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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: Part 2

The Journey to Bethlehem

Mary packed as though she and Joseph were changing residences rather than making a round trip—that’s what astute travelers of her day did. Perhaps she had an idea or premonition that it would be a long time before they would return to Nazareth and home. There would be caravanserais[1] along the way, usually situated where roads crossed, for food and water, bathing, supplies, fodder for the animals, and places to sleep; but the wise and experienced often brought along their own tents and blankets as well as clothing and containers of dried raisins and other foodstuffs, water, oil, and flour, prepared for any eventuality.

Joseph was well aware of the difficulties of such a journey, not just for Mary in her condition, but for their safety as well. The eighty-mile trip could take as many as five days or possibly more, depending on the route and traveling conditions. The shortest and most direct way, through Samaria, was not an option for most Jewish travelers in light of long-standing animosities. They would rather face the threat of robbers and bandits[2] who often menaced the next best highway.

Félix_Bonfils_(French_-_Le_Jourdain_(The_Jordan)_-_Google_Art_Project (1)Caravans frequently traversed Roman roads, including the one he likely chose[3]—the road that went east from Nazareth, crossed the Jordan, and ran south through Perea toward Jerusalem. Ideally they could join such a convoy and lessen the danger along the way. Such a group contained a lively cross-section of humanity. Along with the average traveler and perhaps courses of priests on their way to fulfill their duties in the Temple, opportunistic hawkers often joined these odysseys, producing the latest articles of commerce or luxury, and passing on the most titillating news of the day. Nighttime chatter around campfires must have been a welcome relief from the monotony of seemingly endless miles of travel.

Taxed to the limit

Did Joseph and Mary hear grumbling about the latest demands and scandals of Rome? Most likely, and with good reason.  The general population was already taxed to the limit[4], and now this. Word had it that Caesar was displeased at the declining birthrate[5] in his empire, and this census would confirm his annoyance. It would not only give him his numbers, but replenish his coffers as well. Resentment seethed under the surface at the injustice of it all, a malignant stow-away on this mandatory trek to be counted. What they needed was a deliverer, and soon!

(To be continued.)


[1] Follow the link below for a picture of an Ottoman caravanserais built in the 1700s. Those available to Mary and Joseph were probably much smaller, but were also walled enclosures with guest rooms on upper levels, and the terrace level below, used for bedding down the animals. At night the gate was secured to protect travelers from robbers and wild beasts.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d1/Akko_BW_13.JPG

[2] Palestine was home to highwaymen who robbed only for personal gain, and guerrilla warriors who directed their aggression against Roman Authorities and/or the Jewish authorities and persons who collaborated with them. Even the Apostle Paul was alert to such dangers in his travels (2 Corinthians 11:26). For more information on the social world of bandits, see the following link: http://bibleresources.americanbible.org/node/1511 .

[3]   Alfred Edersheim, in his Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ (1980), mentions six different highways or main arteries of commerce in Palestine. See Chapter IV, pp. 42-45. The one I chose for the journey of Joseph and Mary seems to me to be the most likely.

[4] Richard A. Horsely with John S. Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs (1985). During the time of Julius Caesar, “the Jewish agricultural producers were now subject to a double taxation, probably amounting to well over 40 percent of their production. There were other Roman taxes as well, which further added to the burden of the people, but the tribute was the major drain” p. 56. “If a peasant family, after rendering up 40 percent or more of its harvest, then had too little left to survive until the next harvest, it would have to borrow grain for food, or for seed for the next sowing….Continued borrowing would increase a family’s debt significantly, with great risk of complete loss of land …[and] sink into the ranks of…the landless day laborers, or…become a sharecropping tenant” (pp.58-59).

[5] Dio Cassius, Roman History, 1vi, 1-10. Dio Cassius tells of one occasion when Augustus was so vexed by the declining marriage and birth rates that he strode into the Forum, separated the married men and bachelors he found there into two different groups and then let the bachelors have it: “What shall I call you? Men? But you aren’t fulfilling the duties of men. Citizens? But for all your efforts, the city is perishing. Romans? But you are in the process of blotting out this name altogether! . . . What humanity would be left if all the rest of mankind should do what you are doing? . . . You are committing murder in not fathering in the first place those who ought to be your descendants!” Quoted in Paul L. Maier’s  In the Fullness of Time (1991), p.6.

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