Herod, Mikvehs and the Religion Disconnect


Religion is often disconnected from the spiritual reality of the existence of God and who God is as revealed in Scripture.


Ruins of King Herod’s fortified palace Machaeros, Jordan, Middle East.

A recent article on the discovery in 2016 of the mikveh uncovered at the site of King Herod’s palace at Machaerus on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea in modern Jordan got me thinking about a theme I have been contemplating for some time.[1] That theme is the disconnection between religious ritual and spiritual reality.

21st Century people might call that “disconnect” hypocrisy in the process of dismissing all religions and spiritual truth. That modern tendency to discount all religion in that way, and especially Christianity, reflects a lack of understanding that bothers me when I hear it. The recent discovery reminds why I feel this way.

Digging into the history of King Herod, the palace at Machaerus and the mikveh that was recently discovered there sheds some light on the subject and reminds me that there is much more than meets the modern eye. And, in some fundamental ways, nothing has really changed from then to now, and yet everything has changed at the same time.

Before we get into the meat of the matter, I should explain that a mikveh is a small pool or bath used in ritual purification. Thus, the discovery of a mikveh in King Herod’s palace indicates that the royal inhabitants engaged in the Hebrew purification ritual that was instructed in the Old Testament (the Torah).[2]

Of course, the instructions in the Torah were traditionally understood as religious in nature, though the ritual cleansing in mivka’ot (plural of mikveh) might be seen through the lens of modern science as good hygiene. The purification rite that were instructed would have inhibited the spread of contagious diseases and infection. But for them, with no understanding of modern hygiene, health and medicine, these practices were purely religious in nature.

With that in mind, what then is the significance of the discovery? How does it shed light on the disconnect between religious practice and spiritual reality? What is the nuance that modern people often miss in discounting everything they lump together as “religion”?

In a nutshell, the religion disconnect has existed from the beginning, and that is what the Bible story is all about. From the beginning, when Cain failed to offer the acceptable sacrifice that Abel made, people have misunderstood religious ritual. People engage in religious ritual for various reasons, most of which are disconnected from spiritual reality

For instance, they might engage in religious ritual as a kind of transaction whereby they seek exchange for good luck, to atone for wrongs, to appease an angry god or for other benefit they perceive they might gain from it. People engage in religious ritual out of tradition, or habit, or because they like it. People engage in religious ritual as a kind of social currency, to gain reputation or status or simply a sense of self-righteousness that gives them social and personal advantage.

These are all actions that are disconnected from the spiritual reality of the existence of God and who God is as revealed in Scripture.

Herod is a glaring example of that disconnect. Actually, there were multiple Herods. The one who built the Machaerus was Herod the Great, and he was the local ruler of Judea from 74 BC to 4 BC.[3]

Herod the Great is, perhaps, most famously known for the story about him in the Gospel of Matthew. We are told Magi from the east traveled to Jerusalem inquiring about “one who was born king of the Jews”. Herod was disturbed when he heard about it and brought them in for questioning. When the Magi told Herod that the king of the Jews was to be born in Bethlehem, Herod ordered the execution of all the young boys in the area.[4]

I assume that Herod responded as he did because of the perceived threat of the birth of a rival “king of the Jews”. Herod had been appointed “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate. Jesus was a threat to his stature. If Herod had been successful, Jesus, the Messiah, God who become flesh, would not have been born.

Since Herod was appointed king of the Jews by the Romans, we can understand why Herod felt threatened by the proclamation that another “king of the Jews” was to be born. Note the dichotomy that might seem obvious to us today – that Herod relied upon a state grant of power and was threatened by the idea of a contrary, divine grant of power.

In other words, Herod’s reliance was on the Roman state, and not God. He held himself out to be a religious man, but the reality was that his spirituality was only superficial. Herod’s true alliance was with Caesar not with God or God’s people. There was a disconnect between the religious front he put on and the reality of his spiritual life.

Herod was obviously an unsavory fellow as depicted in Matthew. Outside the biblical account, Herod doesn’t fair much better. He rose to power because of his father’s good standing with Julius Caesar. Though Herod was Jewish, he was faithful to Caesar to collect taxes for the Roman empire.[5]

Herod was an Edomite who converted to Judaism. Though he publicly identified as Jewish, he led a decadent lifestyle, and was not liked by fellow Jews. He was even condemned by the Sanhedrin.[6]

Herod banished his first wife and child to marry another woman to curry political favor. He also was guilty of many brutal acts including the killing of his wife, brother-in-law, three of his sons, 300 military leaders, and many others.[7]

“According to contemporary historians, Herod the Great ‘is perhaps the only figure in ancient Jewish history who has been loathed equally by Jewish and Christian posterity’, [citation omitted] depicted both from Jews and Christians as a tyrant and bloodthirsty ruler. [ citation omitted] The study of Herod’s reign includes polarizing opinions on the man himself. Modern critics have described him as ‘the evil genius of the Judean nation’, [ citation omitted] and as one who would be ‘prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition.’ [ citation omitted]”[8]

Even so, Herod “generally respected traditional Jewish observances in his public life” and evidenced “respect towards Jewish traditions in his private life with the presence of around 40 ritual baths or mikvehs found in several of his palaces. [Citation omitted]”[9]

And so, we get to the point of this article. Herod was a Jew. He publicly proclaimed he was a Jew. He publicly and privately respected Jewish traditions. But he wasn’t a good guy. In fact, he was a murderously ambitious guy whose allegiance was aligned with the Roman state that oppressed his own people and stood in sharp contrast to any measure of godliness and righteousness one might use.

We see in Herod a disconnect between the religious tradition he acknowledged and spiritual reality – or lack thereof. While Jesus preached love God, love your neighbor, turn the other cheek and become servant of all, Herod displayed the polar opposites in his behavior.

Interestingly, while Herod was judged and condemned by other religious people, his own religious people, in turn, Jesus was quite harsh with those same religious people who condemned Herod. While Herod overtly a bad guy (though religious), many of the religious leaders of the time kept up appearances quite well. To the world they looked much different than Herod.

They did everything right, but their hearts were wrong. Jesus said they were beautiful on the outside, but empty on the inside.[10] They opposed Jesus in more subtle and indirect ways. They challenged him, questioned his conduct and tried to trap him into saying things for which they could stone him for blasphemy.

The hypocrisy of the religious leaders is more like the hypocrisy that many people attribute to religious people today, and, frankly, with legitimate reason. To some extent, we are all hypocrites. None of us live up to the standards of perfection of God. But, that is also the point of the standard, as it turns out – and that is where we end up disconnected from the spiritual reality.

If you read through the Old Testament with your antenna up for “the disconnect”, you will see it everywhere. The people God called His own never lived up to God’s standards. As Moses went up the mountain to meet face to face with God and receive the Ten Commandments, the people were making an idol of molten gold and worshiping it. They couldn’t even wait long enough for Moses to return!

All throughout the history of “God’s people” they were continuously and always turning away from God. They were always religious, but their religiosity was disconnected from the reality of God. When Paul observes that no one is righteous, not even a single person[11], he wasn’t announcing a new revelation or realization. He is quoting from the Psalms.[12] The hypocrisy of the people is the main point of all the Prophets. The history of religious people is that they fail to live up to the very standards they profess to hold dear.

We see in the story of Herod that the very religious people who condemned him were, themselves, condemned by the same standard by which they judged him. The only difference is that Herod didn’t make any pretense about his life. Still, he associated and identified with the religious ideals. He observed the rituals. Why?

I suspect it is no different than many today. It’s like taking out an insurance policy. We know we don’t measure up; but maybe if we do some good things, maybe if we go to church on Sunday, maybe if we give money to a charity or …. maybe if we just live honestly and don’t pretend we are really religious… maybe we will be alright. If there is a heaven, maybe we will qualify. If God is weighing the scales, maybe we can tip them in our favor.

But Jesus upped the ante on us, and I think we fail to see it and to understand what is really going on. Jesus said that, unless our righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the religious leaders, we are doomed.[13] They outwardly (at least) kept all the laws. But if the most religious among us are not good enough, what are we to do then?!

This is the point: we can’t be justified before God by observing religious and ethical standards; rather those standards are meant to help us understand that something is wrong.[14] We need God; God doesn’t need us to measure up; God wants us to recognize that we don’t measure up[15] so we will simply come to Him with no pretense, humbly seeking what God offers us – the redemption He provided for us in Jesus.[16]

“God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”[17]

These are the things that come to my mind as I think about the mikveh discovered in Herod’s palace at Machaerus. I think of the fact that so many people take the wrong things away from “religion” and “Christianity” in particular – even religious people. It’s easy to miss the boat and fail to see the nuance.

We all need God.

We can’t measure up on our own, though we may live our lives trying.

We can’t atone for our own wrongs. We can’t counterbalance them by ritual baths, giving to charity or trying to be honest about who we are and not hurting people. We all fall short.

As one friend put it (and I paraphrase), less than one percent (1%) poop in the lemonade makes it more than 99% good, but I wouldn’t drink it.

We might be so good that we are 99%+ good, but we would still pollute heaven by our presence because of the difference.

God offers to make us 100% “good” enough through Jesus, but we have to cease our trying (our religious efforts to be good, merit favor or appease God). We have to come to the place where we recognize that only God can pardon and cleanse us and make us right before Him, and God wants to do that for us.

God wants us! Not our religious rituals. All the mikvehs in the world won’t help us if we are disconnected from God. And that is the ultimate disconnect: religion, ironically, can be completely disconnected from God when we fail to understand that God wants us to want Him above all other things, and our spiritual reality is in Him, not in the religiosity.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

[1] King Herod’s Ritual Bath at Machaerus, by Robin Ngo at Bible History Daily on the Biblical Archaeology Society website, August 19, 2019.

[2] See Leviticus 14:7-9, Lev. 15:13-15 and Lev. 15:16; and Numbers 19:11-19)

[3] See Herod the Great at Wikipedia.

[4] See Matthew 2:1-18

[5] See Herod the Great at Wikipedia.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] See, for example, Matthew 23 (….[T]hey do all their deeds to be noticed by men…. ‘But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites…. for a pretense you make long prayers…. you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others…. You blind guides…. You clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence…. you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness…..”

[11] Romans 3:9-20

[12] Psalm 14:3 and Psalm 53:2-3

[13] Matthew 5:17-20

[14] Romans 3:20 (“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”)

[15] “through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20)

[16] “[We] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” (Romans 3:24-25)

[17] Ephesians 2:4-9

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