Herod as portrayed by both Matthew and the Jewish historian Josephus was anxious, and cru-el. He probably suffered from proditomania - the feeling or belief that everyone is out to get you! Four incidents are recorded in which he executed large groups of suspected conspirators. The fact that three of these incidents, as well as the execution of all three sons, occurred with-in the last four years of Herod's reign indicate that Herod felt increasingly threatened in the period of Jesus' birth and was prepared to take ruthless measures against any potential usurp-er. Herod was clearly not one to regret eliminating a handful of children to dispose of a threat to his dynasty.
By contrast, Herod - as imagined by WH Auden in his 1942 “For The Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio” is not the raging tyrant that the poet might have drawn from medieval models, or the example of Hitler. Instead he is depicted as a dutiful public manager, a skeptical apostle of rationality and progress who believes that he must act to preserve civilization.
"Yes, in 20 years I have managed to do a little," he tells himself. "Soft drinks and sandwiches may be had in the inns at reasonable prices" and "the truck-drivers no longer carry guns. Things are beginning to take shape." But "this little civilized patch" of empire is still threatened by a howling wilderness of barbaric superstition, he muses. A single spark might ruin every-thing, and now "judging by the trio who came to see me this morning with an ecstatic grin on their scholarly faces, the job has been done," he says of the Magi. " 'God has been born,' they cried."
In no time at all, Herod fears, reason will be replaced by revelation and justice by pity. Society will honor "hermits, bums and permanent invalids" instead of generals, philosophers and statesmen. "Civilization must be saved even if this means sending for the military," he con-cludes petulantly. "Why can't people be sensible? I don't want to be horrid."
Rationalization of violence against the innocent will always find advocates. Whether seen as a necessary act of self-preservation (Matthew’s Herod), or as a regrettable act required to pre-serve order (Auden’s Herod), the pattern is the same. In recent memory, consider words from Peter Arnett’s Vietnam dispatch on the Battle of Bến Tre - “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it”.
We are called in Christ to resist this sophistry of villains, praying to God in the words of “Abide With Me”
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide; The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide; When other helpers fail and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.