In New Testament, political geography on May 6, 2011 by simonbriercliffe Tagged: , , , , , , ,

The times described in the Bible were dominated by dynasties: not just Abraham but the Pharoahs, the Roman emperors, the Persians and so on. This was true on a regional as well as imperial level of course, hence the Herods (the full family tree shows it well), a family tree to put modern day pretenders like the Kennedys to shame. The title of the post is a bit of a misnomer: there was no one Herod. When the name is given, typically it’s Herod the Great, but his father Antipater is more rightly the founder of the line. Antipater was the Edomite who cosied up to the Romans and secured the title procurator of the Roman province of Judea for himself, and subsequently his descendents.

Kingdoms around Israel, from Wikimedia Commons

Kingdoms around Israel, from Wikimedia Commons

The nation of Edom were the descendents of Esau, brother of Israel, and just like a brotherly relationship, things were always tense between the two. The Roman province of Idumaea was the territory of Edom, as well as most of the OT Ammon and Moab (see Mount Peor), and today is part of Jordan – Petra was a major city of the later Edomites. It took some political manoeuvering worthy of The Wire to combine the two nations, but combine they did.

The most notorious of Antipater’s descendents was Herod the Great. With no little nepotism, at 25 his father made him governor of Galilee, noted for his brutality which was approved by the Romans, but which made him unpopular with the Jewish religious authorities. He eventually took Jerusalem by force from Antigonus and set himself up as basileus, i.e. King of the Jews.

It’s in this context that we first find him in scriptural record, as some magi turn up on his doorstep (this would have been quite some doorstep too, given his tendency towards the megalithic in architectural terms) and ask him where the new king of the Jews was to be found. While he was justifiably bemused at this, he managed to work out where in his kingdom a prophesied king might be, and characteristically killed all the babies he could find (Matthew 2) – this was a charming man.

I was generally under the impression that once conquered, Roman provinces were Roman provinces and that was that. But the story of the Herods was deeply political. Herod the Great died a thoroughly unpleasant death in 4BC (so not long after the slaughter of the innocents) and his hard-won region was split between three of his sons. His first son (by the excellently named Doris), Antipater II, was executed by his dad for attempted patricide in 4BC. His second wife Mariamne had two sons, Alexander and Aristobolus – both executed by Herod in 7BC. Aristobolus’ daughter, Herodias was married off to his brother Herod II (creepy much? her mother was Berenice, daughter of Herod the Great’s sister Salome, making Herodias both granddaughter and twice daughter-in-law to HtG, or if you prefer Herod II’s own neice), another of The Great’s sons (this time by Mariamne II – keeping up?). She went on to have a daughter, Salome, who was the eventual cause of John the Baptist losing his head in Matthew 14.

Palestine after Herod, from Wikimedia Commons

Palestine after Herod, from Wikimedia Commons

As well as marrying another seven times (including a neice and a cousin), Herod had at least 14 children. Herod II scarpered off to Rome after Herodias divorced him, leaving the ‘kingdom’ of Herod the Great to be split between three of his sons. Herod Archelaus became ethnarch of Samaria, Judea and Idumea (bright green on the map) – later his title became king over the combined regions, named Idumaea. This was the Herod of Matthew 2:22, and the reason for Joseph and Mary’s withdrawal to Galilee.

Here, they found another tetrarch and another Herod – this time Herod Antipas, who was given Galilee and Perea in HtG’s final will. His was a far more successful reign than Archelaus’, who was deposed by the emperor Augustus in 6AD – Antipas ruled til AD29 and built cities like Tiberias. Yet he was still, in the words of Jesus, a “fox” (Luke 13:32). He received a telling-off from John the Baptist after marrying Herodias (his sister-in law, who’d just divorced Herod II), then had to have him beheaded after rashly promising to grant any wish to Herodias after her daughter’s sexy dancing. This in turn came back to Jesus, and when Antipas threatened Him, Christ was more than happy to write him off as wicked. It was a long time til they met though – not til Jesus’ trials. After his kangaroo court appearance in front of the priests, Jesus was referred to Pilate who then gladly bounced Him on to Herod when he knew He was from Galilee.

The final Herod was Philip the Tetrarch, or Herod Philip II, who ruled the orange area of Golan, Batanea, Trachonitis and Aurantis. This was Herodias’ first husband, but an otherwise unremarkable man in history. The House of Herod comes back into New Testament history in Acts 12. This is Herod Agrippa, second son of the executed Aristobulus, and very much a persecuter of the early church in the name of Jewishness. He had James put to death, and arrested Peter whilst king of Judea, Samaria, Galilee and Perea. The Herodian curse struck though: this was an arrogant man and he was struck down accordingly.

The final Herod was Agrippa II, the previous Herod’s son. Another man in love with the pomp and ceremony of royalty, according to Acts 25, this Agrippa was nevertheless a reasonable man and gave Paul a fair hearing. Indeed, he would have released him where it not for Paul’s appeal to a higher still authority – this was he who realised that Paul was an innocent, intelligent man and not a raving madman, and who gave due consideration to his words. Yet, he was not persuaded.

So what do we learn from this dynasty, other than that it ranks up there with the most bloodthirsty family histories – the Borgias could have learned a thing or two from the Herods. This was a family for whom adultery, betrayal and exploitation went hand in hand with glitz and glamour and gruesome displays of power. They seem to appear as counterbalances in scripture. Where Herod the Great ruled in great splendour and brutality, the true King of the Jews was born in humility and meekness. When his sons were content to adulterise and indulge their lavish lifestyle, the ascetic John the Baptist had courage to speak out and met an unfair end. When Christ was on trial, all this so-called king could do was interrogate and mock, to no effect. Never really kings in the real sense, no words of a Herod could worry the true King. When Agrippa’s crowd-pleasing machinations butted up against James and Peter, he duly met a sticky end, his pride and pomp thoroughly abased.

When Paul came up against the glam royalty of Agrippa II, the king was made to pause, and it’s this last account that breaks the mould. The Herods were old-time kings: cruel, vengeful and wicked and no doubt Agrippa II was the same (it’s generally accepted that Berenice who was at the court with him was both sister and lover). But there’s hope for everyone who hears the gospel. He heard it not by force or by constraining anyone to talk to him; but was “almost persuaded” by a humble prisoner presenting a reasonable point. There’s many more lessons I’m sure, but that’s an interesting one – doesn’t matter who is preaching or who too, the prerogative lies with God, who’s far more forgiving than we even give Him credit for.


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