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Christmas and its lessons in humility

Comparing King Jesus to King Herod

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Publish Date: 
Mon, 11/25/2013
Christmas and its lessons in humility

As we revisit the Christmas story this holiday season, the Gospel narratives invariably take us back to the humble setting of Christ's birth. Indeed, the Hebrew prophets had foretold that the coming of Israel's promised Messiah-King, the Son of David, would be marked by meekness.

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9)

Thus the Gospel of Matthew recounts that “Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king…” (2:1).

Now the quaint town of Bethlehem was worlds apart from the lavish palaces of the ruling "king" of Israel in those days - Herod the Great. And the sharp contrast between the two surely was not lost on Joseph and Mary.

The couple had arrived after a long journey at Joseph's ancestral home of Bethlehem, which had once delivered to Israel her greatest king, David, but was now a small hamlet of poor shepherds. The local inhabitants built their homes over the mouths of caves, and it was in the inner recesses of one of those caves that Jesus was born and laid in a feeding trough for livestock.

Yet each day, as Mary took the infant Jesus outside for a little fresh air and sunshine, off in the distance she could see Herodium - the grandiose palace Herod had built for himself on a commanding hilltop only four miles southeast of Bethlehem.

Mary had been assured that the son in her arms was destined to be "great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:32-33)

And yet his birth was lowly and humble, just as his death would be. By comparison, the man then ruling over Israel was haughty and cruel - in life and in death.

A monumental builder

An impressive exhibition recently opened at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem which has shed new light on the historic figure of Herod the Great. He is indeed a towering figure in the region’s history, and sought to bridge the wide chasm between Jewish and Roman cultures.

Herod was called "Great" because he was a great builder. His legacy starts with Herodium, the peculiar shaved-off mountain peak located in the Judean wilderness some 15 kilometres south of Jerusalem. Here, Herod built for himself the largest palatial complex of its day in the entire Roman Empire. Serving as a summer palace as well as his eventual resting place, every conceivable luxury was incorporated into its design, including opulent baths, swimming pools, gardens and a seven-hundred seat theatre.

Herod also built the formidable mountain fortress at Masada, and the spectacular port city of Caesarea, complete with a hippodrome and amphitheatre. In addition, he built several other fortresses throughout the land dedicated to Roman emperors as part of his constant drive to court their favour.

A puzzling persona, Herod sought to appeal to the Jews as well. So he also built the rectangular Machpela in Hebron over the burial cave of Abraham and the patriarchs. But Herod’s masterpiece was his refurbishing of the Second Temple, which he expanded southward to include a lavish shopping mall and the colonnaded underground chambers of the Hulda Gates.

A conflicted character

According to scholars, Herod was from a prominent Idumean family that had married into the Hasmonean dynasty. Thus, he was part Edomite and part Jewish. The Idumeans were a former enemy of Israel that had been conquered and converted to Judaism. The Hasmoneans, on the other hand, were the famous Maccabean family that had led the revolt against Syrian-Greek tyranny in 167 BC, which is remembered at Hanukkah.

There was one problem, however. The Maccabee family installed themselves as rulers and priests over Israel, rather than returning to power the royal lineage of David and the Zadokite priesthood. By the time Jesus was born in a lowly manger in Bethlehem, there was a general hope among many Israelites that not only would the new Roman oppressors be overthrown, but that out of the turmoil the proper kingly and priestly lines would also be restored.

Thus Herod the Great sat on a throne that rightfully belonged to the royal House of David, to which Jesus belonged.

The New Testament portrays this usurper as ruthless and highly insecure, even to the point of ordering the massacre of innocent babes in Bethlehem. The writings of the noted Jewish historian Josephus Flavius concur, recounting that Herod also slaughtered his beautiful second wife, Mariamne, and three of his sons in similar fits of jealousy.

Thus, Herod’s lust for power and notorious cruelty became widely known. Josephus records these words from Emperor Augustus: “I’d rather be Herod’s pig than his son.”

The last years of Herod’s life were marked by disease, envy and murder. While on his death bed in his winter palace in Jericho, Herod worried that no one would mourn his death, and so he ordered the arrest of some 1,000 Judeans who were to be executed on the day he died. Shortly thereafter, his overweight corpse was carried to its final resting place in Herodium, while his closest aides - disgusted by their master's dying wish - released the detained Judeans unharmed.

Idumean by birth, Jewish by religion and Roman by culture, Herod was an architectural genius but also a cruel and egocentric madman.

Opposite worlds

Returning to the vast contrast between Herod and Jesus, we can see that one was born into privilege and royal splendour, while the other entered this world in the most primitive of surroundings.

Rather than building himself grand palaces like Herod, Jesus never truly had a place to lay his head (Matthew 8:20).

Herod called himself “Great” and ruled through fear, whereas Jesus declared, “I am gentle and humble in heart; learn of me and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29).

Herod built an earthly kingdom through force of might and used slave labour to erect monuments to himself. Jesus declared his kingdom was not of this world, and raised up committed disciples using words of love and truth.

Even in death, Herod sought to inflict pain and suffering on others, while Jesus gave his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28; 1 Timothy 2:6).

Indeed, Jesus took on a suffering servant's role for the sake of the world He had created in order to redeem fallen humanity to God. “And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” (Philippians 2:8)

What good news then is the lowly birth of Jesus in Bethlehem in the days of Herod the king!


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