Much of Herod’s life has been recorded by Josephus Flavius, a 1st century historian, based on the writings of Nicholas of Damascus, Herod’s personal secretary. As there is a lot of material about Herod’s life to be found on Wikipedia, I have not felt it necessary to go into great detail about his life; I feel it would be more helpful to try and discover the kind of man he was and why he turned out the way he did.
Herod was an opportunist of the highest order. During the tumultuous years of the Roman civil wars he skilfully shifted his allegiance from Pompey to Caesar to Anthony to Octavian (Augustus). Because he was such an able soldier the Romans valued his services. He provided a strong buffer-state for Rome against the Nabatean Arabs to the south and the Parthians to the east.
Herod was originally an Idumaean. The Idumaeans, descendants of the Edomites, were a tribe who had been forced by the Nabatean Arabs westwards into southern Judea, where they had been forcibly converted to Judaism by the Hasmonean rulers of Palestine. The Idumaeans were for this reason converts of a recent and suspect background – in reality Herod, “King of the Jews” was not actually a Jew at all! At the same time they were shrewd, and had no scruples about making political deals with the Romans for their own advantage. Herod’s father had been a pious man who tried to keep the Law of Moses but his son was nothing like that. Herod’s lifestyle was like that of a Roman pagan – decadent and worldly. He may well have built the Temple in Jerusalem but he also financed pagan Temples in other places.
Though he was successful in politics, Herod was bitterly unhappy in his private life. He married ten wives, including the beautiful Hasmonean princess, Mariamne. Though he loved her passionately, he suspected her of infidelity and had her executed. Later, in 7 BC, he had her two sons killed. When he found that his favourite son, Antipater, had been plotting against him, he had him executed - just five days before his own death in 4 BC. For much of his life Herod showed signs of paranoia – no doubt exacerbated by the fact that there really were people out there trying to kill him. He was hated by Jewish nationalists because of his collusion with the Romans; he was hated by the Pharisees because he continued in his pagan practices; and he was hated by pretty much everyone else because of his oppressive taxes.
Despite all this, Herod did make a positive contribution to Judea through his great passion for building. His rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem is well-known, but among his other achievements were the rebuilding of Samaria, the construction of the port of Caesarea, and the building of the Antonine and Massada fortresses.
Was Herod really a king? He was officially instated as “King of the Jews” by the Romans during the civil war in about 40 BC, after a certain amount of family in-fighting. The Romans found him an able leader, and set him up as regent over the Judean territory, ruling on their behalf. Whilst Judea was not actually part of the Roman Empire at that time, they knew that in Herod they had a ruler who was sympathetic to their cause, and would stand up to the rebellious and perverse Jews who resented Roman interest in their land. It suited the Romans to leave a client “king” in charge of the region, a situation that continued until the establishment of the Prefecture in 6 AD. Herod was never established as king by the Jews; he may have held the title, but he never commanded the respect of the people. There was no anointing with oil by prophet, or consecration by High Priest. As far as the Jews were concerned he was neither a king nor a Jew.
Above all, Herod was a tyrant. He was utterly ruthless when dealing with opponents, even if they were his own family. He was a suspicious and fearful man, given to bouts of intense anger, probably demonised through his involvement with pagan gods. In Matthew 2:1-18 we come face to face with this man. Here his cruel and suspicious nature is clearly seen: rumours of travellers from the East who were seeking a new king had reached his ears. Fearful for what this might mean, and deeply disturbed, he devised a plan. First, he gathered the chief priests and scribes together and summoned the travellers into his court. His wanted to involve the priests and scribes so that what was said would be public knowledge – to show that he was not afraid of the rumours. The public face then turned into the paranoiac manipulator: he secretly summoned the travellers again, and questioned them further about the star that had led them to Jerusalem. Where was the birthplace of this king? – where could he be found? And, most crucially, exactly when did this star appear? Having gleaned what information he could, with a sycophantic smile on his face he said, “Go and search diligently for the child – and when you have found him, bring me word so that I, too, may come and worship him”.
So Herod used the same kind of guile he had used when he had manipulated the Senate in order to come to power in Judea. He deceived the travellers. For all their wisdom in the science of their day they were remarkably naive politically. Clearly they were unaware of Herod’s reputation. They would have gone back to Herod and revealed to him the whereabouts of the new king if God had not warned them in a dream about Herod’s scheme; heeding the dream they returned by a different route.
Herod was in a fury. He had been tricked. He should never have trusted those travellers, he should have sent someone to follow them. All he had to go on was this mention of a prophecy about a ruler coming from Bethlehem. So that’s where this child must be. He must deal with this threat to his throne, and quickly. He could not allow this volatile people to rise up against him in support of a rival contender, especially if they thought they had the backing of prophetic writings. He was only too aware of the Jews’ desire to throw off the Roman yoke – and with it his own rule. So he summoned the captain of his army and he gave the order that all the baby boys should be killed – all those under two years of age in Bethlehem and its area. So his hired mercenaries went out and put the little boys to the sword.
There is no record of this in the Roman histories, but then, Herod was always killing people! There were probably only about 20 boy-children of that age in the district. In Herod’s bloody reign it just didn’t make the headlines – things like that happened all the time. We are talking here about the kind of man who would kill his own wife and children.
This event did not go un-noticed by God. Matthew comments on the slaughter of the children as a fulfilment of Jeremiah 31:15. At first sight it seems a somewhat obscure passage. However this is a good example of how a prophecy has more than one fulfilment. In the original context, Jeremiah is speaking of an event soon to come as the Babylonian Captivity begins. As the Jewish young men were being taken into captivity, they went by the town of Ramah. Not too far from Ramah is where Rachel was buried and she was the symbol of Jewish motherhood. As the young men were marched toward Babylon, the Jewish mothers of Ramah came out weeping for sons they will never see again. Jeremiah pictured the scene as Rachel weeping for her children. This is the literal meaning of Jeremiah 31:15. The New Testament cannot change or reinterpret what this verse means in that context, nor does it try to do so. In this category (of fulfilled prophecy), there is a New Testament event that has one point of similarity with the Old Testament event. The verse is quoted as an application of the original prophecy. The one point of similarity between Ramah and Bethlehem is that once again Jewish mothers are weeping for sons they will never see again and so the Old Testament passage is applied to the New Testament event. Otherwise, everything else is different.
Unfortunately for Herod his plan did not succeed. It never had a hope of succeeding! God was not going to be outwitted by a tyrannical, despotic, megalomaniac. He was always going to be one step ahead of Herod; by the time Herod’s thugs arrived in Bethlehem, Miriam, Joseph and Yeshua were already on their way to Egypt…..