Archive for December 11th, 2008

The HerodionAfter 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 in the east and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

” ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’”

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 make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

Part I: Getting the Whole Story
Part II: The Time of Jesus’ Birth
Part III: Jesus’ Parents
Part IV: The Location of Jesus’ Birth

Of all the kings in the history of the land of Israel, none has ever even approached the wealth of King Herod the Great. In today’s dollars, even Bill Gates would be a pauper in comparison to Herod’s wealth. While Solomon, known for his wealth and power, had to enlist slave labor for all of his projects, Herod paid all of his workers from his own pocket (supplemented with taxes), and he was respected by many of the non-religious Jews and immigrants throughout Israel. Despite this, he has been relegated to the role of a baby-killing tyrant, and a bit player in the coming of the King of the Universe. What you may not realize is how he and his wealth figure into the Christmas story.


Herod was an Idumaean (a descendant of Esau, whose lands were to the south of Israel, sometimes called Edom) who, through a great deal of intrigue and intermarriage became the King of the Jews (declared by the Roman Senate) in 37 B.C. As a descentant of Esau, he was seen as an illegitimate ruler of the religious Jewish community from the start, but his family connections, his brutal quenching of zealot insurrection in the Galilee, and the marriage to his niece, Mariamne, of the Hasmonean clan (the family of the Maccabees) cemented his rule in Israel.

Herod the Great was, by profession, an incredible engineer, trained in Rome. Combining his passion for building with his family’s vast wealth (gained via the spice trade his family controlled, with the main conduit from east to west going through Israel), he set to make Israel the greatest jewel in the crown of Rome.

Building a Legacy

Caesarea by the seaAt Caesarea Maritima (left), he sought to built the greatest port in the Mediterranean – double the size of Alexandria in Egypt – pouring concrete at a depth of 150 feet below the water to create the largest man-made harbor in the ancient world. Around 8 B.C., Herod hosted the Olympic Games for the entire Empire in a huge marble complex built in this city by the sea. (A vain man, worried about how his own people would compete, some scholars record that he added medals for second and third place, a tradition later carried on by the Modern Olympic Games).

With his port at Caesarea, he achieved two goals: 1) He gained Roman favor, by having one of two non-Italian ports in the Eastern Mediterranean at which the Roman Navy could land and transport troops to and from the Via Maris trade route; and 2) He sercured a key port for his family’s spice business, giving way to even greater wealth.

In Jerusalem, Herod saw the Temple and the annual festivals it hosted as a vast, unrealized source of wealth (imagine today, a city that hosted the Superbowl four times a year, every year). Unfortunately, though, the Temple was unable to hold the numbers of people who potentially wanted to visit Jerusalem.

Working with the Sadducee party, and gaining the bonus of nearly free labor (priests, in the service to the Temple), he tore down and buried the old Temple, building a new one – capable of holding more than ten times what the previous one would hold. This Temple, which rivaled any other in existence, both endeared him to the professionally religious crowd (which ruled the people from Jerusalem in most matters), impressed the Romans and other citizens of the empire, and (most importantly) brought even more wealth to Herod.

Besides Masada and other great works, one of Herod’s greatest achievements was the Herodion (see photo at the top of the page for a modern view of the Herodion’s base above Bethlehem). Here, Herod build his personal palace on the edge of the desert, complete with a pool the size of a soccer field, filled with fresh water carried in from the surrounding area.

Today, all that remains of the Herodion is a large hill – its base – which did not even exist when Herod began construction. A 400+ foot-tall tower palace, Herod had his construction workers literally move a mountain of dirt, compact it, and build a tower within and above it, where he, his family and his court could live for months at a time in opulace. Even the Caesars in Rome did not live as lushly as Herod in even one of his many palaces – especially the Herodion.

[It should be noted that Jesus, sitting on the side of the Mount of Olives with his disciples, commented "I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and it will be done." From where he was, between Bethany and Jerusalem, the dominant feature in the landscape was the Herodion, a mountain moved by Herod. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., the Romans destroyed the Herodion, throwing many of its huge stones into the sea...]

To make a long story short – it is hard to oversell the power, wealth and majesty of Herod and his works – especially when adjusted and compared to wealth today.

The Picture

The LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23)

The original recipients of the gospels would have been familiar with Herod and his legendary status. And so it is that, in the story of Jesus’ birth, we have the King of the Universe, a descendant of Jacob, born to unwed, poor teenage parents in an unsanitary shepherd’s cave in the shadow of the greatest palace of perhaps the greatest (in terms of wealth and comfort) king in the world, a descendant of Esau.

This, in and of itself, is a picture of Jesus’ life and purpose – that God is not demonstrated in wealth, power, prestige or renown, but in humble service, love and sacrifice. But we miss this picture if we de-sanitize Jesus’ birth…

The house of Jacob will be a fire and the house of Joseph a flame; the house of Esau will be stubble, and they will set it on fire and consume it. There will be no survivors from the house of Esau.” The LORD has spoken. (Obadiah 1:18)

P.S. The Herodion Guard

In an interesting footnote of History, after the death of Cleopatra, her Roman-provided bodyguards – blonde-haired Gauls – were reassigned to Herod the Great and housed in his palace at the Herodion. While there are no records of the Slaughter of the Innocents outside of the Bible, since it occurred in Bethlehem, it is highly likely that this would have been conducted by Herod’s private guard and not Roman guards. Gauls were from Northern Europe, from the region of Modern-day Germany. And so it would have been nearly 2000 years after the Gauls killed Jewish babies at the behest of a mad ruled that the modern Gauls did the same to the descendents of these same people.

Who says history doesn’t repeat itself.

P.P.S. National Geographic

For more information on Herod and his works (though I don’t agree with some of the author’s conclusions), this month’s National Geographic has an in-depth article on Herod, his wealth, and some of the wonders he build – including the Herodion.

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