That’s the way it works in a world infected by Sin. Did God want this for His creation? No. Did He plan it? No. Matthew expresses this same theology through each clause before the four Old Testament quotations. Essentially, he uses two kinds—a purpose clause and a temporal clause. Before the reminder from Hosea 11:1 that the Messiah would come out of Egypt, Matthew uses a purpose clause (ἵνα πληρωθῇ), which comes to us as “This was to fulfill…” (Matthew 2:15). This is to say God acted in this instance. He planned it this way. Before Jeremiah’s foretelling of the Bethlehem tragedy, Matthew uses a temporal clause (τότε ἐπληρώθη), resulting in, “Then was fulfilled…” (Matthew 2:17). While the time in Egypt was divinely orchestrated, the events of Bethlehem happened because the world is now corrupt. Because of what we’ve done, this world will now produce Herod-like devils—people like Gretchen Whitmer and Dana Nessel who rejoice at the death of children, telling all to “celebrate December 23rd” because that’s the day abortion will officially be written into the Michigan Constitution. These are the kinds of celebrations Sin produces.
By the way, I find it interesting that the amendment birthed by Proposal 3 will be added to our state’s founding document the day before Christmas Eve. The devil is good at spitting in your eye right before poking it out.
Still, God knows all of this. By His omniscience, He sees these things coming. Did He ordain them? No. Again, Genesis 3:17 nudges us toward recalling that we’re responsible for letting these monsters loose in Bethlehem. The blame for Sin’s insatiable appetite for misery rests squarely with us, not God. Of course, we don’t like to hear that. And why? Because we are ones who, as Shakespeare mused, “make guilty of our own disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars.” In other words, we’re inclined to blame anything and anyone, even God, rather than accept the simple truth that tragedy’s guilt is ours alone to claim.
The only real blame we can genuinely lay at God’s feet is best placed at the foot of the cross. We can blame Him for doing what was necessary to fix the Sin problem. The death of Jesus is God’s beautiful crime—the absolute innocent One being sentenced to death for the dreadfully guilty.
So, what do we do now?
By the Holy Spirit’s power, we believe this Gospel. Recreated by this Gospel, we continue to stand against Herod while at the same time doing everything within our power to rescue the little ones from his bloodthirsty troops. I was recently asked on three separate occasions what this “standing” might look like in a future Michigan. The first thing that came to mind in each was something I’ve experienced before.
A few years ago, I happened to be visiting my friend, Pastor Stephen Long (now with the Lord), in the emergency room. A few stalls away from us was a robustly pregnant girl—a brave teenager who’d long ago chosen to keep her child. We didn’t know the details of her visit to the ER, but everything we heard through the curtains—the shuffling and crying and confusion—all of it communicated something traumatic. The sounds also reminded us just how overwhelming the terror inherent to any harrowing moment could be. It affects our emotions. It can shatter our wits. We can react in ways we might regret later. Listening in, Stephen and I prayed for the girl and her unborn child.
Now, let’s imagine that scene in today’s Michigan. Let’s say the trauma the girl experienced resulted in her healthy child being born prematurely. Let’s say it also resulted in the terrified and confused girl changing her mind. According to Michigan’s Constitution, if, in the middle of the traumatic scene, the young girl sees the child and decides she cannot be a mother—that she doesn’t have the mental or emotional fortitude required to raise the child—regardless of the stage of pregnancy, and also because the child likely needs extraordinary medical attention to survive, the newest constitutional amendment leaves room for the mother and the physician to choose to let the otherwise healthy child die. Let’s say I’m listening through the curtain to the terrible events unfolding. Let’s also say that I hear and understand what’s about to happen to the child, that she will be left for dead. Make no mistake. It would be time to take a stand. In my case, I would unhesitatingly walk into that stall, take the child into my arms, and walk out. If need be, I’d fight off security guards, nurses, or anyone intent on obeying the new amendment. I assure you I’d do this, ultimately letting the chips of my legal future fall where they may. I would not let that child die, no matter the legal boundaries of the situation.
Plenty of folks say these types of scenarios won’t occur. Well, whatever. Many people said the Supreme Court would never cement same-sex marriage. And yet, here we are, five years beyond the cement’s pouring. Here we are expecting the U.S. Congress to pass the “Respect for Marriage Act,” which will pour a permanent layer of concrete onto what “will never happen.”
Heaping condescension, ridicule, and disbelief upon those concerned for these things is almost always proven foolish.
As far as the Emergency Room scene I described, MLive published an article on November 11 entitled “The abortion rights and potential legal fights coming after Michigan’s Prop 3 won.” In it, Robert Sedler, a law professor at Wayne State and an avowed abortion advocate, mocked the pro-life movement’s concerns about such possibilities. He called them “nonsense.” And yet, the article’s equally progressive author, Ben Orner, commented that the “amendment allows lawmakers to regulate after ‘fetal viability,’ according to its text, when the attending physician believes ‘there is a significant likelihood of the fetus’s sustained survival outside the uterus without the application of extraordinary medical measures.” In other words, protection laws only apply if the doctor determines the child can survive without assistance. Orner caps this by quoting Sedler, again, writing, “The idea is that abortion is only prohibited when a doctor determines that the fetus is viable, capable of living outside of the uterus.”
Three things. Firstly, before taking action to preserve a healthy child’s life, the doctor must affirm that the child can survive outside the womb without extraordinary medical help. What does this mean? What are the boundaries? My 13-year-old daughter has Type 1 diabetes. She cannot survive without extraordinary medical care. Secondly, “when the attending physician believes” is a subjective statement. For every physician who believes one thing, five others believe something different. But objectively, even rationally, a physician’s oath is to do no harm—to provide treatment to the ailing, to preserve life rather than end it. Thirdly, I agree with Sedler, who said the amendment’s language isn’t complicated. It’s deliberately open-ended to allow for as much “reproductive freedom” as the state can provide. The law’s subjectivity is intentional. Now, will most humans in our midst choose to abandon the helpless child I described? Hopefully not. But remember, the ground is cursed. It produces Herods—monsters who write laws providing opportunities to those who’d be happy to let the child perish.
“Nonsense. It will never happen.” Those are the most notorious of all last words. It has happened. Now it will happen beneath the protective banner of the law.
I didn’t share this particular MLive article with the 7th and 8th graders during religion. But I do share articles like it. Maybe I’ll share this one. Either way, we apply hermeneutical principles to what we read. Relative to Matthew 2:13-18, these principles helped the students to dig deeply in search of objective truth. They learned where and when God acts, what He ordains, how He operates in and through His Word, the difference between His revealed and hidden wills, and so much more. In one sense, it was a refreshing discussion for me, especially as I continue to wrestle with accepting whatever God is allowing to occur in America. In another sense, and considering the answers given by the students along the way, the conversation was proof that the 7th and 8th graders at Our Savior are becoming capable of navigating America’s shaky future. Again, the recent elections in Michigan resulted in quite a few Herod-like individuals taking office and arming their troops for grim ungodliness. Was God behind this? Mindful of God’s Word, knowing what I know, you’ll never convince me that He was, not even by pointing to God’s employment of ungodly rulers in the Old Testament or by dropping Romans 13 in my lap. God did not and does not purposely establish or license authorities to exist in contradiction with His will for governance. He does not ordain for governments to murder their citizens. Human beings are the ones who scribe and sign such licenses.
The students are learning to discern these things. God willing, they’re also learning they need to step up and be what God has created them to be, if only for the sake of their children. I believe they’re on their way to being this, and in that sense, I leave class comforted, knowing God will use them—deliberately—for His good purposes.