Just how bad was Herod the Great?

In my last column, I answered the question “Why didn’t Matthew hide the astrologers?” In it, I said that the visit of the astrologers, often called “wise men” or “magi,” awakened “the jealous rage of a crazed ruler.” Here, I’ll expand on that crazed ruler.

He’s known to history as Herod the Great. He was the king of Judea. Jesus was born during his reign. After the visit of the astrologers, Jesus’ father Joseph had a dream. In the dream, an angel told him to take his family and flee to Egypt to escape death at the hands of Herod.

Actually, Herod was the puppet king of the rulers of the Roman empire which included Judea. As I said in the column in which I discussed Mary’s song, The Magnificat, Jews believed their king should be from the line of David.

Herod was not from the line of David. He was an Idumean, an Edomite from the line of Esau, whom God had openly rejected. The book of Obadiah, in verses 10-13, tells us the Edomites cheered as the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem.

Herod was repressive. For example, when he came into office, he put to death 45 of the 71 members of the Sanhedrin, the supreme ruling body of the Jews. He killed the 45 because they had supported the bid of his competitor, Antigonus, for the kingship. He also killed all the relatives of his competitor.

Professor Peter Schaeffer, who taught history in Princeton and in Berlin, sheds some light on the conflict between Antigonus and Herod:

“Antigonus regarded himself as the sole legitimate king, with a customary right (ethos) to this kingdom on account of his membership of the Hasmonean family; in his eyes, Herod was, as an Idumaean, a mere “commoner” (idiotes) and a “half-Jew” (hemiioudaios) to boot, and thus totally unfit to be king.

This politico-religious difference also had a social dimension: Herod evidently recruited his supporters chiefly from the rich land-owning classes, while the Hasmoneans relied for their support mainly on the rural population, who were unable to meet their tax demands.”

Herod interfered in things which were none of his business. For example, he repeatedly sacked and appointed the Temple’s High Priests. It is for this reason that many persons were called “High Priest” during Jesus’ day.

Herod was insecure and paranoid. He killed his favourite wife and three of his sons, because he felt they were plotting against him. And he arranged for hundreds of leaders to be put to death when he died. The emperor Augustus once said it would be better to be Herod’s pig than his son.

How would a brutal, insecure king respond to the news the astrologers brought? Herod had fought to become king and fought daily to remain king. Now he was told by astrologers – people whose opinions were highly prized by the Romans – that another had been “born” king of the Jews: meaning Herod’s kingship should instantly end.

We read in verse three that Herod was troubled. And that all Jerusalem was as troubled as Herod was. How would the crazed ruler respond?

Herod’s first response was cunning. He helped the astrologers learn where they might find Jesus. The answer was in the holy books of the Jews. So, he called the guardians of the books. He called the scribes and the Pharisees. He asked them where the Messiah would be born. They were unanimous in their answer. Their answer was Bethlehem.

Herod then spoke secretly to the astrologers. He told them to go find the child, then send word to him so that he too might go and “worship” him. But the astrologers also had a dream. They were warned not to return to Herod. So, they sneaked off quietly and haven’t been heard from since.

As Bible scholar Rodney Reeves puts it, infanticide is the ultimate revenge against enemies. We read in Matthew, in chapter 2, verse 16:

“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.”

A key word in my column on the astrologers was irony. Irony continues in the case of Herod. For, though he was an awful, murderous, paranoid man, he had many accomplishments.

Perhaps the greatest and most ironic of them is the fact that he rebuilt the Temple. God’s Temple. It was the most glorious building of its time, built with no expense spared.

He also supplied the needs of the population when a famine struck the land about 30 years before Jesus was born. He bought and distributed grain, clothing and later, seeds. He even reduced taxation during that time. His actions saved tens of thousands of lives.

During his reign, he undertook massive building projects. He built cities, a port, water distribution systems, and more. He promoted theatre – not something which pleased the Pharisees, since they considered plays sinful. He also funded games – even the Greek Olympics. He rooted out banditry which had been common in the countryside.

So, what’s your verdict? Just how bad was Herod the Great? How should we judge our leaders?

Rodney Reeves reminds us about canaries, birds which gold miners took with them when they went underground. If the canaries began to have trouble breathing, the miners knew the air was foul, and they would die if they didn’t get out. The canaries were warning signs.

Reeves says the biblical prophets – people like Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah – saw widows and orphans, the marginalized of society, as canaries, warning signs. If they were in trouble, the ruler was bad. Reeves says:

“The prophets … anticipated a day when the Lord would visit his people and take care of business. His presence would mean justice for all—bad news for those in power, good news for those who needed God’s help. In other words, Immanuel (“God with us”) would either be a welcomed relief or a feared punishment, depending upon who you were (Isa 7:14–25; 8:7–15).”

We recall verse 23 in the previous chapter, a quotation from the prophet Isaiah: “Behold the virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel,” which means “God with us.”

Greatness is about righteousness, about justice. Jesus is the saviour. And judge. He’s good news for some, bad news for others. He was bad news for Herod the Great.

Peace be with you.

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