Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod the Great, in the shadow of Herod’s awe-inspiring fortresses, palaces, aqueducts, hippodromes, gymnasiums, and temples. The Gospel of Luke tells us Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem because Joseph “was of the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son, and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:4-7)
Bethlehem is five-miles from Jerusalem, where Herod the Great had built an opulent new palace; and Bethlehem virtually rests in the shadow of Herod’s human-made mountain, a massive palace/fortress called the Herodeion. King Herod also built ornate and massive palaces at: Masada, Caesarea Maritima, Jericho, Hyrcania, Alexandrion, and Machaeros.
Herod was a Roman citizen (Julius Caesar had conferred citizenship on Herod’s father, Antipater I) and was officially named “King of Israel” by the Roman Senate. Herod became the richest King of Israel since Solomon, the size of his kingdom rivaling Solomon’s. And Herod the Great was friends and allies with the most powerful people of his day: Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Cassius, Augustus Caesar, even Cleopatra.
During his reign, Herod built grandiose Greco-Roman cities, including his new capital, Caesarea Maritima. Herod’s crowning engineering feat, at Caesarea, was the construction of the largest human-made harbor, built in the open sea using concrete stronger and superior to anything in use today.
King Herod’s greatest architectural achievement was Jerusalem’s Temple, built in glistening Hellenistic style. The Temple’s platform was the size of twenty football fields, constructed from massive stones weighing as much as one-hundred-tons each. Four Roman Coliseums could be placed on the Temple’s platform, with room to spare.
King Herod’s building projects were not limited to Israel. He constructed gymnasiums, theaters, aqueducts, entire streets, and pagan temples as far north as Antioch, and as far west as Greece. When the Emperor Augustus proposed a large city on Greece’s western coast, Nicopolis, Herod appears to have erected most of the city’s public buildings. During the peak period of King Herod’s reign, he built more monumental projects than the rest of the Roman Empire combined.
Herod the Great even sponsored and endowed the Olympic Games, presiding as president (agonothetes) in 12 BC, and was named president of the Olympics for life.
Contrast Herod to Jesus. The King of Kings was born in a stable, most likely a cave. Caves scattered around Bethlehem and its region were used as stables and sheep pens, to protect the herds at night. The Messiah, God in human flesh, is born in a cave, surrounded by sheep; while the earthly king, Herod, had his choice of opulent palaces, surrounded by luxury and riches.
Herod was friends with the most powerful Romans, receiving accolades and gifts. But Jesus’ birth was announced only to lowly, “shepherds in the area, sleeping in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night…the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. Look, for I have come to announce good news that will bring great joy to all the people. Today a savior has been born to you, in the City of David, who is Messiah, the Lord. And this is the sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and laying in a manger.’” (Luke 2:8-12)
Despite his power and riches, Herod was unhappy and paranoid, afraid someone may take away his crown. Herod executed several of his own sons, and one of his wives, fearing they were plotting to take his throne. He was even afraid of a baby born in a manger. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that after Herod heard of Jesus’ birth, he had all the young babies of Bethlehem killed, fearing the baby Messiah may threaten his reign. (Matthew 2:1-12)
God is the opposite of Herod. Being the King of everything, God freely gave up power and glory to become a human baby. God willingly sacrificed for the poor and lowly, for those caught in the grips of evil and oppression – for you and me. Good Friday is not the only example of Jesus’ sacrifice for us. Christmas is also about sacrifice, when God came to live on earth as a human-being, to dwell with us in our humble circumstances.
The contrast between King Herod and King Jesus reveals much. Those who worship earthly power and riches are the ones who are the truly impoverished, unable to find peace or happiness, no matter how much fame, money or power they may possess. But God, the creator of all things, willingly gave up everything for the sake of those in need. God came to bring us the gift of peace and joy. This is the story of Christmas.
Rev. Dr. Daniel Molyneux
Trinity Lutheran Church
2018 © Daniel R. Molyneux