This post is part of a series reflecting on my Pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The Pilgrimage was a guided experience called “The Footsteps of Jesus” – every Friday, I’ll be posting a “Footsteps Friday” reflection. I look forward to your sharing your thoughts and comments.
Our pilgrimage following the footsteps of Jesus followed a certain logic. The first few days were dedicated to exploring the social forces at work in Jesus time. One of the biggest forces of that era was the Herod the Great.
Growing up reading Bible stories, I knew Herod only as the genocidal monarch of Jesus infancy. In his paranoia he ordered the slaughter of all the male toddlers and infants around Bethlehem, fearing that one of them would rival his reign. That’s all many Christians know of Herod the Great. In the Bible, he recedes into the background as a minor villain, doomed to obscurity.
Later, as I studied ancient culture as an avocation, I learned about Herod’s political prowess. He deftly navigated the turbulent power struggle among Marc Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavian (later Caesar Augustus). He built the port city of Caesarea Maritima, building the trading economy by conjuring an artificial harbor out of concrete and sheer determination.
But it wasn’t until I visited the Holy Land that I discovered why Herod was called “the Great.”
His building projects reflected his lust for power. We visited his palace in Jericho, his fortress at Herodium, his citadel in Jerusalem. We marveled at the breathtaking views from his massive mountaintop winter palace and fortress at Masada. And we studied his crowning achievement: the Temple in Jerusalem. “Herod was evil,” commented one of our group, “but he was an evil genius.”
Herod the Great seems everywhere; he hangs over the land like a sick shadow, a menacing ghost growling for attention.
This was nowhere more clear than at Herodium, Herod’s Judean fortress, palace, and administrative center. There, Herod built an artificial mountain, planting his elegant round fortress atop it. From this vantage point, you can see the Dead Sea in one direction, and in the other, Jerusalem. And Bethlehem.
As we stood atop the ramparts, we reflected on Herod’s lasting legacy: not a legacy of building and development, but a legacy of death and destruction. Herod’s great works were ground to rubble within three generations of his death. He is now remembered for his paranoia and his executions of rivals and family members.
There at Herodium, we thought of the garrison stationed there who would have received the orders to slaughter the children of Bethlehem. Herod may very well have watched from those walls as his troops made the quick march. The king who was supposed to protect his people was only interested in preserving power.
Herod’s heirs continued to follow the path of power. Power is seductive, but it never satisfies. Power may be a useful tool in the hands of a benign statesman, but it is a pitiless idol that consumes those who worship it.
Herod marshaled all his power, and he still could not stop Jesus. Herod’s path of power lust led only to rubble and cursing. The footsteps of Christ take us on a different path.
Soli Deo Gloria
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