The aggressive atheist and neo-Darwinist, Richard Dawkins, claims that the God of the Old Testament is “the most unpleasant character in all fiction” and goes on to list a whole raft of vituperative adjectives that are most unpleasant. The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks replied, much to Dawkins discomfort, “Ah, I see you are a Christian atheist.” The Old Testament, in reference to the Hebrew or Jewish Scriptures, is a Christian term.
Dawkins’ view is not new and belongs to a common misconception of the relation between the Old and New Testament which overstates the contrast. This is seen, for instance, in the idea of Law versus Grace, forgetting that the Law as given by God is therefore also grace; or the similar idea of justice versus mercy or love, forgetting that mercy is just as intrinsic to the Hebrew Scriptures as it is to the New Testament. Overstating the contrasts between the two testaments belongs to a conflict narrative which pits Jew against Christian. In turn, the aggressive and naive atheism of Dawkins assumes the same conflict narrative between modern science and religion. Such is a profound distortion and misconception.
Dawkins has his precursors, ranging from Marcion in the 2nd century to Thomas Jefferson in the late 18th century. Marcion could not reconcile the God of the Old Testament with the God of the New Testament and so conveniently edited out large swaths of the Old Testament and as well great chunks of the New Testament. For him the contrast was between love and judgement. In the case of the third President of America, Thomas Jefferson, the concern was about reason versus revelation, particularly the miracle stories of the Christian Gospels. Jefferson took his scissors to the New Testament to excise all such things leaving merely the husk of a kind of moralizing Jesus accommodated to the precepts (and presumptions) of human reason.
Such things reveal an attitude and a set of assumptions about God and human good. But surely, Dawkins could just have easily found the ‘Christian’ God of the New Testament equally “unpleasant” simply in terms of this disturbing and disquieting story that belongs to the mystery of Christmas. It is the shocking story of the slaughter of the little ones of Bethlehem. It challenges our sentimental views of Christmas.
It is shocking and while there are many shocking stories in the Scriptures, the real question is what are these stories doing? Why are they part of these Scriptures? In other words, what do they teach? It is easy to piece together a packet of awful stories in both Scriptures that contribute to the idea of a vengeful, hateful God who arbitrarily chooses some and rejects others. This ignores the interpretative traditions which have wrestled with these passages for centuries and the simple point that these stories are always an indictment of some aspect or other of the human condition in its fallenness and evil.
The Scriptures show an unvarnished view of our folly and wickedness, our capacity for sin and destruction. In so doing, they reveal our need for God and the assumption of the Good itself which all sin and evil negate and deny. In other words, they highlight the need for a Saviour by showing us that from which we need to be saved, ourselves in the human potential for evil.
Thus the story of the Holy Innocents contributes to the idea of Christ as Saviour and to the meaning of redemption. It costs. Christ’s incarnation is his embrace of the human condition at once in the truth of our humanity and in its untruth. Herod out of envy and fear seeks to eradicate a potential rival to his power by killing all the little ones of Bethlehem in a policy of infanticide. The story recalls the Exodus story of Pharaoh’s similar policy of trying to control the population of the Hebrews as slaves in Egypt, the story which frames the birth and mission of Moses. These stories belong to a deeper consideration about the limits of human power and the greater power of God who alone, as Augustine puts it, can bring good out of evil.
They are also about the realities of human suffering in another register, namely, the idea of innocent suffering, the suffering of those who happen to be in the way, those who are inconvenient to the interests of those in power or to our own self-interest. What the story of Holy Innocents teaches is the idea that the little ones, those who are the victims of the actions of others, are known and loved by God. In other words, the purity and innocence of the children of Bethlehem connect them and unite them with the purity and innocence of Christ. To put it more graphically, the shedding of their blood is associated with Christ as Sacrifice signalled in the third gift of the Magi.
This story has influenced the imagination of artists. It is part of the fabled fuga in Aegypto, the flight into Egypt of the Holy Family adorned with a host of later apocryphal legends. That story also seeks to locate the story of Christ within the pageant of the Exodus, identifying Christ with Israel. In every way, these stories belong to the scriptural narrative of redemption which happens through the realities of human evil and the forms of human suffering.
This is not mere rationalization but goes to the deeper meaning of Christ’s Incarnation. It is not just an affirmation of our humanity. It convicts us of sin and evil to recall us to the real truth and dignity of our humanity. It awakens us to the realities of human suffering. “Rachel weeping for her children … because they are not”. Such words touch our hearts. They open us out to the only other possibility signaled in Revelation. “These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth”. The Holy Innocents go before Christ in anticipation of his sacrifice, his blood anticipated by theirs. They are in God.
Pastorally, this story helps in the difficult situations of dealing with the death of children through accident, through the iniquities of war, through the machinations of getting rid of those who are inconvenient to us in one way or another. We are reminded that the lives of the little ones are not forgotten by God however much they are the victims of the policies of expedience, policies which deny and compromise the real truth and meaning of our common humanity. Thus the difficult stories contribute to the deeper meaning of Christ’s Incarnation; he comes as Saviour.
“Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not”
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy