Today’s Feast of the Holy Innocents reminds me of my reluctance to dwell on this appalling episode in the infancy of Our Lord. So if you’ll excuse me, I won’t. I’ll talk round it instead, concentrating on other related verses.
There are elements of St Matthew’s account of this period in the life of the Holy Family which I find really intriguing. The following rather scattery reflections are very much of the “lounge bar of the local” variety; not at all a work of academic research; and they will be well known to you. But here goes.
St Luke (1:39) says that Zechariah and Elizabeth lived in a town in the hill country of Judea. This must have been close enough to Jerusalem to enable Zachariah to travel there fairly easily to carry out his priestly duties when his turn came round.
There is no more detail concerning the location of their town; we do not know how close it was to the Judean town of Bethlehem.
After Jesus’s birth in the stable in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph appear to have stayed there for some time, rather than returning to Nazareth. The account of the visit of the Magi describes their dwelling not as a stable but as a house (Matthew 2:11), which implies that the census crowds had departed and they had found a place that was comfortable for the baby and convenient for Joseph to ply his trade as a carpenter.
Warned by the angel of Herod’s murderous plan, the little family fled to Egypt. Herod “sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under” (Matthew 2:16). At this point, therefore, Jesus was evidently up to two years of age.
This brings me back to Elizabeth and Zechariah. Was their Judean hill-country home “in the Bethlehem region”, and thus within the search and kill range of Herod’s troops? If not, my train of thought is irrelevant. But if it was within range, was John, who was six months older than Jesus, older than the age of two at the time of the massacre, and therefore old enough to escape the work of the killers?
If John was older than two years old, Jesus would have been quite a toddler by then, and He and His parents well settled into their life in Bethlehem. Did Mary and Joseph choose to live there because of the ancient prophecy (Matthew 2:4-6, quoting Micah 5:2)? Had the angel commanded Joseph (or both of them) to do so? Did they stay because it was Joseph’s ancestral home, and possibly (or probably) Mary’s too? In view of the circumstances of Jesus’s conception and birth - almost certainly unknown to everyone else except Elizabeth - did they decide to stay away from Nazareth for the sake of discretion? Did they choose Bethlehem because they could be near to Elizabeth and her own very special son?
And then there is the final detail in this little investigative and conjectural trail. It appears that when Herod had died and it was safe for the Holy Family to return, their intention was to settle once again in Bethlehem. At least, that is the way I read it, from Matthew 2:22-23: “But when [Joseph] heard that Archelaus reigned over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled. ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.’ ”
I’ve enjoyed gathering these threads together, and I hope you too will find them interesting.
Later: I’ve just thought of something else. If they had returned to live in Bethlehem, they would have been the only family, aside from a few others who might have migrated into the town, who had a male child within the age-range of the massacre. In the event of any subsequent attacks of royal paranoia, Jesus would have been very conspicuous.