The madness of King Herod

At the heart of the Christmas story is a tale of brutality and violence: a soldier pushes open a door, sees a toddler and stabs him, then moves on to search the next house. Matthew 2:16 says:

When Herod realised that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious and gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under …

Many have doubted whether this is actually part of history – but it fits the character of Herod the Great. He was called “the Great” because he was a great builder and in the structures he left behind we can trace something of his motivations. On our study tours to Israel we visit two of his fortresses: Masada and the Herodium.

The view from the Masada fortress

Masada was a fortified plateau surrounded by a wall 1300 m long and accessible only by a narrow winding path snaking up through 400 m high cliffs. It was built deep in the desert far from any reliable source of water, but designed to harvest flash floods into cisterns providing a secure water supply, plentiful enough for farming the plateau. It was a final fallback where Herod could live with a small garrison and withstand any siege. It was the equivalent of a nuclear bunker, but far more opulent. Herod had it kitted out with lovely bathhouses, beautiful dining areas and two palaces with beautiful mosaics and frescoes.

Inside the water cisterns of the Herodium

The Herodium lies 7 miles south of Jerusalem, where a high hill that looks like a volcano dominates the skyline. It is no volcano, it is the remains of Herod’s summer palace built inside a semi-artificial hill like Dr No’s base inside a volcano. At the bottom of the hill is the lower palace where Herod could entertain guests under colonnades which surrounded a pool 2.5 times bigger than an Olympic swimming pool; but it is the upper fortress which truly impresses. A courtyard gave space for Herod to walk, a 450 seat theatre entertained him and a bathhouse enabled him to unwind. The domed roof of the bathhouse hot room still stands – curved so that moisture would run down the walls instead of dripping on Herod’s royal head. But whilst the place is luxurious it is also designed to be impregnable: Herod moved massive amounts of earth to fortify this hill so that the fortress could not be undermined, built towers 16-18m wide that could pour crossfire on any attacker, and dug massive cisterns to ensure there was always plenty of drinking water.

Both fortresses suggest a paranoid dictator who is worried that everyone is out to get him. This is exactly the man we meet in the records of the period: extravagantly wealthy, but perilously insecure. Herod knew that he was only king because of the support of the Romans, and that most Romans would happily see him dead in a ditch if it would advance their interests. He knew his subjects hated him: when he fell ill he had the most respected men of the country arrested so that they could be executed if he died; that way he could be sure people would mourn. He tortured his children’s friends to check if his children might be turning against him, executed three of his own sons when he became suspicious, and even killed his favourite wife because she was accused of plotting his downfall. Guests at his pool parties would remember that Herod deliberately drowned his brother-in-law at his swimming pool in Jericho. Herod always acted brutally in response to threats, so it is no surprise that people died when King Herod heard that foreign dignitaries had been bowing down before a child they called “the King of the Jews”. This King threatened Herod’s rule.

Herod may have been paranoid, but he correctly understood the threat of Jesus: Jesus is the King. Many people treat Jesus as just another good teacher, but he claimed that one day he would return so that all would bow before him. You cannot be neutral about Jesus, you must either celebrate his rule or struggle against it. Which will you do this Christmas?

Written by Paul Mayo

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