Teaching the Gospels – Fun with Herod!
Herod the Great was the highlight of Wednesday’s class on the infancy narratives — and it was an adventure!
Herod the Great is a truly amazing character! He reminds me of Bill Clinton (and I’m not a Clinton-hater; I think he was a flawed but passionate leader who did his best to lead our nation) — he made terrible decision after terrible decision that turned to gold!
44 BC – Civil war breaks out in Rome after Julius Caesar is assassinated. Brutus and Cassius flee to Philippi, where they are confronted by Mark Antony and Octavian. Of these four, who is Herod’s friend and ally? Cassius. When Brutus is wounded in a battle, a rumor begins that he was killed. Despondent and hopeless in the face of his foes, Cassius takes the path of any Roman noble. He commits suicide. Brutus hears that Cassius has killed himself and, well, kills HIMself. Now, war will ensue between Antony and Octavian.
Herod is summoned by Antony, but not before commanding his favorite wife’s uncle to strangle her if Antony kills him. He just cannot bear the thought of Mariamne with another man. But Herod somehow convinces Antony that he will be as loyal to Antony as he was to his dear friend Cassius. So Antony gives him more lands and title, and they become fast friends. Cleopatra meets Antony in Palestine more than once during their own mad romance.
Antony is defeated in a naval rout (Cleopatra somehow convinces him that Egyptian grain barges will serve as well as Octavian’s Roman warships) and goes the way of Brutus and Cassius. Octavian summons Herod, who has by now had Mariamne’s uncle executed for telling her his plan to have her strangled. So now he tells one of his own trusted servants to handle the job himself — he’s still madly obsessed with her! Somehow, he convinces Octavian that he will be loyal to him — and Octavian gives him the title King of the Jews. Romans HATE the title of King, and Herod will be the last ruler to be so titled.
Herod kills several of his sons out of paranoia — he is an aged king with ambitious sons. During his reign, the nation of Israel has a tenuous love-hate relationship with him. He spends piles and piles of money rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple, which becomes one of the most glorious edifices in the ancient world. It is destroyed only four years after it is completed. The nation loves him for this. But he sells the Temple hierarchy to the highest bidder — typically Jews from outside of Israel — rather than from the surviving families of Aaron. Rank-and-file priests are still from Aaron’s family, but the High Priest and his cohorts are Herod’s puppets. The nation hates him for this.
His final insult? Lying on his death-bed, realizing that the nation hates him and will rejoice when he is dead, he imprisons a vast number of important Jewish men in the Jerusalem Hippodrome. He gives his sister the command that when he dies, they are to be executed. Thus, there will be mourning in Jerusalem when he dies. His sister, though, knows which way the wind blows. When he dies, she frees them all! The nation is so overjoyed that they give Herod a noble funeral. Even in his death, a terrible decision turns to gold.
One of his flights of madness, though, truly served to further the gospel. Just before he died, he changed his will — giving Judea to his blood-thirsty and mad son Archelaus, and Galilee and Perea to his sane and politically savvy son Antipas. Jesus grows up under the rule of Antipas, in relative peace — while Judea is torn with strife and unrest pretty much throughout the reign of Archelaus. Even after Archelaus is exiled and a Roman governor placed in direct command over Judea, things are only slightly calmer.
This is the world into which Jesus is born — the setting about which Luke and Matthew write their subversive infancy narratives — laying the birth of the Son of David, the Prince of Peace, the Son of God, alongside the madness of King Herod. Who will win? Only the story will tell. Let’s follow along and see!