Herod the Great

by Robert Baiocco

Did you ever wonder how it was that Herod, a foreigner was on the throne as king of the Jews when Christ was born? The story of how this powerful non-Jew came to rule over the Chosen People is an intriguing one which we will sketch out from the time of the Babylonian Exile until the birth of the Savior.

After the Jews returned from Captivity, it certainly wasn’t to the independence they had enjoyed for the many centuries after the Exodus when they ruled themselves in the land of Canaan. That they should even be able to return at all was a miracle, but they were nonetheless firmly under the rule of Persian governors as they resettled in their homeland. For about 200 years the Jews lived under the canopy of this Empire until a brilliant military genius, Alexander the Great came on the scene and conquered the known the world in the matter of a few brief years in the late 4th century B.C.

But he died very prematurely of a fever and his empire became split up into four parts among his generals. Of interest to us are the parts of this kingdom in the territory of Palestine, and which we identify as the Kingdom of the Ptolemys centered in Egypt and the Kingdom of the Seleucids centered in Syria, both named after Alexander’s generals. (In the Book of Daniel they are known as the Kingdoms of the North and South respectively.) Jerusalem and the Jewish cities about it were more or less caught in between these great powers, for geographically the realm of the Jews was at the border of the two superpowers and when conflict arose the armies of each side would tread through the region embroiling them in the strife.

From the time of Alexander’s death, Jerusalem had been under the control of the Egyptian Ptolemys but by the 2nd century B.C. it slipped within the Kingdom of the Seleucids as power shifted to the north. The people of Jerusalem were divided in their sentiments with some favoring the Egyptians and others the Syrians. This political division did not bode well for the city, for at one point the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes IV decided to punish those Jews who were making trouble in supporting the Ptolemys.

Since the conquest of Alexander, the whole Middle East had undergone a great Hellenization campaign with submersion in Greek culture and language, and apparently Antiochus decided that he would abrogate the religious laws of the Jews and make them fully assimilate to Greek ways. The Law of Moses was suspended, and the mere performance of some of its most important aspects, such as keeping the Sabbath and circumcision became capital crimes. Both the Temple at Jerusalem and the Samaritan Temple at Mount Gerizzim were deliberately desecrated. He offered swine on the altars and forced the people to eat pork and turn their backs on the laws of their ancestors under pain of torture and death. And in accordance with the prophecy of Daniel, he suspended the daily sacrifice of expiation for three and a half years.

Though many of the Jews appreciated Hellenization, even being willing to undergo “reverse circumcisions” to play in the Greek athletic competitions, Antiochus had gone too far and the seeds of a revolt were planted. An old Jewish priest named Mattathias and his five sons, John, Simon, Judas, Eleazar and Jonathan started the insurrection which ultimately led to Jewish independence after 400 years of subservience to other powers. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Mattathias and his sons started the war when he killed a Syrian officer. Subsequently “Mattathias fled to the mountains; and so many of the people followed him, that he was encouraged to come down from the mountains, and to give battle to Antiochus's generals, when he beat them, and drove them out of Judea. So he came to the government by this his success, and became the prince of his own people by their own free consent, and then died, leaving the government to Judas, his eldest son.”

Mattathias and his lineage are known to history as the “Hasmoneans” from “Asmoneus”, Mattathias’ grandfather. The Hasmonean dynasty was unique in that it consisted of a series of kings who also happened to be priests through the Aaronic line. As such they served as both the Civil and Religious leaders of Judea. Though not completely unheard of to have kings in this double role, it is very rare and perhaps we can cite the old Jerusalem King-Priest Melchizedek as one of the few along with Bishop of Rome in his medieval control of the Papal States.

From about 140 B.C. the Hasmoneans had secured independence thanks in part to the looming threat of Rome to their Syrian neighbors, and Judas had made a league of friendship with the Romans toward this end. Though there were naturally conflicts and dissent within the newly formed kingdom as was in any other nation, Jewish control seemed fairly well established until the reign of one Alexander Janneus, the great grandson of Mattathias, the father of the war for independence. As Providence would have it, one of his decisions would inadvertently bring about the end of the Hasmonean dynasty after barely 100 years.

Alexander’s family was comprised of a wife, Salome Alexandra and two sons, John Hyrcanus II the elder and Aristobulus the younger. Hyrcanus has been described by historians as a fairly inept individual without social graces and tending toward the lazy and disinterested side. By contrast his younger brother was much more outgoing with a warm personality and not lacking in any skills needed to manage the kingdom. Ordinarily in the patriarchal culture of Judea, the eldest son would assume power upon his father’s death, but when Alexander died, his wife Salome Alexandra reigned as queen in his stead. It is thought that recognizing the inability of John Hyrcanus, she would relieve him of any such obligation until the time of her own passing. So she only appointed him to assume the role of High Priest, the position his father held in addition to monarch until his death.

For nine years Alexandra served as queen of Judea, but as her life was ebbing to a close she made it clear that Hyrcanus was to succeed her. But it would seem that Aristobulus was much too ambitious to let that be the case. Even before she died, the popular son rallied his friends around him and took control of the fortresses before proclaiming himself king. Perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, this roused the “sleeping” John Hyrcanus temporarily from his lethargy and a battle ensued between the two factions. But fairly quickly, the supporters of Hyrcanus deserted him to Aristobulus’ side as it was evident that he was the more capable of the two to assume the throne.

Hyrcanus capitulated and was afforded a comfortable living by his brother in Jerusalem. With the sibling rivalry subdued and a condition of peace between the brothers, we might have expected Aristobulus to reign without any further family disturbances. But not everyone was happy with what had transpired, particularly one Antipater, a powerful foreigner who was appointed by Alexander as governor of Idumea, his native land which was at that time under the domain of the Hasmoneans.

Antipater who was hated by Aristobulus no doubt thought his influential job was in danger under the present circumstances. And being the smooth operator that he was, he went to work on his friend John Hyrcanus. Convincing the older brother that Aristobulus was going to kill him, Hyrcanus fled with Antipater to the king of the Arabians. While there Antipater persuaded John that he should fight to take back his kingdom with the help of the Arabians, and the king of that country offered to do so in return for the land Alexander had conquered from him a generation earlier.

And so with an army behind him, Hyrcanus marched back to Jerusalem along with his opportunist friend Antipater the Idumean who was intent on seeing John back on the throne. Civil war began, but the conflict would not be resolved as an internal affair of Judea. Both parties ultimately appealed to the growing power of Rome to help settle the dispute, and the Roman consul Pompey willingly intervened. Both sides made their case, but through the arguments of the crafty Antipater who among other things underscored that Alexandra willed Hyrcanus to be king, Pompey eventually ruled against Aristobulus.

John was reinstalled as ethnarch and high priest, but being so inept he was really no more than a figure head in government. The real power was held by his supporter Antipater who recognizing Hyrcanus’ weakness settled the affairs of the country by himself. Antipater was quick to assign his own family members to political office including his sons. His eldest Phasaelus was made governor of Jerusalem while his next son Herod was appointed as the governor of Galilee.

We are told by the historian Josephus that “Herod was an active man, and soon found proper materials for his active spirit to work upon.” That is to say, Herod was a natural born leader with those qualities needed for governance. Early on he endeared himself to the people by finally apprehending a band of robbers that were terrorizing the country. After slaying the whole bunch, the people began to sing hymns to Herod’s commendation.

Apparently he became so popular that John Hyrcanus who was nothing more than a symbolic leader became jealous of Herod. He was “grieved at the great actions of this man, and that so many messengers came one before another, and informed him of the great reputation he got in all his undertakings.” Conquering the enemies of Judea in battle, we are told that “he was beloved by everyone for the glorious action he had done.” And no doubt John was troubled that his friend and his family through their own abilities and competence had essentially usurped his throne without a fight.

The power of the family of Antipater continued to rise in Judea and was especially supported by the Romans to which Antipater regularly supplied grain for the army. But the banished Aristobulus along with his sons were not content to sit idly by while his inept brother Hyrcanus and the outsider Antipater had control of the country. After several attempts to regain power, Aristobulus’ son Antigonus finally managed to overrun Jerusalem backed by the army of the Parthians. By this time Antipater was dead, but his son Phasaelus along with Hyrcanus were imprisoned while Herod took flight out of the country and escaped. So embittered was Antigonus against his passive uncle, that he bit off his ears thereby rendering him unfit to ever serve as High Priest again according to the Mosaic stipulation.

But while Antigonus was reveling in his newly conquered kingdom, Herod was not taking this turn of events lying down. Heading for Rome, he appealed for help from the consuls Mark Anthony and Caesar Augustus who to his surprise decided to award him the title King of Judea. While Herod was simply looking for a return to his last position in Palestine, this declaration from the world’s budding superpower greatly delighted him. With Roman support behind him, over the course of three years he made his way back to Jerusalem where he conquered the city, killed Antigonus, and took his throne as King of the Jews.

It would seem at first that Herod was generally fairly well received by the Jews distinguishing himself as a generous person. He conferred many honors on his supporters, and we are told that when money ran low, he turned all of the ornaments (perhaps gold or silver objects) he had into money and sent it to those about him. Like his father Antipater, he knew how to endear many to himself by lavish gifts. And while clearly there was in part motivation to serve his own best interests, he demonstrated a magnanimous spirit as well.

Josephus tells us, “When he had built so much, he showed the greatness of his soul to no small number of foreign cities. He built palaces for exercise at Tripoli, and Damascus, and Ptolemais; he built a wall about Byblos, as also large rooms, and cloisters, and temples, and market-places at Berytus and Tyre, with theatres at Sidon and Damascus. He also built aqueducts for those Laodiceans who lived by the sea-side; and for those of Ascalon he built baths and costly fountains, as also cloisters round a court, that were admirable both for their workmanship and largeness. He also gave corn to all such as wanted it, and conferred upon Rhodes large sums of money for building ships; and this he did in many places, and frequently also. And when Apollo's temple had been burnt down, he rebuilt it at his own charges, after a better manner than it was before. What need I speak of the presents he made to the Lycians and Samnians? Or of his great liberality through all Ionia? and that according to every body's wants of them. And are not the Athenians, and Lacedemonians, and Nicopolitans, and that Pergamus which is in Mysia, full of donations that Herod presented them withal?”

The historian continues to speak of Herod’s generosity remembering how he saved the Olympic Games. “What favors he bestowed on the Eleans was a donation not only in common to all Greece, but to all the habitable earth, as far as the glory of the Olympic Games reached. For when he perceived that they were come to nothing, for want of money, and that the only remains of ancient Greece were in a manner gone, he not only became one of the combatants in that return of the fifth-year games, which in his sailing to Rome he happened to be present at, but he settled upon them revenues of money for perpetuity, insomuch that his memorial as a combatant there can never fail. It would be an infinite task if I should go over his payments of people's debts, or tributes, for them, as he eased the people of Phasaelis, of Batanea, and of the small cities about Cilicia, of those annual pensions they before paid.”

That Herod had a regal personality well fitted for the job is something that Josephus also attests to for he says, “Herod had a body suited to his soul, and was ever a most excellent hunter, where he generally had good success, by the means of his great skill in riding horses; for in one day he caught forty wild beasts: that country breeds also bears, and the greatest part of it is replenished with stags and wild asses. He was also such a warrior as could not be withstood: many men, therefore, there are who have stood amazed at his readiness in his exercises, when they saw him throw the javelin directly forward, and shoot the arrow upon the mark. And then, besides these performances of his depending on his own strength of mind and body, fortune was also very favorable to him; for he seldom failed of success in his wars; and when he failed, he was not himself the occasion of such failings, but he either was betrayed by some, or the rashness of his own soldiers procured his defeat.”

Many of the Jews revered Herod as someone special to God after witnessing a couple incidents in his life before he finally assumed the throne. On one particular evening, he had been feasting with a group of men in a house, and after the dinner was over and everyone exited the building, it immediately fell down. This impressed upon the countrymen that Herod’s life had been providentially spared and therefore he must be a person “very dear to God.”

This belief was only reinforced by another event when after some battle, Herod entered into a bath house to wash himself alone. But unbeknownst to him, several enemy soldiers were lying wait in there to kill him. Several of them approached him with swords in hand, but when they saw him, they trembled in fear (though he was naked,) ran out of the house, and fled. Herod was only too happy to have been miraculously spared in what otherwise would have been a certain demise.

While it might be debated whether or not the king was in fact one of God’s favorite people, it would seem that he did have some spiritual abilities, for we are told that at one point in his life, he was having dreams which foreboded his brother’s death which indeed came to pass. After leaping out of bed one night due to the disturbing dreams, he was met by messengers who reported to him the grim news.

Many citizens of Judea had reason to like Herod for the qualities we have mentioned, and he succeeded in winning over others through his marriage into the Hasmonean family. Certainly there were those who opposed him as an outsider who didn’t have a legitimate claim to the Jewish kingdom, and so to validate his authority among the naysayers, he married Mariamne, the granddaughter of Aristobulus, the brother of John Hyrcanus. It was an important political move to secure his kingship, and through it he undoubtedly hoped that his offspring would be viewed as legitimate rulers with the blood of the Jewish aristocracy in their veins.

Herod had two sons by Mariamne, Alexander and Aristobulus. But before them he had a son named Antipater born of a common Idumean woman named Doris and he would be a source of much trouble as time went on as we shall see. Besides these his first three sons, there were at least a dozen other children born of multiple wives throughout his 40 year reign.

There are a few parallels that we can make between King Herod and King David who had reigned 1000 years earlier. Both were viewed as dear to God and were divinely protected from harm. Both started out relatively well, but unlike David, when discord arose within his family, Herod could not handle the test and gave in to his own fears and jealousies.

For whatever his good points and virtues, Herod had a fatal flaw which unfortunately became his undoing. Trouble began early in his reign apparently when the seeds of fear germinated and began to control him With Hyrcanus gone, the king was in need of a legitimate high priest as not being a descendant of Aaron let alone an ethnic Jew he could not perform that role himself as the Hasmoneans did. So he appointed Mariamne’s brother, Aristobulus III, the last direct male descendant of the royal family to this role. But when he saw that the people liked him, he feared that they might want to depose him and install a real Hasmonean on the throne. Falling prey to his anxieties, Herod had his brother-in-law taken out to a lake and drown.

For this act of barbarism, his wife Mariamne never forgave him, and it not surprisingly sowed discord in their marriage. Though he was deeply in love with her, he became completely paranoid that she might be having affairs with other men. When some of Herod’s relatives fueled this ungrounded suspicion and claimed that she did indeed have other lovers, he had her put to death in a rage. Though quickly afterwards he regretted doing in his favorite wife and his link to the Hasmonean dynasty.

The deaths of Mariamne and her brother, one out of a jealous rage and one out of fear of losing his throne ensured that the rest of Herod’s 33 year reign would escalate into one of ruthless murder and cruelty. Antipater, his son by Doris hated his half brothers Aristobulus and Alexander as they threatened any possibility that he might come to the throne as the sole successor of Herod. And so he slandered them constantly and suggested that they were plotting to kill their father. Certainly these boys resented their father for killing their mother, but the allegations were certainly not true. Nonetheless the paranoid Herod believed them and after a number of years of hearing such calumny against his sons, he decided that the accusations were true. Though even Caesar had tried at once to reconcile Mariamne’s sons to their father, ultimately three years before his death in 7 B.C, he put his two boys to death (by strangulation.) Though Antipater was satisfied at last with their execution as he should reign as sole heir, he too was to meet with Herod’s sword. Eventually it became clear to all that this first born son had connived and slandered and just a few days before Herod’s death in 4 B.C. he executed him. Learning of the death of his first three sons, Caesar is quoted as saying. “It is better to be Herod’s swine than his son.”

With fear perpetuating his ruthless killing of any who might threaten his kingdom, it is certainly understandable how when the Wise Men came from the East to tell of the birth of the Christ Child that Herod would order the slaughter of so many infants to crush any perceived threat to his kingdom.

Though Herod had done much that was good in his reign, especially rebuilding Zerubbabel’s temple constructed nearly 500 years earlier, he ultimately let fear get the better of him until it dominated his personality making himself and everyone around him miserable. His many attempts to stamp out perceived threats to his power ensured that his early popularity was transformed into universal hatred by his subjects at the end of his reign.

So much for the life of Herod who died a miserable wretch in chronic mental and physical pain in his last days! We have traced out historically how this Idumean or Edomite came to power through a series of circumstances that fell into place, but we haven’t touched on the theological reasons that Edom should have power over Israel or more proverbially, Esau over Jacob.

From the day that Isaac pronounced to Esau that “he would serve his brother,” his descendants, the Edomites were always in second place to the descendants of Jacob. At times we see conflict between the two nations narrated in the scriptures, and by the time of David, it seems that Esau’s descendants were subjugated within the kingdom of this great king. It is not clear that they were in any way mistreated at the time, though centuries later when the Hasmoneans came to power, they certainly were. After gaining Jewish independence in the late 2nd century, B.C., the priest-kings conquered the territories of Galilee, Samaria, and Idumea and incorporated them in their realm. Very intolerant of other belief systems, they forcibly converted the residents of these regions, circumcising all the males under pain of death. And it would seem that the family of Herod’s father Antipater was one such family that was compelled to convert to Judaism among many thousands of people.

That Herod should have the opportunity to reign over the Jews may be construed as divine retribution for Israel’s subjection and mistreatment of Edom which occurred on and off for centuries. Or it may have been repayment to Israel for a much more ancient misdeed, the theft of Esau’s patriarchal blessing by the crafty Jacob. In any event, Isaac prophesied to Esau, “You will live by the sword and you will serve your brother. But when you grow restless, you will throw his yoke from off your neck.” Ultimately Edom’s control over Israel in the advent of the Roman domination was apparently a fulfillment of this prediction. In the end the kingdom of the Hasmoneans and the kingdom of Herod gave way to a superpower which held the known world in subjection for centuries.