Friday, May 27, 2022

Herod the Great:

How a Non-Jew Became King of the Jews


Scattered through the Bible we find several references to Herod, almost as if they all refer to one ruler. But research identifies at least three related individuals. In this post, we'll focus on Herod I (c. 72—4 BC or 1 AD). But first, we'll take a look at a major antagonistic force in his life, the Hasmonean Dynasty.


Who Were The Hasmoneans?

Ancient Medallion Salome Alexandra

Beginning around 143 BC, descendants of the fighting Maccabee family founded a ruling dynasty of ancient Judea known as the Hasmoneans, derived from an ancestor, Hasmoneus. 

Fast-forward several generations to Salome Alexandra, a beloved Hasmonean queen who ruled Judea for nine peaceful years (76-65 BC.) Her death, however, put her two sons in conflict. Hyrcanus II had a peaceable but timid nature. His ambitious younger brother, Aristobulus, assembled an army of mercenaries and marched on Jerusalem intent on dethroning his brother. 

After several battles, the younger brother captured Jerusalem. Hyrcanus conceded, and the brothers came to a peaceful solution. Hyrcanus would be the high priest and Aristobulus king. The Hasmonean brothers might have ruled cooperatively, if not for Antipater the Idumean.


Who was Antipater?


Antipater shows Caesar his scars.
Wiki Commons
Antipater, the satrap of Idumea (formerly Edom), spotted an opportunity to gain power by allying himself with the more controllable brother, by telling Hyrcanus his brother planned to have him assassinated. Antipater then suggested they ask the Nabateans for help.


Conflicts between the Hasmonean brothers resumed and escalated until Antipater aligned Hyrcanus with the Romans. As a favor to Antipater, Caesar appointed Hyrcanus as Ethnarch of Judea in 47 BC.

Herod's Rise to Power


But the Jews resented Rome and Antipater, who had brokered the conflicts that delivered Judea to Rome. They regarded Antipater as a nominal Jew, an “Ishmaelite” who had only reluctantly converted to Judaism. Despite their distaste, Antipater's influence continued to grow, and he named two of his sons governor, Phasael and Herod.


One of Herod's first official acts further alienated him from his constituents. He captured a band of Jewish dissenters and, wanting to please Caesar, executed them without a trial, in blatant disregard of Jewish Law. This increased Jewish distrust of the "Idumean usurpers." Judean leaders and weeping mothers of the slain finally convinced Hyrcanus to summon Herod before the Council. 


Defiant, he appeared before the court clad, not in black as was customary, but in purple and surrounded by armed escort. He offered no excuse but proffered a letter from Caesar threatening Hyrcanus with dire consequences were Herod not cleared of charges.


Shemaya, President of the Council said, "Is it not the intention of the accused to put us to death if we pronounce him guilty? And yet I must blame him less than the king and you, who suffer such contempt to be cast upon the Law. Know then, that he, before whom you are all trembling, will one day deliver you to the sword of the executioner."


Herod emerged unscathed and continued to advance in Rome's favor by promptly paying war taxes and sending Judean soldiers to support Rome during periods of unrest.


Murders, Marriage, and War


Prise de Jerusalem par Herod le Grande
Public Domain via WikiCommons
Like his father, Herod displayed shrewdness in political maneuvers. The flip side of his perspicacity caused him to suspect everyone, even family members, of treachery. His suspicions were not always unfounded. Antipater was assassinated by a man seeking the Idumean's influential position. But Herod quickly avenged his father's death and stepped into his shoes. Herod subsequently quelled a revolt against Rome and Hyrcanus gave his beautiful granddaughter, Mariamne, as a prize. Marriage to the popular Hasmonean princess further solidified Herod's position, but he also loved her—obsessively.


After the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC, the Jewish Nationalist Party met with the victor Antony, plotting to end Herod's rule. But Herod reminded Antony how his father, Antipater, had supported Antony in eastern battles. Hyrcanus added his support, and Antony ratified Herod's appointments in Judea.


Overcoming Upheavals and Eliminating Rivals


In 40 BC, a Parthenian attack placed the Hasmonean Antigonus back on the throne of Palestine. Herod and his family escaped to the fortress of Masada. Leaving them there, he sought help from Cleopatra. When she only offered a generalship in her army, he fled to Rome and appealed to the Senate, where his skillful diplomacy won over another Roman—Octavianus. 


Herod was promised the throne and given a small army, but two generals supposedly supporting him had been bribed by Antigonus, so he was unsuccessful at first. He returned in 37 BC with a larger Roman force and laid siege to Jerusalem.


When Jerusalem fell, Herod convinced Antony to execute the Hasmonean Antigonus, along with forty-five prominent supporters. To fill Herod's empty treasury, their estates were confiscated and their bodies shook to loose hidden gold from their shrouds.


The Murder of Aristobulus
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
During his interim rule, Antigonus had sliced off the ears of his elder brother Hyrcanus, this mutilation disqualifying him from returning to the high priesthood. Needing a new high priest, Herod chose an unknown Babylonian Jew. Herod's mother-in-law, Alexandra, thought her son, Aristobulus, entitled to the office. She complained to her friend Cleopatra, sending her a portrait of the youth. Antony, who was rumored to enjoy both men and women, asked for Aristobulus to visit. Herod feared Antony's influence could make his handsome Hasmonean brother-in-law a rival, so he quickly named Aristobulus high priest.


But when young Aristobulus appeared in his priestly robes, he was enthusiastically cheered by the Jews. Now sure that Aristobulus presented a threat, Herod bribed several young men to drown Mariamne's brother in the baths, making it appear a foolish drunken accident. Though Herod professed grief, his mother-in-law was not fooled. She wrote Cleopatra again, who told Antony, who summoned Herod.


Jealousy and Obsession


When Herod left Jerusalem, Herod ordered his Uncle Joseph to kill Mariamne should he die in Egypt, "so they might be together in the afterlife." Joseph let the plot slip to Mariamne, later confessing the gaffe to his wife, Salome. Herod’s sister saw means of ridding herself of a husband she had tired of and revenging herself on the woman who often taunted Salome about Idumean ancestry. 


When Herod returned, again having talked his way out of a tricky situation, Salome told Herod that Mariamne and Joseph had committed adultery in his absence. At first, Herod ignored the charge, but when Mariamne accused Herod of wanting her dead, he concluded Joseph must have revealed the plot during a moment of passion. He executed his uncle. Though Mariamne was allowed to live, seeds of distrust were sown all around.


Later, a civil war erupted between Herod's friend Antony and Octavius. When Octavius prevailed, Herod feared execution because of his friendship with Antony. 


Herod decided to meet Octavius in Rhodes, Herod decided to ensure no Hasmonean heir could supplant his children. In an eerily repetitive incident, he ordered Sohemus, to guard Mariamne and her mother, and slay them both should he not return. Then he accused the aging Hyrcanus of treachery and had him executed.


Mariamne Leaving the Judgment Seat of Herod
John William Waterhouse,
Public Domain via WikiMedia Commons
Despite his concerns, Herod convinced Octavius that friendship would benefit him as it had Antony. Herod returned triumphant, expecting marital bliss. But Mariamne angrily (and accurately) accused him of plotting her death and murdering her brother and grandfather. Salome again charged Mariamne with adultery, this time with hapless Sohemus, who was instantly beheaded. Still in a rage, Herod sent his wife before a privy council, which judged, condemned, and executed her.


Almost immediately regretful after Mariamne’s death, Herod fell prey to sickness. He called for his wife with loud sobs and tears. He even had her body embalmed in honey, so he might keep her near him. His doctors feared for his life—and his sanity.


Next month: Some good and more of the bad in the Herodian dynasty.

For further reading:
  • Project Gutenberg's History of the Jews, Vol. II (of 6), by Heinrich Graetz, Chapters 1-3 
  • New Testament History by F. F. Bruce, Chapters 1-5
  • Life in Year One by Scott Korb, Chapter 1

Biblical fiction that focuses on this history:
  • Jerusalem's Queen and King's Shadow, both by Angela Hunt

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Aban yearns to join the priesthood of Ba'al, unlock the power of the rain god, and hear the deity's voice. But first, he must survive a perilous initiation ceremony. 

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting! My goodness.....the basis for a bad soap opera, for sure!!