What Rough Beast Slouches Towards Bethlehem to be Born?

December 2011

Over the past year, we have watched the Middle East landscape blown and shaped by shifting political and populist winds.  This “Arab Spring” storm has toppled and continues to blow down autocrats, while tempering the arrogance of surviving regimes.  All are reminded that governance and power are not a cudgel, but a privilege—even for kings.

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs...
And what rough beast,
its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
excerpt from The Second Coming (1919), William Yeats


One of the latest “kings” to be dethroned was Muammar Gaddafi, who had controlled Libya since 1969.  Gaddafi was an eccentric, flamboyant demagogue, who fancied himself larger than life.  For example, in 2008 he convened a meeting of more than 200 African kings and tribal chiefs, where he had himself proclaimed “king of kings” as part of his pursuit for a united African continent.  Delusions of grandeur like these helped blind Gaddafi’s eyes to reality, ultimately bringing about his pitiful demise when he was lynched by a mob.

The designation “king of kings” originated in the Ancient Near East, where one powerful king was proclaimed as a head of other subordinate, vassal kings who were forced into his alliance.  Some of our earliest references to the title, “king of kings” are found from the Assyrian Empire.  For example, Tiglath-pileser I is called

“… strong king, unrivaled king of the universe, king of the four quarters, king of all princes, lord of lords, chief herdsman, king of kings... (1114-1076 BC)”

As history progressed, a “king of kings” could weave together not just a handful of city-states, but a plethora of nations, tribes, and languages.  The Persians are one of the first examples of a sustained multinational, multicontinental empire.  According to Esther 1:1, the empire of Xerxes the Great (485-465 BC), included 127 provinces stretching from India to Africa.  Artaxerxes I (465-424 BC), who empowered both Ezra in repatriating the Jews to Israel, and Nehemiah in rebuilding Jerusalem’s wall, is titled “king of kings” (Ezra 7:12), as were other Persian kings.

The Persian Empire was followed by Alexander the Great’s brief yet immense conquest, which quickly dissolved into four regions with his untimely death.  The chief remains of Alexander’s conquered territory were eventually consolidated under the expanding Roman Empire.  From there, a new “king of kings” arose—Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor who oversaw the beginning of the Pax Romana, or the “Roman peace,” that dominated the Mediterranean peoples during his reign (27 BC-14 AD).   To promote “peace,” Augustus enlisted vassal kings, or puppet rulers, who could implement and enforce a Roman agenda upon their homelands.  One such vassal king was Herod the Idumean, or Herod the Great.

The generation before Herod’s birth, his Idumean people were forcibly converted to Judaism (i.e. circumcised).  This paradox—violent, forced initiation into the covenant people of God—might epitomize Herod’s conflicted self-identity, where paranoiac moments of brutality mixed with his longings for acceptance and appreciation.  Though proclaimed “king of the Jews” by Caesar Augustus, the most powerful despot on earth, Herod’s royal legitimacy as a vassal king and his suspect Jewish pedigree were always questioned.  His Jewish subjects had never chosen or anointed him, and their love and adulation could never be feigned, bribed, or coerced.

As Herod lay dying around the age of 70, rotting from the inside out, his innards infested with worms, his physical body bore witness to his plagued legacy.  While his reign of more than 30 years had been a golden era for monumental construction, international trade, and cultural exchange, Herod had also strewn his path with corpses of “enemies”—both friend, family, and dissident.  Augustus rightfully observed, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son,” since Herod would not eat pork in observance of biblical dietary restrictions, but had no moral dilemma with eliminating any and all whispered rivals.  For like all tyrants who went before him, and those alive today, Herod desired uncontested glory.

Appropriately, Daniel 7 envisions world empires and their kings as ravenous and mutated beasts—a lion with eagle wings, a bear gnawing bones, a four headed, winged leopard, and most ominously, a ten horned, terrifying monstrosity with iron teeth, who crushes, devours, and tramples its victims. While some commentators have identified this last creature with the anti-Christ, all four of the monsters characterize anti-Christ tendencies.  For the lust of power, control, domination, and god-like grandeur drives every ambitious pretender to Bethlehem’s manger to eradicate the authentic.  Yet, the messianic womb becomes the monsters’ tomb.  Instead of being born in Bethlehem, Herod was buried there.