The Handmaiden Prophecy

“Blessed Art Thou Among Women” by Walter Rane. “Unto Us a Son is Given…and his mother shall be called Mary.” Mosiah 3:5, 8.

So we know from the last post that an Essen prophet predicted that a young Herod would grow up to be the king and that certain Pharisees were making prophecies with life and death consequences during the last days of Herod about who would inherit the kingdom from him. Daniel’s prophecy also seems to have been revived, predicting that a “prince shall come” that will have “all things in his power.” I’ve even suggested that the virgin prophecy in the New Testament for Mary could fall into this same category of political prophecy about the kingdom…. stressing her virginity as the gospels do.

Following Josephus’s narrative, he now shares a more clear-cut prophecy; this one for Pheroras’ wife, the culprit in the “abuse of the virgins” trial. “Pheroras’ wife” was the second wife of Pheroras, Herod’s brother. When Herod was made king of the Jews, he had secured for his brother a political alliance to a previously unheard-of unnamed sister (or half-sister) of Queen Mariamne I which helped Herod “beg” a tetrarchy for Pheroras “beyond Jordan” from Caesar Augustus. But when the princess died childless, Herod betrothed Pheroras to one of his own daughters by Mariamne I, a prime alliance, but Pheroras wouldn’t marry her. He married a maid servant instead:

…for he was overcome with the charms of his (new) wife to such a degree of madness, that he despised the king’s daughter, to whom he had been betrothed, and wholly bent his mind to the other, who had been but a servant…Antiquities of the Jews XVI.VII.3

Herod considered his brother’s refusal to marry his daughter an act of treason. He hated “the servant” so much that her name was never uttered in the court record—even though her daughter will receive the very first betrothal to the eldest son of the eldest son of Mariamne I. (These betrothals are very complicated; just trying to keep it digestible. See chart in previous post.)

But…I think that Pheroras had ambitions of his own and an alliance with this “maid servant” was worth having both Herod and his nephew and heir to the kingdom, Antipater mad at him. One has to think, looking at the role of women, that Pheroras’ handmaiden was a threat to Herod’s kingdom in some way and yet he still honored her son and daughter in the betrothal warsWars of the Jews I.XXVIII.1,2-4

And then Josephus, bless him again, tells us why Herod restrained himself from simply having Pheroras’ wife killed; she had a powerful following of her own.

…for there was a certain sect of men that were Jews, who valued themselves highly upon the exact skill they had in the law of their fathers, and made men believe they were highly favored by God, by whom this set of women (Pheroras’ wife, her mother and her sister) were inveigled. These are those that are called the sect of the Pharisees, who were in a capacity of greatly opposing kings. Antiquities of the Jews XVII.II.4. (underline mine…see below)

Herod demanded that the sect take a vow of loyalty to him and they refused. Herod then imposed a large fine on them and Pheroras’ wife paid it….

In order to requite which kindness of hers, since they were believed to have the foreknowledge of things to come by divine inspiration, they foretold how God had decreed that Herod’s government should cease, and his posterity should be deprived of it; but that the kingdom should come to her and Pheroras, and to their children. Antiquities of the Jews XVII.II.4. (Italic “her” mine)

A prophecy for Pheroras’ wife…the handmaiden. Once Pheroras’ wife had the prophecy, she and her mother and her sister took over the harem and “inveigled” Antipater…

…while Antipater had cunningly encompassed him about by a company of women, whom he placed as guards about him; for Pheroras was greatly enslaved to his wife, and to her mother, and to her sister; and this notwithstanding the hatred (Herod) bare them, for the indignities they had offered to his virgin (grand)daughters. Yet did he bear them… Antiquities of the Jews XVII.4

A Prophecy for a Handmaiden

The term used for Pheroras’ wife was translated as “maid servant.”  She may well have been another version of the word, a “handmaid” to Pheroras’ first wife, the sister of Mariamne the Queen…and therefore in his household. The term “handmaiden” was an honorable one used by royal women to refer to themselves when speaking to their king/husband. Earlier Bathsheba spoke thus to King David:

And Bathsheba went in unto the king into the chamber:..and she said unto him, My lord, thou swarest by the Lord thy God unto thine handmaid, saying, Assuredly Solomon thy son shall reign after me, and he shall sit upon thy throne…(King I:10-17)

Now read this prophecy in the New Testament’s Gospel According to Luke addressed to a “her.”

And the angel came in unto her, and said, “Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women…Fear not for thou has found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in the womb, and bring forth a son…He shall be great and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne…And (she) said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord (King); be it unto me according to thy word… Luke 1:28-38

Note the exact words “highly favored” I underlined in the passages above about “that certain sect” who made the prophecy for Pheroras’ wife and who saw themselves as “highly favored.” Put in its context, the passage used by Luke could just as easily have originally referred to Pheroras’ wife, the handmaiden/maid servant. If the Pharisees were looking for a prophecy out of Isaiah for her—one who had been a handmaiden and then risen to being in line for the kingdom, this is a good one:

And the people shall take them, and bring them to their place: and the house of Israel shall possess them in the land of the LORD for servants and handmaids: and they shall take them captives, whose captives they were; and they shall rule over their oppressors. (Isaiah 14:2)

Luke also includes a passage that scholars feel was an old Hasmonean war chant.*  The Catholic Church calls it the “Magnificat.” Luke has Mary speak the lines even though there is a debate going on as to whether they might instead belong to Elizabeth whose story Luke and only Luke includes (more later) before he tells Mary’s birth story. What is odd about putting the words in Mary’s mouth is that while our Mary may have fallen to a “low degree,” she did not “depose the mighty…”

For he has looked upon his servant in her lowliness…He has deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to high places…Luke 1:46-52

That line fits better the story of Pheroras’ wife and I will attempt to show in the next post why it fits her and why she was such a threat to Herod…and why she had fallen to a “low degree.”

*See The Birth of the Messiah, A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke by Raymond Brown, Doubleday NY 1977…for one, who goes through the Magnificat word for word and brings up the issue that it was probably meant for Elizabeth as the “she’ in the psalm/chant…as he had already made use of her story even before telling Mary’s. In my theory, though, the “she” Pheroras’ wife.

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