Tradition today: Herod the ‘Great’?

Indeed, judged on the basis of his bloody deeds, perhaps he should be called Herod the Terrible and not Herod the Great.

November 2, 2013 02:24
3 minute read.
A reconstruction of Herod's tomb

Herod tomb reconstruction 370. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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In a recent edition of Hadassah Magazine, an article appeared concerning the exhibition on Herod currently on view at the Israel Museum. I was somewhat startled to see the article made the point several times that this exhibition was an attempt to present a more positive image of that ancient king, by showing what a great visionary builder he was.

Were this so, it would be similar to praising Mussolini because he made the trains run on time, or Hitler for the magnificent stadium he and Albert Speer created.

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Having just seen the exhibit, let me state categorically that it does nothing of the sort. On the contrary, while showing the extraordinary buildings that Herod constructed, which were quite remarkable and very beautiful, the narrative of the exhibit does nothing to hide the cruelty of the man and his murderous deeds. If anything, it makes the point clearly that his personal and political life was detestable, in contrast to his building which was indeed spectacular.

Quotations such as “Better to be Herod’s pig than his son” emphasize what a detestable person he was.

Indeed, judged on the basis of his bloody deeds, perhaps he should be called Herod the Terrible and not Herod the Great.

The exhibition, for which the Israel Museum is to be highly praised, makes it quite clear that Herod was a cruel tyrant and a serial murderer at the same time that he was a great builder, and the one has nothing to do with the other. No matter how wonderful his buildings, his immoral actions cannot be overlooked. Praise his buildings, by all means, but despise the man for being the very opposite of the righteous ruler that the Jewish tradition imagines a king should be.

As a matter of fact, there is something quite ludicrous about the Temple having been built by this man. According to I Chronicles 22:8, David was not permitted by God to build the Temple because he was a warrior with bloodstained hands: “You have shed much blood and fought great battles; you shall not build a house for My name for you have shed much blood on the earth in My sight.”

From a historical point of view, we cannot be certain that this was really the reason David did not build the Temple. It is mentioned only in the late book of Chronicles and not in the earlier works, the Books of Kings. David lived through a difficult revolution in the history of Israel. The very idea of a human king was not found in Moses’s original teachings, which envision only one King and that King is the Lord and He alone. Only the late book of Deuteronomy, written when there already were kings, discusses the matter at all – making the desire to have a king like everyone else not a matter of God’s command, but a concession to human weakness.

Moving from a portable Tabernacle, built at God’s express will and design, to a permanent building would have been another major reform, and it may be that the people were simply not ready for it until the reign of Solomon. But the fact that Chronicles states so explicitly that David could not build it because of having blood on his hands is a strong statement about the way in which Judaism understands the nature of the Temple – and who should build it. It is a temple of peace, and can only be erected by a man of peace.

Obviously Herod did not consult God before erecting his Temple, because had he done so, he would never have received a divine building permit. If ever there was a man with blood on his hands, it was Herod. It is impossible to believe that David was not fit to build the Temple, but that Herod was! By all means see this wonderful exhibition and admire the magnificence of the objects on view, but contemplate the irony of the fact that virtue and beauty do not always coincide.

The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).

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