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King Herod fails to fool the Three Wise Men

Posted in Christmas, Religion on Friday, 30 September 2011

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This edited article about Christmas originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 829 published on 3 December 1977.

The Magi, picture, image, illustration

The Three Wise Men by Collier

The great palace of King Herod, with its three lofty towers, dominated the west side of Jerusalem. It was not only a royal residence and fortress, but a busy seat of government. There was a constant coming and going of officials, messengers and ordinary citizens seeking some royal favour.

Visitors from other lands were common enough, too. So it came as no surprise to the king when a court chamberlain announced that three distinguished travellers from Persia, many days’ journey to the east, urgently sought audience with him.

Herod readily agreed to see them. To tell the truth, he was happier with foreigners than with his own Jewish subjects. He found the latter a stubborn and ungrateful people. Since becoming king of Judaea, he had given the country over 30 years of relative peace and order, apart from a few rebellious outbreaks rapidly quelled by his foreign mercenary soldiers. He had organised an efficient system of government; he had spent vast sums on rebuilding towns, and building new ones.

Above all it was he who had been responsible for the rebuilding of the Temple on a far larger and more imposing scale than ever before. Faced with white marble and sheet gold, the new Temple, gleaming in the sunlight, presented a magnificent spectacle, visible for many miles.

Yet even this had not softened the hostility of the priests and religious leaders. To them Herod, an Edomite by birth, was a foreigner, despite his conversion to their faith. Even worse, in their eyes, was the fact that he had been placed on the throne by the hated Romans, under whose heel the country now lay.

For the mass of ordinary folk, what mattered more was the added burden of taxation that Herod’s reign had brought. They were taxed three times over: for the traditional contributions to the church, for Herod’s royal coffers – and finally for the Imperial treasury at Rome.

Herod knew that fresh discontent would be brewing now that Augustus, Rome’s new master, was seeking new ways to extract money from his subjects. To assist in these measures a decree had gone out that a complete census should be carried out of all subject populations, including that of Judaea.

During most of his reign, Herod had proved an able, if rather extravagant, governor, but a streak of morbid suspicion and cruelty had grown more evident as age and ill-health overtook him. He was now in his mid-sixties, and a painful disease was beginning to affect his mind.

He had come to suspect disloyalty even among those closest to him. One of his wives and his eldest son were among those who were executed on the flimsiest evidence.

Now the king was glad to forget such grim matters for a time to receive the three visitors who had travelled so far to see him. Their rich attire, their courtly manners and imposing bearing at once aroused his interest. When he heard what they had to say, his feelings went far beyond mere interest.

The Persians explained that they were “Magi”, men who studied the stars and heavenly bodies and were learned in the lore of astrology. They had observed in the sky a strange star, and their reading of ancient writings had convinced them that the star’s appearance heralded the birth of the marvellous child who was one day to be “King of the Jews”.

They had come to seek Herod’s help in finding the child, that they might pay homage to him.

A new “King of the Jews”? At once Herod’s darkest fears were aroused. He concealed his feelings, and begged the three strangers to wait, promising them an early answer.

Herod knew well of the ancient prophecy that a Messiah would one day be born to lead the Jewish nation to liberty and salvation. Could it be true that this mystical event had come to pass? There had been “false messiahs” in the past; but even false messiahs could cause a great deal of trouble.

He sent word to the Temple, summoning the chief priests and scribes to the palace. Where, he asked them, was it prophesied that the Messiah, the Heaven-sent leader of the Jews, would be born?

The answer came without hesitation. The prophecy was clear enough. The Messiah would be a descendant of King David, and would be born at Bethlehem. To Herod it must have sounded an unlikely place – a humble township a few kilometres to the south of Jerusalem. But, if that was what the prophecy said, he could not take any chances.

He called the Magi once more to his audience chamber, and told them to seek the infant in Bethlehem. He insisted, too, that, when they had found him, they should return to Jerusalem and tell Herod, so that he might “come and worship him also.”

The Persians went on their way. It was the last that Herod was to see of them.

As the months passed, the thoughts of the sick and brooding monarch must often have returned to the strange visit of the lordly astrologers from the East. The fact that they had not come back only served to increase his suspicions.

Other factors were driving the king close to madness. His illness was growing rapidly worse, and there were increasing signs of rebellious stirrings among his subjects. Meanwhile, from distant Rome, came rumours that Augustus was no longer pleased with the way Judaea was ruled.

Nothing more had been heard of the supposed birth of a Messiah, but Herod’s mind continued to dwell on this possible threat to him and his heirs. He could see only one solution.

Herod sent for the commander of the Jerusalem garrison. At least he could rely on his soldiers, well-paid professionals from far-off countries such as Thrace, Gaul or Germany.

His orders were precise. A detachment of troops was to be despatched at once to Bethlehem. Every male child born in the town or its neighbourhood within the period indicated by the predictions of the Magi was to be seized and killed.

His troops marched away to carry out his orders. To them it was just another duty: but Herod had ensured that his name would always be remembered with horror.

Yet he was never to know whether his command had achieved its purpose, or if the infant “King of the Jews” had escaped the soldiers’ swords. Within a few months the king whom some called Herod the Great had himself succumbed to his disease, and died a painful death.

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