Why the Stakes are High: Poetry, the Bible, & the Slaughter of the Innocents [commentary & sonnet]

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The story known as the “slaughter of the innocents,” found in Matthew 2:16-18, has invoked poetry from the very beginning. The story itself includes poetry, with Matthew 2:18 citing a poetic fragment from Jeremiah 31. As a poet who has trained as a pastor, I’d also argue that poetry must continue to speak with this horrifying story from our faith tradition.

More than prose, poetry is uniquely adept at handling the ineffable and the absurd. As poet Gregory Orr observes in his book A Primer for Poets & Readers of Poetry,

poetry is compelling in a crisis not just because it is concise and immediate, but also because it is superbly designed to handle both aspects of experience: the reality of disorder and the self’s need for some kind of order.

No wonder that some of our most gut-wrenching and ardent portions of Scripture, such as the Books of Lamentations and the Song of Songs, are written in poetry.

So why do so many people nowadays, at least white Westerners such as myself, avoid poetry? In his recently published book Enjoying the Bible: Literary Approaches to Loving the Scriptures, English professor Matthew Mullins addresses this question head-on. The Western suspicion of poetry goes back at least to Plato. Plato believed that poets wrote poems with characters who set dangerous social precedent. As Mullins explains, the ancient Greek philosopher would have banned poets in his ideal republic.

White Westerners can also blame our particular hesitation with verse on the French Enlightenment philosopher René Descartes. With a worldview summarized in his famous axiom “I think, therefore I am,” Descartes privileges an epistemology based on the mind. Poetry, however, rarely has a main goal of conducting cognitive information. The purpose of poetry, and its epistemological superpower, is to connect with our emotions and with our bodies. Hence poetry frustrates those of us who have been trained primarily to seek information with our minds.

Cultures that have bypassed this imbalance have thankfully retained more openness towards poetry. Western youth also demonstrate more delight in verse. Mullins notes how “we nearly all start out as poets. We write poetry as children.” Anglican priest and poet Malcolm Guite echoes this sentiment:

I think we’re all born poets. I think poetry comes first and praise is the later sophistication. And one of my joys as my children were born and began to grow up and did that miraculous and beautiful thing of acquiring language, the first thing they had was rhythm and rhyme, wasn’t it?

For those of us [misin]formed in the ways of Plato and Descartes, we need to consider how our lack of poetry has hampered our spiritual formation. In her fountainhead work “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” activist and poet Audre Lorde declares,

The white fathers told us, I think therefore I am; and the black mothers in each of us-the poet-whispers in our dreams, I feel therefore I can be free. Poetry coins the language to express and charter this revolutionary awareness and demand, the implementation of that freedom.

Indeed, as Mullins explores in Enjoying the Bible, Western Christians have overlooked key elements of Scripture because of our inordinate focus on the mind. Yet poetry runs throughout the Bible.

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In the beginning, in fact, was poetry. Scholars continue to debate if the entirety of Genesis 1 is written in verse. While I’m inclined to say “yes” to that question, almost all scholars agree that at least Genesis 1:27 is poetic:

So God created humankind in his image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

This crucial verse for anthropology and human rights, and the very verse that underlies our entire imago dei theology, is a poem.

Not only does Scripture describe our relationship to God in poetry, but the first words that a human directly speaks in Scripture are also a poem. Genesis 2:19 chronicles how Adam names “every animal of the field and every bird of the air,” but only in Genesis 2:23 do we hear Adam’s first actual words, which he directs towards Eve in poetic form:

“This at last is bone of my bones
    and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
    for out of Man this one was taken.”

Poetry is the vehicle in the Bible that names our identity as relational humans. Yet poetry is also a vehicle that names our limitations. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that when God responds to humanity’s refusal to accept the limits of Eden in Genesis 3: 14-19, God speaks in poetry:

The Lord God said to the serpent,

“Because you have done this,
    cursed are you among all animals
    and among all wild creatures…

To the woman he said,

“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
    in pain you shall bring forth children…

And to the man, he said…

By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
    for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return.”

Poetry is present at creation, as well as at the fall. We also find poetry present in the redemptive and restorative work of Jesus. The last book of the Bible, Revelation, is arguably written in poetry. When Paul proclaims the good news of Christ in Philippians 2: 5-11, he is likely quoting an earlier hymn of the church:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord…

Since poetry appears in Scripture from creation to final restoration, how can we better flex our poetic muscles, especially with challenging texts like the slaughter of the innocents? As one of many possible responses, I’ll walk through my own thought process in creating the accompanying poem, “One of Herod’s Soldiers in Bethlehem Speaks.”

Poetry invites us to ask questions. I therefore studied Matthew 2:16-18, as well as the surrounding chapters, and noted which questions spontaneously bloomed. I asked the Holy Spirit to help me be open to the unexpected. One question that popped up: “who actually murdered the infants?” I doubted that it was Herod himself. I then remembered references in Mark 6:21 and Luke 23:11 to Herod’s soldiers.

Knowing that the Gospels mention multiple Herods, I also asked, “which Herod ordered the slaughter?” Scholars do not universally agree, but there was a strong case that Herod the Great is the king mentioned in Matthew 2. I therefore researched the military of Herod the Great, which included a visit to the library of my seminary alma mater. Every detail in the final poem is based on that research.

A related question I had, and one that notably hit my emotions, was “what kind of person and/or social structure would order and perform such genocide?” This question had me consider my poem’s perspective. Did I want to write as a third-person bystander? Or was I willing to put myself directly in the action? I decided, even as an act of empathy and insight, that I needed to try and get inside the head of those who committed the murders. I noticed fear in myself as I considered this option, so I prayed that God would give me strength and wisdom as I crafted a persona poem as one of Herod’s soldiers.

The final question I asked was what type of form did I want: would this poem be in free verse, or in a set form such as a pantoum or sestina? Knowing that sonnets are made for inner argument, I decided the sonnet would be suitable for one of Herod’s soldiers considering the immoral orders that Herod had issued to him. With my research notes and a Bible beside me, I sat down to write.

During the writing journey, I tried to be open to surprising connections of imagery, words, and ideas. I had an inkling before I started of how the poem may flow, but through the act of writing, I made spontaneous, unpredictable connections. Those connections humbled me. As I drafted the poem on Good Friday, I considered how easily the mundane can lead any of us to commit great evil.

Some poetry colleagues then read the first draft, and offered me feedback during a monthly poetry feedback group. Their responses helped me see what resonated, as well as what needed clarification and focus. Sharing poetry in this beloved group is a key way that God meets me, as the insights I gather through the feedback process often spontaneously serve as spiritual direction.

Through the writing process, I discovered common excuses that we use to justify sin, as well as the power of perennial temptations. The unique knowledge that I gained in the poetic writing process regarding God’s character, as well as my own, reminds me that God continues to use the reading and writing of poetry to aid in our spiritual formation—especially with challenging texts like the slaughter of the innocents.

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An earlier version of this article, as well as the poem, first appeared in the September 2022 issue of Reformed Worship.

Photo credits, in order of appearance:
StonedOgraphy, Pai Shih, castro.pic on Visualhunt.

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