Ancient writers and hearers were used to learning positive and negative examples from the behavior of characters in their narratives. They could also learn from the contrast of different characters, as in this chapter. Here pagan Magi, whom Matthew’s Jewish audience might expect to oppose Jesus, come to worship him. Herod, king of the Jews, soon acts like Pharaoh of old—a pagan king. And while the Persian wise men go to worship Jesus, Israel’s Bible teachers and religious leaders of God’s people, who can even identify exactly where the Messiah will be born, fail to look for him.
“In the days of Herod the King” (Matthew 2:1)
Herod died in 4 B.C., and the events in this narrative occur at least two years earlier. Despite the best intention of our calendars, Jesus was born in 6 B.C. or earlier.
Herod was Idumean, a descendant of the ancient Edomites, and while he was Jewish in a general sense, he also built temples for pagan gods in areas dominated by his Gentile subjects, including temples for the supposedly divine emperor Augustus.
I should comment briefly about Herod’s relationship with this emperor. Herod’s political instincts were usually excellent, but he did make a few mistakes. One notable one was that he was friends with Marc Antony but enemies of Antony’s girlfriend Cleopatra. After Octavian (Augustus) defeated both Antony and Cleopatra, Herod suggested to him that, since Herod had been a faithful friend to Augustus’ enemy Antony to the end, Augustus could trust that Herod would also prove faithful to him as well. He did remain a faithful subject of Augustus from then on. The idea of new kings, however, would go over well neither with the Roman emperor nor with Herod himself.
Although the Bible condemned divination, including astrology, in this period even many Jewish people believed that stars could predict the future, at least for Gentiles. Astrology was considered the science of the day; later synagogues sometimes even included zodiacs on their floors with a picture of the sun god (used simply as a symbol for the sun, under God’s authority) in the middle. Rulers, however, got nervous about astrologers, especially when they started predicting new kings or (by implication) the demise of old ones. Emperors sometimes banished astrologers from Rome. When comets appeared, people expected kings to die. One later emperor, Nero Caesar, reportedly executed a number of nobles in hopes that their deaths, rather than his, would fulfill the warning of a comet. This may help us understand why Herod acted so paranoid.