A Massacre in Bethlehem

May I engage your imagination? Think about the tragedy summarized in Matthew 2:16: Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.

There are grim stories in the Bible, ones terrible to read and tell, ones you’d never see becoming a key story for VBS curriculum or inspiring a Veggie Tales song. There are some stories you wouldn’t want a painting on your wall to depict. If certain verses were acted out in movie scenes, you might put your hands over your eyes.

The Bible doesn’t hide the egregious acts sinners are capable of. And because God has preserved such stories for the Church, we must read them. We must learn from them. We must see them in light of the redemptive threads God is weaving in his Word. We must put our eyes on words of pain which form sentences of suffering, and we must feel the horror they convey.

The story of the massacre in Bethlehem is disturbing but real, horrible but historical.

How would Herod’s order have been carried out? Would soldiers have assaulted the town during the day or at night? We’re not told. But because Herod had been keeping his agreement with the wise men a secret (cf. Matt 2:7-8), we’re on firm footing to believe that Bethlehem wasn’t warned ahead of time. There was no public announcement, no time to gather family members and flee.

Only one family had escaped, and that happened before the soldiers ever arrived. An angel had appeared to Joseph in a dream with a warning, so Joseph took Jesus and Mary and fled to Egypt (2:13). The other fathers in Bethlehem had no dream like that. They had the nightmare–the event itself.

When the soldiers came to Bethlehem, it is unlikely they were carrying birth records that told them which house and family to visit. And considering the brutal king they represented, it is unlikely they politely explained to each family what the king had ordered. Did the soldiers just bust threw the front doors? Did they split up and go home to home, making sure to sweep the surrounding region too (Matt 2:16)? Herod wanted them to be thorough. The soldiers knew that, given their ruler’s maniacal ways, failure wasn’t an option. Their own lives were contingent on completing the mission of the massacre.

There was no wanted poster with a picture or physical description of the young king of the Jews. The soldiers had only their subjective judgment. If a boy in the home looked two or younger, he was killed. Period.

Can you imagine the horror the families of Bethlehem must’ve endured? The squad of soldiers arrived with no other agenda but to murder anyone fitting Herod’s decree.  Children would’ve been nursing, not even sleeping through the night. Others would’ve been sitting up on their own, trying to crawl and mouthing syllables or words. Some would’ve been walking and stringing phrases together. No matter the stage of development, if a boy in Bethlehem looked two or younger, he was prey for the predators. He would be helpless, defenseless, vulnerable.

But not everyone in the home would be as helpless. There would be more casualties in Bethlehem than only some children. Do you think parents would’ve sat idly by while their young boys were wrenched from their grasp? Would you have said, “Whatever King Herod wishes is fine with me”? No, you wouldn’t have. Moms and dads would’ve perished in the Bethlehem massacre too. Fathers may have been caught off guard and unarmed, but I still imagine that fewer soldiers returned to Herod than the original number he dispatched.

In the aftermath, the weeping and wailing would’ve been disheartening and crippling. A dark cloud of mourning would’ve settled over David’s town. For the foreseeable future, Bethlehem would not be the same.

The soldiers returned to Herod, no doubt thinking the plot to kill the Christ-child was successful. “We got them,” they probably reported. “Not one escaped.”

But One had.

What if God Saved the Living Boston Bomber?

I wonder what Jonah would’ve thought of the Boston bombers. More on that in a moment.

Here were two men who committed heinous acts against image-bearers. One of them died and the other is in custody. According to the apostle Paul, governments do not bear the sword in vain (Rom 13:4b) and actually manifest God’s earthly wrath on wrongdoers (13:4c). Since one bomber still lives, he should answer for his crimes–for the blood of the dead and the plight of the wounded.

But what about his spiritual state? He is an idolater, because worship of anyone/anything other than the One True God (who is revealed by Jesus) is idolatry. God is worthy of worship from everyone bearing his image, even those currently pursuing falsehood and having hearts dead in sin.

Does it seem like a strange notion that Christians should pray for this bomber to be saved? Would it make you angry if someone in prison shared the Good News with him and God showed him mercy? Of course he should answer for his earthly crimes, but what about the sins against God for which he stood condemned before the events of this week even occurred? He stood condemned already.

Jonah had a certain heart toward those who were enemies of his nation, and it was a heart of stone. No mercy for them; only destruction. God told him to preach to the Ninevites because of their great evil (Jon 1:2), and the prophet said “no.” Well, he didn’t actually say “no,” but he fled in the opposite direction, and actions speak louder than words. God heard it loud and clear.

Even after Jonah experienced God’s deliverance (Jon 1:17; 2:2, 6), he still didn’t want God to deliver the Ninevites. When he finally preached in that city, the Ninevites converted, and God showed mercy instead of judgment (3:2-5, 10). God’s mercy on the Ninevites made Jonah want to die (4:3). He thought it was wrong for God to spare them from wrath (4:1).

I wonder if Christians have Jonah’s heart toward this living Boston bomber. It isn’t wrong–in fact, it is altogether right–to think that this man should answer for his crimes under our laws. Even if he became a Christian, that doesn’t undo the consequences and damage of what he and his brother did. But Jonah’s hardness was against something else. He hated the enemies of his nation so much that the thought of God saving them made him want to die.

Should Christians feel anger at what the bombers did? Of course. Should the one who lived answer for the crimes he committed in that city? Absolutely. But should Christians still pray that he will find mercy and forgiveness from God so that on Judgment Day he can point to Jesus as the only reason why sins like his are atoned for? Most certainly.

Keep several things in mind. Jesus bore the cross reserved for Barabbas, who was a political insurrectionist. And on either side of the cross were two others, criminals receiving earthly punishment for their deeds (Lk 23:40-41). One of them, the Famous Thief, said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (23:42), and that statement of faith changed everything.

Back to my opening thought. I wonder what Jonah would have thought of the Boston bombers–and I don’t think we’re completely in the dark on this one. He wouldn’t want God to show mercy or the grace of conversion.

But a main point in the book of Jonah is this: don’t let your heart be like Jonah’s! That arrogant prophet was wrong in presuming he knew who should receive mercy and who shouldn’t. He himself had received mercy but wanted it denied to others. Jonah received mercy but wasn’t humbled by it; that’s a dangerous place to be. 

Let’s pray for God to save Dzhokar Tsarnaev and reveal the majesty of the Risen Lord Jesus to his heart. There is pow’r in the blood. This blood of Christ can cover and forgive the most inconceivable of sins and wash a sinner white as snow.

Such deliverance, such salvation, results in the kind of words that Paul wrote, a man once steeped in darkness and violence and religious devotion against Jesus: “But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Tim 1:16). 

The vilest offender who truly believes
That moment from Jesus a pardon receives

Why Is Satan a Talking Serpent in Genesis 3?

Let’s get a few housekeeping matters out of the way first:
(1) I believe Genesis 3 is a true historical account about real conversations that took place between real characters in a real place.  I don’t think the account is mythical or metaphorical for some unapparent meaning.
(2) The serpent is clearly identified as Satan in places like Rev 12:9 and 20:2.
(3) Serpents, like the rest of non-human creatures, don’t possess verbal skills of speech communication.
(4) In passages like Job 1 and Zechariah 3, Satan apparently remains in his angelic form, so there’s no reason to think a serpentine manifestation is necessary for him to do his serpentine work.

Now to the question at hand: why do we see a talking serpent in Genesis 3?

Beasts Were Under Dominion
The wording of Genesis 3:1 starts us in the right direction: “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made.”  Beasts, according to 1:26 and 1:28, were to be ruled by God’s image-bearers.  God did not make animals to rule and subdue the earth; he made man for that.  Man would exercise dominion over the beasts, in particular “every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (1:26).  The serpent, like all other creatures, was under the dominion of Adam and Eve.

What you see happening in Genesis 3 is the subversion of God’s created order. The serpent exercises dominion over the woman with his deceptive words.  This is a reversal of God’s design, and Satan knows it.  He wants to turn the whole thing upside down.

Subversion At Every Level
Consider the bigger picture of what’s happening.  God commanded Adam to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:16-17), and Adam apparently conveyed that command to Eve who referenced it in her conversation with the serpent (3:2-3).  So Adam and Eve, God’s image-bearers, should’ve listened to their Creator, but they didn’t.  Adam shouldn’t have listened to the voice of his deceived wife, but he did (3:17).  Adam and Eve should’ve subdued the crafty serpent, but they didn’t.

Genesis 3 is a story of subversion at every level: a creature prevails over the image-bearers who fail in their responsibilities both to one another and to God.  If Satan deceived Eve while in angelic form, that appearance may’ve still been effective, for interaction with a heavenly being might lower defenses.  Rather than only inserting the knife, Satan as a serpent rules over God’s rulers and sets the snare for their failure and fall.  The fact that Eve believed the lies of a serpent meant the knife went in deep and with a painful twist.

Probably, then, Satan comes to Eve as a serpent in order to subvert God’s design at every level.  The image-bearers defy their Creator as a creature exercises dominion over them.

Shape-Shifting? Ventriloquism? Possession?
What is the relationship between Satan and the serpent?  This is not an easy question, but I see three possibilities.

First, did Satan simply shape-shift into the serpent and later return to his angelic form?  There’s no precedent for angels doing this sort of thing in Scripture, so I don’t consider this the probable explanation.

Second, did Satan somehow independently animate the serpent to speak, sort of like a ventriloquist who takes a dummy and makes it do what it cannot innately do?  Maybe.  Scripture records one other talking animal, Balaam’s donkey, but that animal speaks because of God’s enablement (Num 22:28).  Perhaps Satan could use his own power to accomplish such an act.

Third, did Satan possess the creature?  I find this explanation most compelling.  According to the Bible, demons can possess people, and even Satan did so with the example of Judas.  But in Mark 5:1-13, Jesus encounters a demon-possessed man whose demons (known collectively there by the name “Legion”) beg to go into a herd of pigs. “Send us to the pigs; let us enter them,” they pleaded with Jesus (5:12).  Jesus permitted this animal possession, so the demons possessed the herd and rushed down into the sea (5:13).

So what can we say about the relationship between Satan and the serpent?  Animals can be supernaturally enabled to talk (e.g. the serpent in Gen 3 and Balaam’s donkey in Num 22), demons can talk through the one possessed (e.g. the Legion who speak through the man in Mark 5), and they can even possess animals (e.g. the herd in Mark 5).  Using later Scripture to inform our reading of Genesis 3, then, I think the best explanation of the talking serpent is that it is a creature possessed by Satan himself.

 

I welcome any interaction on the above points.  Do you find my explanation convincing, or is there a different explanation you believe is more reasonable?

The Seed of the Woman in the Fullness of Time

If you think the Christmas story begins in the Gospel of Matthew, you missed it by only 39 books.  The Christmas story begins in Genesis.  The unfolding narrative in the Bible’s opening chapters makes clear why Jesus had to come, and it is here we glimpse the first promise of his coming.

The cosmic canvas of Genesis 1 gives way to the smaller, more intimate stage of Eden in Genesis 2, and there God puts Adam to work and guard a sacred place (2:15)—a place where certain choices can change everything for everyone.


God’s Words to Adam

In the sanctuary of Eden’s garden, the first recorded words of God to Adam were about bountiful provision and a single prohibition: every tree of the garden is for food except one (Gen 2:16-17), the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  And God’s last words to Adam in the garden were also about the forbidden tree, but this time they were words of chastisement.  Because he ate from that tree, the ground is cursed, and the dust he came from will one day welcome him back (3:17-19).

What happened between those first and last words to Adam in the garden?  God’s voice had been clear, but Adam had listened to another voice, “the voice of your wife” (Gen 3:17), to be precise.

What did Eve say to Adam?  The text doesn’t tell us.  When we look in Genesis 3 at the scene where Adam and Eve ate the fruit, it’s clear she ate first (3:6).  Then the narrative says “and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.”  Not a word between them is recorded, yet God’s words to Adam in 3:17 make clear that tasting the fruit wasn’t carried out in silence.  Adam “listened to the voice” of his wife, so she said something.

Perhaps we have an idea what she said to Adam.  She later told God, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (Gen 3:13), so the reader is reminded that another voice had been speaking in the garden, and to her specifically.  The crafty creature sowed seeds of doubt with duplicitous insistence: “You will not surely die” (3:4).  Is this what she repeated to her husband, whom we know was there at least when she ate the fruit?  Did she assure him, “We won’t surely die.  God knows we’ll be like him, which is why he’s kept this fruit from us”?

They ate, their eyes were opened, and God subjected the whole world to futility (Rom 8:20).


God’s Words to the Serpent

After Adam and Eve disobeyed, God addressed them one at a time, starting with the man (Gen 3:9-12).  Adam pointed his finger at his wife, so God focused on her next (3:13), but Eve blamed the serpent who tricked her.  Thus God began his decrees of judgment (3:14-19) with the instigator (3:14-15).

It’s remarkable the serpent even stuck around in the garden after his scheme succeeded.  Why not just deceive Eve and let things unfold?  Why not head out the same door he slipped in through?  Maybe he wanted to watch.  Did he stay in the garden to relish the tragic effects of his ruse and gloat with victory that he had ensnared God’s image-bearers?  He had front-row seats.

And to this deceiver God now turns.  Instead of a blessing, God speaks something not yet heard in his good world.  Inside the boundaries of Eden, within the luscious garden that Adam was to work and guard, God pronounces a curse (Gen 3:14).

But that wasn’t the only word to the serpent.  God didn’t proceed to his judgments upon Eve and Adam (Gen 3:16-19) until he followed his curse with a prophecy known as the protoevangelium, the first glimpse of the good news fulfilled by Jesus: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (3:15).

Note that the serpent receives these words, not Adam and Eve.  This first word of salvation for sinners is also a promise of judgment on the serpent.  The woman will have offspring, and a singular Seed will be victorious over the serpent, a triumph pictured by head-crushing.

Genesis 3:15 is both a declaration of war and an assurance of victory: war between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, and victory for the woman’s offspring over the serpent.

As millennia passed, the seed of the serpent continued to oppose the people of God through cycles of exile and captivity.  Would the Victor ever come?  Would God keep the promise to raise up Someone who would lift his foot at just the right moment and take aim?


In the Fullness of Time

The hope of Genesis 3:15 swells to new heights of expectation when the angel Gabriel visits a virgin named Mary.  “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).

Remarkably, Jesus will be the seed of a woman because of a conception accomplished by the power of God.

The long-awaited moment had arrived.  Or in the words of Paul, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman…” (Gal 4:4).  This would be no merely human offspring but God’s Son taking on flesh.

The ancient prophecy was coming to pass, but the battle was only just beginning.  Jesus had come to announce and inaugurate a kingdom not of this world, the saving reign of God that would be as light to darkness.

According to the prophecy, the promised victor of Genesis 3:15 doesn’t defeat the serpent unscathed: his heel is bruised—or, in the events of redemptive history in the first century, Jesus casts out the prince of this world by dying on a cross (John 12:31-33).

Jesus’ death is temporary since he rises on the third day, but his blow to the Enemy’s head is decisive.  Jesus disarms the rulers and authorities and shames them with his triumphant resurrection (Col 2:15).

The mission of the manger had a destructive purpose: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb 2:14).  It is finished.