Herod the Great – Who Was He, Really?
So who was this autonomous tyrant called Herod the Great? In reality, scholars have devoted entire books to his brutal, self-delusional, murderous reign in his position of -- in the words of the Roman Senate -- “King of the Jews.” Obviously, Herod the Great left a huge footprint on history in general, and specifically on biblical history. He is one of the few personalities that verifiably intersect with people, places, and events recorded in the Bible, and with significant landmarks that remain today, such as his palaces at Jericho and Masada, and his fortress at the Herodium.
Herod the Great – The Jewish Temple in Jerusalem
Biblically speaking, Herod ‘s most significant architectural achievement no longer exists in its intact state, though its existence and appearance are well attested by ancient historians, and remnants of its past glory can still be seen. We’re talking, of course, about what is called Herod’s Temple, but more accurately was a vast building project that enlarged the Temple Mount platform in Jerusalem, enhanced and overbuilt the modest Second Temple built by Zerubbabel, added an astonishing array of other buildings and pavilions, and generally made the Temple Mount complex in Jerusalem a magnificent centerpiece of Herodian Jerusalem and all Israel.
At the same time, we are constantly reminded in biblical and secular history about Herod’s paranoid ways, the gross immorality he and his extended family practiced, his capricious hatred of the Jews, and his attempts to ensure the death of the infant Messiah.
Herod the Great – His Real Motivation
So what was up with Herod the Great? How could the same guy who built a Jewish Temple that nearly rivaled the glory of Solomon’s structure be filled with so much animosity and suspicion toward the Jews? How could a ruler who claimed a connection to the Jews so violently and enthusiastically disavow that connection? And how could the great architect of Rome in Judea construct phenomenal structures that still stand today, but at the same time sow the seeds of friction and Jewish rebellion against Rome that led to their ruin?
The one thing we can’t do is get inside Herod’s head and understand the apparent paranoid schizophrenia that ruled his life. But we can take a look at the world he was born into and lived in, and understand a little bit more about the strange dichotomy of the Herod the Great who built the Jewish Temple -- and yet feared and hated the Messiah who might rule there.
To understand Herod’s family background, we can actually go as far back in history as Jacob and Rebekah’s fraternal twin sons, Jacob and Esau. If you remember the biblical story, Esau came out first, and then Jacob, who was grasping the heel of Esau. And though by human birthright Esau should have had precedence, God said that the older, Esau, would serve the younger, Jacob.
In the book of Romans, Paul offers a careful argument that God’s sovereignty always, without exception, accomplishes His will, either through a person’s willing submission to Him, or in spite of their open rebellion against Him. Either way, His purpose is always accomplished. How it’s accomplished is their choice, and they either reap the benefits of obedience, or suffer the consequences of disobedience.
In the case of Esau and his descendants, the choice was perpetual, open, active rebellion and hatred toward the God of Jacob -- so much so that in retrospect of Esau’s life in contrast to Jacob’s, God said, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated -- and I have made his mountains a desolation and appointed his inheritance for the jackals of the wilderness.” It didn’t have to be that way -- but it’s the path that Esau chose, and that his descendants after him continued to choose.
Herod the Great – His Connection to Edom
Those “mountains” God was talking about in the book of Malachi refer to the region where Esau and his descendants settled -- an area that was given the name “Edom,” which means “red,” since Esau “came out red, all over like a hairy garment,” according to the Bible. And, ironically, the region itself was predominantly red -- the red sandstone that today surrounds the awesome but desolate stone-carved tombs and monuments of Petra in Jordan. There they built an empire as the ruthless gatekeepers of ancient trade routes that ran through that region.
Located southeast of the Dead Sea, Edom was the crossroads of trade roads that ran from Egypt and the Gulf of Aqaba in the south to Syria and Mesopotamia to the north. And just like commercial routes today, they were both strategic and lucrative. So the Edomites made the most of it, fortifying their hold in the rocky natural passageways of the Edomite hills, and exercising control over the ancient King’s Highway on the east side of the Jordan.
Because of that ancient hatred of Jacob and his descendants, Edom -- also referred to as Esau and Mt. Seir -- refused to allow the children of Israel to pass through on their way to the promised land; and throughout their history they figured they were untouchable in their rocky natural fortress, and certainly not accountable to the God of the Israelites.
Although some archaeologists attribute the massive and elaborate cliff carvings in the City of Petra to a people called the Nabataeans, others point out that for centuries the Nabataeans were nomadic, and in fact may have merely taken over the work that the Edomites left behind when they vacated the area. And that relocation, along with the Edomites’ attitude toward God and His chosen people, determined much about the future of Israel – and of Herod the Great.
The entire one-chapter book of Obadiah in the Old Testament is God’s indictment against Edom, because of a particularly despicable sin. That’s where we read God’s charge against them: “Because of violence to your brother Jacob, you will be covered with shame, and you will be cut off forever. On the day that you stood aloof, on the day that strangers carried off his wealth, and foreigners entered his gate and cast lots for Jerusalem, you too were as one of them.”
In 586 B.C., when the kingdom of Babylon executed God’s harsh discipline against the southern kingdom of Judah, conquered Jerusalem, and took the Jews into exile, Israel’s “brother” Esau -- the nation of the Edomites -- looked across the Jordan and saw what was going on. But instead of seeing an obligation to defend the descendants of Esau’s brother, instead of taking up arms in defense of God’s people, they saw an opportunity for payback, political gain, and profiteering. They threw in with the Babylonians, helped capture and slaughter the Jews, and then -- once the southern reaches of Israel had been cleared by the enemy -- moved on across the Jordan and settled on free real estate that was far more attractive than their rocky holes at Petra, the Ancient City.
Obadiah reveals that God will someday hold Esau’s nation accountable for their treachery, and that the house of Jacob his brother will be established forever on Mt. Zion; not that God’s Word lessened Edom’s hatred for Israel. What concerns us in relation to Herod the Great; however, is the legacy of those Edomites who moved into southern Israel following the Babylonian conquest. Several centuries later, once the Romans were in control of that region, they called that region “Idumea,” after the “Edomites” who repopulated it. And would you like to guess where Herod the Great was born? Correct. Idumea. In Beth Guvrin, near today’s Mareshah, to be precise. And Herod himself was an Idumean, a descendant of Esau.
What is interesting -- and ironic -- about this area is that it had been the site of a one-off anomaly of Jewish history; and that, too, may have played a huge part in the life of Herod the Great. Remember how Judea became something of a political volleyball after the death of Alexander the Great, and how Antiochus Epiphanes forcibly Hellenized the Jews, took over the Temple, and profaned the Holy of Holies? Well, the Maccabean revolt that followed eventually threw off Greek domination and resulted in the period of the Hasmonean “princes,” or rulers, of Israel.
That period in turn resulted in the last true Hasmonean “prince,” Hyrcanus, who -- in a weird and never-repeated twist of history -- forcibly converted the Idumean inhabitants of the region of Mareshah to Judaism. He also restructured the priesthood of Israel in such a way that the party of the Pharisees became politically predominant; and he paved the way for his son, Judas Aristobulus, to become High Priest following his father’s death. So from that time to the time of the Messiah, the priesthood in Israel was fraught with political intrigue, greed, and power struggles -- not the God-given responsibility of shepherding God’s people Israel.
Even more significant, through a series of typically Roman power shifts, assassinations, and takeovers, the son of one of Hyrcanus’ most trusted advisors ended up being Rome’s man in Judea. That was Herod the Great -- an Idumean descendant of Esau who was religiously Jewish in name only, but much more predisposed to exploiting his position and power in the Roman administration over Judea. He was decisive, brutal, and -- like anyone who makes murder a way of life -- more and more paranoid as the years progressed. Herod’s paranoia about his political enemies, in fact, is what led to many of his major architectural accomplishments, like his palace and fortress at Masada, and the fortress of Herodium.
But perhaps Herod’s biggest fear was directed toward his political “friends” in Rome. Herod the Great had no greater fear than that of losing his place in the Roman hierarchy. In 37 BC the Roman senate had declared Herod, “King of the Jews,” and he had no intentions of being displaced. He was Rome’s perfect stooge in Judea -- a nominal Jew, but not really a Jew, who would always hold allegiance to Rome above allegiance to the Jews. But in order to rule over the Jews, Herod had to both placate the common, well-intended Jewish populace, as well as maintain control over the politically savvy, power-hungry, and very dangerous priesthood. But how?
Herod the Great – His Motivation Was Power
Herod the Great found his answer in the construction of the great Temple Mount complex. It was a favor to the common Jews that no one could disparage, and it was leverage against anyone in the pseudo-priesthood that feared they would be excluded from Herod’s gravy train. The Jews could say, “Look at the beautiful Temple Herod built; he’s Jewish, you know,” and feel secure. The priests could say -- well, they couldn’t say anything, lest they incur Herod’s wrath and get kicked out of the club. But they could continue building their personal wealth and power, as well as fleecing the flock. And true believing Jews could look at the Temple and hope: “Maybe Messiah will come soon.”
So, in a nutshell, that’s who Herod the Great was, and how it was that God used a Roman-appointed Idumean to build a Jewish Temple complex to which Messiah did indeed come, and which Rome itself ultimately destroyed.