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The Magi’s Provocation of King Herod

Arriving in Jerusalem, the Magi had been traveling on a month’s long quest to find a newborn King of the Jews.[1] All they knew, he was expected to be somewhere in Judea. It made perfect sense to start in Jerusalem with the King of Judea – Herod.

Immediately the Magi gained direct access to the King, their reputation as Magi making that possible. First words spoken by the Magi to Herod in Matthew’s Nativity account set the stage in the palace:

MT 2:2Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?(NASB, NKJV)

No doubt, it was shocking news to the reigning king who knew nothing about this royal birth. After all, this child certainly was not Herod’s son. The question assumes two facts – the child is predestined to be the King of the Jews and he has already been born. Qualifying their revelation, the Magi explained how they knew this to be true saying:

MT 2:2For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship him.(NKJV)

Now the second shock wave – not the star; no, it was the fact that they came to worship this newborn King of the Jews! No one worshiped the great Herod, yet these Magi traveled hundreds of miles from a foreign land emphasizing their personal conviction – what child would be worthy of such worship? The Magi left the palace without getting an answer.

Stirring the pot tends to cause people to act in peculiar ways. The Magi certainly shook things up with their declaration which undoubtedly also got the attention of everyone else in the palace.  Herod and all of Jerusalem were “troubled” by the news, translated from Matthew’s Greek text word tarasso meaning “to stir or agitate (roil water).”[2]

Throughout history palaces of kings and queens have been notoriously unable to hold their secrets. Servants came from among the general population where they still had family and friends. Many times it was the royal family members who could not keep things to themselves – good gossip is just too hard to keep a secret. Herod’s family was scandalously known for their loose lips.[3]

A newborn king of the Jews – who was the father if not from the House of Herod?  A child worthy of worship by Magi?! Now this was newsworthy! It must have been the hottest topic of conversation in Jerusalem.

Herod was widely hated so the news undoubtedly raised hopes, yet at the same time, it was just as troubling – would the new king be worse than Herod or hopefully a good king? Either way, it would be years before he would begin his reign.

For any king, especially with the personality profile of Herod this whole affair, true or not, would be an embarrassment and no king should ever be embarrassed. As the story unfolds, the King came to quickly view this child’s birth as a threat that must be dealt with such as Herod had done many times before using whatever means necessary.[4]

Processing in his mind the Magi’s alarming news, after they left the palace the King immediately assembled “all the chief priests and scribes of the people.”[5] Not just a select few, but all of the Jewish religious experts – the King was leaving no stone unturned as was his reputation.

Herod made it clear he believed the Magi’s proclamation by asking the chief priests and scribes to determine “where the Christ (Messiah) was to be born.”[6] The King specifically asked “where” – not ifChristos was to be born using the specific Greek word for Messiah. Their consensus response: “In Bethlehem of Judea” citing the prophecy of Micah 5:2.[7]

Up to this point, the actual appearance of the star witnessed by the Magi astronomers had been only incidental information. Had the star been the most attention-getting news from the Magi, a cynical Herod would have been expected to question it, even scoff at it – he didn’t. It was a detail; however, that did not pass his attention.

Matthew’s account does not say Herod was unaware of the star event – it can only be said that he did not know the exact date. Events in the sky would likely have been a relatively petty matter to the King prior the Magi’s visit, especially considering his bigger political problems in the kingdom, with Rome, and his scheming family affairs.

Upon hearing of Micah’s prophecy from the Jewish religious experts, his focus changed. No star was mentioned in Micah’s prophecy nor recorded in the response by the chief priests and scribes although as religious experts they were likely fully aware of Balaam’s prophecy of a star coming forth from Jacob signifying a ruler of Israel.[8] Maybe they mentioned this to Herod, maybe not.

One thing is for certain, Herod had a new fixation:  when did this star appear? There could be only one reason why it was now important – knowing when the star appeared would establish a timeline.

Summoning the Magi back to the palace, Herod wanted this second meeting to be in secret. Since the word was out all over Jerusalem about the Magi’s initial visit to the palace, why did Herod want their next meeting to be secret? It strongly suggests the King had something to hide.

Herod now possessed two details of interest to the Magi – Micah’s prophecy corroborating the birth of a Jewish ruler and the general location of Bethlehem where he could be found. This information would serve as leverage to learn when the star had appeared.

One other thing… Herod wanted the Magi to report back to him with the exact location of the child under the pretense that he, too, of course could worship him. But Herod worshiped no one or thing.

In Bethlehem, the Magi found Jesus and worshiped him offering gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Duped by the Magi who went back to their homes by avoiding Jerusalem, the enraged and paranoid King believed he still had a threat that must be eliminated. Herod ordered all the children 2 years and younger to be killed in the district of Bethlehem based on the timing of the star’s first appearance learned from the Magi.

Hard to believe anyone could be this evil?  This is the same King who, among many murders, killed a chief priest, his second wife, her grandfather and her two sons who were strangled, and would soon execute his firstborn son by his first wife.[9] Moreover, from his death bed he would summon all the principal men of his kingdom to Jericho, lock them in the hippodrome, and give orders to have them killed so as to deny them the opportunity to gloat over his death.[10]

Does Herod’s provocation by the Magi’s declaration ring true that the Messiah, King of the Jews, had been born in Bethlehem?

REFERENCES:

[1] “Trade between the Romans and the Empires of Asia.” 2000. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.  <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/silk/hd_silk.htm>  “Major Trade Routes of 2nd Century BCE – 1st Century CE.” Smithsonian. Map.  n.d. 2016. <http://americanhistory.si.edu/numismatics/parthia/frames/pamaec.htm>  
[2] Net.bible.org. Matthew 2:2 Greek text. <http://classic.net.bible.org/verse.php?book=Mat&chapter=2&verse=2> Strong, James, LL.D., S.T.D.  The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. “tarasso <5015>”  Thomas Nelson, Inc. 1990.
[3] Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews. Book XV, Ch.VII-VIII; Book XVI, Ch. VIII, XI, IX, XIII, XVI. Book XVII, Ch. I, V. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Ch. XVIII, XXII, XXIV, XXXI, XXXIII. The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
[4] Josephus. Antiquities. Book V, Ch. 1; Book XV, Ch. 1, 3, 6, 7; Book XVI, Ch.VII, VIII, X; Book XVII, Ch. IV, VI.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Ch. XXVI, XXII, XXIV, XXVI, XXX, XXXI. “Herod the Great.” 2017. Livius.org. <http://www.livius.org/articles/person/herod-the-great
[5] Matthew 2:4. NRSV, NKJV, NASB.
[6] NET, NIV, NASB, NRSV, NKJV.
[7] Matthew 2:5. NET, NIV, NASB, NRSV, NKJV.
[8] Maimonides, Moses. Mishneh Torah. “The Law Concerning Moshiach.”  Kesser.org. n.d. <http://www.kesser.org/moshiach/rambam.html#SIE>   Rich, Tracey R.  “Mashiach: The Messiah.” Judaism101. 2011. <http://www.jewfaq.org/mashiach.htm
[9] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Ch. III-VII, IX, XIII, XVI; Book XVI, Ch. XI; Book XVII, Ch. IX.
Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXII, XXVII, XXXIII.
[10] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Ch. VI.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Ch. XXXIII.

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