I had the opportunity while in high school to go on a trip to Israel. One of my favorite places was the fields just outside the city of Bethlehem. It’s one of the few landscapes in Israel that look surprisingly like the mental image I had as a child of the Christmas story. Big sky, rolling hills–a place where shepherds still do “keep watch over the flocks by night.”
What is inescapable about standing there is one of the other sights within view, one that most of us probably know nothing about. In the eastern horizon stands one hill that differentiates itself from the rest. It looks more like a volcano in fact. I don’t remember lava in the Christmas story, but I’m certain Roland Emmerich could take a stab at it for us.
It’s not a volcano. It’s a palace. Called “The Herodion,” this palace stands as testament to one of the architectural genii of the first century B.C., Herod the Great.
The palace is essentially a man-made volcano-esque cone at the top of a very steep hill. Here, there were originally guard towers and walls at the top as well, providing a well-defended fortress. Within it were luxuries and resources only a king could even dream of at the time.
I wonder if the shepherds in their fields that night sometime in 5-4 BC could see Herod’s great palace. Were they mad? Herod might be called “the Great” for his building prowess, but he was Idumean, not Jewish. He was the puppet king of Rome. Not exactly the fulfillment of prophetic hopes and dreams. The palace itself, one of several Herod had, was a reminder perhaps of the shepherds’ own poverty. It was a symbol of the spectacular resources of the rich and powerful. It was also a reminder, with its extreme defensive measures, of the paranoia and evil embodied by King Herod. The palace may have been intended more as a refuge from his own family than from any foreign ruler. At least those of his family he hadn’t killed yet.
I wonder how surprising it was then to have an angelic army appear above their very heads and announce the birth of a different king. I wonder how odd it seemed that the magnificent palace mountain before their eyes had been bypassed and replaced by a feeding trough in a place where animals slept in the small town nearby. How strange that the heavenly messengers appeared to them and not to the royal guard stationed inside the citadel.
That first Christmas saw a lot of strange things. And if we really believe the arrival of God’s Son changed the world forever, then maybe we shouldn’t be shocked if those strange things continue still.