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Why Was Herod So Mean?

Out of all the characters in the birth story of Jesus, only one is portrayed as mean: King Herod. Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the Magi (3 Wise Men or 3 Kings)—even the innkeeper—are all wonderful participants in God coming to earth in Jesus. But Herod was wicked, the only one in the whole bunch. But why was Herod so mean? First let’s review the story and then discuss Herod’s attitude.

Matthew 2:1-21: "After 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. . . Then Herod . . . 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" . . . . On coming to the house, they saw the child . . . And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him . . . When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under . . . After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead."

So, why was Herod intent on killing the newborn Jesus? Really, why did Herod care that a rumor was going around about a newborn king?  Herod had three grown sons and so thought they would rule once he died.  To understand that we have to examine Herod’s life. First things first, and this may sound bizarre: Herod was not a real Jew, nor was he a real king.

Herod (73 BC to 4 BC) was an Idumean; they were descended from the Edomites, mentioned in the Old Testament. The Jews conquered Idumea around 135 BC, and required all the Idumeans to convert to Judaism.

Herod was not a real king, instead he was granted his kingship by the Roman Empire. Herod’s father had not been king of Israel. The Roman Senate declared Herod "King of the Jews" around the year 40 BC.

So, by the time Jesus was born, Herod was an old man (some 35 years later). Once he died he assumed his kingdom would be divided among his three sons. But Herod was not assured of that because, after all, he was only King because the Romans made him so and he was not a real Jew. He knew that his rule lasted only as long as (1) the Romans were happy and (2) any other threat to the throne was destroyed.

Then one day some Magi show up at Herod’s door, wanting to find the "newborn king." By this time Herod was in his early 70s, his sons were grown, and he knew that his wife didn't just give birth. He immediately saw this as a threat to his and his sons’ throne because he thought that perhaps there was an infant king which the Jews were hiding. So he acted in the only way that a puppet king would: he killed the competition.  But he didn't know exactly where this new king was, so he had all the baby boys killed in a large area, to make sure he got him. 

If the kingship had been in his family for generations, he would have laughed at the Magi. Think of it this way: if a poor English woman gave birth and announced that her son is the newborn king, who would believe her? But Herod became King by going through the back door (the Romans), he was not a real Jew, he was not a real king, and therefore was paranoid, and so had to squash any threats.

©2007, 2012 Mark Nickens

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