In the book The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Edersheim devotes a couple of chapters to King Herod who was Tetrarch of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth. Herod is on the short list of Israeli kings that most people can name. We hear his name bandied about every Christmas. We see him greeting the wise men on their journey to Bethlehem. His duplicitous nature is on display for us as he tells the Magi to bring him word of the child so that he can come and worship the baby-king as well. The bible lets us in on his real intentions and the Magi are advised in a dream not to return to Herod on their journey home. When he fails to learn the identity or the whereabouts of Christ child, Herod initiates a blood bath by taking the lives of every child in the region under the age of two in a vain attempt to crush the threat to his rule. Of course, his purge is not successful and we quickly move along in the Christmas narrative, he is nothing more than a slight bump in the story, and perhaps we put Herod back in the box with the manger scene and forget all about him til next year.
But his reign of terror neither ends nor begins around the manger.
Outside of the Gospel narrative, we find much more about the bloodlust of Herod. He is a king who is constantly obsessed with losing power and there are several reports of his killing anyone who gets to close to his power, including sons, wives, and other family members. He was exceedingly trigger happy with his army, sending them out on a moment’s notice to fight against a people or a region who he suspected of insurrection.
Edersheim tells us that Herod’s “reign (is) almost unparalleled for reckless cruelty and bloodshed, in which the murder of the Innocents in Bethlehem formed but so trifling an episode among the many deeds of blood, as to have seemed not deserving of record on the page of the Jewish historian.”
Near the end of Herod’s life, he imprisons several hundred jewish leaders with orders to keep them imprisoned until Herod’s death. Upon Herod’s death, all these leaders were to be executed so that there would be mourning in the land. This is Herod – ruling King of Judea.
This Herod is no mere nativity piece. Herod stands much larger than an inconsequential monarch seemingly “in the way” of the larger Christmas story. He is antithetical to it. He, like the rest of the world into which Jesus is born, is working hard against Incarnation. And so it is today, where so much of what we talk and think about are of so little worth. We are deaf to annunciations that happen over and over again. It is not a great time for Christmas. It never was. Yet, now, as then is the perfect time for Christmas. For Christ desires to be born into the dirty, inhospitable places, places like Bethlehem of Judea where some nut job named Herod is ruling, and places like my heart, where another nut job (me) tries to pretend he is in charge.
O holy Child of Bethlehem! Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today!
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Immanuel.
For more about the (im)perfect timing of Christmas, check out this podcast by Bob Adams, pastor of FBC Bogalusa, LA.