Matthew’s account of “Herod” in his nativity story has great “historical verisimilitude,” as Horsley puts it, whatever its exact historicity. That is, it presents an archetypal portrait of a paranoid tyrant, a description that could well fit either Herod the Great (who died either in 4 or 1 BCE) or his successor sons who ruled in the region of the story: Archelaus (ethnarch of Samaria, Judea, and Edom from 4 BCE to 6 CE) and Antipas (tetrarch of Galilee and Perea from 4 BCE to 39 CE). Matthew’s narrative is also, however, inspired by two stories from the Hebrew Bible, which add deeper layers of political critique.
The first allusion is to Numbers 22-23. The Canaanite king Balak summons Balaam the prophet “from the east” (23:7) to curse Israel (22:6), only to be betrayed when Balaam instead pronounces blessing (23:8ff). In Matthew, Herod is double-crossed by Magii “from the east,” who he had employed to find Jesus the child-king (ostensibly to “bless” him; Mt 2:1ff).
At issue in this scene is political legitimacy. The astrologers seek a star—a cosmic symbol in antiquity signaling the birth of a great leader. Herod, the client despot serving Rome’s interests in colonial Palestine, is understandably disturbed that these foreigners have named the child “King of the Jews” (Mt 2:1-2)—for that was the title of Herod the Great! The incipient rivalry is then deepened when his assembled advisers remind him of the prophetic oracle promising a “ruler” of the people who will come from “one of the little clans of Judah” (2:4-6 = Micah 5:2).
Herod clearly understands this as a challenge to his hegemony, but, as is the way of the powerful (then and now), cloaks his sinister plans in pious pretense: he wishes to “pay homage” to the Child (2:8). The astrologers, however, are not fooled. Finding Jesus, they offer Him gifts befitting true political authority, thereby rendering their allegiance, then turn heel and slip out of the country.
Horsley’s The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives in Social Context (Crossroad, 1989) provides further fascinating historical context. The magoi were “originally a caste of highest ranking politico-religious advisers or officers of the Median emperor, then in the Persian imperial court” (p. 53). These sages and seers wielded legendary political influence, which explains why in earliest Christian tradition they were portrayed both as “wise men” and “kings.” More importantly, magoi may well “have been instrumental in opposing the Hellenistic imperial forces that conquered them and other ancient Near Easter peoples… Throughout the first century C.E., there was a continuing confrontation if not outright war between the Romans and the Parthian empire to the East. It is not difficult to imagine that the Magi would have been associated with the eastern empire in opposition to Rome” (55f). Their actions in Matthew are, therefore, both conscientious (saving innocent life) and politically subversive of Herod (who was aligned with Rome).
For a second time, Joseph receives instructions in a dream (2:13). Matthew is shaping the character of Jesus’ father after the great patriarch Joseph, who was called “the dreamer” and went away to Egypt (Genesis 37). And this is precisely where the holy family flees to escape the wrath of Herod (2:14). So does the Savior of the world begin life as a political refugee.
These actions of holy obedience are at the same time risky acts of political disobedience, and call to mind a second story from the Hebrew Bible. Exodus 1-2 narrates the birth of Moses, whose life is similarly threatened by a paranoid potentate, and also saved by an “underground railroad.” The parallels between Pharaoh and Herod are uncanny. The challenge of an infant unleashes a policy of infanticide—justified of course by “national security” (Ex 1:16-20). Royal attempts to work through accomplices (Pharaoh’s Hebrew midwives, Herod’s astrologers) fail, however, because these characters choose life, and are prepared to deceive their superiors in order to protect the innocent.
We never hear again of these midwives and astrologers—yet upon their acts of costly conscience hangs the whole of the biblical drama. Dare we assume that our own choices, minor players though we be, are any less consequential?
This week we also celebrate the Feast of La Virgen de Guadalupe (Dec 12th), the patroness of indigenous peasants displaced by Spanish colonization in Mexico. Catholic iconography celebrates her as a celestial woman clothed with the sun, standing on the moon and crowned with stars. In the Guadalupe narrative, she clearly identifies herself with the “abandoned” indigenes, and her image represents an extraordinary, eclectic affirmation of both Catholic and Aztec religious symbolism (see further Virgil Elizondo’s Guadalupe: Mother of the New Creation, Orbis Books, 2002). Today her famous visage—which was was publicly carried by Cesar Chavez in all of his farmworker marches—continues to be deeply important to Latino culture in the U.S. Southwest.
But Guadalupe’s image is germane to Matthew’s Nativity story as well, because it is also based on the compelling “portent” seen by John the Revelator. In the middle of his evocative visionary cycles stands a woman who protects life in the face of a Beast who threatens violence:
A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon… Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. And she gave birth to a son… (Rev 12:1-5)
The dragon is a master symbol used by the apocalyptic writer John of Patmos, a political prisoner of the Roman Empire in the late first century CE, to represent the lethal violence of empire. The dragon’s intent to “devour the child” is a clear allusion to both Matthew’s gospel tale of Herod and the old Exodus story of Pharaoh. Like the Levite mother of Moses and the peasant girl Mary of Nazareth, Revelation’s “woman clothed with the sun” gives birth to a child in the teeth of the Dragon, nurturing life in defiance of the power of death.
Mindful that we have just commemorated the 30th anniversary of the murder of four American nuns by the U.S.-backed military regime in El Salvador (Dec 2, 1980), this third week of Advent invites us to commemorate the example of women through the ages who have stood up to Empire on behalf of the vulnerable.