Thinking about Bethlehem during Advent reminds us of King Herod, whose tomb was discovered in 2007 just outside the city at the fortress called Herodium. I was pleased to be able to see it for the first time when I led the Ancient Stones, Living Stones tour in the spring of 2008.
Of course Herod and Bethlehem are related to one another in several texts, particularly in Matthew’s gospel. Herod appears in the story of the Magi’s visit (2:1-12) and in the story of the massacre of the infants (2:16-18). These stories remind us of what Matthew’s gospel is doing with the notion of power. Herod, for Matthew, stands in for Pharaoh of the Exodus story. Matthew’s gospel even tells us that Mary’s and Joseph’s escape with baby Jesus is an ironic escape to Egypt because Herod is looking to kill him. Matthew explains the irony by quoting the prophet Hosea, “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (Matt 2:15; Hosea 11:1). The Magi, of course, want to pay “homage” to this new king. The Greek word for “homage” appears three times in Matt 2:1-12, and thirteen times in all in Matthew’s gospel (and by comparison not many times in other gospels). Another way of rendering the word “homage” is “worship.” Matthew has an agenda. Jesus is the object of worship, of homage, not Herod, nor any other power (cf. 4:9).
Looking at Herod’s tomb at the Herodium reminds us of power gone awry. During this tour we will visit at least five of Herod’s massive building projects (Herodium, Masada, Temple Mount, Hebron Sanctuary of the Ancestors, and Caesarea by the sea). According to Matthew, King Jesus is building a kingdom whose evidence is discerned in a new community concerned with justice and peace, not in grand stone structures (Matt 16:19).