Advent of the (Rival) King: Part 4

There is a wry humor in scripture that we often miss. Part of the problem is that the Bible is full of what we label as the “lowest form of humor.” It is filled with puns and plays on words that we often miss because we read translations and not the original tongues. Many times, the humor is dry and sarcastic; the kind of humor your mother told you not to use and Larry Gilbert did use to make a fortune writing for M*A*S*H*. Ezekiel’s writing comes to mind on that front. In other cases, the humor is more situational. We often miss the latter in part because we invest scripture with a “sacred” character that seems to exclude humor. In other cases, the humor is more subtle.

The passage under consideration for this Advent is of that variety. The humor is there, but it is situational and subtle. Read the passage and see if you spot it.

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, look, Astrologers from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Judeans? For we saw his star in the east, and have come to worship him. And when Herod the king heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Anointed should be born. And they said to him, In Bethlehem of Judea…Then Herod secretly called the Astrologers, and learned of them exactly what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search out exactly concerning the young child; and when you have found [him,] bring me word, that I also may come and worship him. And they, having heard the king, went their way.. And they came into the house and saw the young child with Mary his mother; and they fell down and worshiped him; and opening their treasures they offered to him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned [of God] in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way. (Matt. 3:1-5,8-12, CGV)

three kingsPicture it in your minds. The Astrologers recorded the patterns of the stars in the sky and statistically analyzed how those patterns correlated with the birth of the great personages of history. They saw a star that indicated a new and great king was about to be born. They somehow determined that this Great King being born was going to be the King of the Judeans. They decided they must see this new king. Where to go? Where else but the capital of the Judean Kings: Jerusalem? So they organized a large caravan and with great pomp and circumstance traveled to Jerusalem to worship this new King.

With mounting excitement, they found the King’s palace, knocked on the door and got admitted to Herod’s presence. Then to his face, they asked the present ruling king, “Where is he that is born King of the Judeans? For we saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” Herod must have answered, “New King? There is no New King in Judea! I am the King of Judea! I am not going anywhere!”


Herod the Great was known for many things, but a sense of humor was not high on the list. Even worse, Herod seemed to be a tad touchy when it came to the subject of his throne. The Catholic Encyclopedia reports:

The horrors of Herod’s home were in strong contrast with the splendour of his reign. As he had married ten wives (Jos., “Bel. Jud.”, I, xxviii, 4 — note in Whiston) by whom he had many children, the demon of discord made domestic tragedies quite frequent. He put to death even his own sons, Aristobulus and Alexander (6 B. C.), whom Antipater, his son by Doris, had accused of plotting against their father’s life (Jos., “Ant.”, XVI, xi). This same Antipater, who in cruelty was a true son of Herod, and who had caused the death of so many was himself accused and convicted of having prepared poison for his father, and put to death (Jos., “Bel. Jud.”, I, xxxiii, 7). The last joy of the dying king was afforded by the letter from Rome authorizing him to kill his son.Herod the Great

Herod the GreatHerod’s penchant to kill off any successors to his throne caused the emperor Augustus to joke that it was preferable to be Herod’s pig (hus) than his son (huios) – a very insulting remark to any Jew. Even when he faced death, the bloodthirsty nature of this king did not diminish.

In the hot springs of Callirrhoe, east of the Dead Sea, the king sought relief from the sickness that was to bring him to the grave. When his end drew near, he gave orders to have the principal men of the country shut up in the hippodrome at Jericho and slaughtered as soon as he had passed away, that his grave might not be without the tribute of tears.

This was the man of whom the Astrologers had asked about his replacement, the new King of the Judeans. Realizing their peril, the Astrologers must have muttered some lame excuses and tried to high tail it out of there as fast as their camels would go! I imagine they got the same sick feeling a parent gets when their child asks a stranger when her baby is due and the woman answers, “I am not pregnant.” Except the person they unintentionally insulted had the power and inclination to torture, maim, and kill those with whom he was displeased. It was definitely a case of the wrong question to the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time.

That sickening feeling in their stomachs must have increased exponentially when Herod had them detained. While they were “confined to quarters” Herod found out from his “wise-men” exactly where the King of the Jews was to be born: Bethlehem. He then asked the Astrologers when the star appeared to get an idea of the timing of the birth of his rival. Once he had this information, he sent the Astrologers to Bethlehem with the words, “Go and search out exactly concerning the young child; and when you have found [ him,] bring me word, that I also may come and worship him.”

Can’t you almost hear Bill Cosby saying, “Riiight!”

Yet it appears the Astrologers actually believed Herod. They had to be warned in a dream not to go back to him. One does not normally have to warn people unless they intend to do the wrong thing in the first place.

Tradition calls the Astrologers the “Three Wise-men” or the “Three Kings.” The count comes from the number of gifts they provided to the baby Jesus. I am not certain where tradition gets their names: Caspar, Melcior, and Balthasar.

Tradition has to be wrong. The way I read it, their names had to be Larry, Curly, and Moe.

The Three Stooges

~ by heretic on December 16, 2005.

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