At Christmas we often have special services and pageants to celebrate the birth of Christ. In the light of the Sandy Hook massacre, many of us have been reminded of the slaughter of the innocents ordered by King Herod after Jesus’ birth. I’ve often wondered what that arch-villain of the Christmas story might have to say for himself if invited he were invited to take part in a Christmas Eve service. So I tried to imagine. If you have the time and inclination, imagine with me, as Herod speaks for himself …
I dare say you don’t like me, and I can’t say that I like you, so let’s just get that straight from the beginning. I don’t know anyone who likes me, and I don’t really care if they do, but I would like to think someone understands me. So, when your rabbi invited me to come here and speak to you, I agreed to come. But I’m going to tell you I don’t trust your rabbi. He promised me a gilded throne and a royal feast. He promised me a troupe of dancing girls. Do you see any of those things? I don’t think I like your rabbi very much, and I’ve a mind to just go back where I came from, but I’ve thought out my speech and I don’t want to waste it, so I’m going to stay, and you have to stay, whether you like it or not!
My name is Herod, but all of my sons were named Herod, too. You want to be sure and understand that I am not Herod Antipas, who ruled Galilee and Perea after my unfortunate demise, nor am I Herod Archelaus, who governed Judea, Samaria, and Idumea for a while, nor am I Herod Phillip, who was given control of Iturea and Trachonitis, north of the Sea of Galilee. Nor am I Herod Agrippa, my spendthrift grandson who deserved to spend his life in the poorhouse or the jailhouse, but whose friendship with the Emporer Caligula enabled him to take over most of the same lands that I once ruled in the days when I was known as Herod the Great. That is the name the historians use for me, because historians are an intelligent lot, and they recognize what a gifted and powerful ruler I was. I am not just Herod. I am Herod the Great! Remember that.
Of course, being gifted and powerful does not mean you have to be kind and compassionate and all those other wimpy things that you people like to see in a leader. If you want to rule effectively, you need a hard heart and a strong stomach and a sharp knife, that’s what I say. You’ve got to know how to measure the wind, and turn every situation to your own advantage. That’s how you become one of the great rulers.
Now, there’s some history coming: if you don’t like that sort of thing, too bad! I have the floor and you’ll just have to listen.
I learned the trade from my old man, except I was better at it than him. My father’s name and my grandfather’s name was Antipater (some fools pronounced it “Antipas”), and they came from Idumea, which used to be called Edom. We Idumeans have hated the Jews for as long as we have known them. We have constantly been at war, so you can imagine how galling it was when our country was conquered toward the end of the second century BC, as you call it, by the Jewish upstart John Hyrcanus. He forced every Idumean to convert to Judaism or die, and you know what that means. For a grown man, circumcision with no anaesthetic is no laughing matter. You don’t forget that kind of abuse.
So, you see, my family was technically Jewish but we all hated the real Jews, and we looked for a way to beat them at their own game. My grandfather skillfully worked his way into the Jewish army and became a military commander under the Hasmonean ruler Alexander Jannaeus, early in the first century BC. My father was also an able soldier and a shrewd politician.
When Alexander Jannaeus died, there was much controversy about which of his two sons should rule in his place. Aristobulus was the more aggressive of the two, though John Hyrcanus II had the right of succession. My father was smart enough to play them against each other, while also rendering faithful military service to the Roman generals Pompey and Julius Caesar. When it became evident that the Jews needed a stronger hand to guide them, the Romans put my old man in charge.
And, when my father was ready to retire, he had curried enough favor with the Romans to have my brother Phasael appointed to rule over Judea, and to have me made governor over Galilee. Phasael was a nit, however, and he soon lost Judea to the Parthians, who put the Antigonus II, one of those scheming Jewish Hasomoneans, on the throne. The Romans wanted a better man in charge, so in 40 BC they appointed me to become King of the Jews, provided I could take Judea away from Antigonus.
I succeeded, of course, with a little help from my friend Mark Antony. Even so, it took three bloody years. In 37 BC, as you reckon it, I marched into Jerusalem and turned Antigonus over to the Romans for execution. I hated the Hasmonean family, but a wise ruler does what he has to do. In order to increase my standing with the locals, I married a woman named Mariamne, a Jewish princess of the Hasmonean line. She became one of my ten wives, and bore me two children. For a while, at least, she displaced my first wife Doris as my favorite.
You will not believe how skillfully and cleverly I managed to rule over the Jews and maintain good relations with the Romans at the same time. I amazed even myself when I successfully switched my allegiance from Antony to Octavius after the battle of Actium in 31 BC, so that I was able to keep my post.
It was then that I began doing the things that made me great. You should remember me for the great building projects that helped to put Palestine on the map. I built a ring of impressive fortresses designed to protect the kingdom, places like Masada and Machaerus and two that I modestly called Herodium.
I took a minor harbor called Strato’s Tower and built it into a major seaport that I named in honor of my friend Ceaser. You know it today as Ceasaria Maritima. I took the old city of Samaria, which was then called Sebaste, and rebuilt it in honor of Augustus. But the crown jewel of my buildings was the temple in Jerusalem. It is true that I have no respect for any god, but I recognized that the key to winning the loyalty of the Jews was in supporting their religion, so I took their tawdry old temple and turned it into magnificent edifice of white and gold, so that people came from all over the world to see it.
Those are the good things you may not know about me. What you have probably heard about me is that I was a harsh and cruel ruler who was ruthless in putting down any opposition or threats to my rule. Well, sure, if you want to put that kind of negative spin on it, but I only did what I had to do to stay in control.
You may have heard that I personally drowned my brother-in-law Aristobulus in a swimming pool at Jericho. Well . . . it is true that I held him under the water and that he did not come up alive, but I maintain to this day that it was nothing but innocent horseplay.
Some of you may have heard that I ordered the execution of my own wife Mariamne and her mother Alexandra, and even our two sons Alexander and Aristobulus. You may have heard that I killed my own son Antipater, just five days before I died. True, true, all true. What a pity to have one’s own family turn against you! They were demons, all of them. They were plotting to take over the throne. They all wanted to do me in. They couldn’t wait for me to die. So, you see, I only acted in self-defense. I only did what I had to do.
If it was commonly said that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son, it is only because my pigs did not plot against me, as my sons did.
I suppose you have heard about various other persons of greater or lesser means that I also put to the sword. And yes, that is also true, but they were all out to get me. I swear it is true. Everyone was conspiring against me, you know. When you are king, you can’t be too careful. Even the smallest of threats has to be taken seriously. You have to do what you have to do.
That’s how I come into your story, of course. The story of your Christmas, the twisted and distorted story that is found in your book that you call Matthew. It’s defamation of character, is what it is, what Matthew says about me. It’s true that I did what he said, of course, it’s just the way that he says it that keeps people like you thinking I’m some sort of evil ogre, but I only did what I had to do.
There was a day when my rest was disturbed by three pompous emissaries from the East, from Persia, I think. It doesn’t matter. They fancied themselves to be wise men, astronomers or astrologers, I forget which. They were the kind of people who stand out in the cold in the middle of the night to watch the heavens, imagining that they see signs and portents of things to come.
If they had been as wise as they claimed, they would never have come to tell me what they did. “We have seen a star,” they said, “and we are convinced that it is the star of a new-born king, and it led us here, so there must have been born a new king of the Jews.”
It did not seem to occur to them that there was already a king of the Jews, and I was it, and we didn’t need another king of the Jews! But I didn’t gain the throne by being stupid. So, I played their game. I pretended to be interested in their new born king, and offered them lodging to stall them for a while.
Once they were gone, I called for the chief priests and their toadies the scribes to ask if they knew anything about these evil tidings. I knew that their scriptures held many teachings that were held to be prophecies. At first, they did not want to cooperate, but I told them that if they did not put their heads together and come up with an answer, I would take their heads apart from their bodies and come up with one of my own.
That got them rolling, and soon they came back with the supposed prophecy of an ancient man named Micah, who had predicted that a ruler of Israel would be born in the obscure little village of Bethlehem. Bethlehem has never been anything more than an ugly wart on the side of the road, so it was hard for me to imagine that any threat to me could come from there, but I couldn’t afford to take any chances, you see.
So, I called the star-gazers back and learned that it had been more than a year since they saw the star, and then I sent them on their way. Before they left, I made them promise that once they had found the little “king,” they would return and tell me where he was, so that I could also pay him the honor he deserves . . . heh heh heh …
But I was double-crossed. Despite their faithful promise, those three schmucks snuck out of Bethlehem without returning to tell me where the boy could be found, so it is really their fault that I did what I did, and I only did what I had to do. Right?
I sent my most trusted soldiers to Bethlehem and ordered them to kill every boy baby they could find under two years old. It would have been so much neater if we’d only had to kill one child, but no, the stargazers would not tell me which one, so I had to kill them all. I didn’t have a choice, see? One of those little twerps was out to take my throne, and so I had to kill the many to get the one. I don’t care how much weeping and lamentation there was, I only did what I had to do.
You can understand that, can’t you? You believe me, don’t you? I only did what I had to do …
We rarely spend much time on this part of the Christmas story. Even when we study or meditate on the story of the wise men, we tend to gloss over the part that Herod played. We don’t like to think about a ruthless king made paranoid by senility. We don’t like to think about the babies in Bethlehem being snatched from their mothers and sliced with swords. We don’t like to dwell in the dark.
When we think of the Christmas story, we much prefer to focus on the lights: the Star of the East, the brilliant angels who sang to the shepherds outside of Bethlehem, Jesus as the light of the world. But, we cannot fully appreciate the light unless we understand something of the darkness. We cannot truly see the light until we face the dark.
We often forget that Jesus was not the first to be sacrificed for our salvation. Herod’s slaughter of the innocents reminds us that others also died that Christ’s work might be done. The darkness of that bleak afternoon on Calvary was foreshadowed by the dark rivers of blood that flowed in the streets of Bethlehem.
But, out of that cruel darkness there came the light of Christ, the light of the world, the light of our eternal salvation. Out of death, there is life. Out of darkness, there is light. This is the joy of Christmas, and one of the reasons we celebrate with so many candles and lights and stars.
Our candles and lights still shine against a background of night, for though the light of the world has come, the world still lives in darkness.
The joy of Christmas is the joy of hope inspired by a brief flare of heavenly light that entered our world for a time, a light that lives on in the hearts and lives of those who believe and who follow the Lord of the Light, the baby of Bethlehem, the one who came to be not only King of the Jews, but the savior of all.
And all the Herods of the world cannot stand in his way.