The camel really stole the show at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in my opinion. While Mary, Joseph and the heavenly host gaze reverently at Jesus in the manger, the camel is looking in the other direction and laughing, like he’s making jokes with the visitors who walk by.
We have camels in our nativity scene at home, too, even though there’s no mention of them in the Bible. The camels go along with the three guys in fancy clothes, referred to as either the three wise men or three kings. These guys are included in the gospel of Matthew, described as wise men from the East who followed the rising of a new star.
(Side note: Matthew does not tell us how many wise men there were. They brought three gifts, so tradition has assumed that three of them made the trip. But they brought expensive gifts. Being wise and all, those men might have pooled their resources to buy the gifts, in which case there could have been scores of wise men. I don’t have enough room for that many on my coffee table, however, so we’re going to stick with the traditional three.)
Since the wise men came from the East, they are assumed to be riding camels, and since they brought posh presents, some have assumed them to be kings. But even if they were not kings, there is one earthly king who played a big role in the story—our villain, King Herod.
Because they were wise, the men from the East actually humbled themselves enough to ask for directions when they got to Jerusalem. Matthew’s account does not specify where they started asking for the child who was born king of the Jews. If they were wealthy and influential, they may have gone to the palace, especially since they were seeking a king. But even if they started at the iron age equivalent of a gas station, word quickly got to King Herod that he had a new king to watch out for.
This was a problem for Herod, who by all accounts was a violently insecure man by that time. After starting his political career as governor of Galilee, he was forced to abandon his holding and flee to Rome for security during an invasion. The Romans sent him back a few years later with a bigger title—King of Judea—and an army to help him hang onto the title, as well as his life. So, his source of power and maybe life itself came directly from the Romans. He needed their support because in Jerusalem, he was viewed as an outsider and not a true Jew because his family was of Arab origin.
For years, however, he managed well in a rather precarious position. He supported the losing side in the Roman civil war and yet the winner re-affirmed his kingship of Judea and even gave back land taken by his enemy Cleopatra (yes, that Cleopatra). He built magnificent cities and fortresses. In Jerusalem, he built a palace and rebuilt the Temple. But he was insecure and became increasingly mentally unstable as he aged. He murdered his favorite wife and two of his sons, as well as various other family members, because he perceived them as a threat. And then he got even worse.
By the time those wise men arrived looking for the new king, the old king was a wreck in every sense of the word. He asked the religious leaders what the wise men were talking about, and they referred to prophecies of a new leader rising from Bethlehem. So, he sent the wise men on to Bethlehem, where they arrived just in time to pose for the baby pictures. (Side note: historians believe the wise men may not have arrived until almost two years after the birth of Jesus, and Matthew says they found him in a house rather than a stable, so those camels really shouldn’t be there in front of the manger on Christmas morning.)
While the wise men brought gold, frankincense and myrrh, Herod planned to honor the new king in the tradition of his own family. In other words, he planned to kill him. The wise men were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so the wise men did not give away the location of the baby. Herod solved that problem by sending orders out to kill every male child in the Bethlehem area under the age of two. But the killers missed their target, because an angel warned Joseph to take the family to Egypt.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph remained in Egypt until Herod’s death in 4 BCE. (Side note: if you read the year as BC, “Before Christ,” then Jesus is moving back from Egypt four years before his own birth. I presume that is one reason they now refer to the year as “Before Common Era.” But really the change probably has more to do with the desire to avoid offending non-Christians)
So, King Herod plays a key role in the Christmas story, and he is often portrayed in Christmas plays, though he never gets to pose in the nativity tableau. Since his presence there is no more historically incorrect than those camels, I decided this year he could join our nativity scene. He’s right there next to the dinosaur my daughter added last year.
Maybe we don’t need to pay homage to Herod, but we should recognize the role his insecurity plays in the Christmas story. Those young boys killed by Herod were the first to die for Jesus. The concept of sacrifice is pretty alien in our culture, but a sacrifice is a noble and heroic concept and should not be overlooked.
I will continue to enjoy the camels, particle board stable, and every other historically incorrect depiction of the Christmas story on my coffee table. Once in a while, I hope they will remind me of the reason for the season and inspire me to see if there are ways I can help bring joy to the world.
There are many online and print sources of information about King Herod and aspects of life in the Roman world at the time of Jesus’s birth. Some online examples include: http://www.livius.org/articles/person/herod-the-great/, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Herod-king-of-Judaea, and https://www.nationalgeographic.com/archaeology-and-history/magazine/2016/11-12/king-herod-judaea-holy-land-rome-new-testament/
If you like to read Christmas stories featuring dysfunctional families, you might enjoy one of my short novels like Bride of Belznickel