Mary: Jesus had just been born when King Herod – not the same king as now, but his father who was as wretched as he – killed a number of countrymen in the south, remember?
Matthew: But you were already in Galilee, weren’t you, Mary?
Mary: Oh, yes, thank God we had already gone back to Nazareth with the boy. Just the same, Matthew, we were so scared then…!
Matthew: And rightly so. Those remaining years of old Herod were the worst. Maybe he sensed it was his end, so he became more and more cruel…. Tell us what happened to you in the village, Mary…. C’mon, tell us….
I remember Matthew very well. He was collector of taxes, who was listening intently to those stories told by Mary, Jesus’ mother to all of us, members of the gang, while we were all gathered in Jerusalem, waiting for the feast of the Pentecost…
Mary: You do remember, Matthew, since the trouble started with your colleagues, when this bandit, Herod, increased the taxes. His collectors mushroomed everywhere. Of course, they were well protected by the police in case “anything happened”…. They went from town to town, from village to village, telling the people of the increase. Imagine, half a shekel of silver per head. That was preposterous. That was too abusive….
A Man: Half a shekel!… where the hell shall we get this amount when we can’t even afford a handful of dates? Damn! What does this son of the devil think, that he can squeeze our necks anytime he pleases?
A Woman: A loaf of bread for three copper coins, milk has gone up to four and the price of oil is impossible! A plague on him!
Another Man: Well, we won’t pay our taxes. No sir, and that’s final. I’m not paying half a shekel nor half a cent.
Man: Neither am I. They may cut our heads off if they want. After all, seeing my children die of hunger each day, I might as well end it all up with one blow of their sword!
Mary: When Herod heard of the people’s reaction, instead of softening up, he became even worse….
Herod: So, they’re protesting against the new tax, huh?… Oh, that’s too bad! My subjects don’t understand the need to adorn this Temple, which is God’s abode, and this palace, where I, the god of the earth, dwell. Well, he who refuses to pay shall go to jail.
A Soldier: The rebels are numerous, your majesty. They won’t all fit in jail.
Herod: Then kill them. There is enough room in the pit, isn’t there? Ha, that’ll be faster and better. After all, it’s not good to have so many farmers in our midst… they are so difficult to control….
Mary: How many must have been killed for refusing to pay their taxes! This happened not only that year but while this ruthless man ruled the country, all crimes and abuses were committed!… Oh, I don’t know, sometimes I wonder how God can allow those murderers to live long enough to wreak such havoc, without anyone demanding an accounting of too much innocent blood shed…!
Matthew: Did you also have problems in Nazareth, Mary?
Mary: Well, the abuses committed were greater in the south. We were also scared to death in Galilee. The men from the village as well as those from the neighboring places had even thought of leaving the country in order to avoid so much anguish….
Old Man: But compadre, what can you expect from a man who kills his own men? Herod did this to two of his sons. And to a certain Mariane, who, they say, was his most beloved wife. Didn’t he order her killed, too?
Joseph: If he can kill the people he loves, where does that leave us? What can we do?
Neighbor: Flee, Joseph, that’s what is left for us to do. Go to a far away place, get away from this damned country once and for all…
Joseph: How could you ever say that, Reuben? And where the hell shall we go? We haven’t even got a cart to carry our belongings.
Neighbor: Wherever. To the mountain. Or to the Greek cities. Or to Egypt, if need be. And forget about the cart, buddy. We even have to leave our sandals behind, if we have to run.
Joseph: And leave our house and our lands?
Neighbor: What do you really want, Joseph? We’ve got to save our skin and our children’s lives, and whoever else’s lives are in danger. Think of your little boy, of Mary, your wife. Now, tell me, old man, am I right or wrong?
Old Man: Well, young man, you may be right, and we may have to set for the road…. But it is not as easy as you paint it! Obviously, you haven’t been on the other side of the world…. I have, and I’ve spent some years by the other side of the river. And I’m not going back, not even to recover my own soul, which I might have left behind…!
Joseph: Aren’t Nephtali and his family staying over there, in Perea, beyond the Jordan?
Old Man: Yes. And look how it’s going for him!… The other day, he was with the caravan of the Moabites, and I knew they were having a terrible time. It’s got to be. Can you imagine what it is to be in another town, with no neighbors, nor friends, without understanding a word of what the others are talking about, since their language and customs are different from ours? Even their food, blazes, is different from what we have been accustomed to. Our wine, no matter how bitter, is still sweet to our taste. Then you go out and beg for work, which you don’t get, as there’s not even enough for their own folks. And so, day after day, you see that your children cannot adjust to their new life, as the other children regard them as some kind of a plague. Your wife just whiles away her time inside the house, since she is ignorant of the language of the place, and therefore, cannot manage even in the marketplace. To make it worse, you feel like you’re being like an intruder… Then you begin to feel that nostalgia…. Damn it, this is a lonely feeling of being alone, being far from everything your very own…
Neighbor: Well, old man, going away doesn’t mean letting yourself die. Look at Moses, he too, was on exile, but later on, he returned. Therefore, if one goes away, he brings with him the hope of coming back.
Joseph: I’m not bringing up my boy in a foreign land. I’m not leaving.
Neighbor: Children are always children. We go away for their sake, and for them, we stay. Know what’s on my mind, Joseph? That this is not the time for impregnating women. I mean it, really. Do you know what a cameleer from Bethlehem told me? That in some villages in the south, women are taking I don’t know what concoction in order not to get themselves pregnant.
Old man: And why is that so, young man?
Neighbor: They say they don’t want to have children. What’s the use working hard in order to have them and care for them, only to be butchered by the guards later on? It’s one pain over another. So, for as long as this blood-thirsty Herod is on the throne, they’d rather not bear any children at all. And I think they’re damn right.
Old Man: Well, I don’t think that’s right. On the contrary, don’t you see that this is what they want? That there be less and less of us, so that the yoke may fit us so well. If we don’t sire children, what hope is left for us to rid ourselves one day of the bar that has been placed in our necks?
Joseph: The hope is in the Messiah, as the Rabbi has said. But at the rate we’re going, if we don’t make a little haste….
Old Man: No, my son, no. The Messiah won’t make haste unless we ourselves hurry. Freedom won’t come to us, we’ve got to look for it. Look at our hands. Don’t you see?… The Messiah is in our very hands. Close your palm like this. Here is the strength of the Messiah. Our strength is in our hands. Our army is our children. That’s why they want them killed, because they are scared of all these hands joined together, and all the closed fists, that together we may all topple down the throne of the tyrant. They are scared, that’s why they kill. The emperor of Rome also kills. All of them believe they are very strong because they can kill, but deep inside them, they tremble, knowing that sooner or later the people will drive them away. Remember, remember what happened in Egypt a thousand years ago. When our ancestors went down the land, during the time of old Jacob, there was only a handful of them. But through the strength of the working men and the women bearing children, they increased and filled the country…. Then trouble started with the pharaoh, who was the big shot of that place….
Pharaoh: Damn! What the hell is happening to the Hebrews who multiply like sand?
A Servant: As you already know, your excellency, since the poor have nothing else to do to amuse themselves, they go to sleep early… and that’s it, of course!
Pharaoh: That’s not funny to me.
Servant: Why, not? The more there are of them, the better. You’ll have more slaves to work for you!
Pharaoh: And more heads protesting!
Servant: And more manpower to build the pyramids!
Pharaoh: And more people to make war against me, you fool! They should be crushed!
Old Man: The stewards of Egypt had done this to our fore¬fathers. Life became bitter for them since they were forced to make bricks, and work like beasts…. But our great grandmothers continued to bear children, like nothing….
Pharaoh: Damn!… They are increasing, and they keep on increasing, they’re like mushrooms, I see them everywhere…
Servant: Your excellency, the slaves say they can’t go on working, because they’re too hungry…
Pharaoh: They’re all lazybones, that’s what they are! Listen to me well: If anyone protests, lash him!
Old Man: Forced labor was accompanied by threats, maltreatment, imprisonment and… crimes. Anyway, the situation was getting worse each time. Like now, more or less, whenever a ruler gets swell-headed, he thinks he is god of the earth. But the people continue to increase and fill up the country, like a river that overflows…
Pharaoh: Damn! These Hebrew women are as prolific as rabbits… Something must be done about it. Send in the midwives immediately!
A Midwife: At your orders, Pharaoh.
Pharaoh: Listen well, midwives. When you attend to the Hebrew women, if the baby is a male, grrr! Do you understand?… The females may be allowed to live. In a few years, they can be useful in amusing my soldiers! Ha, ha, ha!
Old Man: But those midwives had a good heart and spared the lives of the girls as well as the boys….
Pharaoh: Curse of all curses! Don’t they have respect for the pharaoh’s word? Why were my orders not complied with?
Midwife: Dear Pharaoh, the Hebrew women are very strong. And they are not as dense as the Egyptian women. By the time we get to assist them in child delivery, they’ve already given birth and cut off the umbilical cord of their babies…
Pharaoh: I’ll have the two of you beheaded for having lied to me! Are you making a mockery of me? Now you’ll see who I am! Hear this, all of you, soldiers…! I am giving orders to kill all Hebrew boys who are below two years old…! Drown them in the river, put them under knife, or whatever is easier for you!… Let no one be spared!
Midwife: But, Pharaoh, these children are innocent…
Pharaoh: Innocent?… Yes, now they are, but very soon, they will start making trouble, they will join their fellow slaves and form a strong group. No one, nobody can stop them! Now is the time! My orders are to kill every one!
Old Man: The guards of the pharaoh of Egypt obeyed the brutal order and so much blood of our sons had been shed…. They say even the heavens heard the lamentations of mothers…. They were like Rachel weeping disconsolately over the death of her sons…
Old Man: The pharaoh thought he had succeeded! What a fool!… He didn’t know that right in his own house he was raising someone who was to knock him off. This was Moses, who brought him the ten plagues and stirred up the people against him.
Neighbor: Yeah, old man, so it was Moses…
Old Man: …and today, it could be any of our boys. Look at Benjamin, Rebekah’s son…. Look at Tine, who is Anne’s son… and look at Jesus, the son of Mary…. Our children are born and so there’s hope. They will continue the path that we have started. Moses did not get to step on the promised land. But those who came after him, did. The exile lasted for forty years, but no more….
Mary: That night, when Joseph came home, he was very worried. He told me about our compadre Nephtali, who had left. Ishmael and his wife were also leaving. He also spoke of a number of our neighbors who were itching to leave for a distant place. Those were indeed difficult times. I tell you, Matthew, that that old man from Nazareth was right. What we were experiencing was very much like what our forefathers had undergone in Egypt.
Matthew, who was a tax collector before, did not miss a single word of Mary, and he very carefully recorded everything in his memory. A few years laters when he took up his pen to write his gospel, he borrowed those ancient stories of our country and people, and spoke of Jesus as the new Moses, the son whom God had called from Egypt to liberate his brothers and sisters.
When Jesus was born, notwithstanding the Roman influence strongly prevailing in Palestine, the country was still under the rule of King Herod the Great. Herod was not of Jewish blood. His father was Idumean, a mayor in the court of the high priest and his mother was the daughter of an Arab sheik. His astuteness to win for himself the favor of Rome led him to the throne and gradually he became powerful in the entire country. He ruled for forty years, and during his reign the wealthy classes of Jerusalem and his own court wallowed in luxury and extravagance which until then were not common in the country. Taxes given annually to Herod the Great amounted to 1,000 talents (about 10 million denarii – the denarius was the daily wage of a laborer or a farmer). But his personal luxuries, those of his family and his friends in court, were such that the said amount would not suffice. His private fortune was known to be immense. The reign of Herod the Great was known for the number of constructions built all over the country. The most important was the Temple. (It is called “the second Temple,” since the first, constructed by Solomon, was razed to the ground by the Babylonians during their invasion of the country, 587 years before Christ.) Herod’s private life (he had 10 wives), the enormous and increasing taxes with which he burdened the people, his cruelty and lack of scruples, the continued extravagance in his court, had made him a king feared and hated by his subjects. In his time, the country was impoverished. Only the industries for luxury goods prospered. Upon his death, and with the division of the kingdom into four parts (one of them, Galilee, was for Herod Antipas, who is mentioned in the gospels), the annexation of Palestine to the Roman empire was finally realized. Herod was fully aware that his subjects hated him. This made him live in constant fear. That is why he created a huge personal security force, which was the repressive army, safeguarding the “security” of that kingdom built with the blood and sweat of the people.
When Matthew wrote the gospel, in narrating the first years of the life of Jesus, he referred to Herod and attributed to him the killing of the innocent children, linking this event with the coming of the wise men from the Orient to Jerusalem, and to the flight of Joseph, Mary and the infant to Egypt. These three accounts, the magi, the slaying of the innocent and the escape to Egypt are theological sketches. Herod’s cruelty is historical and so is the fact that during that period, there were important colonies of Jewish immigrants and exiles in Egyptian cities.
The account of the magi coming from the Orient is a way of saying that the gospel’s message is a message not solely for the people of Israel, but for all the peoples of the earth. Thus, Matthew proclaims that Jesus has come “for those who are near and far” (Is 57:19; Eph 2:14-17). The stories of the killing of the innocent and the flight to Egypt show Jesus in relation to Moses, the great liberator of the people. Just as when Moses was born, the Pharaoh had decreed the death of all the male born of Israel (Ex 1:15-22), so when he became an adult, Moses had to flee to the south of Egypt, and from there, returned to free his brothers (Ex 2:11-15). Matthew repeats these same events in the life of Jesus. In his catechesis, Jesus is presented as “the new Moses.” The reign of Herod the Great was a time for the powerful to enrich themselves and for the poor to experience all sufferings. In this atmosphere of repression, anguish, poverty and uncertainties, this episode situates the exile of several Israelites who were contemporaries of Joseph and Mary. They were escaping from misery and persecution. On the other hand, for centuries before Jesus, there were close relations between Israel and Egypt. The Egyptian cities of Elephantine and Alexandria, seat of Jewish immigrant colonies, were of great importance. The “Diaspora” (Jews in exile) was estimated to be more than four million individuals, compared to the half a million who lived within the territory of Israel. Such large scale migration consisted of Israelites, who were forced to leave the country due to periodic famines, or exploitation to which the farmer and artisans were subjected. Naturally, there was also a migration of big time businessmen who did not want to settle in Mediterranean cities which at the time were the most important commercial centers.
Being in exile is evil, since it uproots the individual in exile and his family. Love for one’s own country is a very human feeling, and because of this, people have always felt the strength to work and fight for their compatriots. The long period of exile may help us perhaps, put love for our country side by side with internationalism which knows no barriers, making our place of work our own country, and all just men and women our compatriots. Internationalism is a feeling and experience that plunges one’s roots deep into the essence of the gospel of Jesus.