When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
An ironic touch in today’s reading, that last clause. I’ve noticed it a couple of times, in passing, but it reminded me of another literary echo when I heard it read this morning. Without repeating the verb, the line invites us to reflect briefly on the different ways a city and a king might find themselves “troubled”. Particularly if that king is ruling that city, and we already know to associate violence with the name “Herod.” This isn’t the same “Herod” who will later execute a Jewish prophet who ventured to point out certain irregularities in the king’s marital life. That was Herod Antipas, whilst this is his predecessor Herod the Great. But the confusions between the two – and the occasional unclarity as to which “Herod” is meant when a royal thug with that name turns up in a medieval text or a poem – points up the way both men are associated with shocking violence. Hamlet’s threat to “out-Herod Herod” in his retribution on the world taps into this instinctive link with the name, and it is striking that it comes from a prince who feels his world to be shaken around him, and threatens to make sense of it all by mass murder.
Herod Antipas’ killing of the prophet does not take place in a trial, however mocked up, but as part of a bet after dinner. The frivolousness of John the Baptist’s murder in the story of Herod and Salome chimes horribly with some the stories which come out of lethal dictatorships in the modern era. The same grotesque pleasure in oblivion by chance, death by wager, violence pushed alongside sexual display. “King”, as we know, is a polite word for either Herod. Herod the Great – referred to in the verse above – reacted to the Magi’s suggestion that a King of the Jews had been born by ordering a massacre of his own people’s children.
The bleak irony of the Matthean text in that “…and all Jerusalem with him” sketches casually the way in which mental turmoil or sudden suspicion in this ruler will mean devastation for those he has authority over. It summons up the mawkish sentimentality of dictators from Caligula onwards, the demand that the people love them, that their subjects understand how much they’ve given up in assuming leadership, that they’ agree they’re only doing all this for everyone’s good.
It’s also a careful piece of narrative construction: it will be another thirteen verses, and more than three hundred words (including the flight into Egypt and recitation of Micah’s prophecy to Bethlehem) before the text tells us of Herod’s actual orders. That narrative suspension leaves the paranoia and arbitrary power of a tyrant hanging over the subsequent events until Herod’s “troubled” mind results in the massacre. The terrible asymmetry between the two meanings of the verb is revealed in the slaughter of children.
As I listened to the reading this morning, and noted again the quiet grimness of that final clause, I heard another text shift in my memory, and realized why it reminded me of poetry. Auden’s ‘Epitaph on a Tyrant” is equally laconic and bleak about the emotional neediness of dictators, and the impact on their people. That last line must surely be an (at least semi-conscious) echo of the story of Herod?
Epitaph on a Tyrant
Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.