Herodium: God at Work in the Desert

Dr. Ron J. Bigalke

The Judean wilderness extends 15 x 50 miles from Wadi Kelt in the north to the Negev in the south. Throughout the centuries, it has remained unchanged. 

The wilderness is an ideal place for escape and seclusion, due to its arid and unappealing nature; it is both desolate and unwelcoming. The majority of people would only pass through the wilderness on their journey to somewhere else. Yet it has been an important and much documented location throughout history. The Hebrew people wandered for 40 years in the wilderness, where they learned to trust God.

However, the wilderness did appeal to unconventional persons, such as fugitives, hermits, and outcasts. Notable members of society would often seek asylum there. Whenever a dignitary embarked on an expedition or journey, especially through a foreign or inhospitable country, he would often send a herald (forerunner) to prepare the way. The monarch’s visit necessitated preparations: any obstacles needed to be removed, and roads would need to be leveled and repaired to allow for an unobstructed journey (cf. Luke 3:5).

John the Baptist served as the forerunner of the coming Messiah, in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of a “voice crying in the wilderness” (Isa 40:3; Mal 3:1; Matt 3:1, 3). Luke 3:4-6 refers to the necessary preparations that would be common for a dignitary making a journey. John’s ministry was to make the Jews ready for the appearance of Messiah, so that when He emerged, they would repent and believe in Him. John compared the hardened hearts of the people to mountains and hills needing to be leveled, the crooked becoming straight, and rough roads requiring smoothing (Luke 3:5).

With his message of repentance, John was exhorting his listeners to change their minds in regard to a relationship with God, and to demonstrate genuine repentance by means of righteous conduct (Luke 3:7-14). He also proclaimed Jesus as “the Christ” (vv. 15-17). Just as vipers will seek to escape an approaching brush fire, so also did John’s hearers attempt to flee God’s “wrath to come” by having John baptize them (v. 7). Perceiving their motivation for baptism as self-preservation rather than authentic repentance, John specified what changes proved the reality of their contrition (vv. 8, 10-14). “John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea” (Matt 3:1), compelling his listeners to evaluate their spiritual lives. Then they would avoid unlevel ravines and rocks that would cause them to stumble.

Jesus, of course, retreated to the wilderness to fast for forty days and nights, during which He was repeatedly “tempted by the devil” (Matt 4:1). Although the Lord’s time of fasting may be compared to that of Moses (Exod 34:28) and Elijah (1 Kgs 19:8), the primary meaning and purpose of that period was to demonstrate how Jesus responded to temptation in terms of His humanity. The Judean desert still provides quiet and tranquility, in contrast to the constant politically tense circumstances that have existed in Jerusalem throughout the ages. For this reason, the wilderness could have appealed to paranoid rulers such as Herod the Great.

Herodium in the Time of Herod
Herod was a ruthless monarch who ruled as the Roman-appointed king of Judea from 37 BC until his death in 4 BC. Despite his tyranny, he was a visionary and built many aqueducts, fortresses, theatres, and other public buildings. In addition to other projects, he was responsible for reconstruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the magnificent port at Caesarea, and the palace-fortress in the Judean desert, on the West Bank of Israel.

Scripture first mentions King Herod regarding his response when hearing that “Jesus was born in Bethlehem … [the] King of the Jews” (Matt 2:1-2). Herod “was troubled” (v. 3) because he knew the Jews yearned to be liberated from Roman rule, as well as from his kingship. Herod was an Edomite (descendants from Esau), whom the Jews regarded with much prejudice and suspicion, even referring to them as half-breeds (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 14.15.2). Not only Herod but also “all Jerusalem with him” (Matt 2:3) was disturbed, in trepidation that if the king received news from the magi regarding Jesus’ birth, he might respond with cruelty, which would be consistent with his character. Such fear was valid, since he did indeed exercise his power with the disposition of a monster (v. 16).

In 40 BC, the Parthians (the eastern empire fighting the Romans at the time) invaded Syria, which also included Jerusalem. They had a profound hatred toward Rome, borne out of the excessive taxation of Mark Antony and Cleopatra to support their extravagances. Thus, they wanted to install a Judean king opposed to Rome.  Antigonus II Mattathias made a treaty with the Parthians, whereby he was able to conquer Jerusalem. The Parthians installed Antigonus as king of Judea (40-37 BC), thus forcing Herod to flee for his life from Jerusalem. Antigonus and his allies pursued Herod and were able to threaten him southeast of Bethlehem. Herod barely escaped. He fled quickly from Masada, leaving his family there, and went to Rome where the Senate (with the recommendation of Mark Antony) appointed him king of Judea.

Herod opposed Antigonus for three more years, and when victorious over him and his supporters, Herod then became sole ruler over the land in 37 BC, with the support of the Roman Empire. With the defeat of Antigonus, the Jews’ fierce three-year struggle for independence from Rome came to an end. According to Josephus (Antiquities 15.1.2), Antony had Antigonus beheaded at Antioch to quiet the Jews, believing that was the only option to “bend the minds of the Jews so as to receive Herod.” Antony became “the very first man who beheaded a king,” and Hasmonean rule was abolished with the execution of Antigonus.

The memory of the desperate battle with Antigonus remained with Herod, and (in approximately 28 BC) he began to build Herodium. Josephus wrote, “And in this very place where he overcame the Jews, it was that he some time afterwards built a most excellent palace, and a city round about it, and called it Herodium” (Antiquities 14.13.9). “And as he transmitted to eternity his family and friends, so did he not neglect a memorial for himself, but built a fortress upon a mountain towards Arabia, and named it from himself Herodium; and he called that hill that was of the shape of a woman’s breast, and was sixty furlongs distant from Jerusalem, by the same name. He also bestowed much curious art upon it with great ambition, and built round towers all about the top of it, and filled up the remaining space with the most costly palaces round about, insomuch that not only the sight of the inner apartments was splendid, but great wealth was laid out on the outward walls, and partitions, and roofs also. Besides this, he brought a mighty quantity of water from a great distance, and at vast charges, and raised an ascent to it of two hundred steps of the whitest marble, for the hill was itself moderately high, and entirely factitious. He also built other palaces about the roots of the hill….” (Wars of the Jews 1.21.10). Herod also built his tomb at Herodium, where he gave orders for his burial.

Herodium After the Time of Herod
Archelaus came to power after the death of his father in 4 BC, and Herodium then became part of his kingdom. Archelaus was the eldest surviving son of Herod, since his father murdered his three older brothers. Archelaus was responsible to see “that the procession to his father’s sepulcher should be very presumptuous” (Antiquities 17.8.3). Josephus indicated that Herod was buried at Herodium (Antiquities 17.8.3; Wars 1.33.9), though the exact location is not certain. In 2007, Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer claimed to have located Herod’s tomb at Herodium, though other scholars have expressed doubts.

Scripture notes the change in political leadership “when Herod died” (Matt 2:19) and when Archelaus began ruling the majority of his father’s kingdom as ethnarch for nine years (4 BC-AD 6). An angel commanded Joseph to return to the land of Israel from Egypt, “but when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Then after being warned by God in a dream, he left for the regions of Galilee, and came and lived in a city called Nazareth” (Matt 2:22-23a). Herod Antipas, the younger brother of Archelaus, was tetrarch over Galilee and Perea.

Herodium is just 3 miles southeast of Bethlehem. It is unlikely that Joseph would want his family to live in such close proximity to Herod’s palace-fortress and with the reminder of how the male children were slaughtered. Herodium is 8 miles south of Jerusalem, yet for Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to live in the royal city would attract potential dangers. The peaceful atmosphere of Nazareth was an ideal location for Joseph and Mary to raise Jesus. Christ was born in the shadow of Herod’s palace-fortress, yet was born “King of the Jews,” with His birth heralded by angels and honored by magi.
In the First Jewish-Roman War (the Great Revolt) in AD 66, rebels seized control of Herodium, entrenching themselves there. Approximately 6 months subsequent to the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, the Romans determined to defeat the remaining Jewish strongholds, which included Herodium. The Romans conquered and destroyed the palace-fortress in 71 AD. During the Bar Kokhba Revolt (AD 132-35), rebels took control of Herodium, which was partly ruined. Archaeological evidence for the revolt was found, revealing a system of caves and secret tunnels. During the Byzantine period (4th-7th centuries), monks spent time at Herodium, and three churches have since been excavated at the site.

Midnight Call - 06/2023

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