Herod and his part in the birth of Jesus

December 5, 2018

by Barry Fike

    When the Wise Men came before Herod, as recorded in Matthew 2:1-6, they produced a far different feeling than others would have. Why? Herod was a cruel and blood-thirsty magistrate. He wiped out the entire family line of the Maccabeans who lad led a revolt against Rome in the middle of the second century B.C. Herod felt that their existence seemed to endanger his position as an eastern monarch. If it happened once it could happen again, so he took care of the potential problem as he saw it.
Herod had his wife’s brother, Aristobulous, drowned; his own wife Mariamne executed, another wife, Alexandra, who tried to seize the citadel of Jerusalem when he was very ill, and had her put to death; Alexander and Aristobulous, the two sons of Miriamne, were accused of conspiring to kill the King and they were put to death. Augustus said of him, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son.” (Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 8, pp. 381, 382)
    He ruled with cruelty, intensified by his suspicion and jealousy. His rule destroyed the internal organization of the Jewish community. He did away with the authority of the Torah and regarded this kingdom as his private property. He established Greek cultural institutions such as the theater and the hippodrome in Jerusalem. As a manifestation of his servitude to Rome, though he never put up images of idols or his own portrait on coins, he did allow the Roman eagle to be placed on the façade of the Temple.
    Herod was regarded by the people as the destroyer of their traditional institutions, the murderer of their kings and leaders, and the agent for a foreign government. During his reign the foundation was laid for the formation of the Zealots who opposed all foreign rule and any authority except that of the kingdom of heaven. No one dared to oppose him while he lived but when near death Rabbis Judah B. Zipporai and Mattathias B. Margalit, incited their followers to remove the seized and burned to death. After his death the people’s anger was such that it exploded into open rebellion against this heir until the latter lost his throne. (Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 8, pp. 382-384)
    So what worried Herod about this “King”? “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?” (v. 2) The possibility of a king, like himself, was threatening. Filled with suspicion, apprehension and rage he called together all the High Priests, past and present, (v. 7) and simply asked where his birthplace would be. Notice that his usual cunning is seen in this action. He does not ask the likelihood of this being a person born as expected. Their answer is the prediction found in Micah 5:2.

“And thou Bethlehem land of Judah, art in no wise least among the princes of Judah; for out of thee shall come forth a governor, who shall be shepherd of my people Israel.” 

    In the Talmud, Bethlehem was authoritatively named as the Messiah’s birthplace. Since the Talmud had not been written down and was still part of Oral Law, scribes, as Rabbis, needed to be questioned as such a question that concerned a “Jewish King”.

    Herod then asked the Magi when they had seen the appearance of this phenomenon in the sky. This would help him judge as to how old this person might be. So long as one lived, who had been born in Bethlehem, between the appearance of the “star” and the appearance of the Magi his throne was not safe. Pretending to be religiously interested, as they, he told them to return to him as soon as they found this king so that he might pay him homage too. (v. 8)
    The same phenomenon that guided them to Herod continued to lead them to Jesus. (vs. 9, 10) They worshipped him (v. 11) and Joseph is warned about danger to the child (vs. 13-15). Having just been given expensive gifts, their needs would be taken care of regardless of where they went.
    Herod, in accordance with his character and former measures, had all children in the area of the prophecy (Bethlehem) slaughtered around the estimated age of the new King. Being a small town it probably was not more than twenty children but the prophecy came true:

“A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning. Rachel is weeping for her children; and she would not be comforted, because they are not.” Jer. 31:15

    These children were the first martyrs of Jesus. They died so that he might live. It is a paradox that God’s son would be a result of so much pain to so many before his ministry began. Herod died thinking that he had exterminated the challenge to his throne.
    When Herod died, Joseph goes back toward Bethlehem but is told to go home to Nazareth. (v. 22) Here Jesus would be raised as a child and trained according to Jewish law. We will not hear of him for ten years. What was going on during those ten years? Next week we’ll look at the education of the Jewish child in Galilee/Judea in the first century.