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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 4

 For unto us a Child is born , Unto us a Son is given;

And the government will be upon His shoulder.

And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end,

Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom,

To order it and establish it with judgment and justice

From that time forward, even forever.

The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.

(Isaiah 9:6-7 NKJV)

***

Mary barely heard the urging of the women as her body responded to contraction after contraction, unrelenting waves of pain, each closer to the one before, until finally… one huge push, and there were no more. Seconds later, a baby’s cry filled the air and she felt tension drain from her body like wine from a ruptured wineskin. Swiftly deft hands cut the umbilical cord and lifted her squalling infant, wiping away amniotic fluids and washing him gently with warm soothing water.

Swaddling (How to)

Swaddling (How to) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She held out her arms to comfort her little one, his arms and legs flailing, searching the familiarity of her warm body.  Holding him close and stroking away his tears, she rocked gently, humming a melody only mothers know, until his crying gave way to silence as he listened.  She pulled back the blanket, marveling at his beautiful fingers and tiny toes, the plump softness of his body, the wisps of fine dark hair framing his brow. He was perfect in every way. Reluctantly she handed him back and watched, taking note, as he was swaddled securely with linen strips. Then, in her arms once again, she put him to her breast and smiled, wincing a little as he nuzzled, then latched on and suckled contentedly to drink his fill. In one sublime moment their eyes locked on each other, mother and son, and her heart soared.

The love of a remarkable man

Joseph[1] quietly entered upon this touching scene and stood watching, his curiosity and awe obvious. The past nine months had not been easy. The shock and indignation when the truth of Mary’s swelling belly could no longer be denied. The feelings fueled by trust betrayed. Struggling with what must be done. Law in the extreme dictated stoning even when parties were only betrothed, but few, if any, did that these days. A quiet divorce with no reason given, in the presence of two witnesses—that seemed the only just thing to do. He did not want to shame Mary publicly, even in his hurt and anger. This way she could quietly prepare for the consequences to come. And he could begin putting his life back together.

While that was the course he intended to follow, a heavenly messenger cast a new light of understanding on an otherwise dismal situation.  “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Joseph himself was destined to be part of a grander plan.

Now he stood looking at the fulfillment of the angel’s word, sleeping peacefully in his mother’s arms. “Jesus,” he said to Mary. “He will be called[2] Jesus.” “Yes. He will be called Jesus,” Mary responded softly, and gently placed her swaddled babe in his make-shift manger bed.

The world would soon know that the Son of God was born in Bethlehem that autumn day.

(To be continued.)


[1] Joseph’s part in the story of the birth of Christ is often overlooked. But in the opinion of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, a comment concerning Matthew 1:24-25 observes, “While the story is told simply, Joseph’s obedience and submission under these circumstances is scarcely less remarkable than Mary’s.” Barnes’ Notes adds, concerning Joseph as a “just” man: “The meaning is that he was kind, tender, merciful; that he was so attached to Mary that he was not willing that she should be exposed to public shame. He sought therefore, secretly to dissolve the connection, and to restore her to her friends without the punishment commonly inflicted on adultery” (see note on Matthew 1:19).

[2] Naming a child was of the utmost importance, and the Bible reveals instances where both mothers and fathers did the naming. In Jesus’ case, God, His Father, chose His name, and both Mary and Joseph complied. In that day, sons were often named during the circumcision ceremony. Scripture seems to indicate Jesus was called by His name from the time He was born.

The Story of Mary and the Birth of the King: Part 3

The End in Sight

It was the last day of a long, tiring journey. Five or so miles further, and Joseph and Mary would be in Bethlehem. At last, a respite from all the jouncing and jarring over hard-packed country roads. Just to stay in one place for a while—what a relief!

This wasn’t Mary’s only trip out of Galilee that year. Not so many months before, after her remarkable encounter with Gabriel, she had hurried south to the hill country of Judea to see her cousin Elizabeth[1] and share her wonderful news.[2] Would she ever forget Elizabeth’s greeting that day? “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Her cousin already knew! Mary, her heart filled with adoration, humbly responded, “For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; for behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). The two of them, one, aged and past child-bearing years, the other,  young and a virgin, both pious, both miraculously pregnant and favored before God, spent three months together before Mary returned to Nazareth, and her future.

If she understood the prophecy in Micah 5:2, she knew it meant that she would make yet another journey—this time to Bethlehem, the city of David—where her miracle son, Jesus, would be born. How ironic that Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor, and his edict, served as the impetus to get her there, and bring about the fulfillment of inspired words uttered 600 years earlier.

Bethlehem

Bethlehem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A place to stay

Joseph came to terms (after some angelic intervention) with Mary’s bewildering condition, and with her role in his life and in God’s plan. Now he had to ensure the safety and well-being of his very special charges. The first order was to find a place to stay. Bethlehem, normally a quiet little village of 1000 or so, was struggling to accommodate the numbers who had come to be counted in Caesar’s census.

Rules of hospitality dictated that villagers open guest rooms[3] in their own homes to travelers in need of food and lodging. In this instance, registrants might have had relatives who would take them in since they were in their ancestral home. That may have even been the case with Joseph and Mary. Otherwise strangers were to be welcomed wherever there was space.

Making room

Homes of that day were made of mud brick, and normally consisted of one to two rooms on one level and a terrace area containing a permanent stone manger for fodder to accommodate the family’s livestock. It was not uncommon that guests be housed there in the event of an overflow. It’s easy to imagine beds being rolled out in one area and perhaps a donkey or cow slumbering in another. Not only did their body heat add warmth for the household and the guests, the critters were kept safe from thieves and predators.[4] At morning light animals were led to pasture and the terrace floor routinely cleaned and swept.

It is likely that Joseph and Mary found lodging in a private home,[5] not in the usual guest room, but on just such a terrace level. They were warm and secure; food and water were available; they had access to help if they were still there when Mary’s labor began; and there would be a suitable place for a newborn in the security of the manger.

Bust of Emperor Augustus wearing the Corona Ci...

Bust of Emperor Augustus wearing the Corona Civica, on display in the Musei Capitolini (Rome). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Caesar’s due

Within the next several days they were obliged to make their way to the official place for registration. Mary found herself standing beside Joseph, waiting impatiently for the line in front of the Emperor’s bureaucrats  to shorten, shifting her weight from time to time, rubbing the small of her back to ease the strain, acutely conscious of the little life within her belly, pushing and nudging.

It wouldn’t be long now.

(To be continued.)


[1] There is some discussion as to whether Elizabeth and Mary were first cousins, or distant cousins, or how exactly they were related. The New King James version simply calls her a “relative.” The general opinion is that they were cousins.

[2] The Bible gives no details concerning Mary’s route, the mode of her travel, or the time it took. In looking at a map, it seems likely that months later she and Joseph retraced at least a portion of her travels, especially the part that avoided Samaria.

[3] Normally these were in the home itself, but sometimes a separate room was built alongside the house itself to house guests. A guest room could have been in a cave if the cave was part of the home itself, which was sometimes the case. The current tradition of Jesus being born in a stable in a cave, essentially isolated from the town and away from helping hands, does not jive with the cultural standards of hospitality of the day.

[4] In a visit to Switzerland some years ago, we noted houses with animals sheltered under the living area, so the practice has endured over time, not only in the Middle East, but other areas of the world as well.

[5]The phrase, “no room in the inn,” has led to a distorted view of the story of Christ’s birth, due largely to the interpretation of the Greek word, kataluma. According to Kenneth Bailey, in his article, “The Manger and the Inn,” this word can be translated several ways, including “inn,” “house,” and “guest room.” The author questions whether Bethlehem would have had a commercial inn since no major Roman road passed through it, stating that “small villages on minor roads had no inns.”

Bailey continues, “No unkindness or lack of hospitality is implied when the Holy Family is taken into the main family room of the home in which they are entertained. The guest room is full. The host is not expected to ask prior guests (or a recently married son) to leave.” His conclusion concerning lodging for Joseph and Mary is,“They find shelter with a family whose separate guest room is full, and are accommodated among the family in acceptable village style. The birth takes place there on the raised terrace of the family home, and the baby is laid in a manger.”

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.

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.

The Power of the Ring

Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther and Mordecai the Jew, “Indeed, I have given Esther the house of Haman, and they have hanged him on the gallows because he tried to lay his hand on the Jews. You yourselves write a decree concerning the Jews, as you please, in the king’s name, and seal it with the king’s signet ring; for whatever is written in the king’s name and sealed with the king’s signet ring no one can revoke.”

So the king’s scribes were called at that time, in the third month, which is the month of Sivan, on the twenty-third day; and it was written, according to all that Mordecai commanded, to the Jews, the satraps, the governors, and the princes of the provinces from India to Ethiopia, one hundred and twenty-seven provinces in all, to every province in its own script, to every people in their own language, and to the Jews in their own script and language. And he wrote in the name of King Ahasuerus, sealed it with the king’s signet ring, and sent letters by couriers on horseback, riding on royal horses bred from swift steeds.  (Esther 8:7-10)

One of the most powerful pieces of ornamentation mentioned in the Bible is a ring—particularly the signet ring. It was worn not as an accessory, but rather the wearing of it represented the personal legal signature or status of the owner. For Mordecai to have access to the king’s own signet ring indicates the trust and power he had been afforded, and his badge of office.

Cylinder seals

A signet could be shaped as a ring to be worn usually on the right finger, or as a cylinder or rod of metal suspended from a cord worn around the neck. Exodus 28:9-14 indicates that signets were engraved, in this case, on stone. Cylinder seals  were incised on many hard surfaces, from baked clay to lapis lazuli, gold, silver, carnelian, blue chalcedony, rock crystal, pink marble, jasper, shell-core, ivory, and glazed pottery.[1]

When an ancient letter-writer had finished his message on a clay tablet, “he had the sender and any witnesses remove from around their necks their own small cylinder seals and roll them over the still-wet clay to make their signatures.”[2] Often these were written by professional letter-writers—some of whom were women—who stationed themselves at the city gates.

Signed, sealed, and delivered

The Babylonians used cylinder-seals to insure safe shipment of valuable papers or commodities  to distant destinations. Items were inserted into a jar which was then covered with cloth and tied with cord at the neck. The sender covered the binding cord with soft clay and rolled his cylinder-seal across the wet mud. If the jar arrived with the seal intact, its contents had arrived secure.

Hundreds of such cylinders have been found at various archaeological sites, and it seems that T. E. Laurence was himself an avid “seal-hunter,” searching for these small treasures to send back to his friends in England.

Matters of state

The principle uses for the signet ring were to provide legal signatures, and/or   proof of authority. A hard, flat substance associated with the ring—perhaps a precious stone, a bit of marble, or the metal of the ring itself—was engraved with its owner’s unique symbol or signature. The resulting inscription could then be pressed into wax or clay as needed, leaving an impression which amounted to a seal of authorship or authority.

When Joseph was appointed vizier or governor in Egypt, Pharaoh took off his signet ring and put it on Joseph’s finger (Genesis 43:42), clothed him in fine linen (court dress), and further rewarded him with a gold chain. In effect Joseph was awarded the accouterments to signal him as the second in command.

Used for good …

One of the most-loved of Christ’s parables concerns the return of the prodigal son to his ever-watchful, ever-hopeful father. After an emotional reunion and period of reconciliation, the father called for the best robe and put it on his beloved son. Then he put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. The celebration culminated with music, dancing, and the killing of a fatted calf. (See Luke 15:20-24.) The Woman’s Study Bible, in a note on Luke 15:17-24, comments that “the best robe was a sign of position; the ‘ring’ indicated authority[3], the ‘sandals’ [a sign of freedom and luxury] put on his bare feet set him apart from the barefoot slaves.”

…Or ill

When authority is wrested by evil hands, wickedness is sure to follow. Jezebel well understood power, and she was not afraid to use it, especially when her husband Ahab was in a funk. A prophet of God had given him terrible news. Because he failed to obey God’s instructions concerning Ben-Hadad, the prophet said: “”Thus says the LORD: ‘Because you have let slip out of your hand a man whom I appointed to utter destruction, therefore your life shall go for his life, and your people for his people'” So the king of Israel went to his house sullen and displeased, and came to Samaria” (1 Kings 20:41-43).

English: Jezabel and Ahab Meeting Elijah in Na...

English: Jezabel and Ahab Meeting Elijah in Naboth’s Vineyard Giclee. Print by Sir Frank Dicksee. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As if that weren’t enough, the petulant king coveted a piece of property that belonged to his neighbor Naboth. It had been passed down as an inheritance in his family for generations, and Naboth stubbornly refused to sell.

Ahab did not handle rejection well. The scripture says, “And he [Ahab] lay  down upon his bed, and turned away his face, and would eat no food” (21:4).

Tiring of her husband’s fit of depression, Jezebel took matters into her own hands. She wrote letters in Ahab’s name, and sealed them with his seal, and sent them out. The missives contained orders that eventually led to the death of innocent Naboth. But as an unintended consequence, her actions also sealed the fate of the despicable pair—ignominious deaths.

Its power endures

Alan King, in his Ezine article, “Signet Rings Have Significance Today,” comments that “in Europe the rings were commissioned by nobility and created by artists. Therefore, they were works of art, often made of gold and very much valued for their beauty as well as for their material value. Sometimes they were even embellished with designs and calligraphy on the side to add to the appearance. The rings were guarded and treasured by the owner, and passed on to successive generations in much the same way that a crown would be passed on to a prince or princess. They were a symbol of authority and power, indicating that the owner had the right to bear arms (the crest or shield) in medieval Europe. The Pope’s ring was kissed to honor the supreme authority of the position, and when a Pope died, his ring was destroyed to symbolize the clearing of the way for a new Pope.”

Medieval gold signet ring from England, with a...

Medieval gold signet ring from England, with a ruby and the arms of de Grailly, now in the British Museum. Tag reads: “Signet ring with the arms of de Grailly.” and “About 1351-99, England, Gold, ruby. PE 1982,0501.1”. See British Museum Database entry for further details. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He further explains that the tradition surrounding the signet ring continues to this day. In Europe, each country (and its nobility) has its own preferences as to how the ring is to be worn, on which finger and on which hand. “French, German, and some Spanish nobles wear it on the ring finger of their left hands. The Swiss wear signets on the right hand, and nobles of the United Kingdom wear them on the little finger of the left hand. Of course, it is worn with the impressing outward to enable the wearer to turn his hand over and press it into the wax.”

From ancient times to modern day, the signet ring has endured and continues to symbolize power and authority.

***

For further study, the following scriptures may be of interest concerning this topic. Some contain historical references; others are viewed metaphorically.

Genesis 38:18 Tamar requests Judah’s signet and his bracelets and his staff.

Exodus 28:11, 21, 36 engravings of a signet

Isaiah 3:18-23 jewelry worn by the haughty daughters of Babylon

Song of Solomon 8:6 Set me as a seal upon thy heart, as a seal upon thine arm.

Haggai 2:23 God’s statement to Zerubbabel: ” . . .will make you like a signet ring: for I have chosen you. . . .”

Revelation 7:3-4 servants of God sealed in their foreheads

 


[1] Miller, Madeleine S. and J. Lane, Encyclopedia of Bible Life (1944), p. 134

[2] Ibid., pp. 127, 134

[3] It is the author’s opinion that this was likely a signet ring.

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