HE BIRTH OF CHRIST CAME AT A TIME of crisis. The Jewish nation was oppressed under the vast Roman Empire. It was a time of suspicion and doubt.
According to the Gospel of Matthew, Christ’s birth occurred “in the days of Herod the king” (2:1).* History informs us that this ruler in Israel suffered from physical and emotional deterioration during his final years (13-4 B.C.).1
Earlier in his life he had ordered the execution of his beloved wife Miriamne, an act that would have severe consequences. Years later their sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, never having accepted the murderous act of their father, allegedly plotted against him. But Herod became aware of their intentions and ordered their execution in 7 B.C.2
Before his death, Herod ordered the execution of yet another son, Antipater. Herod’s obsession with internal and external threats to his throne made him a victim of his own insecurities. So it comes as no surprise that he viewed Christ’s birth as a threat and ordered the massacre of all the male children of Bethlehem under the age of 2 (Matt. 2:16).
Chasing Immortality on His Own Terms
Typical of self-absorbed rulers, Herod invested enormous resources in the construction of magnificent palaces and cities. In the ancient world architecture represented more than function. It epitomized the desire for creating a legacy that would withstand the constraints of time.3 Thus Herod pursued this legacy through the construction of towns, fortresses, palaces, temples, gymnasia, theaters, stadia, hippodromes, harbors, and other architectural feats.4
One of his most magnificent palaces was Masada, founded in the desert west of the Dead Sea. Built some distance from Jerusalem, it was designed as a refuge and oasis from political turbulence.5
Masada was situated on a mountain that juts up from the lowest point on earth 1,300 feet into the air, strategically planned to withstand any attack. The only access to the top was by a narrow, defensible trail that snakes its way up from the valley. Located in one of the hottest places on earth and far from water sources and plant life, it would have been nearly impossible for an enemy to conduct an extended siege of the city.6
Gardens in the Desert?
Archaeological excavations were conducted at Masada under the direction of Yigael Yadin from 1963 to 1965.7 In 1996 I had the personal opportunity to excavate Masada with Cornell University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Our goal was to find the gardens that Herod had built.
Herod was a king who relished luxury. He had built magnificent gardens at Jericho and Jerusalem.8 In Masada, one of the most desolate places on earth, he was determined to maintain that same level of luxury. Yadin uncovered beautiful pools that at one time were filled with crystal clear water and a major bath house with white and black tiles and painted frescoes. Herod had huge cisterns carved into the rock to gather water during the few rains that the climate afforded. According to Josephus, Herod had soil imported from miles away to plant his gardens. A three-tiered palace was constructed on the northern edge of the mountain with a magnificent view of the Dead Sea and the Transjordanian mountains. And Herod spared no luxury.
Yet today Masada lies desolate and empty, awaiting the picks and shovels of archaeologists and the thousands of tourists who flock there each year.
We never found the gardens. Two thousand years have taken their toll, and soil discolorations proved difficult to detect. Yet not far from where we were working another team of archaeologists from the Hebrew University was carefully excavating a cave. This cave, because of the dryness of the climate, contained perfectly preserved baskets, hair, and eggshells. So perfect were the unearthed materials that it appeared as if the Romans had been there only a few days before. It was difficult to believe that materials more than 2,000 years old were being uncovered.
A Telling Inscription
It was in this cave, which apparently served as a garbage dump for the ancient palace settlement, that a remarkable discovery was made. From outward appearances it was simply a broken piece of pottery, one of literally thousands that had been found over the years at the site. On closer inspection, however, this broken fragment of a wine jar contained an inscription. The translation of the Latin words read: “Herod the Great, King of the Jews.”9 It marked the first time an inscription bearing Herod’s full title had been found at Masada.
It was probably a designation once written on hundreds of vessels, and serves as witness to a king who referred to himself as “the Great,” the king of the Jews.
Isn’t it ironic that Christ was given the same title? When Pilate, the Roman governor, asked, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus affirmed the statement. And on Calvary the superscription was nailed to the cross: “This is Jesus, the king of the Jews” (Matt. 27:37).
As we reflect on the time of Christ, we see the tragedy of a Judean king so focused on his own internal fears that he missed the greatest opportunity of his life. Herod had the privilege and opportunity of seeing Jesus. He had the opportunity to be changed through the power of Christ. Yet he died a miserable man, despite the fortresses he’d built and regardless of the murderous rampage that he ordered in Bethlehem in the wake of the Christ Child. Neither series of events successfully secured his throne. His life was so absorbed in the fear of insurrection that a wave of destruction followed him to his dying day.
What a contrast to the life of Jesus, the King of kings! When confronted with a rebellious planet, Christ gave His life that we might have life. He lived here and died for us, calling us to die to self and live for Him.
What a Tragedy!
Two thousand years after Herod’s reign, a broken wine jar in a garbage dump testifies of a king who built for posterity. Two thousand years after Jesus’ death, the King of kings, who “had not a place to rest His head,” lives in the hearts of millions throughout the world. Two kings, two kingdoms—and the choice is ours. Do the fleeting pleasures of this life absorb our energies? Or have we invested our “treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys” (Matt. 6:20, NKJV)? Will we (like Herod) build merely for posterity, or will we build for eternity?
*Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
l L. I. Levine, “Herod the Great,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 3, D. N. Freedman, ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1992), p. 161.
2Ibid., p. 168.
3Michael G. Hasel, “Architecture,” Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, D. N. Freedman, ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2000).
4Ehud Netzer, “Herod’s Building Program,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 3, D. N. Freedman, ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1992), p. 169.
5Josephus states: “Herod furnished this fortress as a refuge for himself; suspecting a twofold danger: peril on the one hand from the Jewish people, lest they should depose him . . . ; the greater and more serious from Cleopatra, queen of Egypt” (Wars of the Jews, VII: 8, pp. 599, 600).
6Masada was finally besieged by the only power that had the tenacity and resources to withstand the obstacles. In A.D. 73 the Roman Tenth Legion under Flavius Silva defeated the last Jewish Zealots. The remains of their camps can be seen today around the base of Masada. The description of the siege and its challenges is recorded by Josephus, Wars of the Jews, VII: 8, pp. 598-603; see also Giselle S. Hasel, “Perseverence,” Elder’s Digest 11 (1997): pp. 27, 28.
7The final excavation reports have been published: Masada: The Yigael Yadin Excavations 1963-1965: Final Reports (The Masada Reports) (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1989-1996).
8Kathryn Gleason, “Garden Excavations at the Herodian Winter Palace in Jericho, 1985-7,” Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society 7 (1987-1988), pp. 21-40; idem, “A Garden Excavation in the Oasis Palace of Herod the Great at Jericho,” Landscape Journal 12.2 (1993), pp. 156-167.
9“Herod Inscription Surfaces at Masada,” Biblical Archaeology Review 22/6 (1996), p. 27.
Michael G. Hasel is professor of Near Eastern Studies and Archaeology at Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee.