John Calvin on Biblical Genocide (Slaughter of the Innocents)

"Matteo di Giovanni 002" by Matteo di Giovanni (source:wikipedia)The Slaughter of the Innocents (Matthew 2:16-18) is a difficult theodicy problem in the Bible.  The Nativities in Matthew and Luke have their own problems, as Raymond E. Brown has demonstrated in his book Birth of the Messiah. Without falling into the blind faith of inerrancy or complete disregard for the inspiration of the Scriptures, how does one understand ordained genocide in the Bible? The Ethnic Cleansing of the Canaanites in Joshua's Conquest is hard to understand as anything but a barbaric massacre, and how is it possible to harmonize this horrific Divine Imperative with the same Gospel of Jesus Christ that went out to these very same people group that were exterminated in a holocaust centuries prior to the Death of the Messiah? Some have proposed that the Conquest of Canaan never happened, or that it was some how an isolated error of long ago. However, with the Slaughter of the Innocents, this is in the New Testament and bound up with Jesus Christ's birth.

I will summarize some of the problems with the Slaughter of the Innocents in Matthew 2:16-18. The Birth of Jesus results in Herod murdering all the children under two years old in an attempt to murder Jesus. The historicity of the Slaughter of the Innocents is contested, because there is no known record of the event outside the biblical text. So it's possible that the event is not historical, or other scholars proposed that the number of children killed were at most thirty, a number small enough to escape record. Regardless of the historical event, biblical it is not only presumed to have happened, but it is said to have been prophesied to happen centuries before in the book of Jeremiah. Is it the will of God to kill innocent children? The conclusion appears to be that God had ordained that these innocent children would die, and that they were preordained to die directly due to God's will, such that God is the author of this evil. Therefore God's intention is directly evil in the death of these children, if the argument is pressed, creating this difficult theodicy problem. However, this is the wrong approach!

In John Calvin's commentary on Matthew 2:18 in his Harmony of the Gospel Vol.1, I found a pleasant and helpful explanation of the problem by the most famous proponent of Double Predestination that doesn't fall into the either/or of inerrancy or disregarding inspiration. Calvin explains that the prophecy by Rachel was a literary device of Jeremiah, such that the words were put into her mouth based on a past event to explain the circumstances that would accompany the appearance of the messiah in a way that was comparable to the world crisis that occurred to Israel in the Exhilic period that Jeremiah addresses. The intention of Matthew (as was Jeremiah and the authors of other Biblical genocide narratives) is to communicate that Jesus would appear despite the world of crisis. It's an apocalyptic tale, demonstrating that despite the defeat and persecution of the Israelite people, the Messiah would overcome even the worst situations. That Jesus would know our experience of suffering, and that he would save us inspite of it and in the midst of it. And this prevents us from wrongly understanding God's intention to harm infants, but his true intention was to save his people. His name is Jesus, God saves. He is Immanuel, God with us. He is the Crucified God.

In conclusion, when reading the Divine Imperatives regarding Biblical Genocide, remember John Calvin words from the Institutes, "God is not the author of evil."

Matthew 2:18. A voice was heard in Ramah

It is certain that the prophet describes (Jeremiah 31:15) the destruction of the tribe of Benjamin, which took place in his time: for he had foretold that the tribe of Judah would be cut off, to which was added the half of the tribe of Benjamin. He puts the mourning into the mouth of Rachel, who had been long dead. This is a personification, (προσωποποιϊα) which has a powerful influence in moving the affections. It was not for the mere purpose of ornamenting his style, that Jeremiah employed rhetorical embellishments. There was no other way of correcting the hardness and stupidity of the living, than by arousing the dead, as it were, from their graves, to bewail those divine chastisements, which were commonly treated with derision. The prediction of Jeremiah having been accomplished at that time, Matthew does not mean that it foretold what Herod would do, but that the coming of Christ occasioned a renewal of that mourning, which had been experienced, many centuries before, by the tribe of Benjamin. He intended thus to meet a prejudice which might disturb and shake pious minds. It might be supposed, that no salvation could be expected from him, on whose account, as soon as he was born, infants were murdered; nay more, that it was an unfavorable and disastrous omen, that the birth of Christ kindled a stronger flame of cruelty than usually burns amidst the most inveterate wars. But as Jeremiah promises a restoration, where a nation has been cut off, down to their little children, so Matthew reminds his readers, that this massacre would not prevent Christ from appearing shortly afterwards as the Redeemer of the whole nation: for we know that the whole chapter in Jeremiah, in which those words occur, is filled with the most delightful consolations. Immediately after the mournful complaint, he adds,

“Refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tears: for thy work shall be rewarded, saith the Lord, and they shall come again from the land of the enemy. And there is hope in thine end, saith the Lord, that thy children shall come again to thine own border,” (Jeremiah 31:16, 17.)

Such was the resemblance between the former calamity which the tribe of Benjamin had sustained, and the second calamity, which is here recorded. Both were a prelude of the salvation which was shortly to arrive.

Calvin, John. "Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke." Trans. William Pringle. Grand Rapids: Baker. 2003. 160-1. Print.

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