Historical Grinches – King Herod

Herod the King / In his raging / Charged he hath this day
His men of might / In his own sight / All children young to slay

Historical Grinches – King Herod

The first of our Historical Grinches this week is the infamous King Herod, also known as Herod the Great. Let’s take a quick look on how he got the distinction of being one of history’s major grinches. From the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2:

1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,

2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

3 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.

4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.

5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,

6 And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.

7 Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.

8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.

9 When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.

10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

11 And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.

12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

13 And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.

14 When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:

15 And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.

16 Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.

17 Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying,

18 In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.

Massacre of the Innocents

Massacre of the Innocents – Capella dei Scrovegni – Padua 2016
© José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / , via Wikimedia Commons

19 But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt,

20 Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child’s life.

21 And he arose, and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel.

22 But when he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judaea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither: notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee:

23 And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.

Herod was a king appointed by the Roman Empire. His father, Antipas, earned Roman citizenship and was appointed as procurator by Julius Caesar. At a time of turmoil in the late Republic, Herod schemed his way to power by siding with Mark Antony and then wisely switching to support Octavian after Mark Antony and Cleopatra died in each other’s arms. Octavian, who changed his name to Augustus and became the first Roman Emperor, found a ready-made client king for the region.

Herod was known to be ruthless and even killed three of his own sons to maintain absolute control of his realm. He did, however, engage in a number of public works. The most noteworthy was the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. He rebuilt the temple that had been destroyed in the days when the Babylonians had conquered the territory and took so many of its people into bondage in what today is known as Iraq. In his later years, Herod’s mental stability failed and he became terrifyingly paranoid. An already ruthless killer and political schemer, Herod knocked off opponents and imagined opponents without a second thought.

In fact, despite his reputation, the idea that Herod had massacred every male under two in Bethlehem in order to kill the divinely foretold King of Kings is in question. In many cases, the historian Josephus is considered an important source for history of that period. That he didn’t mention it, leads some to believe that it may not have happened. However, because Herod was insanely paranoid and had no problem knocking off opponents left and right like a movie gangster, it is certainly reasonable to consider that he did exactly what the Gospels report. One of the reasons why it might not have been reported in the histories of Josephus is actually a question of scale. It is believed that the population of Bethlehem at that time was between 300 and 1000 people. As such, the number of toddler and infant boys would have been less than twenty or so. While it would have been both horrible and tragic, it would have been par for the course for Herod in his mental downfall. His assassination of more noteworthy opponents would have stirred more attention and entered into the historical record.

Did he do it? We’ll never know for sure. I think it’s more than likely that he did. Here is a man who killed three of his own sons and even his own beloved wife. He is most famous, to this day, for attempting to cancel Christmas for all of us at the expense of the little boys of Bethlehem. For that reason as well as his overall brutality, Herod the Great earns his place as our first Historical Grinch this week.

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