Who is Jesus? No one had more to risk in the answer to this question than did Herod. Every good story needs a villain. Herod is a cruel and vile one.
“Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him” (Matthew 2: 7-8).
The Magi are traditionally called the wise men. But they were not wise enough to immediately see through the scheme of conniving Herod.
Scripture teaches us very little about this Herod. The Bible only tells us of his evil nature. He is Herod the Great. History and archaeology show us his greatness. He was a great architect, engineer, and entrepreneur. His wealth exceeded Caesar’s. His building projects were among the wonders of the first century. His engineering feats baffle engineers to this day.
Herod the Great was evil and paranoid. He was convinced that family members were constantly plotting against him, and so he had many tortured to draw out confessions and then murdered them. He drowned a few family members. He skewered and roasted his favorite wife. The murder of the little boys in Bethlehem was a small deal compared to his usual torture and mass killings, so much so that only the Bible records the horrible event. Historians like Josephus do not mention the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem.
The Magi arrive in Israel and head directly to Jerusalem. Their decision makes sense. The star indicated that a king was born in the land. Logically, the newborn king would be found in King Herod’s palace.
Herod plays along. If a baby king was born, he must be identified and killed! Why?
Herod’s kingdom was amazing. He had amassed wealth. His wealth and control of the stubborn Jews enabled him to create an alliance with Rome. Herod exchanged some of his wealth and control of the Jews for the powerful backing of Rome.
But Herod had a Jewish problem. He was not a Jew.
Herod was an Idumean. His homeland was just south of Beersheba in the southern Negev Desert. He came to the Jewish throne when his father Antipater cut a deal with Rome. Rome gave Herod the throne. Herod controlled the population and provided financial resources to Rome. It worked for both.
But Herod was not a Jew. And he knew the Jews would never accept him. He married a Hasmonean Jew, hoping that would satisfy the stubborn Jewish people. It didn’t. Instead, they hated her for marrying a foreigner.
He built the Temple for the Jews. It was the largest and most magnificent Temple complex in the world. This went a long way in appeasing the priests, who were pretty happy presiding over it and making their own fortune by cheating worshippers.
Herod was not a Jew. But he did know Jewish Scripture. He knew a passage in the book of the prophet Obadiah, a book only one chapter in length and that most of us have never considered. Obadiah speaks a warning. The day of the Lord is near. And when it comes, the prophet says in verse 18:
“Jacob will be a fire
and Joseph a flame;
Esau will be stubble,
and they will set him on fire and destroy him.
There will be no survivors
The LORD has spoken.
Who is this Jacob? He is the long-awaited king, the Messiah, the promised one from among the chosen people of God. God gave patriarch Jacob the name ‘Israel”.
Who is Esau? Esau’s descendants were the people of Edom. And the descendants of Edom were the Idumeans. Herod was a descendant of Esau, an Edomite, an Idumean.
Herod knew his Bible. He knew that the root of the Esau/Jacob division was a birthright matter. Even as Isaac’s wife Rebekah, felt her twin sons fighting in her womb (Genesis 25), the prophesy began. The older (Esau) would serve the younger (Jacob). Numbers 24 tells us that a ruler will rise out of Jacob and Edom will be destroyed. Several of the Old Testament prophets wrote about it too.
If the promised king of the Jews was born, Herod was a dead man. The Herod line to the throne was over. His sons would not follow him as rulers. His only solution was to kill this baby.
Who was Jesus to Herod? More than just a threat, Herod believed. He did not believe in Jesus as his Savior and Lord, but he did believe in the truth of the promise of God to send Messiah to save his people.
His detestable act of murdering baby boys was horrendous. But it was also a testimony that indeed the King of kings is born. The Messiah, promised by God, had come. God keeps his promises, and Herod testified to it.
One might think that God is cruel. Herod was doomed when Esau lost the birthright and when his Edomite descendants were cursed for not allowing the Israelites to pass through their territory. But God is both just and merciful. Herod the Great could have chosen to worship the Son of the Most High. Herod’s sons had the opportunity to follow Jesus, but Herod Antipas murdered John and mocked him instead. Paul made the case before Herod’s grandson, who rejected the gospel. The Herod family ceased to exist, but not before being given the chance to believe in Jesus.
As those called to lead, the good news of the Herod family story is that God is gracious and good. The descendants of Esau were not written off, but were offered a chance. All who confess their sins and believe, are invited to become children of God; saved by the blood of the Son of God, who was born to redeem the world. It is the good news of Christmas.
Devotionals are written by Jeff Blamer, Vice President of Member Services