Herod The (Not So) Great

Lee Moses

What makes a man great?

Herod the Great was the Roman governor of Judea from 37 until 4 BC. Although he is only mentioned in any detail in one chapter of the Bible (Matt. 2), Herod was a very talented man who accomplished many great things. His is obviously a name signifying greatness. “Herod” was a name applied to his family of rulers, but perhaps not appropriately. Herod means “heroic“; and while some heroic deeds were performed by the family, particularly his father Antipater, the family was more “characterized by craft and knavery rather than by heroism.” Regarding the tag, “the Great,” there have been a number of figures throughout history who have assumed this moniker, yet failed to live up to it. A name alone does not make one great. Clearly, Jesus of Nazareth is the greatest man ever to walk to face of this earth, yet “Jesus the Great” was not the name by which He was commonly known. A brief examination of the political life of Herod will reveal that it requires more than a name and lip service to be great.

Herod was born into a family of power and prestige. His father Antipater had ascended in power through being in the right place at the right time, and choosing the right people with whom to align himself. Antipater was murdered, but he was a man who had in large part obtained the good will both of the Jews and of Rome. A noted first-century historian described Antipater as “a man that had distinguished himself for piety and justice, and love to his country” (Josephus, Antiquities 11:4). Antipater had appointed his son Herod over the region of Galilee when Herod was quite young. When his father Antipater was murdered, Herod’s power was great enough that he was able to avenge his father’s death, but he had learned a trait that would overshadow the rest of his character—mistrust.

Ambition was a key character trait of Herod. He had a great desire to leave his mark upon the world. He also had the talents to match his ambition. He was skilled in the art of combat, and was a shrewd diplomat and negotiator. He would change loyalties and alliances to serve his own interests. Those in Rome took note of the ability he had to maintain order among the Jews, a people known for disdain of outside rulership. Herod was not a Jew, but one of the Idumeans, who had years earlier been conquered by the Jews and forced to proselyte to Judaism. The Idumeans were descendants of Esau, the brother of Jacob/Israel, so there were family ties, so to speak. However, the Jews never completely trusted any who were not of their own, and would call Herod a “half Jew” (behind his back, of course). Herod took steps to try to win the favor of the people over whom he ruled. Of particular note is the effort he put forth to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. When Jesus said that He would raise up the temple in three days (speaking of the temple of his body), those present said, “Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days?” (John 2:1921). The Jews did not think highly of Herod, but his work on the temple left nothing short of a masterpiece. His motivation may not have been entirely pure—it has been suggested that he rebuilt the temple in order to possess the public genealogies held there, that he might destroy the genealogy of the expected Messiah, thus destroying the chance that the Messiah would overthrow his kingdom. His fear of the Messiah, a true “king of the Jews,” is especially seen in Matthew 2. When he heard from “wise men from the east” that the king of the Jews had been born, he made every effort to destroy him, to the point of murdering “all the children that were in Bethlehem…from two years old and under” (Matt. 2:16). At the same time he was rebuilding the holy temple in Jerusalem, Herod was building numerous sites of idolatrous worship. He built a temple in Samaria “out of a desire to make the city more eminent than it had been before, but principally because he contrived that it might at once be for his own security, and a moment of his magnificence” (Antiquities 15:8.5).

Herod’s reign was a murderous one. Being suspicious of nearly all that surrounded him, he had many of those who were closest to him killed. He had ten wives, one of whom was Mariamne. He had married her largely because she was of royal Jewish blood, thereby lending credence to his claim to rule; but he was also greatly attached to her. This did not stop him from having her and their two sons killed, prompting Caesar Augustus to exclaim, “I would rather be Herod’s hog than his son.” Herod also, as he lay on his deathbed, had his son Antipater killed. Knowing that he was very unpopular with the people, as his death was approaching he had the most influential Jews come to him, and imprisoned them all. At his death, they were killed at Herod’s order, that there might be mourning at the time of Herod’s death.

Herod the Great was a man who failed to live up to his name—he was neither “heroic” nor “great.” He achieved many accomplishments, but was completely bereft of morality. There are many people who are respected in today’s society because of their wealth, power, and influence with no regard for their character. They simply have a name that appears great, and they live on this. There are some also who get to be called by the greatest name one on earth could possibly be called—Christian (Isa. 62:2; Acts 11:26; Jas. 2:7; 1 Peter 4:16)—but fail to live up to that great name. Ultimately, it does not matter if one is “great” in the sight of men, but “great in the sight of the Lord” (Luke 1:15).

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