He was surprised when the strangers came, looking for a king. Any ruler encountered odd people and odd requests, especially foreign emissaries whose expectations were often very different to those of his own people. Then one must weigh up carefully before responding. What would it cost? Who would be gratified? Who would be offended? Whatwould he, Herod, gain from all of this? Power was rather like a giant board game, where one knew most of the moves, and became very adept, over time, at blocking and defending, only appearing to yield when it put one’s opponent in a more vulnerable position. But, just occasionally, a player would come along who played the game so differently that he had no idea what strategy to use, or whether he was winning or losing.
This was one of those times. First he had heard the rumours (his informers were very good), then, deeply disturbed, he had asked to see the men himself. He had expected to meet crazies from the desert, with this mad talk of a new Jewish king being born. Everyone knew that the sun out there could addle a man’s brains. Crazies were easy to deal with. But when he met them he had to give up all these assumptions. These were men from the exotic east, far beyond the sway of Rome;
they were wealthy men, and learned, wise in the ways of the stars, a wisdom he knew nothing of. His eyes had always been fixed on the darkness deep in the human heart, a darkness so powerful that it could swallow up even his best beloved, and turn them into enemies who were plotting against his throne and had to be killed.
So now he was confounded. These were men who had to be taken seriously, and they had unwittingly exposed a terrible threat to his throne. But where, and who, was this child? Surely the priests would know? The priests murmured and muttered among themselves (was there anything these men would not argue about?) Then they came back and told him that it was prophesied that this child would be born in Bethlehem, just a few miles down the road.
Once this would have given him pause: sweating ice at the mere thought of trying to fight against a prophesied act of God Himself, but that time was long past. Now the only icy sweat was at the thought of losing any of his power. The fact that he would most likely be dead and gone before a newborn child could ascend to power never even occurred to him. So, in anticipation of a problem solved, he laid his plot.
It would all be so simple. The eastern scholars would go and find this usurping child in Bethlehem, come back and tell him all, ostensibly so that he too, could go and worship. As if! Rather, he would quietly send a detachment of soldiers and the troublesome child would never be heard of again. And maybe these foreigners should quietly vanish as well? In anticipation, he sent them on their way.
But of course, it never happened. For God, who had anticipated this child for time beyond Herod’s power to reckon, sent the wise men home by another way, and when Herod, enraged, sent his forces against every little boy in the town, somewhere far to the south, on the road to Egypt, the King of kings and Lord of Lords snuggled against his mother’s shoulder in anticipation of an ultimate victory against principalities and powers compared to whom Herod, styled the Great, was as nothing.