ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH DECEMBER 31, 2017
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
CHRISTMAS LETTERS: HEROD I, THE GREAT
Matthew 2: 1 – 18
To my sons: Archelaus, Phillip and Antipas, we are old now, having lived some 75 years glorious years. History will remember us as a great king of Israel, equal to David and Solomon. Our life is drawing to a close, and there are things you must know. Our family came from the line of Esau, whose birthright was stolen by his brother Jacob. This is our grandeur and our affliction: God destined us for greatness before the beginning of time and everyone wants to destroy us; vigilance in guarding our heritage is our priority. Our people converted to Judaism 140 years ago. It made no difference to us and was a politically astute maneuver. We were appointed governor of Galilee at age 26. We gained favour with the peasants by coming down hard on local bandits. Marc Antony himself declared us, and our brother, tetrarchs. We supported the king of Judea until his nephew, Antigonus, stole his throne. We travelled to Rome in protest of Antigonus’ treason and to protect our throne from the same fate. It’s said we were unexpectedly voted King of the Jews by the Roman Senate. We smile at that, for although we had gone under the guise of loyalty, the Senate was easily manipulated. We returned to Israel with a Roman legion. It took 3 years to gain the throne. When we did, Antigonus was executed. We learned early the importance of dealing swiftly with usurpers to the throne. We banished our wife, Doris, and our eldest child to form a political alliance by marrying the former king’s grand-daughter, Mariamne. Doris was adequate, and we had a fondness for the boy, oh, but Mariamne was delectable. She swept us away. A true queen for a powerful king. She was unequalled.
We did memorable things which will gain us acclaim in the annals of history. We developed trade routes and increased the production of olive oil, dates and wine. That, plus the increase in taxes allowed us to live well and to create glorious buildings. The fortress at Masada was a tropical oasis in the desert thanks to our water supply. The palace at Herodium is an incredible feat of engineering as we placed it atop of an artificial mountain. What are slaves for but moving dirt? We built the port city of Caesarea with hydraulic cement; the huge memorial at the top of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron; the massive fortifications around Jerusalem as well as three towers at the entrance to the city. There are amphitheatres, bath houses, a hippodrome and now, a temple to Augustus. All thanks to us. We threw lavish parties with foreign dignitaries, held processionals and celebrations. Perhaps we weren’t popular. The Prols go hungry but Israel now rivals the extravagance of Rome. The religious leaders took offense, not that we cared. They were easily bought off. To placate them we repaired and improved the temple. It took 10,000 men 10 years just to build the western retaining wall for the great foundation that was the size of 24 football fields. It will stand forever as a symbol of my splendour.
We worried constantly about assassins. My spies infiltrated what appeared to be harmless peasant gatherings in homes and coffee shops but were clearly conclaves plotting treason. It was only wise to imprison and execute those who were suspicious. There were plots against my life from within the palace also. We increased the guard to check our rooms, taste our food, sleep outside our bedroom door. My mother-in-law allied herself with Cleopatra, so her son would be made High Priest. Cleopatra wanted him to travel to Rome with us. We knew first hand the attraction of the Roman Senate to a young man’s potential. We had him drowned. Our friendship with Marc Antony became a hindrance when the fool lost the Empire to Augustus. Augustus was going to dethrone us, and it took much persuasion to convince him of our loyalty. To do so I placed a huge eagle, the symbol of Rome, over the doorway to the temple. Students pulled it down, so we burned them alive. Many priests also objected. We put 46 members of the Sanhedrin and many more rabbis to death. We rather enjoyed that. Our passion for Mariamne burned hot but we could tell we repulsed her. She took a lover. We had them both put to death. But she never left us. She would visit from beyond the grave and we’d discuss the future. She’d declare her love for me. Three of your brothers clearly couldn’t wait for our throne – so we had to kill them too. We forget how. Augustus said, “It is better to be Herod’s dog than one of his children”. Funny yet true! Murder never bothered us. It was a necessity; at times a pleasure.
There is one incident, however, that haunts us still. Perhaps 3 or 4 years ago there was a great portent in the sky. Soon after uninvited men – Noble magi – came from the East to our palace. Our guards searched them and their entourage for weapons; they interrogated them to be certain they weren’t hit men. Apparently, they were looking for a new Jewish King. My antennae went up. What King? A supplanter, like Jacob? An infant assassin? A baby usurper? They’d been travelling for weeks, following a bright star; it had led them to Jerusalem, so they assumed the new King was born in the palace. I assured them if there was an infant king, I’d have flung it from the balcony. So what king were they seeking? We began to perspire and shake from fear. It was easy to sniff out their scheme. There was a world-wide conspiracy to kill me. We dismissed them after supper, so we could think. We’d heard that one day a Messianic King would come. Yet, after all we’d done to make Israel great, we had wondered if we weren’t God’s chosen one. Still, we’d worried it was true. Perhaps the star pointed to him. We gave the men rooms for the night and then called our scribes to inquire where this Messiah was to be born. They said, “Bethlehem”. They quoted some scripture; we can’t remember most of it. All we heard was, “from you shall come a ruler.” Something about a shepherd. One of those kings who loves and coddles his people. A king who will never accomplish anything of note. A weakling. And yet, he worried me. People might love him more. He might over-shadow us. The naive believe God sits kings on thrones – what if that were true? We thought of killing the visitors but that wouldn’t solve the threat. This Messiah, this pretender, must go. Israel is our heritage for all eternity. Only we should be remembered and celebrated. All glory belongs to us. Surely God would have us murder this Messiah. And are we not greater than God? We asked the men to find the child and return to tell us where he was, so we too could pay homage to him. Homage being code for murder. We waited. They never returned. They tricked us. Our fear turned to rage. We ordered all the children in Bethlehem under the age of two to be slaughtered. There was about 14 of them. Nothing to us. Their mothers may weep, but their tears aren’t as important as our peace of mind. Yet even after that, we’re haunted by the feeling this child still exists. We have sent scouts all over Israel to find him – no trace of him anywhere. What if he should rise to greatness and over-shadow our glory? This cannot be allowed to happen! We have sacrificed too much. We are royalty – a King – and what is he? I built the temple – will he dare to tear it down? Or perhaps he thinks he is the place in which God dwells? Maybe he thinks he’s God. Blasphemer! Our gut tells us the child still lives. One day he’ll be a man. He must die. Do not hesitate. He is our greatest threat. Our advisor Rabbi Bava ben Buta once told us, “Since you snuffed out the light of the world, you should involve yourself in increasing the light of the world”. It was a riddle without an answer but perhaps this child is what he meant by the light of the world. Well, the world needs no light but me. We will not serve him! We are King! Us. No one else. He will never shine brighter than we do. Pliable fools may seek and follow him; people desperate for meaning, for love, for forgiveness and peace; for sentimentality and fairy tales. People who believe he is this messiah may bow down with joy and give him their gifts and their allegiance. Let them increase the light of the world. We are above that. We are our own master. We need neither God nor a Saviour. We are King.
Now my sons, we are in excruciating pain from an illness we’re sure will take our life. We imagine we’ll be deified and worshipped like the Emperors of Rome. Knees will bow to us, even in death. When the time comes, however, we worry that mourners will be few. We should be honoured in death as the mighty King we are. Rivers of tears should flow when we are lost to the world. We must be remembered as the strong unbeatable sovereign we are. Perhaps we broke the world, but it was to achieve grandeur; it had to be – a King who allows himself to be broken for his people amounts to nothing. Such kings are forgotten. So, our final order is that, upon our passing, the noblemen of Israel are to be arrested and slaughtered so there will be great torment and wailing throughout the country. We will be mourned. We will be remembered. We will be immortalized for all we’ve done. With Caesar’s approval, we divide our country between the three of you. You are master’s of our own domain. Finally, find that Messiah and do what you must do – if he grows up, he will create another kingdom and steal your glory. If you kill him, the world will thank you; it is their desire as well as mine. If he lives, if he is exalted, only God knows what he will accomplish. He will overshadow all we are. Herod, the Great.