When Herod Gets Disturbed

Herod’s summer palace, Herodion National Park, West Bank (photo by Joe Webb)

Yesterday, on the day Christians celebrated the feast of the Epiphany (the revelation of Jesus as the Messiah at the end of the 12-day Christmas season), the sitting President of the United States incited an insurrectionist riot carried out by his supporters on the Capitol, where Congress had convened to ratify the certification of the Electoral College votes affirming Joe Biden as the winner of the 2020 presidential election.

Last Sunday (three days prior to those events), in the faith community I lead and in a recorded sermon I delivered for a local church in my area, I spoke on the traditional biblical text for Epiphany, the visit of the magi from Matthew 2:1-12.

I focused specifically on one line in the early part of that passage describing the reaction of King Herod (more on him in a minute) on hearing from the magi that they had followed a celestial event that indicated the fulfillment of a prophesy for a new king of Israel:

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.

(Matt. 2:3, NIV)

An unhinged ruler

As events unfolded yesterday, I couldn’t get that passage I had just preached about out of my head. The parallels between the Epiphany narrative and what I was watching unfold in the American capital were frightening.

Herod, though he carried the title “king,” was only king insomuch as he was a man of wealth, power, and privilege who was willing to collude with the occupying Roman imperial forces to carry out the will of Caesar.

Historically, Herod was known as someone who built many monuments to his massive ego: the remains of his palaces, fortresses, and protective walls are still viewable by visitors to Israel and Palestine today.

He was also known as brutally ruthless, having murdered (or ordered the murder of) political allies and members of his own family who he perceived to be disloyal.

If the “Pax Romana” (peace of Rome) was enforced at the end of the sword, Herod was a willing enforcer.

A disturbing disturbance

So when the magi—whoever they were and wherever they came from—come to Herod’s palace in Jerusalem looking for a new king, Herod’s reaction is predictable.

If a new king had been born, and it clearly wasn’t a son of Herod, that meant Herod’s power was under threat.

Let me pause here for a second to set some historical and cultural context: ancient, pre-scientific peoples believed that events in the skies were related to events on earth. There were any number of celestial observers in the courts of various rulers throughout the ancient near east who claimed the ability to interpret what astrological events meant. Those rulers relied on their astrologers’ expertise for everything from predicting agricultural to military success.

So when Herod is presented with this particular astrological prophesy, it’s doubtful that his first reaction would have been the skepticism we modern folks might have. He would have assumed their interpretation of the appearance of the “star” to be fully authoritative.

So how does an egomaniacal puppet ruler react to a clear challenge to his authority?

He becomes disturbed.

And if such an unhinged, violent ruler becomes disturbed, you’d better believe that everyone else gets disturbed, too. Something bad is about to happen.

When Herod goes to Washington

I’m just going to say this in case it’s unclear: The current occupant of the White House pretty clearly mirrors many of Herod’s personality traits: privileged, power-hungry, wealthy, egomaniacal, obsessed with self-aggrandizement, quick to punish those he deems disloyal.

So when he lost the November election, and it became clear that he was going to have to cede power, he became very obviously disturbed.

And if an unhinged, violent ruler becomes disturbed…something bad is going to happen.

All waves must crash

Yesterday’s attempted coup (let’s not mince words here), while rooted in America’s history of racism and white nationalism, is the predictable result of what happens when the Herods of the world become disturbed.

I have a dozen hot takes on the systemic issues that allowed yesterday’s events to come to a head: Our failure to repent of racist economic and political systems and structures. The systematic underfunding and dismantling of public education that leaves many people prone to disbelieving science and facts and embracing dangerous and false conspiracy theories as truth. Commercialization of the media which leads to promulgating sensationalism over its duty to educate the public. Failure to address gun violence as a public health as well as a public policy emergency. Unchecked greed. Hyper individualism that rejects the common good for personal satisfaction. Our embedded cultural belief that violence is a legitimate way to solve problems.

The factors contributing to the insurrection are legion. They are complex, nuanced, and hopelessly intertwined.

This wave has been building for our entire history as a nation. Yesterday, it crashed.

Our identity exposed

Some have tried to say that what happened yesterday isn’t who we are.

They’re wrong.

It’s exactly who we are.

More than two centuries of institutionalized oppression and marginalization, of creating systems and structures that benefit some people at the explicit expense of others, of legitimizing the perceived victimization of actual victimizers, have led us precisely to this moment.

It is absolutely the logical conclusion of our trajectory to this point.

We just needed a Herod to expose it.

A theological problem

I wish I had some wise words to offer as a solution to our collective malady. Sadly, there are no simple answers. There’s no formula to follow, no checklist to tick off.

While there are some immediate and, I think, fairly obvious reforms that need to be made to stop the bleeding, we need a deep surgical intervention to heal our wounds.

Our problem, ultimately, is a theological one.

As long as American Christians believe that God is exclusively on their side, that the Bible condones injustice to whoever we define as “other,” that the ultimate goal of existence is to die and go to heaven and we have an obligation to do whatever it takes to “save people’s souls,” we’re going to remain collectively mired in the muck borne of our selfish commitment to individualism as the highest value.

Until we can truly embrace that God IS love, that the way of Jesus is the way of compassion and nonviolence, and that we bear responsibility for the wellbeing of our neighbors as well as our enemies, we are doomed to being disturbed by the Herods among us.

4 thoughts on “When Herod Gets Disturbed

  1. An unhinged ruler….history does repeat itself. I was so disturbed to see that footage of those who stormed our Capital included a person waving a huge “Jesus” flag. Many who watched in horror may believe that true Christians support the insurrection and destruction that unfolded.
    Joe, I thank you for your historical incite. This IS who we are and we must get on our knees and turn back to the God of love.

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