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Category Archives: Herod the Great

The Story of Mary and the Birth of the King: Conclusion

Herod’s troubles

Herod spent his last decade in the grips of turmoil fueled by an ever-growing paranoia. While he had achieved a degree of peace in Judea (despite the financial rigors imposed on his subjects due to Imperial taxes and his own extravagant building projects), there were always trouble spots to be dealt with, especially within his own family. During his seventy years Herod married ten wives and fathered fifteen children. Needless to say, troublesome rivalries found fertile soil.

To make matters worse, Herod suffered the effects of a painful degenerative disease which affected not only his body but also his mind. He knew death was inevitable and imminent—there was no cure for his malady. The time had come for him to nominate, by Emperor Augustus’s request, an heir to assume his kingdom upon his demise. Obviously it would be a son—but which one?

A tangled web

Early on, Herod divorced his first wife, Doris (a “commoner” so to speak), and banished her and his firstborn son, Antipater, in order to marry a true “royal,” the Princess Mariamme 1, of Hasmonean descent. She also bore him sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, and two daughters. The ensuing years were littered with political intrigue as mothers and sons, jealous siblings, shrewd sycophants and toadies, connived and maneuvered to grab the reins the instant of his death. The demented king saw threats everywhere—some quite real, others figments of his tormented mind.

As Augustus requested, Herod put forth the names of three sons, Antipater, Alexander and Aristobulus, for consideration; in response, each ambition-driven mother with her cohorts sought to claim the throne for her son by whatever means at her disposal. In the end, it finished badly for them all: Antipater, Herod’s firstborn, was executed on a charge of plotting to murder his father; Mariamme was executed because of an alleged murder plot; her two sons were strangled on charges of treason; and Doris was once again sent into exile.

Reconstruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of ...

Reconstruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of Herod (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Maniacal obsessions

Herod was increasingly plagued with fears of treason and impending overthrow, and the palpable Jewish expectation of a coming Messiah did nothing to calm his apprehensions. Just yesterday his spies brought word of a caravan arriving from the east, and among its travelers, Magi, wise men of some stature, with their gift-laden entourage, inquiring about one born King of the Jews. “We have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” A King of the Jews?!

Summoning all the chief priests and scribes, Herod got straight to the point: Where was this Christ to be born? Their reply: according to the prophet, in Bethlehem.[1] His minions were no doubt already combing all Jerusalem to find out more, sneaking, demanding, investigating, threatening; before long the whole city knew that Herod was on a rampage, and braced itself for his growing fury.

These wise men…they could be pivotal players in his manic search. Herod arranged for a private audience with them, and a plan took shape. First, a question. Exactly when did they see this star? If it took several weeks, or months even, for these Magi to make their journey,[2] how old might this…this king be—days, months, even a year or more? Then suppose he feigned a shared interest in paying homage also, and encouraged them to continue on their quest and keep him informed? Once Herod knew the child’s whereabouts, he could quickly dispatch this interloper. The Magi, unaware of such a murderous plot, played into his hands, and set off for Bethlehem, still guided by the star.

Herod waited.

Sometime earlier

Jesus was eight days old, and according to the Law, it was time for his circumcision. Joseph and Mary sought out the local Mohel to perform the age-old rite. The young mother comforted her crying infant, and soothed away his tears with the gentle sound of her voice. Their bond was already strong, and she found herself pondering many of the recent events which had so dramatically changed their lives. What did the future hold for this Son of God?

Perhaps this question loomed large a month or so later. Mary’s days of purification were completed and the time for Jesus to be consecrated to the Lord had arrived. Both events required sacrifices, and so Mary and Joseph with their precious son journeyed to Jerusalem and climbed the steps to the temple courtyard, making their way to the Court of the Women to fulfill their duties.

Unexpectedly, out of those gathered in the temple precincts, a man appeared, one Simeon by name, and took the infant Jesus in his arms, blessing God, saying, “Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, According to Your word; For my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, And the glory of Your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32). The parents marveled as he continued, speaking directly to Mary, “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35). Surely she would revisit this scene in the years to come as she and Jesus lived through the full implications of Simeon’s foreboding words.

A very old woman, a prophetess named Anna, upon witnessing this encounter, added her blessing, thanking the Lord, and explaining to all who would hear that the long-awaited Messiah had been born.

Visitors from the east

Mary must have watched with interest as the group of foreigners approached, fascinated by their strange accents, their quick gestures, and their obvious delight at what appeared to be a star hovering directly over the couple’s house. She learned these were Magi, dignitaries from the east, who were on a quest.

Was it a whimper or a full-blown cry that attracted their attention, stopping all conversation, and causing the strangers to turn in her direction? Perhaps as she shifted position and lifted Jesus to her shoulder, the realization hit them: They had come in search of the one born King of the Jews; they were led to this very place by a star; and now here he was, in the arms of his mother. Scripture records that the wise men dropped to their knees and worshiped him. Then they presented the little child with chests of gold, and frankincense, and myrrh, gifts carefully guarded and transported over hundreds of miles, gifts in honor of the King.

Warnings

Herod’s plan was about to be thwarted by God Himself with two dreams. First He warned the wise men not to return to Herod, but rather to choose another route for the journey home. And He warned Joseph to take his family and leave immediately, that very night, and flee to Egypt. By the next day, both parties were well en route.

The Massacre of the Innocents at Bethlehem, by...

The Massacre of the Innocents at Bethlehem, by Matteo di Giovanni (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Herod realized that his plan had gone awry and he had been outwitted by the Magi, he flew into a murderous rage, and issued a chilling edict: All boys[3] from two years old and under living in Bethlehem and its environs would be killed. Scripture records, “Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more’” (Matt 2:17-18). To this day, the event, sometimes referred to as the Massacre of the Innocents, is synonymous in the minds of many with Herod.

One last slaughter

According to historical records Herod the Great, King of the Jews, died in 4 BC in great pain, suffering from among other things, gangrene and dropsy.[4] But he did not go without one more grand design. “During his sickness Herod meditated only upon ways and means by which he might make the Jews mourn the day of his death. When he had returned from the baths of Callirrhoe to Jericho, he is said to have given orders that upon his death the most distinguished of the nation, whom he had caused to be shut up in the arena of that place, should be slain, so that there might be a great lamentation on his passing away. In his delirium he tried to kill himself, and the palace resounded with lamentations.”[5]

After Herod’s death Joseph had one last dream. It was finally safe for his young charge to return to Galilee, and particularly to Nazareth, thus fulfilling yet another prophecy: “He shall be called a Nazarene” (Matt. 2:23). Mary’s son, One born King of the Jews, would live to fulfill many more.


[1] See Micah 5:2.

[2] There is no easy identification of who these individuals were. Possibilities include Babylonians and Persians. See The Expositor’s Bible Commentary comments on Matthew 2.

[3] Scholars estimate that based on the size of Bethlehem (a small village), perhaps a dozen or so baby boys were murdered in Herod’s attempt to stop a threat to his throne.

[4] Stewart Perowne, Herod the Great, His Life and Times (1956), pp. 172-173.

The Story of Mary and the Birth of the King: Part 5

Shepherds Fields Near Jerusalem

Shepherds Fields Near Jerusalem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shepherds abiding in the fields

The shepherds did what they had done for endless days and nights—too many to remember—for a lifetime, really. That meant the constant search for food and water, and protection from thieves and varmints.  In the spring it was not so bad. Pastures were lush and green, and a flock ideally could graze near the home of its shepherd. And when the grain harvest was over, and the poor had gleaned their fill, the sheep came along behind and took care of the leftovers. Later the searing heat of summer transformed standing fields of grass into hay. A good shepherd[1] expertly navigated his flock through these cycles, in first one location and then another. He knew where fresh water flowed, and where wells with watering troughs were situated. Autumn and winter, however, presented the most challenge.

As the temperature began to moderate, and the nights grew cooler, the shepherd knew it would only be a matter of time before the winter rains, and the survival of his flock rested squarely on his shoulders. First he must find shelter, ideally in a cave turned sheepcote. If not that, then he would have to find a protected site, perhaps in a valley or on a sunny hillside, and build a sheepfold of large stones piled three to four feet high, secured with a gate, and topped with thorn branches to discourage predators, both men and beasts. (The bandits of Israel were known to climb stealthily over the walls of a sheepfold, drop in among the sheep, kill[2] as many of the hapless animals as possible by slitting their throats, heave them up and over the stonework into the arms of awaiting accomplices, and fade away without being caught.[3])

Sheep and lambs spring 2011

Sheep and lambs spring 2011 (Photo credit: Ambersky235)

Unlike goats that will hunt for the best feeding grounds, sheep had to be led by their shepherds to food and water. If there was little in the way of grasses to be found, the resilient caretakers must scour the countryside for anything edible including leafy trees and bushes—quite an undertaking if the flock was large. At the end of a day of foraging, the animals were led back to shelter, carefully counted and safely secured behind gated walls. Both animals and herders could then settle in for a night’s rest.[4]

Visitors from another realm

And so it was, on a seemingly routine fall night somewhere in the countryside near Bethlehem, that a particular group of shepherds bedded down with their flocks, tired and ready for sleep.[5] Tradition[6] has it that these were no ordinary shepherds; that these men were charged with tending flocks destined to be used as sacrifices during the Passover season in Jerusalem.[7] Newborn lambs demanded the most care and scrutiny because only the perfect males of the first year could be used for the Passover sacrifice itself, and thousands would be needed. Any shepherds responsible for such a flock would be held to strict account when they delivered their charges to the priesthood and the Temple.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a being like none they had ever seen before appeared, and said: “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” The very glory of the Lord shone all around the terrified shepherds; their hearts quickened as they heard the exuberant praises of an innumerable multitude of angels fill the night air. “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”   (Luke 2:10-15). As though an invisible curtain had dropped, the heavenly host was gone, and all was quiet once again.

Though stunned by fright and amazement, the shepherds’ instant response was one of faith: to personally witness the event that had surely come to pass in Bethlehem.  Luke says, “They came with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger” (2:16). They could not contain themselves. Everywhere they went, they heralded the glorious news:  A Savior has been born! Spread the word! He has come!

When at last they returned to their flocks they continued to praise and glorify God concerning the things they had heard and witnessed that astonishing night. What unlikely messengers—social outcasts—of the gospel of peace.

Meanwhile Mary kept all these things in her heart, pondering the workings of God in her young life.

Sedition afoot?

It didn’t take long for word of the shepherds’ cosmic encounter to reach Jerusalem and create a buzz of excitement throughout its environs. Herod’s ubiquitous spies hastily brought him a detailed report, and he, too, pondered these things—but not as the workings of Israel’s God. This smacked of nothing less than sedition. He, Herod the Great, would know more about this so-called “Savior who is Christ the Lord.”

(To be continued.)


[1] Society held a certain disdain for the lowly shepherd class. See The Woman’s Study Bible (1995), p. 1690. “Shepherds were often viewed as outcasts, and as dishonest, and unclean according to the Law.”

[2] It is interesting to note Jesus’ later reference to this nefarious activity in John 10:7-10: “Then Jesus said to them again, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.’”

[4] Rops, Henri Daniel-, Daily Life in the Time of Jesus (1980), p. 231. “…the shepherd also had to look after the sick sheep and those that were hurt, take care of the gravid ewes and the new-born lambs, make wethers of the male lambs that were not to be kept for rams, and tithe the flock according to the Law, which was done by making all the animals pass through a narrow gate, every tenth beast being set aside for the priests.”

[5] If the flock was particularly large or perhaps a combining of several different flocks (which, in regard to this event, the Bible doesn’t indicate) each shepherd would stand his designated watch to insure safety throughout the night from thieves and predators. See Rops, Henri Daniel-, Daily Life in the Time of Jesus (1980), p. 230.

[6] See Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ (1980), pp. 80-81; also Edersheim’s The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (updated edition, 1993), p. 131; and The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, note on Luke 2:8, p. 845.

[7] Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, in their book, Killing Jesus (2013), mention that the high priests controlled the sale of Temple lambs at Passover and received a cut of every exchange made by money changers. They owned vast farms and estates which garnered additional profits for their bottomless coffers (p. 228). It is possible that this flock was owned by some temple official.

The Story of Mary and the Birth of the King

Setting the stage

For over 500 years the nation of Israel chafed under the thumb of first one Gentile kingdom and then another—Babylon, Persia, the Greco Macedonians, and now Rome, with its absolute ruler Caesar Augustus, and Herod the Great, one of his ruthless client kings. It wasn’t unusual, particularly during Passover season, for passions to ignite as the tribes of Israel revisited the story of God’s intervention and the stunning liberation of their ancestors.  When the white-hot flames of resistance and rebellion flared, they were summarily stamped out under the cruel boot of Herod’s soldiers.

English: Herod the Great Suomi: Herodes Suuri

English: Herod the Great Suomi: Herodes Suuri (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Exorbitant taxation compounded the misery of oppression in pre- and first-century Palestine: the mandatory tribute to Rome; locally imposed taxes; several layers of temple tax; impromptu levies to fund military expeditions and building projects. Privation and hardship enveloped the land like a dank, smothering blanket, and peasants found themselves forced to sell their land holdings—inheritances from generations past—in order to survive. The swelling ranks of day laborers told the tale.

No relief

After a reign of more than 40 years, Herod the Great died in agony—some say from intestinal cancer, and many assert, a fate fitting for such a tyrant. Instead of relief, what ensued was a mad scramble for power and outright revolt. Research professor in the classics and religion at the University of Massachusetts, Richard Horsley, describes the aftermath: “As for the scribal rabbinic elite, so also for the ordinary people, resistance under Herod’s iron-fisted rule was futile and suicidal. But the minute Herod died, revolt erupted in every major district of the land, and the Romans mounted a massive expedition to reconquer Galilee and Judea. Thus, Jesus’ parents’ generation and his own generation as children in villages such as Nazareth suffered the slaughter or enslavement of family members, burning of their houses and goods, and the general trauma of war.”

As things worsened the dream of a messiah-deliverer flourished, only to fall prey to opportunists and pretenders. Pseudo-messiahs deluded the people with false hopes, created dissensions, and gave rise to sects. Their influence was mostly local and temporary; some, however, succeeded in attracting large numbers of followers, and created movements that lasted for considerable periods. Others, along with their ardent followers, died as insurrectionists.

A quiet miracle in Nazareth

From The Historical Atlas by William R. Shephe...

From The Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1923. via http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/historical/history_middle_east.html Category:Historical maps by William R. Shepherd (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On a cool autumn morning sometime before Herod’s death, in the frontier town of Nazareth in Lower Galilee, a young woman prepared for a long trip to Bethlehem. Caesar Augustus called for a census, declaring “all the world should be taxed” (Luke 2:1-5) and ordered that everyone[1] must register in their ancestral home. And so, Mary, nearly full-term in her pregnancy, helped Joseph load the cart with the necessities they would need to see them through their journey to the ancient city of David.

She must have replayed the angelic visit innumerable times, and marveled at Gabriel’s amazing pronouncement. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest, and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:30-33).

While Herod in his paranoia planted spies and scoured the countryside for seditious plots and traitors, the prophesied King of Israel, the longed-for Deliverer, quietly and miraculously grew in the safety of the womb of a young virgin, Mary of Nazareth, waiting to be born.

(To be continued.)


[1] The Archaeological Study Bible (2005), p. 1669, a note on Luke 2:5 states that in Syria (the Romans included Palestine under Syrian jurisdiction) “women twelve years of age and older were required to pay a poll tax and therefore to register.” This would explain the historical impetus for Mary’s making this trip, and the advancing of a divine plan.

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