Many people look forward to one particular day of the year. As others get older, they would rather not remember it. Secretly, though, they probably appreciate it when people wish them a happy birthday. Birthdays are special holidays. They are not unique, but in a way they are. Even those people who know another person who shares their birthday have a certain affinity toward each other. Some of us grew up trying to find what famous people shared our birthdays. That was a harder pursuit in the days before the internet searches. It was disappointing if all you could find was George Westinghouse, the inventor of the air brake. It’s much more interesting knowing you share a birthday with anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl, actors Jeremy Sisto, Carole Lombard, and Janet Gaynor, or a great opera singer like Jenny Lind.
The Bible does not often mention birthday parties, but makes two exceptions. One is in the Old Testament and one is mentioned twice in the New Testament.
Joseph was in prison. He interpreted dreams for the cupbearer and baker of Pharaoh’s court, who had been thrown into jail with him.
And it came to pass the third day, which was Pharaoh's birthday, that he made a feast unto all his servants: and he lifted up the head of the chief butler and of the chief baker among his servants. (Gen 40:20)
Exactly as Joseph had interpreted, he lifted up the head of the cupbearer and restored him to his position. Also as predicted, he lifted the baker’s head off his body.
The other birthday party was thrown by Herod. “And when a convenient day was come, that Herod on his birthday made a supper to his lords, high captains, and chief estates of Galilee.” (Mk 6:21) It was a fateful party, because “when Herod's birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod.” (Matt 14:6) Herod made a rash vow which resulted in his birthday being the death day for John the Baptist.
Some people have noted that both of these mentions of birthdays were for unbelievers. They say Christians should not celebrate their birthdays because the only examples in the Bible were pagans. This is not exactly true, however. While Herod was technically an Edomite (Idumaean), he was King of Judea. He was a believer in God, although an imperfect one. (OK, a highly imperfect one.) We cannot deduce God’s reaction to birthday celebrations from these two instances.
What we can deduce may or may not make much of a difference to most of us. It is notable that these birthdays were kings’ birthdays. In a time when there was no universal calendar, time was often measured from the birth of a particular king. Thus we find, “in the fifth year of king Rehoboam,” (1 Kng 14:25) or “in the twentieth year of Jeroboam” (1 Kng 15:9) It would be expected that a king would celebrate his birthday, because that meant another year on the calendar. They would hope for many birthdays.
The other thing to notice is that these kings threw their own birthday parties. In American society we hope that somebody cares enough to plan a party for us. If they don’t, we just don’t have a party. Maybe we should learn from Pharaoh and Herod. If nobody throws a party for you, just throw your own. It might be wise, though, to let your guests know that nobody will be beheaded.