Saturday, January 01, 2011

Herod and Jesus -- Matthew 2

Matthew doesn't tell us a whole lot about the birth of Jesus -- "no room at the inn," the shepherds and angels -- all that comes from Luke. Matthew does, however, locate the birth of Jesus in space and time -- Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the city of David, during the reign of King Herod.

The next thing Matthew tells us is that Magi came from the east to Jerusalem. Why Jerusalem? They were looking for "the one who has been born king of the Jews" (Matthew 2:2), so naturally they went to the capital.

How many magi were there? Tradition says there were three, but I suppose there were several more. For one thing, consider a journey from present-day Iran to Jerusalem; these men would have had a long ways far from civilization. How large a party would you want to have, knowing that you might encounter bands of robbers? Not just three!

Then there's the matter of their political impact: King Herod meets with them and, Matthew tells us "he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him."

Question: How could three strangers from a foreign country shake up a whole city? To me it's more reasonable to suppose that a sizable contingent appeared; we're likely not talking about three wackos stirring up the entire city.

I find it really interesting to consider what Herod does. To find out where the king is to be born, Herod consults priests and legal scholars to ask them where the Christ (note that the magi refer to "born king of the Jews" and Herod equates this with "the Christ").

“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’”

Matthew 2:5-6, quoting Micah 5:2
Herod heard the name of the city but didn't pay enough attention to the rest of the quote. He apparently thought the prophet said about Bethlehem, "out of you will come forth somebody who will get killed before he can become a ruler to shepherd my people Israel."

How silly! How could he think God would get the city right but not the arc of Messiah's life? This guy had some real listening comprehension problems. He reminds me of a lot of other silly people we read about in the Bible, people who apparently never read any Greek tragedies. They think they can outsmart God.

As our pastor said, if we're going to say "Jesus is Lord" we also have to say "Jesus is smart" and that he really does know what he's saying. (By the way, quite a bit of this essay I owe to Pastor John.) Which means that it's best for me to do absolutely everything he says. Which I don't (as 'fessed up here among other places). Which is a way to say Herod also reminds me of me. Not a happy thought.

A recent sermon points out that the phrase "King Herod" is used only in verses 1 and 3; afterwards (seven more times in Matthew 2) he's referred to as simply "Herod"; "Then Herod called" (v.7), "not to go back to Herod" (v.12), "for Herod is going to search for the child" (v.13), etc. It's as if, once he decided to try to kill Messiah, Matthew no longer recognizes Herod as king; he's simply "Herod." Historians call him "Herod the Great" but really he's just Herod the silly.

Back to the Magi for a moment. That the star could lead them to a particular house in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:9-11) suggests to me that the "star" was something in the atmosphere, as even a planetary conjunction would be way too far away to indicate a village, let alone a particular house. They bring Jesus gifts: gold, incense and myrrh. As I understand it, the gifts correspond to the fact that Jesus is king (gold) and God (incense) and sacrifice (myrrh).

The Magi return home by another way and Herod goes bonkers, ordering his troops to kill all boys 2 years old and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding area. Why two years old and under? The Magi told Herod the exact time the star appeared (Matthew 2:7) and Herod could do arithmetic. Exactly how old was Jesus at this time? Well, the Magi saw "the child" rather than "the newborn" -- so probably they didn't come the same night as the shepherds. Luke tells us (Luke 2:39) that Joseph and Mary did everything required by the Law, which means they hung around Bethlehem/Jerusalem forty days at least. Luke doesn't mention the flight to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-14), and I don't know how precise Luke is being when he tells us that they returned (via Egypt maybe?) "when" they had done everything required by the Law. Anyway, Herod's order probably caused (where did I read this?) about two dozen boys to be killed -- Bethlehem was a small village, and even the surrounding area wouldn't include a whole lot of people.

A final note on the phrase "during the time of King Herod" -- this doesn't just refer to the time; it's like "during the McCarthy era" or "the Stalin years" -- it means a particularly dark time. Which it was.

I really recommend the sermon referred to above, particularly if your Christmas wasn't particularly merry.

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