H is for Herod

H is for Herod. We remember him as the evil King of the Jews who tried to coerce the Magi into telling him the location of the Christ-child. Matthew’s Gospel says:

“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, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi…. 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…  So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene.” “ (Matthew 2:16-23, excerpted)

The name Herod is a short-hand way of pointing to a villain. I remember a James Taylor song in which he used the images of the Magi and Herod as poetic archetypes for heroes, and for the evil they face. He sang:

“But Herod’s always out there

He’s got our cards on file

Its a lead pipe cinch,

if we give an inch

Old Herod likes to take a mile” (James Taylor, Home by another way)

Stories need a villain to give the hero someone to oppose, and to further the plot. (Can you imagine how tedious it would be to watch a detective show in which there wasn’t actually a crime,  a “bad guy” to catch? The villain gives the story the necessary conflict, and drama.)

Matthew tells us Herod ordered the death of all boys in Bethlehem under the age of two, in the same way that Pharaoh ordered the death of all the Hebrew males who were born in the time of Moses. Moses escapes death when he is discovered in his hiding place, floating in a basket amongst the rushes. He is adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter, and raised to be a Prince of Egypt. Moses grows up to be a leader of his people in their struggle against slavery.

Matthew’s Gospel often draws parallels between Jesus, and important figures in the religious history of the Jewish people. It is part of how he does his theological work, to identify Jesus as the culmination of thousands of years of “salvation history”. (Being like Moses is poetic short-hand for saying Jesus has been sent to save his people.) Jesus is another miracle child who narrowly escapes death.

There is ample evidence that Herod, who was appointed by Rome as “King of Judea” was a genuine villain. Sources outside the Bible document a history of abuse of power, of murder, and mental instability. However, there is no evidence the “slaughter of the innocents” ever happened. If it didn’t, it is possible Matthew crafted the story to suit his theological purposes, to say something about Jesus. It is also possible that Matthew needed this element in the nativity story to help him resolve another plot issue, which I can say more about when we get to N is for Nazareth. (Advent does involve waiting!)

The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering from Rev. Darrow Woods, minister at Trinity United Church in Oakville, Ontario. Each day a different letter is a jumping off place for a reflection.



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