[Based on Matthew 2:1-12]

An ancient superstition was current
in the East, that out of Judea at this time
would come one of the rulers of the world.

It has been roughly two and a half years since the close of Matthew 1. After that chapter of the story of Jesus, recorded for us in Luke 2, the author of Matthew takes up the thread of Jesus’ life.

It is roughly the last year of Herod the Great’s tumultuous reign. He is sickly, dying of gonorrhea and possibly also cancer. He has spent his entire reign protecting his precarious throne. His appointment first came in 40 B.C. through his patron Mark Antony. He weathered the split between Antony and Augustus and was able to deftly change sides and preserve his power. In time he would build temples and name cities for Caesar, further cementing his title as rex socius (a client king).

In the latter years of his reign, their relationship will begin to break down. At one point Augustus said of Herod, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son,” owing to the fact that Herod had killed so many of his own but maintained the appearance of keeping kosher. He barely survived a plot by none other than Queen Cleopatra of Egypt to seduce and blackmail him. He executed his beloved wife, Mariamne, and her mother, Alexandra, as well as his three older sons. As he lay dying in Jericho in 4 B.C., he ordered a number of well-loved Jewish leaders to be held in the hippodrome in Jericho to be executed upon his death so that there would be “mourning in Israel.” His tomb in the Herodium has only recently been discovered by archaeologists.

That the magi come from the East would have been interpreted as a particular threat. Herod had built several fortresses along his eastern borders in anticipation of a threat coming from Persia. Masada is the best known and most imposing of these forts. He also constructed the fortresses known as the Herodium and Machaerus, where John would later be beheaded by Herod’s son, Antipas.

Herod had degenerated into a sickly, spent force. Driven mad by decades of stress, not to mention the long-term neurological effects of gonorrhea, he was pathologically paranoid. With this as background, we can begin to imagine the impact the magi’s message would have had on the fragile king. The greatest threat he could imagine had reared its head once more, only this was a very real threat, not an imagined one.

The bearers of the message of the newborn king represented an even greater threat to Herod. The magi were an elite political and spiritual force that had exercised authority since before the time of Daniel, who was appointed as one of their number (Dan 2:48; 5:11). They were the interpreters of dreams (Dan 2:2; 4:7) and possessors of secret knowledge of the planets and the stars (see Esther 1:13). Owing to the presence of the exiled Jewish community in Babylon during the captivity, the Jewish Scriptures had become part of the magi’s vast accumulation of knowledge. Though the passage is not quoted, the most likely reason for their journey was the prophecy of the wicked prophet Balaam in Numbers 24:17:

I see him, but not now;
I perceive him, but not near.
A star will come from Jacob,
and a scepter will arise from Israel.