Those Herods

When you read the New Testament you find repeated references to rulers called ‘Herod.’  These were actually four generations of the same ruling family – and they were all bad news!  Yet, God used them in order to bring His own Kingdom into the world!

Herod the Great (born about 70 years before Jesus) was the founder of the Herodian dynasty.  This son of a Jewish-Palestinian father and an Arab mother got his start when his influential father got the young man appointed the governor of Galilee.  With help from friends like Anthony and Cleopatra, this shrewd opportunist exhibited a competence and loyalty that endeared him to the Roman overlords and earned him an expanding realm.  Eventually Caesar Augustus designated him King over the united Kingdom of Judea (basically the modern country of Israel).  Under his dynamic rule his kingdom flourished in many respects, but he is most famous for his vast building projects.  Along with lavish palaces, massive fortresses, and the impressive seaport of Caesarea, Herod initiated in 20 BC the renovation and enlargement of the temple in Jerusalem, resulting in the magnificent structure which was the location of so many events of the New Testament.

Herod’s Jewish subjects had a love-hate relationship with him.  On the one hand they looked down on his mixed-race ancestry and despised him for being an enthusiastic tool of the Roman occupiers, yet they also felt a certain pride in the status he earned for their nation.   Always a ruthless ruler, as he aged he became increasingly paranoid and brutal.  He murdered many perceived rivals, including one of his wives and three of his sons, so his massacre of the babies in Bethlehem wasn’t at all out of character (Matthew 2).  When he knew he was near death in 4 BC it is recorded that he gathered a group of prominent Jewish men from around the country and ordered that they be executed as soon as he expired so that there would mourning, rather than joy, among his subjects!  (The order was disregarded.)

Herod Antipas was one of the three Rome-educated sons who each got a third of his kingdom when Herod the Great died.  Antipas was designated the Tetrarch of Galilee where Jesus spent most of His ministry, and is the man who had John the Baptist beheaded at the request of his step-daughter, Salome (Mark 6:14-29). Though Antipas tried to pass himself off as a devout Jew, things like that didn’t help!  When Jesus was brought before Pontius Pilate for trial, Pilate tried to ‘pass the buck’ on rendering a verdict by sending Jesus to Antipas, who happened to be in town, but he passed it right back! (Luke 23:6-12)  Antipas eventually lost his realm to his nephew Agrippa and was sent into exile.

Herod Agrippa I was a grandson of Herod the Great (his father was one of the sons who his grandfather had ordered killed).  He grew up in Rome as a schoolmate and chum of Caligula (the dissolute ‘madman’ who was Rome’s most notorious emperor), and Claudius, who was Caligula’s successor.  Agrippa was a playboy who blew through his money and had to flee Rome to escape his creditors, but thanks to his influential friends, he eventually was named king over the entire realm that his grandfather once ruled.  When he finally arrived in Jerusalem, he endeared himself with the Jewish leaders by his efforts to stamp out a troublesome new sect called “Christians.”  Agrippa’s reign proved short, however, as within three years he expired painfully in what is the only ‘death by worms’ recorded in the Bible (Acts 13:18-23, and also independently corroborated by the Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus).

Herod Agrippa II was 17 years old when his dad died, and was at first given only some minor territories.  Later, he was also given an area around Jerusalem and took up residence there and in Caesarea as the figurehead leader of the Jewish nation.  It was in the latter city, traveling in the company of his notorious sister Bernice (with whom he was said to be having an incestuous affair), that he met with the imprisoned Apostle Paul in AD 58 (Acts 25:13-26:32).  When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70, he retained his titles, but there really wasn’t much left to rule and the dynasty petered out.   The Herods were done, but God’s Kingdom was just getting started!

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