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Looking the Other Way

Who is God with when Immanuel hightails it to Egypt?

by Mike Stavlund

Gospel Reading: Matthew 2:13-23

For Sunday, Dec. 26, 2010: Year A – First Sunday After Christmas

History, it is said, is written by the victors — a kind of collective memory of the successful, the dominant, the triumphant. It certainly seems so with this week’s text. How else could we read about the genocide of a whole generation of baby boys and conclude with some kind of happy ending?

Minority Report

The streets are splashed with blood and the wailing of mothers and fathers, yet our eyes avoid this to follow the silhouettes of Mary and Joseph as they wend their way through the desert to hide out with their firstborn son Jesus. We’re certainly happy for them, and glad that our savior is spared. But what about the scene back in Bethlehem? What about all of those baby boys?

Matthew looks back toward this carnage for only a minute– just long enough to make a connection to the prophecy of Jeremiah (and a self-congratulatory assertion that we are indeed on the winning team). We’re spared the awful reality of the horror visiting so many children and families up north.

Back to Egypt

It’s especially ironic that we read this text with such a triumphalist flair when Matthew seems intent on reminding us of the reversal in the text. In a flourish of redundant overstatement, he notes four times exactly where the First Family is headed: Egypt. Egypt. Egypt. Egypt.

Cue flashback scene to Exodus, chapters 1-12, where Pharaoh invokes the mass execution of all newborn Hebrew boys. A lone baby is spared while untold numbers are wrested from their families. Then just a few chapters later, the cast switches places when The Lord God takes up the killing, sparing only the sons of the Hebrews. And as if there’s not been quite enough blood, it’s smeared all over the doorways of the homes, where it presumably stains a reminder of this awful chapter of Hebrew and African history. So many children, so very dead. The joy of being spared this awful fate must have been subdued by the screams of bereaved families all across the land, all praying to a God who didn’t save their sons.

The Death of Innocence

When we’re being more honest about Matthew’s pericope, we call it “the slaughter of the innocents.” Indeed. Even our exalted Firstborn of all creation has some blood on his cape, and some carnage in his rear-view mirror. He escapes the suffering while others pay the ultimate price.

The hard realities of Bible stories sneak up on us, especially when we were raised with them. The story of Noah is not meant to make a cute border around a baby’s nursery, but is instead an awful tale of mass execution. Joseph doesn’t only wear a cool coat, he’s got some serious family issues. Samson’s not a strong man, but one plagued with debilitating weaknesses. Jonah’s not a fish-riding evangelist, but a bitter man who’d rather die than share some grace. And so on.

So what if in churches this Sunday, instead of only celebrating with Mary and Joseph and Jesus snug and safe in Egypt, we perhaps had a moment of silence for the other boys? A time of remembrance for the arms that held their lifeless forms, those arms that never forget what it is like to hold a beloved body, now void of life? And in so doing, we might make some space for the losses and setbacks that so many of us feel, which can be particularly painful during the holiday season.

The Hardest Question

What about those other boys, and their families? What happens when we stop to notice the losers? Who is God with when Immanuel hightails it to Egypt?


Mike Stavlund writes from a 5-car pile-up at the intersection of his Christian faith and real life. A husband of over 15 years and a father of 4 children, he lives with his wife and 3 daughters in a small house outside Washington, DC. He’s a part of an innovative emergence Christian community called Common Table, a co-conspirator with the Relational Tithe, and a proud part of the collective called Emergent Village. He is the author of the manuscript “Force of Will”, and blogs at


  1. Harold says:

    Mike; great insights.

    I’ve been thinking about this a bit myself lately, as I reread the nativity account in Matthew recently. It really made me think about the importance of Jesus’s life, and not just the few years that we know about but all of it.

    If God’s only intention in becoming incarnate among us as a fellow human being was simply to die for our sins (as many Christians seem to think), He could have easily done so right then and there, as a little, innocent child, and some vast, untold number of innocent baby boys would have been spared.

    In thinking about this moment in history, I’ve begun to experience an increase in my sense of wonder and imagination of those other 30 years of Christ’s life, just as divine, just as sacred, just as holy as the three years that we have some recollection of, and to really dive into the question of “what was the purpose of His life?” Was it just to teach people moral precepts?

    I think there’s so much more going on.

  2. Andy says:

    Yes…what a weird way to conclude/transition a birth narrative. I find myself a little disturbed that this portion of the story doesn’t get much attention within traditional Christmas narratives.

    There are two curve balls for me in this passage in both the murderous acts of Herod and the fact that Jesus (The Emmanuel God with us) is a Refugee that leave me with questions.

    I’m curious about what Matthew’s literary tactics/motivation are here? What is he trying to say? This portion of the text is laced with OT and non OT references to older Jewish Text. Clearly he is writing to Jews to show the deep historical connection but at the same time could he also be showing separation? Could there be a message of this Jesus is exactly who we said he would be and exactly what you didn’t think?

    I’m also intrigued at the lack of Jewish attention Jesus gets. Outside of the fulfillment of laws there is hardly any recognition of the birth of the Messiah that is spoken of by Matthew. There are pagans/Gentiles (wismen) who visit and an aggressive move by Herod. There are no Jewish ties. Is this portion of the text Matthews way of hinting from birth that Jesus did not come for just the Jews? Could the calling to the town of Nazareth play a factor in this?

    I find myself left with more questions that directions in this passage and I love it.

  3. Wonderful questions, and great insights, gentlemen! Thanks for taking the time to share them.

    Harold, I love these thoughts which consider Jesus’ *life* and its purpose. We so often rattle through the story of our little shrink-wrapped Jesus that we miss the very fact of his very gritty life.

    Andy, I think you’re right to suspect Matthew of some literary and theological sleight-of-hand. And I’m really intrigued by your insight into this early account of Jesus’ life as a kind of foreshadowing of Jesus’ reception by the Gentiles.

  4. Susan says:

    The thing I always wind up thinking, at this story and others, is that it all becomes part of the indictment against sin, death and the devil (and us, as sinners). We can’t just look at the holy family hightailing it out of there – we know everyone in the congregation is stuck on those dead babies, and where is God? But the perspective of scripture is so much longer and wider than ours (which isn’t comforting – I want to know what’s the meaning of MY suffering, not suffering in general!). Perhaps it’s too easy but I always think of a police stakeout, that lets crime continue while it compiles the evidence against the evildoer: it will be accounted for, ‘in the fullness of time.’

  5. Thanks for sharing your reading of this text, Susan.

    I hope you’re correct in your assertion that ‘everyone in the congregation is stuck on those dead babies’ and asking the question, “Where is God?”. That hasn’t been my experience with this text in the past, but I’m hoping things will be a little different this Sunday.

    Hope your sermon comes together smoothly in the midst of the wonderful busyness of Christmas.

  6. Jim says:

    Thanks for this post. I have worked as a health care chaplain for 23 years, most of my career. I have used that quote from jeremiah as part of prayers and memorials for neonatal babies that have died in NICUs. I realized that it was powerful to allow us all to face the down-right pain of our lives and of the scriptures. You helped me stay with my first sensibilities for this sermon. Blessed Christmas. Jim

  7. Chad says:

    I’m late coming to this, but felt the urge to remind regarding the obvious, that Jesus’ escape is, after all, only temporary. Death by virtue of “the state” got him, too; it just took a little longer. Reading this text, it is clear that Death must begin to defend its territory and will reign for the moment, in all its forms, and it is not too concerned about who all it gets in its harangues, knowing that it will sooner or later get us all. But the upheaval Jesus’ arrival causes among the principalities is huge, especially given that Death has the foreboding that in this new arrival Death’s own “life”/purpose is at risk, so in this case “Immanuel,” God with us, not only did not save the boys but is the trigger for their loss of life! Also, it is not as if Jesus and his family are totally escaping death’s power since they are not having it easy as refugees. The passage does call us, as you note, to pay attention to that something darker, to the suffering with which we live and which Jesus enters with us. Thank you for your work.

How do you read?