King Herod's army invades the Arabian kingdom of Nabatea. Caesar punishes Herod by ordering a census of Israel! And God sends the angel Gabriel to Zechariah in Jerusalem!
On January 1st of 9 BC, Herod the Great, King of Israel, begins the third year of a war against rebels in his own Kingdom.
The rebels are mainly Arabs, called Nabateans, living in the desert region called Trachonitis, in the Northeast part of Herod’s Israel. The reason Herod is having so much trouble defeating them is because they’re secretly getting help.
Herod knows their “secret” help is coming from the nearby Kingdom of Nabatea . He just can’t prove it!
But Herod’s real problem is Rome. Since Nabatea pays Tribute to Rome, just like Israel does, Herod can’t just attack them for no good reason.
Now, this kingdom of Nabatea is very important. Their issues with Herod & Trachonitis go back to the year 20 BC.
Here’s some important background on that...
In 20 BC, a minor king named Zenodorus ruled a small, nameless kingdom south of Syria. He ruled the regions of Ituraea, Batanea, and Trachonitis, including Gaulanitis – the Golan Heights.
Zenodorus had no heirs. So he offered to sell off pieces of his kingdom, before his death. And the Nabatean King, Odobas III, bought Trachonitis & Gaulanitis.
Now, the main reason Odobas bought Trachonitis because it sat on his northern border and most of the people living there were Nabatean Arabs. And the main reason Odobas bought Gaulanitis was to keep Herod from getting it!
The smaller region - Gaulanitis, also known as the Golan Heights – had always been the single most strategic piece of high ground in all of Palestine. Before 20 BC, Zenodorus had it. Herod wanted it for defense. But Odobas only wanted to limit Herod’s power.
So Herod wanted the Golan for position. But he knew Odobas was buying it, along with Trachonitis. Herod knew this would give the Arabs all the land east of the Jordan valley. And if Odobas decided to buy the rest of Zenodorus’ kingdom, then Nabatea would surround Israel on three sides!
Herod could not let this happen.
So he went to his friend, the Emperor.
In 20 BC, when Zenodorus died, Augustus Caesar just happened to be in Syria. Herod went to see him, and Augustus gave Herod all of Zenodorus’ lands. And that was that.
The Nabateans were furious about the loss. Bad enough they lost the strategic point at the Golan, bad enough they lost a majority Arab region in Trachonitis, but even worse, the money they’d paid for those lands was gone forever.
Odobas and his Nabateans knew they had to abide by Caesar’s decision. So the lands went to Herod. But secretly, privately, hatefully… every Nabatean alive in 20 BC vowed to hate Herod and his descendents for the rest of their lives.
Now, this land dispute is the first big problem.
Then, in 15 BC – about five years after the land dispute – the Nabatean King Odobas sent his chief minister, Syllaeus, on a diplomatic visit to see Herod in Israel.
Syllaeus did a good job making friends with Herod. In fact, Syllaeus fell in love with Herod’s sister Salome – and she with him! Syllaeus asked Herod’s permission to marry Salome, but refused to be circumcised as a Jew, when Herod demanded it. So Herod forbade the marriage.
Now Syllaeus had a personal reason to hate Herod. Meanwhile, Syllaeus was growing in power because the Nabatean King Odobas was getting very old. The King was letting his chief adviser run the Kingdom, more and more. And, remember, Syllaeus hated Herod very deeply.
So, that failed engagement is the second big problem.
Finally, sometime back in those days, Odobas actually asked Herod for a very large loan, for some purpose. And Herod agreed to the loan.
But by this time, Odobas was getting old, and Syllaeus was running the Kingdom for him. So every time Odobas told Syllaeus to make a payment on Herod’s loan, the jilted chief minister just pocketed the payment.
These non-payments on the loan is problem number three.
And on top of all that, a War broke out!
In 12 BC, after Herod had been ruling Trachonitis for 8 years, the Arabs in the region rose up against Israel and tried to revolt. They were fierce fighters, and the rebellion was difficult to stamp out.
For three years, Herod fought battle after battle against the Trachonite Arabs. Meanwhile, Syllaeus the Nabatean was secretly paying for the Trachonites to keep up their rebellion. (Mainly, he paid them from the money Odobas meant for Herod!)
So Syllaeus was supporting the rebellion of Trachonitis with Herod’s own money!
Before long, Herod figured out what was going on. But he couldn’t prove it. And he couldn’t invade Nabatea – because both kingdoms were allies of Rome.
So Herod went to see Rome’s Governor.
In 11 and 10 BC, that Governor was a man named Marcus Titius. But Marcus refused to help Herod, after hearing his case.
So Herod went on fighting against the Trachonite Nabateans. By now, they were even making little strikes and raids into Judea. And their cause was still being funded with Herod’s own money.
So the fighting went on from 12 to 9 BC... which is where we were before this flashback started.
So now, back to 9 BC!
Right around July 1st in 9 BC, a new Roman Governor came to town. His name was Sentius Saturninus.
Herod went to Antioch himself, early that July, hoping to meet the new Governor. This time, instead of complaining about the rebellion and the secret base – Herod got smart!
This time, Herod only complained about the money!
Herod told Saturninus about the missed loan payments that Nabatea hadn’t been sending him.
The Governor sent for Syllaeus – who was also in Antioch at the time! (Lots of people always came to meet the new Governor at the beginning of his term. It was important to make a good connection as quickly as possible.)
So Saturninus talked to Syllaeus about the money. Syllaeus promised to go home and pay Herod immediately. So Herod sent some men to go with him, to get the money.
When Syllaeus refused to pay Herod’s men, they went and told Herod. Then the King sent a messenger at top speed to Antioch, who came back just as fast with the Governor’s response.
Herod was given permission to enter Nabatea.
Saturninus told Herod to take a small group of soldiers into Nabatea – just enough to protect the King himself, so Herod could go demand the money personally from Odobas.
By early August , Herod’s troops were marching into Nabatea. The two Kings met, Odobas gave Herod the money, and Herod marched his troops right back out again.
No problem! But wait...
Syllaeus the Nabatean had seen Herod coming! As soon as the first troop crossed the boundaries into Nabatea, Syllaeus left the country.
Syllaeus fled to Gaza, and sailed straight for Rome!
Of course, he had to report the “invasion”!
Herod found out what Syllaeus was planning and sent some of his own men to Rome, behind Syllaeus. (They all left sometime in mid-August.)
In Rhaepta that Autumn, the rebels decide to go back to their former lives – at least for the winter.
With Syllaeus gone, they’d lost a lot of their motivation. And with Herod paid back, the rebels had lost all their funding.
So Herod finally got to take a deep breath. He’d made it to the end of the 3-year long Trachonite Rebellion.
But a brand new trouble was on the way.
With a head start, Syllaeus beats Herod’s men to Italy. Luckily, all of them manage to reach port there just before the close of sailing season (mid-October).
In Rome, Syllaeus arrived and reported an invasion, which got him in to see Augustus Caesar fairly quickly. Syllaeus was crafty, and told his version of things in a way that made Augustus truly angry with Herod.
Herod's men arrived later, and saw Augustus. The Emperor was so furious he wouldn't listen to them at all, but demanded the answer to one simple question: "Did Herod invade Nabatea?" When the men from Herod tried to begin, Augustus demanded, "Yes or No?" They answered "Yes" and Augustus threw everyone out.
Augustus had a harsh letter sent to Herod that said, basically - you were my friend, now you are my subject.
(Since it was winter, he sent the letter overland. He used his personal chain of messenger stations, which actually WAS like an ancient postal-office, but only for the Emperor and his Governors.)
Hoping to fix things, Herod's men got winter quarters in Rome, and waited to see Augustus again. So Syllaeus did, also.
They all wound up waiting a long time, mostly because the Emperor himself had been having a very difficult year.
Augustus' wife, Julia Livia, had given him two step-sons, Drusus and Tiberius. Both of them had become great army Generals. The brothers were very close, but Drusus had a better personality, and was much more popular than Tiberius.
In the Spring of 9 BC, Tiberius had come back to Rome to celebrate his victory over Pannonia (north of Greece). Rome's Senate gave Tiberius awards, and Rome had a big parade. Right after the parade, they got very bad news.
Word arrived that Drusus (who was fighting in Germany) had broken his leg, and the leg was infected. Augustus sent Tiberius, who got to Germany just in time to see his brother die. And then, with a detachment of soldiers, Tiberius walked in front of Drusus' coffin, through the Alps, all the way back to Rome, on foot.
That was how much Tiberius loved his brother. And Augustus was even more upset about it than Tiberius was. And, as it happened, Syllaeus and Herod's men arrived in Rome right around the time of Drusus' funeral!
Drusus was survived by his wife, Antonia the Younger, and by three of their children - who will all be important later on:
Germanicus (now age 7) will be a great military hero.
Livia Juila, called Livilla (now age 4) is going to marry her cousin, Tiberius' son Drusus.
And little Claudius (now age 1) will someday become Emperor!
Augustus was deeply saddened by Drusus' death. He later said he lost much more by losing Drusus, than all he gained by Drusus' victories.
After meeting with the two sides over Nabatea, Augustus went outside the city and mourned Drusus all winter long. (Which is why Herod's men and Syllaeus had to wait all winter to see him again.)
But before Caesar went into mourning, as mentioned above, he sent a letter to Herod. He also sent another letter to the Governor of Syria, Saturninus.
This second letter had one simple command. The goal of this command was to punish Herod and to make Rome stronger. And it helps to understand that Caesar was always looking for ways (or excuses) to increase the power and wealth of the Empire. And Herod's invasion of Nabatea was a really good excuse! The letter to Saturninus arrived in Syria near the very end of this year, 9 BC.
The message simply said, "Prepare to take a Census of Herod's kingdom."
And so Saturninus began to prepare.
Saturninus will spend the whole next year, 8 BC, preparing for a census to be held in 7 BC. But those events will have to wait, for the next two chapters.
Near the end of the year, in Israel, Herod got Caesar's letter.
Herod realized the men he'd sent were not up to the task of smothing things over with the Emperor. So Herod turned to his closest, most trusted advisor, a gifted and capable man named Nicolas of Damascus.
In late December, Herod sent Nicolas on a long, overland voyage to Rome.
We will see what Nicolas can do there, next year...
One other VERY important event happened in 9 BC, but we need to back up a few months, to September.
And we need to go over the Jewish Calendar, a little bit.
Israel always began their "fiscal year" around September. Now, the true New Year's Day was Nissan 1st, in the spring. But the month of Tishri, in the fall, was the New Year for government, lending and farming. (In Israel, farmers started planting in November, and the sowing harvest began in the spring. But fruits and vines were ripe in Autumn.)
The planting season is why God told Moses to start every Sabbatical Year on Tishri 1st. (The "Sabbatical Year" was the Year of Rest, every 7th year.)
Now here's the first point!
This Autumn was the END of a Sabbath Year. No one in Israel (who obeyed the law) had been allowed to plant or reap for the past 12 Hebrew months.
That also means that THIS Autumn was the beginning of a new "7-year cycle". (These cycles are sometimes called "weeks".)
By the way, this new cycle is the 65th "week" since Zerubbabel and Ezra rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem. And it is the 64th "week" since (the one when) Artaxerxes decreed that Ezra and Nehemiah could rebuild the defensive walls of Jerusalem, too.
This is the first of six cycles that will see Jesus Christ walk the Earth as a Man.
Remember, in six days, God made creation.
In these six cycles, God will make a New Creation.
But we'll get to that...
Anyway, the point (at least for the moment) is that a new "fiscal year" began in September, 9 BC. And that's going to bring us into the next part of our story...
After one more quick bit of info.
The "fiscal year" in Israel also affected the Temple priests. It re-started their duty roster. (Now, the duty roster itself may not be exciting, but it sets up the timing of the next few events.)
Here's why the duty roster was important:
Basically, after centuries of being a nation, Israel had too many priests!
Of course, it was a great honor to be a priest, since only a man who descended from Aaron, the brother of Moses, could be a priest. But by this time, Aaron had lots of descendants! All of these people were divided up into 24 "families" (also called "priestly divisions").
Naturally, each man from those 24 familes wanted the honor of serving at the temple.
But they had to take turns.
So the duty roster had each family serving for a week at a time. On the week of a major festival, all 24 families had the opportunity, and when the festival was over, the "on duty" family would finish their "week". That way, each rotation of the schedule lasted for 25 or 26 weeks (including one or two festival weeks).
Since everyone knew the schedule, priests from other cities could travel into Jerusalem for their duty, and the city was never overwhelmed with off-duty priests, sitting around, hoping they might get a chance to serve.
Fascinating, isn't it? (Oh, it gets better.)
They also had to work around the Lunar Calendar. (Isn't that thrilling?)
Really, the Jewish Calendar is easy to understand. It's just that the months and holidays slide around every year, when you put them on top of the Roman Calendar. (Like Easter!) The only hard part was the Jewish Leap Years.
The Roman Year is always 365 or 366 days long (thanks to Julius Caesar). But the Hebrew Year had SIX different lengths! Some years, two of their months could be an extra day long (so a New Year didn't start on Saturday). Also every 3rd or 4th year was an extra MONTH long! (Clear as mud, right?) Ceratin years were 324, 325, 326, 353, 354, or 355 days long. That's a 31 day difference, from longest to shortest.
(Just wait, there's a point around here somewhere...)
The point is - it would have been easy to lose track of the rotating roster. But they had a simple solution.
They just re-set the roster each year, on the "fiscal year".
And this year, that was on September 16th.
Keep that in mind, as we get back to our story...
It's time to meet one particular priest.
At this time, in the hill country of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the family of Abijah. His wife, Elizabeth was also descended from Aaron. They had no children, for they were both very old, and her womb was barren.
That Autumn, Zechariah's week of duty came up on Friday, November 8th. He came into town from the hill country that day, and his duty began at sundown, the start of the Sabbath Day.
All the other priests of Abijah were also on duty that week. As always, there were many men ready to serve, and few real duties to be done. So they drew lots. Not everyone got to serve. In fact, it was common for some men to wait all week, "on duty", and not do a thing!
There were the daily sacrifices. And there were other minor duties. And then there was the "sacrifice" of the incense.
Twice a day, morning and evening, a priest would go into the temple (the outer part, not the holy of holies), and place a shovel full of powder into a special fire-pit, and burn it. It was a very simple task.
As usual, Zechariah wasn't sure he'd even get to serve. But he waited.
And then, one day that week, Zechariah drew the lot!
Zechariah was excited enough, just having this rare chance to enter the Temple. But when Zechariah went inside, the old priest got the surprise of his life!
After he went in alone, another man popped up out of nowhere, standing right next to the incense altar. The man was glowing like fire. Zechariah could see him, but see right through him, too.
Of course, Zechariah had the proper and natural reaction - sheer terror.
So the see-through, glowing man said, "Don't be afraid, Zecharias. Your prayer is heard and your wife Elizabeth is going to give you a son. You're going to call him John."
During the first few seconds - some time right after "Don't be afraid" - the old man decided this must be an angel! Also, the fact that he wasn't dead yet was giving Zechariah a small bit of comfort.
The angel went on, telling Zechariah all about how John was going to be great in God's eyes. The angel said John would speak to Israel in the power of Elijah, and make people ready for the Lord.
The details made Zechariah feel safe, because this was a great honor.
His mind kicked in, and his religious nature wanted to ask for a sign. He said, "How do I know you're right? I'm an old man, and my wife is very old too."
So the angel said, "I am Gabriel..."
At that moment, before Gabriel's next word, Zechariah instantly knew this was serious.
Everyone knew Gabriel was the angel God sent to Daniel in Babylon. Gabriel was the one who told Daniel about Persia and Greece, and a dark King that would rise after them.
Every good Jew who attended the Synagogue knew that Gabriel was the one who told Daniel about the sixty-nine sabbath-year cycles. The 69 "weeks" that would pass between the rebuilding of Jerusalem's wall... and the coming of Messiah!
The very mention of the name "Gabriel" told Zechariah this was much bigger than he could imagine.
Truly, he had no idea what to think.
Now, Priests were not scholars, scribes or law-teachers. Priests were not experts in scripture. Priests performed simple duties, like sacrifices. The main qualification was their bloodline, and that they not be deformed or defiled. Priests didn't even have to be educated.
Still, Zechariah knew there was lots of talk around Israel, about Daniel's predictions. He knew there were lots of different opinions, but he knew what some Jews were saying.
Some were saying that Rome was the 4th beast of Daniel. Some were saying that Herod was the dark king of the "latter times". Some were saying that Daniel's 69 "weeks" were going to end and bring Messiah to Israel soon - probably some time in the next 40 years!
Others were saying other things. There were LOTS of opinions.
So Zechariah himself had NO IDEA what the truth was going to be. But he knew the name "Gabriel" had something to do with it all.
And that one thought - the idea that THIS was as serious as God's future plans for Israel - that heavy thought held onto Zechariah's mind as Gabriel kept talking.
"I stand in the presence of God. I was sent to talk to you and give you this wonderful news. But now look!"
The angel's tone was so stern that Zechariah was wishing he hadn't spoken at all... which made the next part very fitting.
Gabriel went on, "You're going to be mute. You won't be able to make words until the day all this happens, because you didn't believe my words - but my words will come true, when it's time."
The very next instant, Gabriel just wasn't there anymore.
And the old priest just sat there, feeling things that cannot be described.
Zechariah stayed in the Temple alone for a long time.
Outside, the other priests were amazed that Zechariah had been in the Temple for so long.
Then they saw his face, and asked if he was okay.
Zechariah couldn't answer. But they kept asking. He tried to make motions. It wasn't helping.
Other people came up, just to see what was going on there, outside the Temple.
Everyone kept asking Zechariah questions. Before long, he was waving his hands around, moaning with crazy expressions in his eyes.
The other priests decided he'd seen a vision. But they didn't know what to do about it. At last, they left Zechariah alone.
Without a speaking voice, Zechariah was now "blemished". He couldn't draw any more lots to perform any more duties.
But the mute old man stayed in Jerusalem anyway, until his week was over.
Then, Sunday morning (after the Sabbath), he went home to his wife.
Elizabeth, of course, had been doing nothing special for a week. Then her husband came home mute.
She couldn't understand him at all. Clearly he was deeply upset, but Elizabeth had no way to figure out why.
On the way home, Zechariah had been through every possible thought and emotion about seeing Gabriel. He had settled on two things.
Doubt. And anger at God.
One part of Zechariah was angry at being punished. And one part of him still had serious trouble believing that his very old wife could get pregnant. (At their age, he strongly doubted Elizabeth would even be interested in trying!)
Zechariah's anger, doubt and humiliation all mixed together... and turned into pouting. And, naturally, Elizabeth still had to deal with him.
And that was how they spent the last several weeks of 9 BC.
Elizabeth had no idea, and Zechariah didn't really know, either...
But next year, they are going to see a true miracle.
There is one final thing to notice before we leave 9 BC.
As we saw earlier, this year began a new 7-year cycle. It's now the 64th of Daniel's 69 "weeks". (The 65th since Ezra & Zerubbabel.)
About 20 months into this cycle, Jesus Christ will be born in Bethlehem. So this is the first of the cycles of His time. (The sixth cycle, of His time, will be the 69th of Daniel and the 70th since Ezra.)
And THIS YEAR - in 9 BC - God began a new work, at the start of a new cycle. God chose this time. It happened to be the first chance He had to get Zechariah into the Temple, after the resting year ended. After the new cycle began.
God chose this time.
The very first event of the New Testament era was when Gabriel, whom God sent to Daniel, was sent to John's dad... preparing the way for Messiah.
Truly, THIS was a beginning.
And it keeps on beginning.
One year at a time...