Nativity Perspectives – Herod

It’s not an episode you will normally see in a school or Church Nativity play, is it? We always see the story told With the Angel Gabriel telling Mary she’s pregnant with the Messiah, Joseph, coming to accept it, the journey to Bethlehem on a donkey, the innkeeper, the stable the shepherds and, of course, the Wise Men. We also often see the Wise Men encountering Herod on their way to Jerusalem and deciding to go back home by a different route. What we never see, and often tend to forget, is the aftermath of that decision; a decision prompted by God himself.

But we need to look at it, to remember it, and to realise how this awful event, the slaughter of innocent babies and toddlers by a clearly mad king, fits into the story of Christmas and the meaning it still holds for us today.
To understand this we need to look at the person of Herod himself. He was born to a wealthy family in Idumea, south of Judea, in around 73BC. In his early 30s he and his brother, Phasael, were made tetrarchs by the Roman leader Mark Anthony (yes, the one who had an affair with Cleopatra) in order for them to support the Jewish King Hyrcanus II.

This didn’t last long as Hyrcanus’ throne was taken by his nephew, Antigonus, and Herod went to Rome to plead for help in restoring Hyrcanus to the throne.

However, in an unexpected move, the Roman Senate named Herod himself as King of the Jews and helped him to fight a three year war against Antigonus which ended in victory in 37BC.
From that day on Herod ruled Judea in a brutal fashion, supported by Rome but criticised for his methods by the religious rulers, the Sanhedrin. He married Antigonus’ niece, Mariamme, in order to stake more of a claim to the throne in Jewish eyes, despite already being married with a son. He banished his first wife and son when he did this. Later on he was known for executing people on a whim when they displeased him, including his wife Mariamme.
Herod was a king who was put in position by an outside agency and a bloody three year war. He knew that his position was shaky from the start; the Jews didn’t want him and the Romans had shown their willingness to back a different ruler when the installed him in the first place. He decided that violence, oppression and murder were the only things he could do to keep his power, influence and riches.

A cruel, rythless tyrant. Herod, not Peter Ustinov.

So, when three mysterious travellers from the east arrive in Jerusalem talking about a new King of the Jews, he reacted with fear and jealousy, as he always had done. Herod would do anything and everything to protect his position, and if that meant killing a baby, or even killing hundreds just to try and make sure he’d got the right one, then so be it.
Herod’s position and actions are extreme, to say the least. Nobody reading this is a ruling monarch (unless Her Majesty is a fan, in which case – Hi Your Majesty. Good news about Harry, eh?) and I’m pretty confident that not a single person here has gone into a town and killed all boys under the age of 2. So, what can we possibly learn from this? Well, the key for us is in the motivation behind Herod’s actions. He had built up a position (well, he’d been given it undeservedly) and he was terrified that he would lose this kingdom he had jealously guarded for decades.
So, do you have a kingdom you jealously guard? Have you been given a responsibility in your job, a position in a club, a role in the Church, which you do and nobody else goes near? Do you find that you have a position of responsibility somewhere which you use to the extreme, ruling the roost over all those around you and making sure things are done your way or there’ll be Hell to pay? Do you look at people you know who are doing well, or getting attention or praise, and feel jealousy that it is them, not you, as you would clearly do a much better job?
I’m sure most, if not all of us, have felt this way and have encountered people like this in our lives. And I’m sure, as we think about those people or those times we have been like that, we can feel the bitterness and resentment it all creates. 
Jealousy and possessiveness are destructive feelings. They eat away at us, distance us from friends and family and tear apart relationships. They also alienate us from God – Herod was raised as a Jew and presented himself as a Jew, but his lifestyle and motivations were so far removed from God’s intention that most people of the time regarded him as more Roman that Jewish.
Had Herod known the truth, though, and been willing to accept it, he would have realised that this new king was nothing to be jealous of, nothing to be scared about. Rather, this king would be able to do something for Herod that no earthly power would ever be able to manage. Because, for all of his status and riches, Herod was clearly a broken man. How else do you explain a willingness to kill loads of innocent children? How else do you explain banishing his own wife and child? How else do you explain executing his second wife? Herod realised his own inadequacies in managing to hold onto power and to rule properly, so he resorted to violence and oppression to keep him in place.
This new king, Jesus Christ, allows us to accept our own inadequacies and to live with them, because he sent his spirit to enable us to do things we could never do on our own. Herod had the chance to accept God’s saviour, to rule with God’s help, to carry those inadequacies and weaknesses as strengths because God would be there, acting through him. And he had the chance to lose that fear and jealousy because a life in Christ is a life where we can know our true purpose and the purpose of those around us, without a fear of losing it as he has promised that he is with us for eternity.
We, too, can know this. We need to let go of the little kingdoms we build for ourselves on earth and focus on the Kingdom God wants us all to build in his name. That way jealousy and fear are replaced by love and cooperation, and destructive emotions give way to hope.
Hope is something which seems so absent from the situation Herod has created. Mothers mourning their children, taken from them so cruelly. Matthew quotes Jeremiah 31:15 when talking about this,
“A sound is heard in Ramah,

    the sound of bitter weeping.

Rachel is crying for her children;

    they are gone,

    and she refuses to be comforted.”

It sounds, on the face of it, to be a time of desperation and desolation. Something no good can come out of. However, if you look closer at the verse this is taken from, you’ll see that Jeremiah 31 is all about the restoration of Jerusalem, and God’s people being returned to their rightful place. And verse 15 in context seems very different indeed,
“I have set Israel’s people free

    and have saved them from a mighty nation.

They will come and sing for joy on Mount Zion

    and be delighted with my gifts—

    gifts of grain and wine and olive oil,

    gifts of sheep and cattle.

They will be like a well-watered garden;

    they will have everything they need. 

Then the young women will dance and be happy,

    and men, young and old, will rejoice.

I will comfort them and turn their mourning into joy,

    their sorrow into gladness.

I will fill the priests with the richest food

    and satisfy all the needs of my people.

I, the Lord, have spoken.”

The Lord’s Mercy on Israel

The Lord says,

“A sound is heard in Ramah,

    the sound of bitter weeping.

Rachel is crying for her children;

    they are gone,

    and she refuses to be comforted.

Stop your crying

    and wipe away your tears.

All that you have done for your children

    will not go unrewarded;

    they will return from the enemy’s land.

There is hope for your future;

    your children will come back home.

    I, the Lord, have spoken.”

You see, this mourning turns to joy. The children Rachel weeps for in Jerusalem have been gathered into the presence of God, and so have those mourned by the mothers of Bethlehem. And God is drying their tear and showing them that there is hope; just as Israel is gathered together and restored in Jeremiah’s prophecy, so all people are by the arrival of the new King of the Jews. Out of this despair comes the greatest hope the world has ever known, one which breaks through the fears of a jealous earthly king, one which breaks through our own little kingdoms, and which invades the whole world as it brings us all into the presence of God. The hope of Christmas and of Christ.


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