Herod the Great Unveiled: Power, Betrayal, Tragedy

The captivating program vividly depicts dramatic stories and intense battles for supremacy among Egypt, Israel, and Rome, narrated by accomplished contemporary historians.

Herod marries the Hasmonean princess Mariamne in his quest for acceptance among the Israelites. However, his love for her does not deter him from committing heinous acts, including the murder of Mariamne, their five children, and suspected rivals. As a critical player in the intricate global power dynamics, Herod aligns himself with Marc Antony of Rome while harbouring a deep hostility towards Cleopatra—relationships intricately detailed in the CNN narrative.

To overcome personal struggles, Herod embarks on ambitious construction projects. However, despite his achievements, the series emphasizes how his unchecked ambition and envy negatively impact his public and private life, eventually leading to madness during his long reign.

Following Herod’s demise, Roman colonial ambitions led to the invasion and military occupation of Israel, then known as Judea. This occupation culminated in the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple, a structure Herod had significantly enhanced, following the grand tradition of Roman edifices.

The series intriguingly mirrors the well-known “Game of Thrones” TV series. However, it laments the absence of the traditional Jewish perspective found in texts such as the Torah and Talmud, which provide insights into the narrative of Jewish Kingship. The ancient roadmap for Jewish governance and Kingship, as laid out by Moses in the book of Deuteronomy, remains a missing element in the CNN portrayal.

If, after you have entered the land that the LORD your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,” you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the LORD your God. Be sure to put as King over yourself one of your people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your relative. Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses since the LORD has warned you, “You must not go back that way again.”

And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart goes astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess. (Sefaria: Deuteronomy 17:14-17 *2)

The blueprint for a Jewish king, mentioned in later historical accounts like Samuel 1 and 2, Judges, and Kings, is transparent in canonical Jewish texts. These texts provide insights into different situations, characters, motivations, and outcomes, including the triumphs and tribulations of mighty and ordinary individuals. The narratives document a King’s ” sins ” from Saul to Herod with meticulous detail.

Leadership transgressions during this period can be traced back to the Hasmoneans, who liberated Israel from Greek dominance a century and a half earlier. Initially from the priestly caste, they took on both the Kingship and the High Priest office after their victory, going against Mosaic law. They forcefully converted neighbouring tribes to Judaism, contrary to Moses’ teachings. King Herod, from one of these converted tribes, also sought to be both the High Priest and King without consulting sacred texts or priestly advisors.

Rabbi Meir Soloveichik discusses leadership in podcast episode #32, “Kohen vs. King.” He highlights the inevitability of errors by both priests and kings, noting a distinction in the biblical text. Leviticus uses “if” for potential transgressions by priests and “when” for kings, reflecting detailed guidelines for priests and acknowledging rulers’ unavoidable mistakes. The contrast suggests that priests follow strict rules in worship, while rulers must independently assess and make decisions.

To aid in these decisions, he must:

“Have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the Levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. Thus, he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long amid Israel.” *3 (Sefaria: Deuteronomy 17:14-20)

Roman colonization and the subsequent governance by Roman officials unfolded in the wake of Herod’s reign. This era marked the tragic demise of Herod’s splendid creation—the Second Temple he had meticulously enhanced—crushed and demolished under Roman rule. Astonishingly, despite this devastation over two millennia ago, Judaism teetered on the edge of extinction but ultimately endured.

A clandestine exodus of scholars and rabbis from Jerusalem sought refuge in Yavneh, a secluded town in Galilee, securing permission from the Roman Emperor to establish their community. In this remote haven, the Talmud—a detailed discussion by Rabbis on all aspects of the Torah, also known as “the oral biblical law”—took shape and was meticulously transcribed over the ensuing six centuries. Today, the Torah and Talmud are the cornerstone of Jewish communal life in Israel and the diaspora. These sacred texts endure daily scrutiny in yeshivas worldwide, synagogue classes, and even academic institutions. They have been the enduring pillars of Jewish communal life, guiding people from all walks of life.

Simply studying these texts isn’t enough; putting their teachings into practice is crucial, as Jewish history emphasizes the far-reaching consequences of the actions of both rulers and ordinary individuals.

 

FOOTNOTES:

  1. CNN series on Jerusalem: City of Faith, 39 BC, The Rise and Fall of Herod the Great. This television program draws from historical writings scrutinized by contemporary scholars, including Sebag Montefiore, the author of “Jerusalem: The Biography,” and others.
  2. Sefaria, Deuteronomy Ch 17 – V. 14-20. A comprehensive website presenting the Jewish biblical canon, encompassing the Torah and Talmud, along with various commentaries.
  3. Sefaria: Deuteronomy 17:18-20.
  4. Rabbi Meir Soloveichik’s podcast, Bible 365, episode #32, Kohen (Priest) vs King: Two Models of Leadership.
  5. Rabbi Jonathon Sacks, Covenant & Conversation, Learning and Leadership (Shoftim 57).
  6. Sefaria, Deuteronomy Ch 17, v 18.

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