In this post, Ryan Rotz reflects on the unexpected Advent lessons he’s learned from a notorious historical figure.
King Herod the Great is known by most Christians for his role in the Christmas story in Matthew 2. Afraid of losing the throne to a “newborn king of the Jews,” Herod tried to manipulate the three wise men into telling him where to find the rumored child; when that didn’t work, he ordered the killing of Bethlehem’s baby boys.
But there’s a lot more to Herod than just this one scene. Herod the Great’s life is a Hollywood blockbuster waiting to happen. There are overthrown kingdoms, political maneuverings, family feuds, love and betrayal, and unfortunately, a whole lot of death. It is an R-rated story, to say the least, but it can teach us something very important about the significance of Advent—if we look close enough.
A tumultuous beginning
Herod’s Fortress in Masada
After the Romans pushed out the Hasmonean kingdom in 63 BC, an official named Antipater was installed to govern the land of Israel. Antipater put his son Phasael in charge of Judea and Herod in charge of Galilee. Then in 40 BC the Parthians invaded. Herod’s brother was captured and committed suicide and Herod barely escaped. He hid his family in Masada before fleeing to Rome for help.
A savvy politician
Using his political savvy, Herod won the support of Mark Antony, who was co-ruling the Roman Empire with Octavian. Mark Antony convinced the Roman Senate to appoint Herod king of Judea; they even gave him an army to fight (and ultimately defeat) the Parthians.
Herod’s political abilities proved to be even more impressive years later. After Mark Antony lost a civil war to Octavian (later named Caesar Augustus), Herod approached the new emperor. He said that although he supported Mark Antony during the civil war he would be as loyal to Octavian in the future as he was to Mark Antony in the past. Octavian was convinced. Not only did he spare Herod’s life, he befriended Herod and expanded his kingdom.
An insecure king
While the Romans favored Herod, the Jews did not. After returning from Rome with an Army, Herod usurped the throne from the Parthians, with whom many of the Jews had sided. Herod was not a pure Jew either; he was an Idumaean, a people group who were forcibly converted to Judaism. Despite his efforts to rebuild the temple, Herod was never fully accepted by the Jews.
Because of this, Herod lived in perpetual fear of revolt. He built multiple palace fortresses where he could defend himself in case of attack. His paranoia knew no bounds, leading him to kill six of his own family members, including his favorite and beloved wife Mariamne, and three of his sons. Even the notoriously bloodthirsty Rome was shocked by his brutality. Augustus scoffed, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son,”riffing on the fact that Herod abstained from pork.
One story perfectly encapsulates the paranoia and insecurity of this aging tyrant. Shortly before he died, Herod invited a number of prominent citizens to a special event. He told them that following his death they would all be killed. He hoped that the people mourning in the streets over their loved ones would appear to be mourning for him. He was so convinced that no one loved him, he was willing to kill for it.
Herod’s biggest fear
With a track record like Herod’s, it’s no surprise that upon hearing of a “newborn king of the Jews” he took action to maintain his power. Herod had experienced a lot of loss in his life and he was scared of losing more. His father was poisoned to death, his brother committed suicide, his people did not accept him, and he was scared of his family overthrowing and killing him. Except for a few political connections far away in Rome, Herod did not have many people in his corner. He was terrified and felt alone.
The irony of Herod’s story is that he pushed away the one thing he really desired: love. He was so afraid of not being loved that he pushed away the people he wanted love from: his community, his family, his wife, and most importantly, his God. He acted in ways that made him lose what he truly longed for. He chose control.
What Herod taught me
As much as I’d like to end this little biography with a moralistic, “Merry Christmas! Don’t be like Herod!” I have to be honest: I’m a little more like Herod than I’d like to admit. While I haven’t ordered the death of any family members, I do try to control aspects of my life and the people around me. I avoid mistakes like the plague and eliminate threats upon arrival. And just like Herod, it’s all rooted in fear—fear of not being loved, fear of losing my throne, fear of losing everything because I have no idea what is going to happen next.
So when it comes to Advent, I understand where Herod was coming from. The birth of Jesus was a direct challenge to Herod’s control. And it’s a challenge to mine too. For me, Advent is a reminder that Jesus is coming for his throne and I need to step down from it. I am not the King; I am not Jesus.
What I’ve found though, is that when I surrender my desire to control, life doesn’t fall apart like I once thought it would. When I choose to accept God’s love for me, instead of pushing it away, things start to come together and fear slips away. I find the perfect love that I’ve been looking for all along. The love which casts out all fear. The love that Herod was looking for 2,000 years ago but never found.
To learn more about Herod and the history surrounding Jesus’ life, check out Dr. Joel Willitts’ Mobile Ed course NT202 A Survey of Jewish History and Literature from the Second Temple Period, which greatly informed and inspired this post.