Real People. Real Christmas. Real Intrigue and Danger.

There are some interesting details about the real events behind Christmas. “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him…” (Matthew 2:1-3, NIV)

The Magi, who studied the heavens and knew something about the arrival of a new king of the Jews, came “from the east” to find out about this newly born king… Naturally they went first to the current king in Jerusalem, Herod the Great—a king who had an impressive resume in some ways, but a cruel man who was known for levying high taxes and building the temple. He was in perhaps the last year of his reign, dying from gonorrhea and possibly cancer.

Herod is known for his impressive accomplishments as a builder, and his architectural accomplishments can still be seen today at Caesarea, Masada, and Jerusalem.

real Masada

He had a long, tumultuous reign filled with treachery and murder. He not only executed his wife, Miriamme, but her mother Alexandra as well. He had two of his brother-in-laws killed, and also executed his own sons Alexander and Aristobulus. He was so jealous of his throne that at one point it prompted Augustus to say, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son” (a reference to the fact that the pig had a better chance for survival than a son, since Herod’s household didn’t eat pork).

Matthew’s description of Herod’s reaction to the Magi is intriguing. While there is much to explore about the Magi, it is also interesting to take a closer look at Herod’s role in the nativity. After all, he was at least partly responsible for sending them to Jesus. “Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” (Matthew 2:7-8)

Herod is a somewhat forgotten part of this nativity, but he certainly played a significant role in the birth and early life of Jesus. Matthew says in verse 3 that when the Magi arrived in Jerusalem, “Herod was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” It might make sense that Herod was troubled—he guarded his throne zealously, and certainly did not enjoy having other aspiring kings around. But why was all Jerusalem troubled with him?

Dr. Duane Edward Spencer taught that since Herod was a cruel ruler who was not exactly beloved in Jerusalem, the fact that the city was disturbed along with him at the approach of these men suggested a somewhat larger and more capable party than three men on camels—perhaps a troop of famed Persian cavalry. It makes sense, since a few men carrying valuable gifts would have been easy prey for robbers, and three guys on camels probably wouldn’t make a city tremble.

This is a real story about real people, and it makes sense that men of this stature would not travel without protection, and that Herod and people in Jerusalem would all have their own interpretation of events. Herod tried to twist the Magi to his own ends, asking them to go find this newborn king so he could “worship him”. Like many real politicians before and since, Herod was lying about his true intent. He was a paranoid ruler who was constantly involved in intrigue and questionable choices. (A Herod played a role in Jesus’ birth and in his death. His son, Herod Antipas, carried on the family tradition of making poor choices by marrying his half-brother’s wife, Herodias. She was the one whose daughter danced provocatively for him and then demanded the head of John the Baptist. Definitely soap opera material… Herod Antipas is the same guy who wanted Jesus to perform for him, and who sent him back to Pilate after a very cursory “trial”). But at about the time of Jesus’ birth, Herod the Great sent the Magi to Bethlehem to find Jesus and report back to him. When they didn’t bring him a report, he reacted by doing something that followed his reputation down the corridors of time.

real danger

He killed all the male children in Bethlehem two years of age and under. While he missed Jesus, his cruelty touched many other lives, and his action has always been known as the “Slaughter of the Innocents.” (While scholars have not found a direct reference to this act outside of the Bible, it is certainly in keeping with Herod’s character–the man so jealous of his throne that he killed his own mother-in-law, two sons, and his wife Miriamme, just to mention a few. Executing a few little boys would not have bothered him in the least.) Real people. Real events. Know your history: Jesus was really actually part of it.

The Holidays are twinkling lights
And carolers on snowy nights,
Our Christmas movies on TV and presents underneath the tree.
We think of things we love so much–
The Christmas tree, the gifts and such,
And little children’s shining eyes with every Santa Claus surprise!
But don’t forget, when your stockings and hearts are filled,
The boys in Bethlehem, and the evil king who had them killed.
Traditions are nice, and so are the things we feel–
But don’t forget. Yeah, Christmas just got real.

To buy my latest book, Real People, Real Christmas: Thirty-one Days Discovering the Hidden Treasures of the Christmas Story, go here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1729034918/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o00_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1
For Slaying Giants: Thirty Days with David, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Slaying-Giants-Thirty-Devotions-Ordinary/dp/172568327X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1535814431&sr=8-1&keywords=Slaying+Giants%3A+Thirty+Days+With+David
To buy my book, Beggar’s Bread, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Beggars-Bread-Devotions-Ordinary-Guy/dp/1535457392/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1473336800&sr=8-1&keywords=Beggar%27s+Bread
For the Kindle Edition, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Beggars-Bread-Bo-Jackson-ebook/dp/B01K5Z0NLA/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1473336800&sr=8-2&keywords=Beggar%27s+Bread

 

Masada: A Story of Desperation and Death Before Dishonor

One of the most fascinating places we went to in Israel is the Desert fortress Masada, located about 20 km east of Arad overlooking the Dead Sea. Statistically it is one of Israel’s most popular tourist attractions, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site based on its historical value. It is striking in both its location and its history.

Built by Herod the Great from 37-32 BCE, this remote palace and fortress seems like it would be impregnable. After visiting Israel, one of my most vivid impressions is connected to why the king known for his vindictive paranoia was called “the Great”. But when you take into account all that Herod built and accomplished, I’d have to say he may have been the third greatest King of Israel, after David and Solomon. Certainly his legacy as a builder was unrivaled except perhaps by Solomon. He is famous for the grand scale of the Second Temple, but he also built extensively in Jerusalem and in Judea. He built the port of Caesarea Maritima using huge innovative concrete blocks to create a harbor. He also built the pagan city of Sebaste and eleven remote fortresses such as Masada, Herodium, Alexandra, and Hyrcanium. Each fortress contained a palace where Herod and his family could escape if there was a revolt against him, and contained living quarters, storehouses, bath houses and all the amenities. He died in about 4 BCE, and some of his projects (like the Temple) were finished after his death.  His accomplishments as a builder were impressive, and Masada is still an impressive testimony to that.

During the Jewish rebellion against Roman occupation that led to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD, a group of Jewish zealots took Masada in 66 AD and slaughtered the Roman garrison there. It was one of the earliest acts of rebellion by the zealots and  the beginning of several years of Judean revolt against Rome. The 900 some-odd defenders held Masada for six years, even as Jerusalem was besieged and laid waste. The rebels were able to live on Masada because of the huge cisterns used to catch rainwater during the infrequent storms. We had the opportunity to go down into one of the cisterns, and the sheer scale of it may give you some idea of how well Masada was built and how uniquely it was provisioned to support a group determined to stay in the fortress.

The Romans, busy destroying Jerusalem, were for awhile content to build a wall around the base of the mountain to keep any rebels from escaping. Remnants of their wall and encampments are still visible from above.

But Rome did not preserve its Empire by tolerating rebellion. In 72 AD they laid siege to Masada and over a few months built an earthwork ramp with a gradual grade to take a battering ram to the wall. In the Spring of 73 they completed the access and took as many as 15,000 men to go in against the 960 defenders. The ramp they built is still visible from atop Masada today:

I can’t imagine hating someone so much and being so ruthless that you would commit vast resources and troops to kill men, women and children you had already trapped and contained, but that’s how Rome did business. Imagine being in Masada with your families, watching the hated Romans get closer to your position every day. Imagine feeling hope slip away, and of coming to grips with the certainty that not only were your going to die (which may have at least provided some honor to the men), but you knew your wives and daughters would be brutalized and raped; your children, if spared, would know only a hard life of servitude and slavery. Imagine facing the inevitable, and having to make choices based on those incredibly limited options. When they breached the wall, the Romans found only two women and 5 children alive. Everyone else on the mountain was dead. The women then told how the men, led by Elazar, drew lots to see which of them would perform the ultimate service by killing the others and thus spare them the brutality of rape, torture, and enslavement to the Romans.

Elazar, in his final speech to his fellow zealots, said this: “Since we long ago resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God Himself, Who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind, the time is now come that obliges us to make that resolution true in practice… We were the very first that revolted, and we are the last to fight against them; and I cannot but esteem it as a favor that God has granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom.” The men of Masada exercised their courage to protect their families in the only way they could imagine, and removed them from harm’s way by making the ultimate sacrifice.

Paul may have displayed a bit of that same spirit when he said in Galatians 5:1, “Stand fast, therefore in the liberty with which Christ has made you free, and be not entangled again with the yolk of bondage.” He was talking about being totally committed to freedom in Christ instead of walking in legalism, but his intensity of commitment is the same, and he is exhorting us to exercise Grace with the same sense of desperate devotion later shown by the rebels. When it comes to sin, don’t give in.

I will remember Masada, with its palace and its dusty walls and its deep cisterns; but I will also remember the rebels who died there, proud and free, honor intact.

 

To buy my book, Beggar’s Bread, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Beggars-Bread-Devotions-Ordinary-Guy/dp/1535457392/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1473336800&sr=8-1&keywords=Beggar%27s+Bread
For the Kindle Edition, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Beggars-Bread-Bo-Jackson-ebook/dp/B01K5Z0NLA/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1473336800&sr=8-2&keywords=Beggar%27s+Bread