Matthew reports that “Herod” was the bloodthirsty king who ordered the mass murder of all boys aged two and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding area. (2:16). History knows this king as “Herod the Great,” though “great” seems a stretch for this man.
He reigned as a Roman appointee over the conquered Jewish people from roughly 37 B.C. until his death in 4 B.C. As a politician, he was very astute, avoiding assassination, imposing peace, creating alliances, and overseeing magnificent construction projects that included palaces, fortress Masada, the harbor at Caesarea, and even the temple in Jerusalem.
As a person, Herod the Great was a murderous, emotionally disturbed, manically paranoid, possibly insane man.
Roman emperor Caesar Augustus once said, it was “better to be Herod’s pig than his son,” and he was right. Because the Jewish king didn’t eat pork, pigs in his household were never butchered. The same couldn’t be said for Herod the Great’s family members.
Herod executed two of his sons for suspected treason, along with his wife and many others in his court and extended family. He brutally tortured and often killed anyone who even hinted at being a threat to him. Worried that people would rejoice at his death, he gave instructions (thankfully unfulfilled) for Jewish leaders in every town to be killed when he died, so people would have to mourn.
Herod the Great died in 4 B.C., after long illness and in excruciating pain, suffering from internal ulceration and decay.
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