January: Matthew 2; Luke 2
Matthew begins his recitation of the wiseman story with this line, “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wisemen from the east to Jerusalem, Saying “Where is he that is born ‘King of the Jews?’…” (Matt. 2:1,2) King Herod was troubled “and all Jerusalem with him” (Matt 2:3.) After consulting with the chief priests and scribes, they tell the wisemen to go to Bethlehem, but to return ‘that I may worship him also” (Matt. 2:8.) The wisemen find the Christ child and worship him but are warned by an angel not to return to king Herod. When Herod realizes he was “mocked of the wisemen, was exceedingly wroth, and set forth, and slew all the children…from two years old and under.” (Matt. 2:8)
Although some portray Herod’s motives of being jealous of the throne, his motivations may have been much more philanthropic, although misguided. Understanding the political situation at the time and Herod’s long reign may give us a better clue as to why he made this heinous decision.
Herod the Great was born the son of a general for the army of the high priest at Jerusalem, Hyrcanus, a descendent of the Maccabees. It was the Maccabee family who cleansed the temple for which Hannukah is celebrated. At the death of their queen mother, Hyrcanus and his brother fought for the Jewish throne. In the midst of that brief civil war, Roman general Pompey arrived and ended the conflict. This was in 63 BC. Rather than naming either brother as the victor, Pompey put Herod’s father as prefect of the Judaean province for Rome because he was not a Jew by birth but of the lineage of Esau.
Herod, as a young man, was asked to govern Galilee. After the poisoning of his father and the assassination of his older brother who was over Jerusalem, Herod went to Rome and was proclaimed “King of the Jews” due to his good relationship with Marc Anthony and Octavian Caesar, but that was in 37 BC.
In the next forty years, Herod reigned during a time of unparalleled prosperity for Judaea. Due to taxes and his extensive personal family funds probably tied to the caravan trade routes, Herod began rebuilding every town in Judaea, beginning with Samaria. He built a new palace in Jerusalem the size of Buckingham palace and multiple defensive towers and fortresses. He built a new port city, all of white, with a huge new palace where he held the Olympic games that touted an innovative sewer system, bringing the world to Judaea. In Jericho, he built an amphitheater, hippodrome, and spacious gardens. Finally, he rebuilt the temple, doubling the size of the temple mount with porches for gentiles and women and wrapping the stone in marble and gold. Outside the temple gates, he erected a large golden eagle as a tribute to Rome which allowed them to worship.
The Essenes grew in prosperity during this time, living an austere life with an increased focus on baptism. Hillel, a great teacher, ministered during Herod’s reign increasing scriptural study and synagogues dotted the country providing opportunities for all to read God’s holy word more frequently than at any other time during Hebrew history. All these things prepared the way for many to recognize Christ’s coming.
When the wisemen entered his court forty years later, Herod was no longer a vital and clever man. He was almost seventy years old, and according to Josephus his health was greatly deteriorating:
“But now Herod’s distemper greatly increased upon him, after a severe manner; and this by God’s judgment upon him for his sins. For a fire glowed in him slowly, which did not so much appear to the touch outwardly, as it augmented his pains inwardly. For it brought upon him a vehement appetite to eating, which he could not avoid to supply with one sort of food or other. His entrails were also exulcerated; and the chief violence of his pain lay in his colon. An aqueous and transparent liquor also had settled itself about his feet: and a like matter afflicted him at the bottom of his belly. Nay farther, his privy member was putrified, and produced worms. And when he sat upright, he had difficulty of breathing, which was very loathsome on account of the stench of his breath, and the quickness of its returns. He had also convulsions in all parts of his body: which increased his strength to an insufferable degree. It was said by those who pretended to divine, and who were endued with wisdom to foretell such things, that God inflicted this punishment on the King on account of his great impiety.” (Josephus, Ant. Of the Jews XVII; 6:5.)
In addition to his physical ailments, he carried a great burden in his vehemence to pacify Rome. According to a well-known historian, “Italy was a poor country. And it had become further impoverished by war and the growth of Rome. It could no longer even feed itself…That is where the provinces came in. Their function was to provide money. They paid tribute.” (Perowne, The Life and Times of Herod the Great, p.88) The tax spoken of in Matthew 2 is believed to have brought the rise of the Zealots. Rebellion was not tolerated by Rome, as the obliteration of the Gauls, Greece and Carthage could attest. Aware of this, and in an effort to thwart sedition, Herod had recently called for the death of three of his own sons. The golden eagle outside the temple was destroyed by students about this same time who Herod caught and burned alive. Full of physical pain, grief and perhaps a bit out of his mind, Herod did the unthinkable in calling for the death of the innocents, blind to the fact that this new king might actually be the coming Messiah.
In Herod’s attempt to build Jerusalem up to the city of his dreams, a jewel that Rome would recognize as the seat of the one true God, he missed what was right before him. He was so focused on the political, that he missed the spiritual. As Perowne put it, “Herod’s tragedy was not that he saw the vanity of the dream, but that he never beheld the glory of the vision.” (Perowne, p.180)