“The little details aren’t always so little in their impact.”
That was the end of my previous piece, “Little Details That Matter.”
I want to share more examples. However, they’re a bit more involved (okay, a lot more involved) than the previous ones on Ruth and The Mercenary Levite and the Tribe of Dan. So, I decided to have mercy on you and offer up the next two in separate installments. Fair enough? Good.
Okay, here we go. Even though I’m going to share a bunch of history details, there is really only one important detail. That won’t come until the end.
Stop it! Don’t cheat! You can’t start at the end, you’ll spoil the surprise. Read through from the top to enjoy it all.
Herod’s Bethlehem Baby Boy Killing Spree (Matthew 2:16). Why did King Herod go on his baby boy killing spree in Bethlehem? Spoiler alert! Because the Bible shows it clearly. He was king of Judea and wanted to destroy any contenders to the throne. But is that the whole story?
The answer is part of the bigger question, “How did Herod become Herod the Great, King of Judea?” As usual, there’s some backstory I need to share. Don’t worry, we’ll get there.
586 B.C. About 580 years before Jesus, God allowed the Babylonian empire to conquer the Southern Kingdom of Judah because they turned their back on Him. Their prophesied 70-year exilic time-out in Babylon was a punishment for their rampant idolatry (Jeremiah 25).
After their exile, the Jews returned to their land when Babylon fell and the Medo-Persian King Cyrus issued his decree of return (Chronicles 36:22-23). Some Jews returned and some didn’t according to the books of Nehemiah, Ezra, and history. Many Jews were content to remain in the Babylon region. Some of the Jews relocated “to other major cities in the eastern Mediterranean world.” (Source) The Jews who returned to the land of Judah established themselves as a Persian satrapy. Me: “I’ll take ancient Percian empire polity for $1,000, Alex.” Alex Trebec: “This isa semi-autonomous administrative province under the Medo-Persian protectorate.” Me: “What is a satrapy?” Alex: “Correct.” (Source)
333 B.C. About two hundred years after King Cyrus’ decree, 23-year-old Alexander the Great rocketed from Greece across the Fertile Crescent and quickly conquered Judah along with the rest of the Persian empire. Quite the over-achiever, eh? Ten years later, Alexander kicked the bucket and his empire split into 4 parts, run by three generals. Oh well, easy come, easy go!
After a series of battles with the divided Greek empire (from whence comes the events of Hanukkah in 164 B.C.), the major star of the Jewish wars against the Greeks, Judah the Maccabee, struck a treaty with the rising star of the Mediterranean – Rome (161 B.C.). The Jews won autonomy under Greece in 147 B.C. and in 127 B.C they became an independent people once again.
Are you still tracking with me?
40 B.C. For the next eighty years, the Jews had their own land with their own kings. Meanwhile, Rome was growing in power. In 63 B.C. Rome was strong enough to take control of the land of Judah and in 40 B.C. Rome put an end to Jewish self-rule. Important safety tip: Be careful with whom you make alliances.
37 B.C. But controlling the land of Judah presented a problem for Rome. Now that the Jewish kings were dethroned, who was going to oversee Roman interests in the area? Rome needed a vassal-king to serve as their surrogate stooge. In 37 B.C. soon-to-be-dictator Julius Caesar appointed a king to govern the country, Herod, “the son of an Idumean who had been forced to convert to Judaism.” (Source)
See? I told you we’d get there!
Herod went on to become a great builder and a conniving, suspicious, vicious ruler. Yeah, he was Rome’s king over the Roman province of Judea, but he never won the hearts and minds of the Jewish populous. Because he wasn’t ethnically Jewish by background, he often sparred with the Pharisee party, who were the powerbrokers in Judea.
Herod was an Idumean, an Arab people group who lived in the southern desert region of the land of Israel. But during the time of the recent Jewish kings (about 100 B.C.), the Idumeans were conquered and forced to convert to Judaism, and everyone knows that forced conversions are genuine conversions, right?
As an Idumean, Herod favored his people to the south because they were his base of authority. Can’t you just feel the tension? The Jews in the Roman province of Judea had a king over them who was a forced convert who held them in disdain. The Jews could do nothing about it because it would bring the wrath of both Herod and Rome down on them.
Without their trust and support, King Herod had to resort to political machinations and brute force to get his way. “He established an enormous secret police force, brutally killed anyone suspected of plotting against him, and created Roman peace by slaughtering all dissidents.” (Ibid.)
What a Sweet-heart!
Now we know from whence Herod the Great came, the same Herod who was in power when word came to him of a newborn baby who was prophesied to be the real Jewish King. You got it! A contender for his throne. This is the first reason why Herod sought to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem. It was to secure his power.
But all those historical details are not the most important one. Now to the other part of our back story.
2006 B.C. Let’s step into our Bible way-back machine to the days of Isaac and Rebecca. Our story begins with the birth of twin boys – Esau and Jacob. Esau was born first with Jacob appearing right after him because Jacob was gripping Esau’s heel. The Lord told Rebecca, “Two nations are in your womb; two peoples will come from you and be separated. One people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23).
When Esau was born, he had a very ruddy complexion, so they knick-named him Edom, meaning “red.” Yes, Esau the Red. He beat the famous Viking explorer, Eric the Red, to the punch by 2,750 years!
Anyway, since he was the first son out of the womb, Esau was to have firstborn rights. As I’ve written before, firstborns are to “rule the family” when dad dies. But the Lord’s word to Rebecca during her pregnancy was that the older (Esau) would serve the younger (Jacob). That means despite Esau being firstborn, Jacob was destined by God to become the firstborn and thus ruler of the family. How did the firstborn “switch” occur?
When the boys were grown, Esau came in from the field and he was famished! In a foolish move, he bartered away his firstborn status to Jacob in exchange for Jacob’s lunch. Keep in mind that this was no schoolyard “apple for a cookie” trade. This trade set great and terrible events in motion.
By becoming Isaac’s firstborn son in God’s eyes, Jacob’s offspring had the firstborn right to rule the family among other responsibilities. That included his older twin Esau. Not long after the foolish barter event, Jacob was able to finagle the father’s firstborn blessing to go with his firstborn status. This locked his firstborn status into place.
Oh, did I mention Esau had a fiery temper?
When Esau realized what Jacob had done, he plotted to kill Jacob to get all the firstborn stuff back (Genesis 27:41). In brief, Jacob fled the country and returned 27 years later. By that time, Esau has cooled off and established his own family (Genesis 33). As their patriarch, Esau (Edom/”Red”) was the head of the Esau-ites, or what the Bible calls, the Edomites.
Sure, Esau told Jacob it was all good, but was it? No hard feelings? Really?
Jacob (renamed Israel) settled in the center of Canaan. Esau settled south and west of the Dead Sea. His offspring began the Edomite kingdom.
Time passed and the Israelites went through their Egyptian sojourn and Exodus. On the way to Canaan, the Israelites needed to pass through Edomite territory. Lo and behold, the Edomites refused hospitality to their brethren and forced them away with a heavily armed contingent. Well, well. Maybe Esau’s anger against Jacob hadn’t subsided!
Israel’s kings vs. Edom’s kings. Over the next 1,500 years, Israel fought with Edom and vice versa. Under King David, the Israelites subjected the Edomites in a fulfillment of “Two nations are in your womb; two peoples will come from you and be separated. One people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23). Under the later kings of Judah, Edom broke away to become independent of Judah.
586 B.C. When the Babylonian army blitzkrieged in to defeat and exile the Israelites, who was standing there callously refusing aid and comfort? Who even attacked the Israelites in the hope of claiming their land? The Edomites. For that, God prophesied the Edomites’ downfall (the Book of Obadiah).
From the Babylonian Exile (586 B.C.) to Jesus’ birth (c. 4 B.C.), the Edomites were gradually pushed west by Arab kingdoms east of Edom into the southern desert of Israel where they became…
King Herod was of Edomite lineage, i.e. a descendant of Esau, the same Esau who spurned his birthright of family leadership, lost the blessing, and was never the son through whom the covenant line would not pass. Herod may have been forcibly converted to the faith of the “other side of the family,” but his family loyalties were to Esau’s line. Through Rome’s patronage, Herod the Great was granted rule over the Jews, thus causing “Esau” to rule over “Jacob.”
But then he’s informed by Jews from the East (likely from the Babylonian Jewish community) of a star signaling the birth of a true king of Israel (Jacob), a descendant of Judah (Genesis 49:10, Numbers 24:17), of David’s lineage, and a closer claimant to whom the throne of Israel belonged, not the Edomite/Idumean/Esau usurper occupying it.
Herod not only wanted the contender for his throne eliminated, but according to this ONE family detail, Herod unknowingly worked to nullify God’s word that prophesied the Jews would rule the Idumeans, the Israelites over the Edomites. So, when word came of the true Davidic king’s birth, Herod began his hunt for all baby boys in Bethlehem to secure his throne and his family’s victory over “the other side of the family.”
Furthermore, by eliminating Jacob’s offspring, wouldn’t that mean the rights of the firstborn and the accompanying blessing to be in “Esau’s” hands once again?
Furthermore, had King Herod succeeded, he would have served as Satan’s tool to prevent God’s plan of redemption from being accomplished!
Again, the little details aren’t always so little in their impact.
Pastor Jay Christianson
The Truth Barista, Frothy Thoughts
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