Every good story has to have a bad guy. Star Wars: Darth Vader. Christmas Carol: Ebeneezer Scrooge. Harry Potter: Voldemort. Wizard of Oz: Witch of the West. Last of the Mohicans: Magua. Of course these villains sometimes find redemption at the end of the story (Vader, Scrooge, but not Voldemort).
The composite Christmas story we enjoy this time of year has many players: Gabriel, Joseph, Mary, Baby Jesus, Innkeeper, Shepherds, and Wise Men. But only one true bad guy: King Herod.
As found in both Matthew and Luke, the story of Jesus’ birth has political angles. Joseph must journey to Bethlehem to meet a census requirement of the oppressive Roman government. The magi visit the ruler of Jerusalem and are received as visiting emissaries from a foreign land. Behind it all, the idea that a new “King of the Jews” has been been born is a political threat to both the Romans and King Herod.
Niccolò Machiavelli wrote that the prince does not rule by virtue. The art of ruling for him is found in gaining and retaining power. Methods of gaining power are to be judged only on their success. Measures to retain power are likewise evaluated only upon their effectiveness. Herod’s career is a case study in Machiavelli’s much-later advice. Herod sold his soul and his people to the Romans for power. He retained his power by intrigue and murder of any family member who threatened him. He was not kept in power by loving citizens, but by unprincipled men who benefited from his ruthlessness.
Josephus, the Jewish historian, tells his readers that at the time of his death, Herod had a large group of Jewish leaders brought to Jericho where he lay on his deathbed. His plan was to have these men slaughtered when he died to cause national mourning. Fortunately, his son, Archelaus, released them and ironically created a national celebration at Herod’s death instead.
This cold-blooded-killer side of Herod makes his order to have all the little boys of Bethlehem murdered very believable. Some historians have dismissed this as a legend fabricated by Matthew to meet his desire of fulfillment of prophecy, but I find it plausible. Bethlehem was not a big place. This may have involved a dozen or so little boys, surely a tragedy, but not the hundreds or thousands of murders that might make it into the history books. Oh yes, Herod could have done this.
So what place should politics and politicians have in Christmas? Just this week I read of atheists in Lincoln who outmaneuvered Christians to cause a traditional nativity display to be removed from the Nebraska state capitol building by December 21 (link). This is not just a culture war or a spiritual battle. It is that. It is also a political battle waged in the halls of government using laws and regulations.
Current political rhetoric seems obsessed with demonizing or defending Muslims. According to some, Islam is not just a challenge to Christianity, it is a threat to the American way of life. Other voices defend Islam as a religion of peace, perhaps the epitome of “Peace on Earth.” Politics mix with religion freely right now.
Herod’s story has some ultimate lessons for us in this, I think. Let me offer three.
First, remember that Herod used his scholars of Scripture to determine where the Messiah would be born. They searched and found Micah’s prophecy that Bethlehem was the site. Herod accepted and used this truth of Scripture for his purposes. Lesson: not everyone uses Scripture to determine and carry out God’s will.
Second, remember that Herod told the magi he wished to visit the newborn king and worship him, too, but his desire was to kill the baby. Lesson: some who claim allegiance to Christ have hidden agendas, using persons of faith for personal gain.
Third, remember that news of the Messiah’s birth set Herod off into uncontrollable rage. He was threatened by this and rightly so. He knew his grip on power was based on terror, not loyalty of his people. Lesson: the news that Christ is King of Kings and Lord of Lords is not glad tidings for everyone.
But it is for me. So, in these confusing and contradictory times, let nothing you dismay. Remember, Christ the Savior was born on Christmas day to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray. Oh, these are tidings of comfort and joy!
Nebraska Christian College