Herod: The Man Who Had To Be King

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A Book Review

Herod: The Man Who Had To Be King gives life to the complexity and drama of the Middle East—two-thousand years ago—while at the same time providing historical and cultural insights into the continuing struggles of today.

Yehuda Shulewitz provides dynamic characters who feel like real people, but most of them come right out of the history books. Herod, of course, but also his family, the rulers of Rome (Mark Antony, Octavian and Cassius), the intelligent and beguiling Cleopatra, the Hasmonean Judean royal family, with its internecine struggles for power, and the rulers of Parthia. The novel provides personalities, interactions, conversations to flesh out the historical figures of the narrative.

In the process of telling a gripping story, this excellent historical novel reveals the complex internal and external conditions that led to Herod’s rise to power in Israel 2,000 years ago. Shulewitz sculpts Herod in three-dimensions, showing an ambitious and fanatical human being willing to stop at nothing to obtain his goal of ruling Judea. Yet, Herod remains fully human here, and at times a reader sympathizes with his emotions and his personal side, even while being horrified at the lies, murders, assassinations, and other immoral actions that take him to power.

A solid sub-plot portrays the more humble life of farmers and town folk and the impact on their lives of the “great events” of this historical conflict, giving perspective to the main plot and its larger-than-life characters. Shulewitz does not show Herod and the other “great leaders” in a vacuum, and this helps readers to connect the historical drama to today. All the historical events, many of the conflicts, and the internal and external struggles in and around what is now Israel provide useful understandings for analyzing the Middle East conflicts of today. As in Roman times, outside powers have pursued power and influence over a strategically and economically important region in their own webs of intrigue, with little concern for the people who live there. The sub-plot shows this clearly.

This book is a page-turning novel, compelling readers to care about characters while following the action. Yet, it is quietly told from human perspectives. It conveys the interwoven intrigues and knotty relations of the people who battle over the thin sliver of the Middle East, known then as Judea, and its capital city, Jerusalem. It’s well worth the read both as historical fiction, and as insight into the ongoing conflict over that thin strip of land today.

Read my most recent book of poems, Midwest / Mid-East exploring my Midwest perspectives and new, Mid-East insights now that I live in Israel.

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