Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Cast of Christmas: King vs. King

It's the part of the Christmas story no one ever talks about. Everybody loves the angels. Everybody loves the shepherds. Everybody loves the happy family 'round the manger. People even like the wise men. But nobody likes the king and his soldiers. I've never seen a Christmas card with butchery on the front of it. But our unease and discomfort doesn't stop Herod from barking his orders. It doesn't stop the weary soldiers from marching the four miles from his Herodium to David's sleepy hometown. It doesn't stop them from barging through the gates and smashing down the doors. It doesn't stop them from roughing up the locals as they hunt, house to house, for any toddler and infant boys, and putting them to the sword. Bethlehem wasn't a large town – there can't have been more than twenty. But from Bethlehem, the soldiers spread to all the neighboring villages, repeating the same. I wonder if, in the year after they saw the angels, any of the shepherds and their wives welcomed a son into their home. I wonder if any of them were bereaved in the belated aftermath of the heavenly song. But peace on earth was never popular with tyrants like Herod.

No, the Massacre of the Innocents is hardly anyone's favorite scene in the Christmas story. But there it is. And Herod is hardly anyone's favorite character, nor should he be. But there he is. Over the past six weeks, we've met seemingly all the cast of Christmas – we've given our listening ear to the stories of Mary, Joseph, the angels, the shepherds, the prophets, the wise men. But now we meet the one we're not sure we want to meet. How many of us really know much about Herod, after all? Why did Herod do what he did? What's his story?

Once upon a time, things were not looking good for the Jewish people. They were under the thumb of a Syrian king, who tried to ban Judaism and force the Jews to worship false gods. He even desecrated the temple in Jerusalem by sacrificing a pig to the Greek god Zeus in it. A band of brothers, sons of the priest Mattathias, led a rebellion, gained independence, and purified the temple – that's what Hanukkah celebrates. One of those brothers, Simon, was appointed not only high priest but also the Jewish leader. In 135 BC, Simon was assassinated, and his son John Hyrcanus stepped up. In the coming decades, John raised an army to conquer several small territories nearby – including Idumea. Idumea was home to the Edomites, descendants of Jacob's brother Esau from long ago. John forced them to convert and become Jews.

During the reign of John's son Alexander Jonathan, an Idumean named Antipater rose to become the governor of his home province. Antipater was a clever man – he exploited tension between Alexander's sons Hyrcanus and Aristobulus. In 63 BC, when a Roman general named Pompey took over the area, he confirmed Hyrcanus as high priest – but not as king. Instead, he appointed the ingratiating Antipater as a local civil authority for Judea. Sixteen years later, when Pompey went to war against his former friend Julius Caesar, Antipater switched sides, came to Caesar's rescue with three thousand men, and was rewarded handsomely. Antipater was able to appoint two of his own sons as governors – a son named Phasael became governor of Jerusalem, and for a governor of Galilee, Antipater picked his other son: Herod.

Herod was about twenty-six years old at the time, and he was a young man with a hard disposition and a quick temper. A band of robbers was harassing the area, so Herod had them apprehended and put to death without so much as a trial. The Sanhedrin, the council that enforced Jewish law, summoned Herod to be put on trial himself. He showed up armed with soldiers, hinting that any verdict against him would lead to a massacre. He then left the city, and only his father and brother could stem his temper from waging war on the high priest Hyrcanus.

Herod was about my age when his father Antipater died. Julius Caesar had been assassinated just a year before, and Mark Antony was seeing the Egyptian queen Cleopatra and running the show. When Hyrcanus was ousted by his own nephew Antigonus, Herod traveled to Rome, and thanks to some well-placed bribes to Mark Antony and the Senate, bought the title of “King of the Jews.” Herod came home and waged war for three years against Antigonus. During those three years, he banished his own wife Doris, and his son Antipater, so that he could marry Hyrcanus' granddaughter, a gorgeous princess named Mariamne. Around 37 BC, Herod and some Roman help recaptured Jerusalem. Soon the holy city understood why Herod was feared – he kept executing former rebels and demanding more and more treasure to line his pockets.

His new bride had a teenage brother named Aristobulus, a handsome young man who became high priest; but less than a year after his appointment, Herod was so afraid that Mark Antony would like him better and make him king, that Herod arranged for Aristobulus to 'accidentally' drown in a shallow swimming pool. Mariamne soon learned that her beauty made Herod insane with jealousy – whenever he went away, he left orders that she be killed if he died, so that no one could have her after him.

Four years after Aristobulus' death, Roman power struggles left Antony and Cleopatra dead and Julius Caesar's nephew Octavian on the throne as the Emperor Augustus. After gaining his favor, Herod was free to continue ruling in his usual way. The next year, he accused his wife's grandfather Hyrcanus of treason for allegedly bribing the Arabian governor – and had Hyrcanus executed. The year after that, in a fit of jealous rage, Herod ordered his own wife's execution. After her death, he became inflamed with a distemper, with sharp headaches driving him mad. His wife's mother Alexandra, Hyrcanus' daughter, declared Herod mentally unfit to rule and tried proclaiming herself queen; it didn't exactly help her life expectancy.

The next year, Herod had his sister's husband Kostobar executed as well, along with some others. It was around this time that he started spending big bucks on building projects, including Roman-style theaters in Jerusalem and sponsoring athletic games that included nude wrestling. Some local Jews were not happy, and tried to spark a revolt. But Herod's spy uncovered them, and they were tortured to death. When his spy was killed, Herod tracked down the killers and executed them – and their whole families.

In a bid to regain popularity, Herod curried favor with the people by feeding them during the famine of 25 BC. Around that time, he appointed Simon Boethus as high priest so he could marry the man's daughter – also named Mariamne. Herod rebuilt Samaria, founded the port city of Caesarea, and went on a marrying spree that included a Samaritan woman, a number of others, and even a couple of his nieces – he ended up with nine wives in all.

Herod ruled with a heavy hand, commissioning a secret police to put the whole land under surveillance and harshly punish any critics of his rule. Herod demanded that all people take an oath of loyalty to his government. But to establish his Jewish credentials, around the year 20 BC he commissioned his most daring building project: to expand the Temple Mount complex in Jerusalem and make the temple more impressive than ever. And during his travels out of the country, he positioned himself as a defender of the freedoms of Jewish communities everywhere.

All this was expensive, and reportedly he tried to replenish his resources by actually robbing the tombs of David and Solomon. Around that time, family intrigue started spinning out of control in his home, with relatives all jockeying for power. By this time well into his sixties, Herod was becoming increasingly self-conscious about his age, reportedly dying his hair to look younger, and he descended ever deeper into paranoia. In 7 BC, after years of suspicions about their scheming, he had two of his own sons put to death. The next year, he began persecuting a Jewish movement that refused to pledge their loyalties to Rome and had the gall to prophesy the coming end of his reign. That movement was a sect known as the Pharisees.

Herod grew older and sicker. He divorced the high priest's daughter and removed him from office. In 5 BC, again paranoid about being overthrown, he had his eldest son Antipater put on trial and thrown in prison, and changed his will. The next year, a pair of leading Pharisees urged a crowd to tear down a pair of golden eagles that Herod had placed in front of the temple. Herod had the perpetrators all burned alive. But Herod's sickness grew stronger – he had a burning fever, constantly hungry and in pain throughout his body, developed gangrene, sprung a leak. On his deathbed, he knew he was an unpopular king, and so he gave the orders for all the prominent Jewish leaders to be brought to Jericho and shut up in the hippodrome there. Herod gave orders that, as soon as he died, soldiers were to massacre everyone the Jews loved, so that the day he died would be a day of sadness and not celebration for the people. His final act was to have his imprisoned son Antipater put to death. Herod himself died five days later, thankfully without the carnage he'd intended.

Herod's career was full of political maneuvering and lofty building projects, including work not just on God's temple but the erection of temples to pagan gods like Apollo. He postured as a defender of Jewish rights abroad but had no qualms about repression at home that would have done the Soviets proud. His appetites for gold and for women ran away with him, and his impulsive temper and ever-expanding paranoia led to unspeakable bursts of violence during the years of his rule – though Herod probably would have just prided himself for being tough on crime and acting in political self-defense.

During those last fever-ridden years of his life, perhaps a year or two after he had two of his own sons put to death and maybe at or shortly before the time he was putting his heir Antipater on trial, a diplomatic mission from the Parthian Empire arrived, with astrologers saying they'd seen portents indicating that a real King of the Jews was on the scene now – someone who would rule by birthright, and not simply by bribing his way into it as Herod did. With Herod constantly paranoid about being replaced even by his own children, it's no wonder we read that “when Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:3). All Jerusalem was getting used to the consequences of Herod feeling troubled!

Knowing the story of Herod's life, it's hardly out of character for him to try manipulating the wise men into finding this troublesome new rival for him. Herod never intended to “come and worship him” like he said (Matthew 2:8). If there's one talent Herod perfected since the days he was governor of Galilee, it was lying to conceal his real intentions. And when the wise men foil his plot, it's hardly out of character for Herod to be “furious” and to order the slaughter of any possible candidates (Matthew 2:16). This was the sort of thing Herod did all the time, really – from a worldly point of view, this one little act of cruelty was small potatoes.

Nothing Matthew tells us about Herod is out of character. Anyone who remembered the Herod years would nod sadly along with everything Matthew reports. Of course Herod would try trickery. Of course Herod would be upset when it failed. Of course Herod, ever crafty but ever impulsive, would be thrown into a paranoid tizzy by the thought of anyone else becoming king in his place. So the Massacre of the Innocents is hardly unexpected. It's just the sort of thing tyrants past their prime do: lash out petulantly in their perpetual insecurity. Of course the so-called “King of the Jews” would become like the Pharaoh who knew not Joseph, and of course a new Joseph would have to flee to Egypt to protect his son from the new Pharaoh in Judea. The exodus story gets turned on its head. To have a man like Herod wearing a crown and commanding armies is a dangerous thing.

And yet the world is full of Herods whom we gladly crown. There are so many things we tend to exalt as kings in our lives. You see it in the political arena, of course. We've had our share of presidents, legislators, and judges who seem to live by Herod's code. But in our lives, there are things we crown – ideas, ideals, goals, forces, people, desires. And it plays out just as well as the Herodian administration of the first century BC. What happens when we crown a Herod in our lives? Herod spirals out of control – constantly demanding more from us, more from other people, constantly demanding that everything and everyone be subjected to and controlled by it, always consuming and abusing, until finally the things that are most tender and precious to God become broken and harmed.

In America today, we treasure our independence, our individual right to be a law unto ourselves, to abolish the restrictions telling us what we can and can't do. We cherish our freedom to be masters of our own fate and our own bodies. And what do we see? That freedom spirals out of control until it reaches the clinic, where the Massacre of the Innocent Children happens all over again. That's Herod right there. But we're the ones who crowned him in the first place; what did we expect? Or, again, we treasure our passions, our feelings of love and desire; we have to follow our hearts, we say, and do whatever they pine for. We've crowned the little Herod in each of us. So it's no surprise when a string of broken homes stands in his wake, and when we learn not to trust each other anymore. That's Herod right there. We crowned him; what did we expect? Or try this: we treasure our sense of honor and standing – maybe in the town, maybe in the home, maybe in the church – and so we let our thirst for respect and status run rampant over those around us. We become protective of our sense of who we are, and step by step we become willing to put others down, even tear the church down, for the sake of it. You've no doubt seen things like that happen. That's Herod right there. What did we expect when we crowned him?

Examples could be multiplied 'til Monday morning. But so often, in our lives, we crown Herod as king – any created reality we choose to feed and heed, anything we allow to rule us – including ourselves – that runs the risk of consuming and abusing what really matters. It can be a hobby. It can be a relationship. It can be a value or an ideal. It can be a family member. It can be a behavioral dynamic. It can be a desire, a passion, an agenda, an idea. It can be some aspect of yourself. It can be something that, without a crown, might lead a fine life. But put a crown on its head, and you can expect nothing less than a repeat of the story of Herod – and sooner or later, something innocent will be sacrificed in its name.

But Herod isn't the only king in this story. That's actually rather the point. Herod was the so-called “king of the Jews” – a title bought from foreign oppressors for cold hard cash – but there's someone else in the cast of the Christmas story who is born king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2). And he isn't just in the cast; he's the star of the show. Herod has one way of being king, but this child born in Bethlehem has another. Herod is old, sickly, and insecure. But this king is both ancient and newborn – ancient in his divinity, infant in his humanity. He has no insecurity in him. Herod's rule is full of political schemes, constantly lying and distorting reality to manipulate others. But this other king, this Jesus, never manipulates and never lies; he just is the Truth (John 14:6).

Herod built so much during his reign. I'm sure many people were glad for it. In fact, a lot of the things people go over to the Holy Land to see as tourists, are the things Herod built. Herod built a lot. In fact, he built too much. He tried to build both God's temple and demon temples. He tried to honor God's law while promoting blasphemy. He tried to play both sides. But this king born in Bethlehem builds only one thing: “On this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). And the church he built is so much more beautiful than the temples and theaters and fortresses of Herod, and we don't have to travel far away to see it in action.

Herod married many women. He was an abusive and controlling husband. He exploited his wives as pawns; he craved their beauty as an object; he wanted to keep them under lock and key; he wielded death and danger as a weapon even in his own home. He was the opposite of all a man should be. Herod collected wives like trophies, and his jealousies raged between passionate desire and bitter hatred. But this king born in Bethlehem cherishes a single Bride: “Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her … without spot or wrinkle … holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27). He has eyes for no other. He leads by gentle love, not an iron fist.

Herod was paranoid, and he craved power, he clutched after power, and he resorted freely to brutal violence to keep it; one early Jewish historian called him “a stranger to humanity” because of his animalistic cruelty. As a result, many lives were lost, freely sacrificed to Herod's ambitions, his appetites, or simply the unrestrained impulses of his hot temper. Herod lived by the sword; he ruled with repression and violence. But this king born in Bethlehem never did any violence. He lived gently, he pursued justice with the word of God and not with swords, and in the end he offered himself up to be sacrificed by the violent for the sake of others, to bring an end to violence. The prophets saw long ago that “he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth” (Isaiah 53:9). No one could credibly say that about King Herod. But no one could credibly deny it about King Jesus.

We see, over and over again, what happens when we give the crown to Herod. And yet we keep doing it. We resist the real rule of a real alternative. We keep crowning a succession of Herods, and the results are hardly unexpected. But perhaps it's time to cast all these crowns at the feet of another king – this one called Jesus. What would your life look like if you withheld crowns from all your Herods and gave them to Jesus instead? Which king will you crown? Which king will you imitate? “Choose you this day...” (Joshua 24:15).

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