When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. they told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”’ then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘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.’
The exercise of power is lonely and precise. It cannot be shared, and it cannot be ducked. Would you lead an army in two directions at once? of course not. But someone has to decide. So about the matter of Jesus, born ‘king of the Jews’, excuse my irritation, I will be brief, but clear. For I am one who knows human folly like the back of my hand.
I first heard of him some weeks ago. three travellers arrived from the east. Soothsayers and seers they seemed to be, wise men, the sort who study scrolls, and read the skies, and understand the movement of the planets. they were a strange crew, worn out from their travelling, but also zealous and intense. they had seen a new star rising and believed it was a sign that a new king was born. So naturally, they came here, to Jerusalem, to the palace: this is where kings are born.
But I never liked them, and if you want the truth, I never trusted them either. there was something bewitching and fanatical about their pursuit of this king. For are there not many palaces across the nations of the world, and many princes born? Why travel so far for this one? What did it mean? And I don’t mind telling you, though it seems laughable now, I was frightened of them, or at least frightened of what they were supposing, for they had indeed travelled all this way on the whim and the whisper of a new star, and they were looking for a child, a king to whom they could give their homage. And there was no king here, except for me.
But I thought I could beguile them. I thought I could win them over. So I called together my own chief priests and scribes, and asked them about our own prophecies, for if this king they spoke of was not born here, then was this some other augury about a king who was himself – and this is the fearful thing – a ruler of kings, a messiah? So I inquired of them, ‘Where is the promised Messiah to be born?’ And they replied, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”’
So, quietly and secretly, I called those wise men back again. I tolerated them. I welcomed them as if they were kings them- selves. I fed them. I looked after their animals. I flattered them, for who is there who does not want to be admired? I told them how wise they were, and how brave. I told them what they wanted to hear. My slave girls bathed them and pampered them and dressed them and were at their disposal. they too are from the east, and know how to please a weary traveller. And they were putty in my hands. they drank my wine, they purred at my compliments, and when replete I questioned them again about this king and about this star and what portent it might have. And their tongues wagged, for who is there who is not susceptible to food and wine . . . and other things? And who doesn’t love to talk about himself?
So they told me their interminable stories: the things they had seen, the hardships they had endured. they told me of their tenacity and their resolve. they told me of the companionship they had found on the road, the hospitality they had received (though none better than mine, I imagine!) and the dangers they had faced.
But their words made no sense; and as they talked I realized they really didn’t know anything other than their own star- struck madness. So all I discovered was exactly when the star had risen, and the details of the journey they had made. It was then that I also realized that what they needed was my knowledge, and if I gave it they could become my envoys. So I told them about our prophecies and about the ancient dreams of the people I ruled. I sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘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.’
In the morning they left. I bade them farewell. I pointed them in the right direction. Guiding star, indeed! I smiled at them. I thanked them for their company. I gave them food and spices, wine and blankets and fine linen, and they loaded it onto their donkeys. they thanked me, assuring me that they would return after they had found the infant king. they bowed before me in all the mock splendour and puffed-up self-importance of their mission. they guaranteed that once they had found this Messiah I would be the first to know.
And I was foolish enough to believe them. My kindness was an error. I thought my flattery and favours would be enough to draw them back again, but the days passed and no word came.
Then I flew into a rage. What ignominy was this? tricked by a few addled travellers; made to eat my words in front of courtiers and staff. I slammed my fists upon the table. ‘Why weren’t they followed?’ I demanded. But the reason was obvious: I had never given the order. As I say, the exercise of power is a lonely thing.
So now the trap was sprung and the bait taken and the prey dispersed and probably warned – and me left staring into space, eluded. Made to look stupid. Made to look weak. I stamped around the palace and my rage was legion. this little king of Bethlehem was not going to defeat me. And these three kings from the east, they were not going to con- found me. How could I, King Herod of Judea, true King of the Jews, descendant of David, have been so innocent as not to see that even while they drank my wine and slept in my sheets they had already given allegiance to this child? And they from a foreign land and owing him nothing. It should have been obvious. I should have taken account of their cunning and not just trusted my own.
For now I come to think of it, their allegiance – the allegiance of three foreigners – is the most troubling aspect of this whole episode. For if they will travel many miles, and risk their necks and come to other kingdoms to see this king, then who else might bow the knee before him? this child, if he is allowed to be more than a child, will too easily upset the equilibrium of our already far too volatile nation. Our land occupied by the Romans. our way of life and our privileges and our religious freedom, already threatened. too many religious fanatics and would-be revolutionaries more than eager to believe in a new king: mad enough, given the opportunity, to even rally round a child. the danger was all too clear. I had been aware of it from the moment of their arrival, but now I saw it with startling clarity. the stability of our nation and my own power and our future were threatened by this child. Something had to be done. If the fruit is poisonous then the bud must be nipped, however beautiful the flower.
So I began to plan. After all, that is how order is maintained. You must anticipate a threat. Stamp out the spark that crackles in the dry grass before all your barns are ablaze.
So it might not catch? Is that a risk worth taking? Much better to act swiftly and decisively, so that a whole harvest is saved. I therefore knew, almost in an instant, what I must do. the news and possibility of this little king had to be snuffed out. As I say, the exercise of power is not an easy thing.
I called my generals and chief of staff. We laid the charts upon a table and drew a circle wide around Bethlehem, a radius of many miles. then I gave them their orders. Every boy child under two must be killed. It would be simple, merciless and precise. one painful cull and the problem solved.
So why am I still awake at this dark hour of the night? Why does sleep elude me? Why, when I do sleep, do I hear scream- ing in my dreams?
I have turned my decisions over. I have looked at the situation from every angle; not least I have taken a future perspective. I have looked at these events from the standpoint of history. So what if this Jesus had lived? What good would it have done, even if people had believed him a Messiah? What if people had followed him? What if he had even come to Jerusalem itself and entered as a king, riding on a donkey as our prophet Zechariah had foretold? Well, any of us can read the prophets! Play-acting for effect is always the preoccupation of cunning minds, and impresses the masses who would rather believe in God’s intervention than human artifice.
He would have been tracked down. that is the plain truth of it. He would have been destroyed. We would not have allowed it. And the Romans certainly wouldn’t have allowed it. And on the way, who knows how many lives would have been mucked up? Gullible people will always be gullible. they are constantly on the lookout for messiahs. they will always follow, and in following they will die. How else do you think I recruit armies? How else do messiahs ply their trade? So the answer was simple. Do now, swiftly and dili- gently, what would only happen later. And yes, others, innocent others, were caught up in it, and that is regrettable. But in the end, from the longer point of view, it is expedient.
There is band of pale pink light on the horizon. the dawn of another day: the endless circle of days and the lonely exercise of power. My conscience is clear. I did what I had to do to maintain order, to secure power, so that order can be maintained. those deaths, and certainly his death, will be forgot- ten. other babies will be born, and little lives will keep on revolving just like the cycle of the days themselves. that is the end of the matter.
• Which person in the story did you most relate to?
• What surprised, shocked or delighted you the most?
• How has this changed your understanding of the Christmas story?