The Way of Herod: a reflection on the death of the holy innocents

Choosing a way is sometimes an exercise in seeing contrasts.

It is not light alone that helps us to see the world around us best. It is through high contrast that vision improves. For example, it can be difficult to distinguish one thing from another thing in the dark. However, it is not light alone that helps to improve our ability to see. 

It is the contrast in our vision that differentiates between blue skies and rocky brown mountains, between green leaves and red apples in a tree, between rich dark soil and Springtime flowers emerging from it. Likewise, it is easiest to see the right way when it is contrasted with another way. So I want us explore the way of Herod the Great, who plays a significant role in Jesus’ early years, first appearing in Matthew 2 in the episode with the magi. 

While there are several “Herod” figures in the Bible – this was a big and multi-generational family – the “Herod” in Matthew 2 is Herod the Great. Herod was born in 72 BC, and ruled in one way or another in the Holy Land from 47 BC until his death in 4 BC. He was not Jewish, but Idumean, and became King of Jews in 37 BC based on his family’s allegiance to the Roman authorities since the time of Marc Antony. While viewed as Jewish by the Romans, the Jewish people never fully recognized Herod as their king. 

Herod instituted many significant building projects, including a massive remodeling of the Jerusalem Temple, but became increasingly paranoid and violent near the end of his life.

When the Magi follow the star in search of the newborn king, their journey leads them to King Herod.

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’ When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” (Matthew 2:1-3)

Here we see something about Herod’s way. He wields power in a way that is disturbing to people. This became increasingly true in his later years. Herod sought after power, marrying Mariamne, the daughter of one of his opponents, but later in life, he executed her when it seemed she threatened his power. Herod had ten wives and each of their children vied for power against one another. Herod executed more than one of his children when they sought at times to come against him. When the Scripture tells us in Matthew 2:3 Herod was disturbed and all of Jerusalem with him, it is no joke. The way that Herod the Great used his power during this time was disturbing to people. 

A little later in the same episode we something else about Herod’s way. He uses knowledge for his own ends and to mix it with deception. When the chief priests and teachers of the law tell him that the Messiah will arise from Bethlehem, Herod does not use that knowledge to soften his heart but to harden his heart against this possible prophesied king. Then he asks the magi to report back to him where this new king is after they find him so, he says, “that I too may go and worship him” (2:8). This is a leader bent on consolidating his own power at any cost. Truth is meaningless and he bends it to his own will. This is the way of Herod the Great. 

But it doesn’t end there. It continues with violence. The Magi are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, but to go another way. And this leads to another revelation about Herod’s way.

“When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.'” (Matthew 2:16-18)

Along with wielding power in disturbing ways and bending truth toward his own ends with deception, Herod controls the situation through violence. While there are no extrabiblical accounts confirming what happened here, it is entirely consistent with Herod’s activities at the time.

With the population of Bethlehem at this time being roughly 1000 people, and given typical rates of birth and infant mortality, there were probably around 20 children who were killed in this episode. Such a terrible but small-scale event might not have been more than one more in a series of Herod’s terrifying deeds. 

This is the way of Herod the Great:

  • wielding power in disturbing ways 
  • using knowledge for selfish ends and bending truth with deception
  • controlling situations through violence

May we choose a different way in our approach to living. May we turn from the way of Herod and turn to the way of Jesus.

2 thoughts on “The Way of Herod: a reflection on the death of the holy innocents

  1. My understanding is that Herod the Great was a descendant of Esau, the grandson of Abraham, son of Isaac, and brother of Jacob, who was known as the first Edomite, the land having been given him by God. So that is why the Herods in his family were thought to be Jewish, although they were devoted to Rome. When Edom was finally destroyed, the Edomites who moved near the Province of Judea, were called Idumeans, taken from the Greek name for Edom.

    • Deborah, you are right that Herod was Idumean and that it is most likely that the Idumeans were descendants of Esau. There was a strong connection between the Herods and the Jews, but many Jews did not view Herod as properly a Jew, or at least used against him the fact that he was not “Jewish enough.”

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