Kings are known for being fierce in battle and jealous for territory. So when Herod the Great learned of a rival emerging from within his own kingdom, he determined to put down any such ambitions before they materialized.
Herod ruled Judea about two thousand years ago, an area just south of Jerusalem between the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea. While he is credited for the construction of significant monuments, including the Wailing Wall, Herod also built a reputation as a cruel madman.
The king immersed himself in royal company. Herod’s brother was governor of Jerusalem and he married a princess of the Jewish Hasmonean Dynasty. Herod appointed his wife’s brother as High Priest. But, his jealousy grew in step with the High Priest’s popularity. So Herod had him drowned.
Herod’s beautiful and dignified wife sporadically reciprocated his frenetic love for her. In a fit of rage over her aloof responsiveness, he had her killed. Antiquities writes that in the weeks following, “he was so far overcome by his passion that he would order his servants to call for Mariamme, as if she were still alive and could still hear them.”
Harod’s murderous habits continued five years later when he killed Mariamme’s mother and his four closest friends in response to rumor of an attempted coup. He then killed his two sons that he had with Mariamme out of jealousy for their growing popularity. Caesar Augustus, founder of the Roman Empire, said of him, "It is better to be Herod's dog than one of his children."
It was around this time, thirty years into Herod’s reign, that a group of ancient astrologists arrived in Jerusalem. They were intent in their investigation, asking people, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” The people of Jerusalem were disturbed by the inquiries of these magicians, referred to as the “magi.” Word of their presence soon made its way to the king.
Nearly forty years earlier, Herod had killed Antigonus II Mattathias, who had been appointed King of the Jews by the Roman Senate. Troubled by the implications of the magi’s questioning, Herod called together every local religious expert and asked them where the Messiah was to be born. They responded with quotes from the Judean prophet Micah, whose words were written 700 years earlier, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clansof Judah,? out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel,? whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”
This was the setting wherein the Apostle Matthew gives this account: Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah,? weeping and great mourning, ?Rachel weeping for her childrenand refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
Herod the Great died a couple of years later without locating the Christ child and the Romans divided his kingdom among the three sons who had been born of his second wife. One of these sons, Herod Antipas, met Jesus some thirty years later when Pontius Pilate transferred him as a legal relegation.
But Herod Antipas returned the prisoner and the inquiry about the Magi’s prophesy resumed once again. Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” Pilate responded,“You are a king, then!”
The enormous and perpetual fear of Jesus does seem disproportionate. On only one occasion was he confronted in battle and his reaction was consistent with his commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” At the moment of his arrest, Jesus was seized by a mob armed with swords and clubs.
When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear. But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.
“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?”
Two thousand years hence, no one is martyred for believing in the historicity of King Herod. No one is mocked by Hollywood for their personal commitment to Herod the Great. No one is legally prevented from re-enacting the birth of Herod on public property. It seems that Herod’s paranoia was justified.