Summary: Why is there evil?
Who Could Do such a Thing?
This passage is certainly one of the most troubling in the New Testament. There are two parts to this passage. The one is how God warned Joseph to flee Bethlehem and later warns him not to come back there from Egypt because of Archelaus Herod’s son, but rather go to Nazareth. This is the easy part, which I have dealt with in a sermon in this archive called “Joseph the Dreamer.” It is the other part of this story which is particularly painful. We as ministers are charged to preach the full counsel of God contained in the Scripture. It would be easy to pass over Herod’s slaughter of the innocent children in Bethlehem. But this is the word of God also, so we must answer to it.
Herod the Great would be the poster child for an evil genius. He had for many years ruled over the Jews, even though he was not Jewish. He was a classic politician. He at first sided with Marc Anthony against Augustus in the power struggle and civil war in the Roman Empire. But he switched sides at an opportune time to Augustus. As Augustus defeated Marc Anthony in the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C., it kept Herod’s head on his body as well as provided for his promotion as King of the Jews. The Romans often ruled through puppet kings raised up from the local population. It mattered not to Augustus that Herod was a descendant of Esau rather than Jacob. As long as he could keep the peace and keep the tax revenue coming in, all was well. Augustus knew well of the slimy reputation of Herod, but he was useful slime.
Herod realized that his continuing rule depended upon two factors. He needed to keep Rome happy and he needed to keep the Jews happy. Herod was quite a builder. Besides building many palaces like to Herodian and Masada for himself, he built a temple to Jupiter on the roan to Damascus, in which his patron Caesar Augustus was also honored. He built a magnificent port which he called Caesarea after Caesar. Cities were built, and Herod tried to Romanize Palestine. He wanted to brig “civilization” to the Jews like the Greeks before him.
Many of the Jewish people were not happy with Romanization, and this was dangerous. Herod had at all costs to keep them pacified. One of the ways he did this was to overhaul and essentially rebuild the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. The second temple was far inferior to the one built during the days of Solomon. Herod wanted the new Temple to be glorious. In many respects it was a monument to Herod’s glory, rather than Yahweh. It was one of the greatest building projects of the ancient world.
Herod had many wives, but he thought he would legitimatize his reign over the Jews by marrying the daughter of th High Priest. He had two sons by this marriage. But here is where the evil part of his genius came out. Herod would by modern standards have been called mentally ill. He was paranoid and fearful about his grip on power. He was afraid of being deposed and replaced by one of these two sons. So he had them killed as well as his Jewish wife whom he loved. Herod’s actions became more bizarre as he got older. He even gave orders for many prominent Jews to be killed on the day he died so that people would mourn his death. So far as we know, this was not carried out. So when we hear of what Herod did to these young boys in Jerusalem, it was true to his character. As Bethlehem was fairly small and Herod’s atrocities so great, the massacre of the innocents flew almost under the radar, unless, of course, one was the parents of these children.
Herod had heard from the Magi that a rival to his throne had been born. They had come to Jerusalem and had assumed that the great king would have been born in a great city. So they started asking questions. Many of the Jews did not want to upset the apple cart in Jerusalem, so they were troubled when the Magi started asking questions. Herod soon found out about it and pretended sincere interest in this newborn king. He listened carefully to them and gave instruction to come back with the location of the child in Bethlehem. But God warned the Magi not to return to Herod, and Joseph was warned to take Mary and Jesus with him to Egypt. Herod was mocked.
So Herod acted according to his evil character. He sent soldiers to kill every male child in the city two years and younger. He wanted to make sure that the rival to his throne was killed, and if a few peasant boys had to die in the process, it was no matter to him. Only a person who is possessed could do such a thing. He who killed his own children thought nothing of killing someone else’s children.