Noah’s ark, the Magi, the Slaughter of the Innocents

Noah’s ark, the Magi, the Slaughter of the Innocents. “They’re just myths,” you hear it said. I don’t like those stories dismissed that way, because it easily leads to a further dismissal: ”Is any of it true? Probably not.”

We think straight reporting is the only thing true. “Just the facts, Mam.” Everything else is fake news. But are these stories fake?

“The Secrets of Noah’s Ark” a recent Nova program on PBS examining the biblical story makes good sense to me. In early times, floods were common in the “Fertile Crescent” the area in Mesopotamia {modern Iraq} where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and the ancient city of Babylon were located. So you had to keep boats handy– you never know.

You had to be ready for a great flood too, but people have short memories and people then, as now, tend to forget “the big ones.” “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. In those days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark. They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away.” (Matthew 24, 37-38)

I suspect some Babylonian priests– meteorologists and story tellers of their time– came up with a flood story thousands of years before the Noah story to keep the people of their day on their toes – and maybe challenge some early climate change deniers too. It reinforced important advice: “ Keep your boats in good shape and make sure there’s also a big boat around for ‘the big one.’”

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Exile of Jews  to Babylon

In 587 BC, thousands of Jews were driven from Jerusalem, destroyed by Babylonian armies, and were forced to make the thousand mile journey in Babylon. It was their Exile. When they heard the story of the great flood they saw it as a symbol of their own tragic circumstances. “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept, remembering Zion.” (Psalm137)

Returning from exile, the Jews incorporated their version of the flood story into the Torah. It became a reminder to keep the covenant God made with them and beware of living unfaithfully as “in the days of Noah.”

Does real history underlie the story of the Magi and the Slaughter of the Innocents? Begin with Herod the Great, ruler of Palestine then, whom secular sources and many archeological monuments from the time describe quite well. Herod was a micro-manager who built fortified palaces in Jerusalem, the Herodium outside Bethlehem and other places to keep watch over his kingdom.

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Citadel, Herod’s Palace Fortress, Jerusalem

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Herodium, Mountain Fortress of Herod the Great

He promoted trade with the outside world; he built the seaport of Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean Sea and cultivated the trade routes from Yemen and other eastern parts that led all the way to Rome. He would have kept tabs on those arriving with spices and luxury goods of all kinds. He knew who came and went.

Were the Magi wealthy eastern traders, quite knowledgeable about the religious world of the people with whom they traded? Did they hear of the Child in Bethlehem? Herod’s advisors and everyone else knew Bethlehem was associated with the legendary King David and there were prophecies about an heir to his throne coming from there. Did the foreigners visit the Child, bring their gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh, the prizes of their trade, and then quickly leave, well aware of Herod’s paranoia, quick temper and brutality.

Given Herod’s jealous hold on power, the story of the slaughter of the Innocents in Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t seem unlikely, True, it’s not mentioned in any secular source, but neither are many other tragic stories of the time. Bethlehem, after all, was a small town, off the beaten track. The death of perhaps 20 or so infants might go unnoticed and be quickly forgotten.

Matthew’s story is hardly a myth. Rather, it sees things through God’s eyes. The star points to the real power guiding human history; the magi represent the rest of the world coming to adore the Child. Angelic powers are always at our side. The slaughtered infants are like so many tragic deaths that seem to question God’s promise of life, but God doesn’t forget, the story says, even if human history doesn’t remember. “The souls of the just are in the hands of God and no torment shall touch them.”

If you ever visit Bethlehem, go to see the Herodium, Herod’s massive fortified palace looking down on the nearby town. Joseph wouldn’t need much urging to take the Child and his mother from this place,would he? Go to the Citadel in Jerusalem built on the highest spot in the city. You can walk where Herod once walked and imagine him looking down on his kingdom. But it was not his kingdom, after all, it was God’s. Go to Caesaria Martima, the splendid port city created by Herod. Did the Magi’s caravans reach here?

Then ask yourself if the stories of Jesus’ birth and infancy are myths.

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Caesaria Maritima

1 Comment

Filed under art, Passionists, Religion, spirituality, Travel

One response to “Noah’s ark, the Magi, the Slaughter of the Innocents

  1. Interesting walk through history for those of us who will not go there in person.

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