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The Holy Innocents and God’s Wrath

Saturday, December 28, 2019

By Br Bede Mullens, O.P. | The firstborn of Egypt in themselves were surely just as innocent as the infants commemorated today. Is God then as unjust as Herod for bringing about their deaths?

The Office of Readings for the Holy Innocents draws attention to a parallel between the Innocents slaughtered by Herod and the Israelite firstborns murdered at Pharaoh’s instigation in Egypt. There is obviously something to the comparison: in both cases, a fearful tyrant orders the butchery specifically of male firstborn infants; the victims are necessarily innocents, by virtue of their age, and the act is totally unjust – it calls for retribution. Oddly, however, the retribution in neither case seems really satisfactory. We don’t hear that Herod is struck down in any fashion for this particular impiety. But the Lord’s revenge upon the Egyptians seems harsh and unjustified, if poetically apt: the Book of Wisdom (18.5) interprets the final plague, the death of the Egyptian firstborn, as a punishment specifically for the murder of the Israelite infants. (In Exodus itself, it is a different context that occasions the plagues, at a much later time when Moses has grown into a man; but the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart and the fear of Israel that steeled him to perpetrate the first crime, also holds the Israelites in captivity when the Lord demands their release.) Is God matching unjustified violence with further unjustified violence? After all, the Egyptians’ firstborn sons are surely just as innocent in themselves as their Israelite counterparts.

In our guts, we find ourselves at a distance from the Bible’s own triumphalist take on these events. The Book of Wisdom celebrates the death of the Egyptian firstborn. Nor can we gloss over the matter as a case of Old Testament gruesomeness which, as 21st century Christians, we can take or leave. Lazy Marcionism always cheats us of Scripture’s riches, but this passage more specifically is traditionally given important application as a foreshadowing and description of the Word’s becoming man, Christ’s coming on the earth:

“For while gentle silence enveloped all things,

and night in its swift course was now half gone,

your all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne,

into the midst of the land that was doomed,

a stern warrior carrying the sharp sword of your authentic command,

and stood and filled all things with death,

and touched heaven while standing on the earth.” (Wisdom 18.14-16)

“Touched heaven while standing on the earth" - sounds apt enough for the God-man. "Stood and filled all things with death.” It’s not how we are inclined usually to think of Christ’s mission. Though it maybe chimes more than we would like to admit with the Gospel promise of judgment to come.

Here is one suggestion for making sense of the whole thing. St Augustine liked to remind the sinners of Hippo Regius that, when Holy Scripture talks about the annihilation of sinners, this does not refer only to their relegation to hellfire; a sinner is also annihilated, and more effectively, when he undergoes a conversion of heart and opens himself to redemption by the Lord. The Book of Wisdom says of the Egyptians, that “when their firstborn were destroyed, they acknowledged your people to be God’s child” (18.13). Obviously, there is a certain preference for Israel over Egypt indicated by this sentence. Nevertheless, it suggests a radical change in the attitude of the Egyptians not only to Israel, but to the Lord who showed himself the God of Israel, which amounts to a kind of conversion. This concern for even the sparks of belief in God among foreign nations, contains an anticipation of the Gospel’s universal proclamation.

The Egyptian innocents, then, are victims for the sake of their people: by their deaths, Egypt is given a truer apprehension of God. They are, then, in a very small way figures of the innocent Christ, who died that the people of Israel and all mankind should be brought into fellowship with the one true God. God is not forgetful of the innocence of these innocents; only, their reward had to wait until all was accomplished at the coming of God’s almighty Word.

Image: And there was a cry in Egypt, by Arthur Hacker (Wikimedia Commons)

Br Bede Mullens O.P.

Br Bede was born in Enfield and grew up in Essex. He read Literae Humaniores at St Hugh’s College in the University of Oxford. It was in Oxford that he first met the Dominicans, and he joined the Order in 2017 after completing his degree. The writings of Pope Benedict XVI/Joseph Ratzinger greatly influenced his development in the Faith. He retains a wide interest in literature; among religious authors, he particularly admires St Augustine and St John Henry Newman. | bede.mullens@english.op.org



Fr Martin J Clayton commented on 29-Dec-2019 05:07 PM
Thank you for a helpful insight into a feast - aspects of which I admit I sometimes struggle with!

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