King Herod doesn’t feature at all in St Luke’s Gospel – he is not the kind of person the writer is interested in – but appears near the start of St Matthew’s. He is visited by wise men from the east, who ask him: “where is he who is born King of the Jews?” The question is a bit tactless, but there you go.
Herod is troubled by it – unsurprisingly – and so, please note, is “all Jerusalem with him”. Rumours of a new king plainly get out of the palace. They are spread via Twitter and pondered on What’sApp. A diplomatic embassy has arrived, perhaps from Iran. Maybe the long-suffering people of Israel are about to get “a Judea that works for everyone”.
This is bad news for Herod. His rule is absolute, but his position is insecure. For all his fashionable stress on infrastructure – he is founding new cities, developing water supplies, and rebuiling the temple – the people don’t see him as “one of us”: that’s to say, not as a real Jew at all, since his father was an Edomite. “I would rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son,” the Emperor Augustus once quipped, after the king murdered yet another of his own children. Here is another source of bad feeling about Herod. He is a puppet ruler, put in by the Romans.
Herod then does exactly what you would expect him to do – that’s to say, consult his data crunchers. The wise men have told him that they have seen the star of the new king in the East. Excellent! So he asks the Cambridge Analytica of his day where the Christ will be born, and its top wonks reply: “in Bethlehem of Judaea”. Proof, you see, that the analysts aren’t always wrong.
The king has a reputation as a butcher – he treats others just as ruthlessly as he treats his sons – but he stays his hand. Mass killings are best avoided. It would lead to questions from Justin Welby, or whoever the high priest is this year, and trouble with the Pharisees. He might have to be grilled live by Andrew Neil. So he hits on a ruse. He asks the wise men to “go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also”. He wants to limit his little local difficulty.
And off they go. But God warns them in a dream not to return to Jerusalem. “Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men”. Ten or so tricky minutes with Brillo, and trouble with the religious authorities, a price worth paying for neutralising this threat to stability. It is expedient that a few children die for the people! Or, rather, for Judea’s Just-About-Managing.
However, the baby Jesus, his mother and his stepfather get out in time, having also been warned by God in a dream. If this sounds fantastical, the massacre sounds credible – in keeping with everything we know about Herod’s modus operandi. Bethlehem will then have been a small village. News of the killings – sorry, the terminations – could have been “managed”. Herodbots would have swarmed online to denounce it as a false flag operation. It was the Zealots what did it! Were the king alive today, he would be authorising “black hats” to stuxnet the wise men’s mobiles.
“In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning,” writes St Matthew. “Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.” This horrible tale is a reminder that the Christmas story is not all tinsel, mince pies and crackers. The holy family is forced to flee to Egypt. Mary is told that a sword will pierce her soul. And if Christ endures to this very day – born, crucified and risen – then so, alas, does Herod, or at least his spiritual descendants.
Bashar al-Assad is one of them. It may well be that his father, Hafez al-Assad, shared more of Herod’s ruthless temperament. But otherwise the parallels are striking. Like Herod, Assad is propped up by outside clients – this time round, the Russians. Like Herod again, Assad is a moderniser. Herod had his temple; Assad has his technocrats.
And like Herod again, Assad is viewed by many of his people as a religious odd man out. Most of them are Sunni Muslims, and he is an Alawite – a faith that arguably is not really part of Islam at all. To point out that he is one of Herod’s descendants, at least in terms of how he lives and what he does, is not to take sides in Syria’s terrible civil war, but rather to point out an uncomfortable fact. There are a lot of modern-day Herods around. Vladimir Putin is one. Fidel Casto was another.
ConservativeHome believes in Brexit, and thinks that 2016 has been a great year for Britian. We find it less easy to be starry-eyed about developments elsewhere. The Herods seem to be doing rather well. Putin can send the Admiral Kuznetsov through the English channel, and flex his muscles in the Middle East. America’s new Caesar seems to view Putin less as an opponent than as an ally – even, maybe, as a client.
If the Herods are making their presence felt, then why does Christ often feel so absent? Why are the Assads of our day left to swagger the earth? The answer is still as it was in the original story. Herod lounges at ease in palace; Christ is born in a stable. He is found in lowliness and vulnerability.
We are told that kingdom of this king is not of this world, but that it is also all around us – or “within you”, as the Gospel also says. If so, it can be found amidst the eating and drinking and giving and resting that are all part of Christmas.
The best defence against tyrants is not the force of arms, necessary though it sometimes is as a last resort. It lies, rather, the good sense of people – and the good habits of civilisation, developed slowly over time. The coming celebrations are one of them. We wish all our readers the compliments of the season.