Herod the Great
Article #1: Herod and Jewish Independence
The source of Herod’s trouble: The thirst for Jewish Independence
November 2016 witnessed the death of one of the last soviet era communist dictators, Fidel Castro. He was a man responsible for the death of nearly ten thousand people, most of whom simply wanted human freedom and independence. As with most 20th century communist dictators, Castro thought very little of the value of any single human life. So it should come as not surprise that, during his time as leader, it is estimated that up to 40% of Cuba’s population tried to flee. It was a terrible era that has now come to an end.
Two-thousand years ago, there was another wicked dictator who ruled over the land of Judea in what is modern day Israel. He was Herod The Great. Like Castro was a vassal of Soviet Russia, Herod was a vassal of the Roman Empire. He enforced their rules and kept the population at peace.
Still, what Herod the Great is most famous for is an event that happened around the birth of Jesus. Wise men from the east came to Jerusalem and told Herod that they had seen a star in the East. This star, the said, signified the birth of a Jewish king and they had come bearing gifts for the “King of the Jews”. Herod was enraged! He was the only King of the Jews! That child must die!
Herod then calmly asked the wise men to let him know should they find the child. He had a gift of his own to present. God warned the wise men of Herod’s plan to assassinate the child, and the wise men returned home a different way while Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt. When Herod discovered he’d been tricked, he sent out soldier to kill all the children two years and under in Bethlehem.
So what kind of man would order the death of every young child in an entire town in a vain attempt kill the promised Messiah of Israel? In order to understand Herod’s actions in killing the baby boys of Bethlehem, we need to briefly understand the historical background leading up to the life of Herod the Great. We also need to take a brief look at the history of the Jewish struggle for national independence to understand Herod’s fear of the birth of this new Jewish King.
Jews Exiled to Babylon and Their Return to Judah – (586-536 BC)
In the early 6th century, the people of Judah were given into the hands of Babylon for their refusal to give up their idols. They were deported and left in exile in Babylon for 70 years. God gave them warning after warning through his prophets. Return to Him, serve your God, but they would not. So God said through the prophet Jeremiah that they would be sent into exile for a period of 70 years and then they would return.
That is actually extremely merciful of the Lord. He could have simply wiped the nation completely from the face of the earth for their disobedience. But God remembered his covenant with Abraham. It would be through his line that all nations would be blessed. Today we know that Jesus is the blessing he promised to all peoples and all nations. God was faithful despite Israel’s unfaithfulness.
As promised, when the 70 years was up, the exile ended. The empire of Babylon was overthrown by the empire of Persia. Cyrus, the head of the Persian empire, was used by God to fulfill the promise that he had made. Judah would only be in exile for 70 years. And so Cyrus allowed the Jews to return home.
The Greek Empire Rules Over Israel – (333 BC-167 BC)
For about two centuries (333-167 BC), the Jews were ruled by the Greeks. Alexander the Great had swept across the middle east and Asia, conquering all in his path. Greece fell; Egypt Fell; Babylon fell. Persia fell. In a few short years, Alexander had formed a great Greek empire that stretched from Egypt to Greece to India. Alexander and his armies conquered vast areas of land in his brief lifetime.
When Alexander died unexpectedly at the age of 33, his generals ended up ruling over an empire split into three pieces. Then the fight began to reunite the Greek empire under a single ruler. The land of Israel was ground zero for the war between the Egyptian Greek empire and the Persian one. By the second century B.C., Antiochus the fourth had become ruler over the eastern Greek empire, and he ruled Judea with an iron hand. As the book of Maccabees records, he was very oppressive to the Jews.
Maccabean Revolt – (167-142 BC)
By 167 BC, the Jewish people had had enough of Greek rule. Antiochus the fourth, angry at the rebellious Jews, wanted to carry out an early version of the Nazi “final solution” against the Jews. He tried to prevent the Jews from circumcising their children. He began a campaign to destroy Judaism, but the Jews could only take so much of this. They remembered how they had been exiled into Babylon by God because of the very sin of idolatry, and they did not intend on committing the same sin again.
One Jewish priestly family, the Hasmoneans, took up arms against Antiochus the fourth. It was Matthias and his five sons who led this Jewish revolt against their Greek rulers. Judas Maccabee was the eldest son and the first of the brothers to lead the Jewish revolt. This Hasmonean Independence movement won many military victories in the span of 3 years.
They eventually captured Jerusalem from the Greeks and rededicated the Jewish Temple on December 25, 164 (yes, the traditional date of the birth of Jesus). The Jewish people finally achieved full independence in 142 BC under the leadership of Simon Maccabee, the brother of the Judas Maccabee. The Jewish nation hadn’t been independent since the time of the Babylon conquest and he founded what is now know as the Hasmonean dynasty. The Hasmonean dynasty continued for generations through the descendants of Simon. This royal line would include Hycranus the first, Aristobulus the first, and Alexander Janneus. These men acted as both the political and religious leaders of this new Jewish independent state.
This arrangement worked for awhile. However, human nature being what it is, absolute power began to corrupt absolutely. Eventually, a queen rose to power over the Jewish state. She was Queen Alexandra. When it came time for her sons to rule, her two sons, Hycranus the second and Aristobulus the second, embroiled themselves in a bitter struggle for control of the empire. This was a full blown civil war.
The Romans had made an earlier agreement with Judas Maccabee to help him achieve Jewish independence. When civil war broke between Queen Alexandra’s two sons, Rome saw they were rapidly losing out on their investment on partial control of Judea, and decided to take full control of Judea. Thus began the Roman period.
In the next article, I’ll use this background about the thirst for Jewish independence to explain the actions of Herod the Great after he arrived on the scene as the principle stooge of the Roman Empire.