During my private tikkun leil shavuoth last night I studied Hellenistic Judea from the Maccabees to Herod. I enjoyed reading about the role of the queens from Salome Alexandra to Alexandra and Mariamme (and all their namesakes). But what has stayed with me is the sheer violence associated with the the high priesthood beyond the the romantic stories of the Maccabees and their defense of their homeland, people, culture and religion. The amount of nation-building through offensive violence and the politics of every high priest, leader and king was commensurate with that of their fellow sovereigns and would-be monarchs, but leaves me troubled, particularly ethically.
And I have a new appreciation for Herod's military and political acumen, even as I am repulsed by his vanity, insecurity and murderous family politics. Judah/Yehud/Judea has had such complex relationships with external empires, "subjugation" and "occupation" barely scratch the surface. There were so many alliances, voluntary submissions, pacts and tributes: Sparta, Rome, Caesar, Antony. Herod may have been a "sly fox" and a crazy one, but being crazy like a fox led him to restore the boundaries of Israel to Solomonic glory and beyond, to choose Caesar over Pompey and to get Mark Antony to overlook that he hadn't chosen him. And he had the stability and prosperity to (re)build and fortify every thing from Mamre to Masada and Hebron to Herodium. And, of course, there's the temple.
I wonder if Herod had not been so afraid of the popularity of Hasmoneans, (the descendants of the Macabbees and the last recognized priestly family with a claim to the high priesthood that the people would accept), what the world would have been like? If Herod hadn't changed his mind about making (his 17 year-old brother-in-law) Aristobolus high priest, and had him murdered, what would the relationship between Rome and Judea have been like? Into what kind of world would Jesus of Nazareth have been born a century later?
The "ifs," "if onlys" and "what ifs" are maddening!