Watch Out for the Yeast of… Herod!

We read the same verse a dozen times and miss it, then something just pops out like fireworks. This happened to me reading Mark 8:15 when going through the well-worn “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod” and the word “Herod” became its own intrigue.  We know a lot about the Pharisees, much about the Sadducees but know far less about Herod and his party, the Herodians.  But we see the hand of the Herods’ peak through the Gospels at certain points.   To understand why Jesus is warning us about Herod we need study some history. 

There were 4 biblical characters named Herod (the Great, Antipas, Archeleus and Agrippa) and an assortment of 8 other descendants who all ruled and co-ruled over parts of the Palestinian Levant from around 40 BC to 92 AD, starting with Herod the Great. 

Herod the Great is well known even in his own era because of his many huge building projects.  He built the protected harbor at Caesarea (using underwater concrete, brought by over 400 ships from Italy), numerous fortresses to strengthen the Roman frontier, but is especially known today for enlarging the Temple in Jerusalem beginning in 20 BC.  He successfully crushed bandits, secured the border against Parthians, and made Judea a significant and very profitable trading route to the east to Arabia and India.  

It is Herod the Great was a brutal and murderous ruler. He was consistent with Roman political culture, in which poison and murderous coups against rivals were just daily sport.  He murdered anyone who was a threat to his power, often based on just rumors, even his wives and children, but especially all the male descendants of the previous Hasmonean kings.  The Herod’s were despised for many reasons because of their Roman style intrigue and brutality, the high taxes they levied, their fealty to Rome, and their lack of deep Jewish genealogy (although practicing Jews, they were of mixed Jewish ancestry).  All of which made the Herod’s hated by many, but most of all the Pharisees who stressed pure Jewish roots.  

Despite the high taxes and hatred, the Herod’s were able administrators and politicians.  They were able to maintain power (a difficult task) by balancing their brutality by…

1.Herod’s were strong leaders, who maintained Law & Order.  The Herod’s were effective, strong and tough rulers. A very young Herod the Great’s earned the Romans’ while as governor of Galilee he successfully quashed bandits in the area.  Around 40BC he reconquered the area from the Parthians, then fortified and successfully defended the Roman border and trade routes. 

2. The Herod’s were economically successful.  They sponsored enormous building projects, often to placate the Jews like his expansion of the Temple.   Roman trade with India was substantial and Herod successfully steered both land and sea trade through Judea (and his tax coffers) through Gaza and Caesarea. The Herod’s were well liked by the wealthy Sadducees for improving trade and the economy, and keeping the (profitable) peace with Rome. Between dozens of huge building projects, aqueducts and improved trade, Judea was extremely prosperous during the Herodian Dynasty.

3. The Herod’s ruled by appearing religious and evoking religious themes .  Herod deliberately took the title King of Jews, a Davidic and messianic reference for popularity and power and was seen as a “messiah” by his own party. When the Magi made a claim that they were looking for the King of the Jews (Matt 2) it was tragically consistent for Herod to brutally murder all the children in Bethlehem to maintain the perception of being a savior to the Jews.   There were also frequently 2 high priests (Annas and Caiaphus at the time of Jesus ministry, see John 18:13-24) when one was often appointed by political authorities.  Since Rome also operated as a pseudo-theocracy (the Caesar’s were considered gods) the perception of divinity in order to better control the people was common.  In 44AD when during games Herod Agrippa was called a “god”, he did not object.  All of this of course incensed the Pharisees.

4. The Herod’s offered lip-service Judaism, but only used it to gain political influence, but ignored biblical personal character.  It clear when you look at all the Herod’s they were immoral and brutal in all their actions and thinking (Matthew 14:1-13).  They were willing to kill, marry and divorce for even the slightest political advantage which were not unusual for Roman politicians in their era. The Romans made killing rivals a sort of sport.  They readily took their methods and culture from Rome while only practicing Judaism for political advantage; They were Jewish in name only. They ignored in their daily lives the character that God truly desires for us to live out and the biblical principles on how to treat others.  To the Herod’s character didn’t matter, they believed they were excluded from any idea of relational morality based on the need for power and position. To them the ends justified the means.

What does Jesus mean when he warns us to… “’Be careful,” and. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.’” (Mark 8:15)?
What is the yeast of Herod?

The Pharisees and Herodian party were in constant conflict, and had nothing in common so its strange grouping them together here, but where they varied in method they were similar in effect. Both offer a false god.  Were the Pharisees emphasized righteousness through extreme personal piety (noted as self-righteous legalism today), the Herodians emphasized righteousness through political power and cooperatung with Rome.  They ruled as theocrats in order to sway the religious populace. The Herod’s attended to Jewish customs and rituals faithfully… but they lacked godly character by copying the Roman style of brutal power and control and tireless intrigue.  They feigned some kind of pseudo-Messianic deity and willingly accepted the role of a political savior. The false god of the Herodian’s is trusting in political leaders.

Jesus came in contrast as an extremely non-political figure, and was equally hated by all the Jewish political parties (except perhaps the Essenes).  His emphasis was radically different from all political parties of his day, because he preached of righteousness coming only from himself, and extended to those who are in relationship with him through faith.   The warning of Jesus about the Yeast of Herod is a simple reminder that the work of politics and the work of righteousness have nothing in common, and trusting in political power is a dangerous set of rocks that could shipwreck our faith.

The lesson’s of Herod should not be ignored today.  President Trump operates today with the pseudo-religious title of “savior” by many of his ardent followers.  Yes, people are literally calling Donald Trump our “savior” and this alone should scare the hell out of anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ, but it won’t because and its become increasingly clear that personal character and morality no longer matter much to Evangelicals in multiple studies, a shocking and rapid change from only a few years ago.   Like the Herod’s many Evangelicals today are willing to trade character and relational morals to gain and maintain political power.   Things didn’t end well for the Herod’s, and this stands as warning…

“On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. 22 They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.”   Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died” Acts 12:21-23

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