BY MARK Y.A. DAVIES
In the Christmas story, we are told that three wise men [Magi] were in Jerusalem asking about a child who had been born King of the Jews. When Herod heard about this, he plotted to con the Magi into informing him about the whereabouts of the child.
Sending the Magi to Bethlehem, Herod told them, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage [believe me!]” [Matthew 2:8]
Of course, we know that Herod was not planning to pay homage to the child. Herod was planning to kill the child whom he perceived as a threat to his power and greatness. There was no room in Herod’s kingdom for a perceived outside apprentice to his power.
Upon arriving in Bethlehem, the Magi were overwhelmed with joy in the presence of the child, and they knelt down in the presence of this vulnerable and soon to be refugee child and family and offered him “gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” [Matthew 2:11].
In a dream the Magi were warned that when Herod says “believe me” that they should by no means believe him, so they wisely resisted Herod and did not return to him, going back to their country by another road, thus siding with the vulnerable child and his family over the authoritarian leader Herod who would do anything to maintain and expand his own power, even if it meant the suffering of the most vulnerable, even if it meant families separated from each other, even if it meant many children would die, and even if it meant the child and his family would have to become refugees to escape Herod’s tyrannical intent.
The father of the child, Joseph, was warned by a good angel in a dream that they should flee to Egypt to escape Herod and the raid that he had planned to remove the threat to his power posed by the child. Though the child and his family escaped to Egypt, many other children and their families were ripped apart by the raids of Herod’s men.
Two dreams, that of the Magi, and that of Joseph, saved the child and his family. These dreamers found the strength and wisdom they needed to escape the unjust and violent plans of Herod to harm this innocent child and family.
Eventually, after spending years as refugees, the child and his family were able to return to the land of Israel; and the child grew up to do great things to bring new life, love, and justice into the world.
Billions of people have followed the child’s way of peace and joy in the world, a way that his followers celebrate on Christmas day, and a way they are called to follow and live every day – the way of the Magi, the way of wisdom, the way of resisting evil, the way of caring for the most vulnerable among us in all that we do.
Meanwhile, Herod is one of the most reviled men in history, choosing the favor of a foreign country [Rome] over the well-being of his own people, and known for using tax schemes to enrich himself and build monuments to his greatness.
Herod had 10 wives whom he treated horribly, and it was reported that he died an excruciating death [Josephus, Antiquities, 17.6.5.]
About two generations after his death, his monuments and the magnificent architectural achievements that he hoped would serve as a reminder of his greatness were destroyed by the Romans, with whom Herod ironically colluded even to the detriment and suffering of his own people.
The Magi are remembered for resisting tyranny. Herod is simply remembered for being a tyrant.
– Mark Y.A. Davies is the Wimberly Professor of Social and Ecological Ethics and director of the World House Institute for Social and Ecological Responsibility at Oklahoma City University. Click here for more of his essays.