A Sleeping Child

Herod heard of the Christ child, and he and all of his advisors were troubled. He instructed the wise men to find the boy, and to bring him back the news, so that he too might go and pay him homage. The homage that Herod meant to pay the child was to put him to death. When the wise men, warned by a dream, stayed far away from Jerusalem on their way back east, Herod did what Herod had been wont to do. He eliminated the opposition – or he tried to.

The baby boys in the vicinity of Bethlehem were things for Herod, obstacles to his dynastic plans. If a tree is in the way of your road, you cut it down and root out its stump. For you it has no life. It is just a blank negation of your will.

All of the paintings of this slaughter that I’ve ever seen are of dramatic and terrible action. Brutal over-muscled soldiers swing their swords, sometimes piercing mother and child together. What I’ve never seen, though, is a painting that might better correspond to our situation now.

I imagine it this way. The room is dim and still. Neither father nor mother is there. Perhaps they are in the fields, at work. Light from one window shines upon the countenance of a man, a soldier. His brow is knitted. He holds a sword at his side. He is not moving. On a bed before him sleeps a little boy.

I ask you to imagine that small boy. Gabriel Marcel says that the sight of any sleeping person brings us into the vicinity of a mystery: the feeling of a presence that cannot be reduced to propositions or to utility. This is especially true of the sleeping child: “From the point of view of physical activity. . .the sleeping child is completely unprotected and appears to be utterly in our power; from that point of view, it is permissible for us to do what we like with the child. But from the point of view of mystery, we might say that it is just because this being is completely unprotected, that it is utterly at our mercy, that it is also invulnerable or sacred.” (from The Mystery of Being: “Presence as a Mystery”)

We see the careless curl of hair at his temple. We see the shut eyes – what do they behold? We see the pursed lips, the slow rhythm of his breath.

No one, to the extent that he remains safely within the warehouse of things, feels this presence. We do not sense a mystery in transistor 2451, shelf 32B. Once we replace a name with a number, most of our destructive work is done. If we see only instruments, we will not scruple to use them as we please. The important feature of a part of a machine is that it has no individuality. It can be replaced with another. It is meant to be replaceable with another.

But if that soldier stops too long to behold the small boy asleep, he will have to harden himself against the natural and human sense of holiness and mystery. To treat the boy as a thing, he must himself become a thing, a tool of Herod, a part of the Herodian machine.

Slaughter of the Innocents by François-Joseph Navez (1824)
Slaughter of the Innocents by François-Joseph Navez (1824)

To treat the sleeping child as an annoyance to be rid of, he must acknowledge the worthlessness of all small things; the seed in the earth, the chick in its nest, the beat of a heart, the soldier in an army, Judea in the Roman Empire, that little empire in the long sweep of the history of the world, that world a speck of dust in the heavens. He must deny the worth of created being itself.

Imagine another picture of a sleeping child. He is sucking his thumb. He is curled up, knees tucked under his chin. His bottom is plainly and innocently visible. The picture is blurry, because he is swaddled up in the warm flesh of his mother’s womb. The nurse at the clinic sees and does not see the little boy.

Imagine another picture. The boy is lively and half wild. A shock of hair falls over his forehead. He has been swimming in the pond. He comes out streaming with water and laughing. The older “friend” looks on, calculating, strategizing.

Another picture. The boys and girls sit at their desks in the classroom. They are thinking about all kinds of things. One of the boys is thinking about the ballgame he is going to play that evening. One of the girls is thinking about paying a visit to her cousin on the way home from school. Two other girls are talking about where they go to learn how to ride horses. Another boy is daydreaming, gazing out the window.

The teacher stands in front of them. Her brow is knitted. She frowns. She is holding a book at her side. By the time the boys and girls leave school that afternoon, they will know about – fill in the blank.

“Is something wrong, son?” The boy hasn’t been himself this evening. He gives her an odd look, then ducks away.
 “No, it’s nothing.”

Says Marcel: “There can be no doubt at all that the strongest and most irrefutable mark of sheer barbarism that we could imagine would consist in the refusal to recognize this mysterious invulnerability.


Herod and Herodias come in many guises. They are hedonists, for whom children are but an irritating check against their pursuit of pleasure. They are utilitarians, tools who evaluate the usefulness of other tools. They are statists, whose ambition is not to govern men, but to manage ants. They are doctors and nurses who will not see the child. They are all the murderers of innocence. They stand like the soldier in the doorway of the home.

Sweet Jesus, save us from ourselves.

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. He directs the Center for the Restoration of Catholic Culture at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts.

  • Kevin Aldrich

    I don’t know what is more beautiful and healing than gazing at a sleeping child.

  • Therese

    Holding a sleeping child…

  • Dennis Larkin

    This is a lovely meditation.

  • Robert A Rowland

    Concerns for the care and nurturing of children have apparently not been properly addressed in the recorded history of mankind. Who in their right mind can possibly consider harming a sleeping child. Our nation will be ultimately condemned for its insidious crimes against unborn children. God help us!

  • Stanley Anderson

    “And all wept, and bewailed her: but he said, Weep not; she is not dead, but sleepeth.”

    In light of your heartbreakingly beautiful column, Anthony Esolen, along with the quote above, I’m suddenly thinking that those things you wrote about may be the sorts of things Jesus “saw” and “felt” during his earthly ministry as well as when he was preaching to the dead — ie, he sees all of us fallen death-encrusted creatures as sleeping children.

  • Peter Shafton

    Herod may have slaughtered thousands of innocent children in his day. But, God’s people [sic] of today kill millions in Satan’s abortion clinics.

  • Chris in Maryland

    Professor Esolen’s beautiful essay made me recall Wm. Blake’s poem – A Cradle Song – I recommend listening to a recording of this Christmas lullaby set to music by the composer Emma Lou Diemer in 1991:

    Sweet dreams, form a shade
    O’er my lovely infant’s head!
    Sweet dreams of pleasant streams
    By happy, silent, moony beams!

    Sweet Sleep, with soft down
    Weave thy brows an infant crown!
    Sweet Sleep, angel mild,
    Hover o’er my happy child!

    Sweet smiles, in the night
    Hover over my delight!
    Sweet smiles, mother’s smiles,
    All the livelong night beguiles.

    Sweet moans, dovelike sighs,
    Chase not slumber from thy eyes!
    Sweet moans, sweeter smiles,
    All the dovelike moans beguiles.

    Sleep, sleep, happy child!
    All creation slept and smiled.
    Sleep, sleep, happy sleep,
    While o’er thee thy mother weep.

    Sweet babe, in thy face
    Holy image I can trace;
    Sweet babe, once like thee
    Thy Maker lay, and wept for me:

    Wept for me, for thee, for all,
    When He was an infant small.
    Thou His image ever see,
    Heavenly face that smiles on thee!

    Smiles on thee, on me, on all,
    Who became an infant small;
    Infant smiles are His own smiles;
    Heaven and earth to peace beguiles.

    Merry Christmas to all the good people of TCT…

  • Randall Peaslee

    I would like to see a response to this. I think Dean Brooks has read the Midianite story incorrectly, to begin with. Furthermore, he gives the incident more overall meaning than I think it warrants. However, I’m not the one to take this question on fully.

  • Name

    Dear Mr. Brooks,
    First, I perceive an all-too-rare authentic “graciousness” in your thoughtful open-mindedness, as well as “sanguinity” of temperament! Most gratifying.
    As to your quandary, I am in complete empathy. In fact, this apparent contradiction between the apparently ruthless God of the OT vis-a-vis the God of Love described in the NT has been the impetus of scandal and/or heretical rationalizations (cf. Marcionism, Manichean Gnosticism) in Christian history.
    For me as a late-life believer (raised secular, baptized in a Protestant church in 1992 at age 32, Catholic since 1998), St. Iraneus’ “theology of adaptation” is helpful on this point. Succintly put, “God gradually adapts man to Himself, and Himself to man.” The apparent ruthlessness that God required of the Israelites vis-a-vis pagan nations was not an assault against their humanity, but a protection thereof. We moderns tend to romanticize the societies of antiquity, esp. those which achieved high levels of scientific and cultural sophistication. But what we overlook is the extreme and unbridle cruelty of these societies, in which there was no notion of innate human dignity. In these societies human sacrifice was normal, and women and children were effectively the chattel property of husbands and fathers. This is the “human clay” out of which God had to form a people who would be radically different from the peoples around them (recall Abraham was a Chaldean before God called him). As St. Iraneus points out, this process involved an ethical evolution. The unpitying execution of pagan peoples commanded by God was to preserve the Israelites from a cultural contamination that would result in their falling back into the barbarity of their pagan ancestors. The seriousness of this threat is illustrated by the capital punishment inflicted by the tribe of Levi at God’s command on fellow Israelites for their orgiastic worship of the Golden Calf at the foot of Mt. Sinai. This demonstrates the severity with which paganism (not the mild “wiccan” form we know, but the virulently malevolent kind of antiquity) was purges was not a matter of ethnic bigotry.
    Yet in the midst of the harsh purgation of paganism from the emerging culture of Israel, we see numerous divine prescriptions for just treatment of non-Israelites (“strangers”), the poor and defenseless, with dire consequences for violations. Thus the severity was a wall meant to protect the cultivation of a new kind of society based on mutual recognition of innate human dignity rather than sheer power. Given the extreme barbarity of the surrounding cultures, and the constant temptation of the Israelites to assimilate, without the severity of the Law, it would have been impossible for the Israelites to preserve what would become the foundation of the humanistic cultural ethic that Westerners now take for granted, the Judeo-Christian tradition. For Christ is the Flower (or the Flowering) of Israel, the historical and ethical culmination of the Law through love of God and of one’s neighbor (including “foreigners” per the Good Samaritan parable) as one’s self. Per St. Iraneus, God adapted Israelite society in preparation to receive the perfection of the Law in the Person of Christ, and Christ as God Incarnate is God’s ultimate adaptation of Himself to mankind.
    May I suggest for your reading, in addition to St. Iraneus, “How the Jews Saved Civilization?” and another work roughly entitled “What The World Would Be Like Without Christ.”
    Happy New Year!

    • Dean Brooks

      Thank you for responding!

      I hesitate to tax the readers of TCT, in the midst of their holiday merry-making, with a long rebuttal. However, Robert Royal asked me — in a very pleasant private communication — why I would choose this particular episode to be the focus of my atheism. I’d like to answer him, and you, at least briefly.

      As Mr. Royal observed to me, there are plenty of problematic passages in the Bible (Job, or Abraham being told to sacrifice Isaac, or Jephthah who sacrificed his daughter), so why raise this one in particular?

      Well, basically for the same reason that Mr. Esolen invests such feeling in the story of Herod: There is no more intense value-conflict than the killing of children.

      More than this, though, Moses as a baby was the survivor of a boy-culling very similar to the one Herod would later carry out. Kind Egyptians rescued him from the reeds, and compassionate Midianites took him in as a stranger and foreigner, or he would never have lived to lead Israel. We already know from archeological evidence that the Golden Rule existed in Egypt centuries before Moses and the Exodus. The Biblical story of his life confirms that.

      I see no way to square Moses’ narrow escape from his own boy-culling with his later role in the deaths of all the Egyptian first-born children, and his order to wipe out the boy children of the Midianites. It is supremely cruel, bitterly ironic. Moses of all people would have been uniquely able to grasp the horror of what he was doing, how he would be repaying compassion with murder. And yet he had to do it, both times, because that was the will of his God.

      Such talk surely does spoil the mood, and for that I apologize again, but that is why this story is first on my list of ‘Reasons Why I Am An Atheist’. Happy New Year to everyone at TCT.

      • fsj

        Dear Mr. Brooks,

        A few observations:

        First, advanced pagan societies – most notably Mesopotamia, Egypt, Athens and Roman – certainly acknowledged lofty moral truths such as the Golden Rule. However, in these societies such truths were largely unrealized as philosophical ideals. In contrast, in Israel the covenantal Law contained numerous explicit definitions and sanctions for conforming to a moral code that was highly advanced, especially for the times. As Israel’s prophets testify, violations of this code, esp. failures of compassion for the poor and abuse of defenseless widows and orphans, resulted in recurring national crises. God did not play favorites.

        Second, it is at best questionable to draw a moral equivalence between the male infanticide ordered by Pharaoh for the specific purpose of Hebrew genocide, vs. the forewarned slaughter of Egypt’s first-born as a punishment for Pharaoh’s hubris (btw, Moses was the messenger, not the executioner – that was left to the Angel of Death). Again, God held Israel to the same standard. For example, He punished King David for the covenantal violation of census-taking by sending a pestilence to Israel resulting in far more deaths than inflicted on Egypt. Per “adaptation,” God inflicted punishments consistent with the ancients peoples’ understanding of the accountability of authority figures: in ancient societies, families were punished for transgressions by the family head, and nations were punished for transgressions by their rulers.

        Lastly, Jethro was a Midianite who effectively adopted Moses into his clan and became Moses’ trusted advisor and father-in-law. However, there is no evident basis for generalizing Moses’ indebtedness to Jethro to the entire nation of Midian. If in Nazi Germany a Jewish man was sheltered by a German family and then escaped, would he be morally prohibited from taking up arms against Nazi Germany out of loyalty to the family that sheltered him?
        In closing, I do not agree that difficulties regarding Scripture and faith in general should be avoided, and I’d hope all respectful challenges to faith such as those you present would be welcome. As long as all parties are proceeding with utmost respect and intellectual honesty, the exchanges are bound to be mutually instructive and thus mutually beneficial.
        Respectfully Yours

  • Faustina11

    God and I have a 2 year old grandson whose hair radiates from
    his head like a perfect halo. He really loves his grandma and she loves him.He is useful to me. He teaches me how to make a Playdoh airforce. I am useful, too. I teach him how to do giant kitty jumps off of the bed. we spend hours being very useful loving each other and God