For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. Mark 6:18-19
An Overshadowing Evil
The story of John the Baptist’s death under Herod in Galilee foreshadows the coming death of Jesus under the powers that rule in Jerusalem. In Mark’s gospel, this episode interrupts the story of the first apostolic mission. The story of Herod and John is wedged between Jesus sending his disciples and their return in verse 6:30. Herod hears about Jesus’ ministry and thinks that John has come back to life. Mark then tells the story of Herod and John in the form of a flashback. The story of Herod and John, then, is out of sequence. The first question that one must ask is, “Why is it here?”
This abrupt shift in the story – in both tone and content – are meant to jar the reader and prepare the reader for Jesus’ coming conflict at the Passover. Like John, Jesus will criticize those in power, who will then put him to death. Those criticized by both John and Jesus are living lives far removed from the common people among whom Jesus circulates. The contrast between of a king’s royal banquet – with feasting and dancing and chopping off heads – with the little ones of Jesus – sent out without bread or money or even a spare shirt- to proclaim the good news of the kingdom, to heal and to cast out demons – couldn’t be clearer.
This, then, is the world into which Jesus sent his discples. For Mark’s literary purposes, this is the world of pure evil. If this were a film, this scene would be accompanied by Darth Vader’s chilling theme music and it would take place on the Death Star. It is a dark world, bloody, decadent and cruel. This is the world of the Herods, and it casts an ominous shadow over Jesus and his disciples.
The Herod Family
The Herod of Mark 6 is Herod Antipas, the now 50-year-old son of Herod the Great. Herod had ruled in Galilee – under Roman approval – for many years.
Do you know about the Herod family? Take a deep breath. You can’t tell your Herods without a scorecard.
Herod the Great. Herod the Great was a ruthless political climber whose power was based in Rome. He had 10 wives and more than 15 children. When I say he was ruthless, I mean it. He executed his own wives and children if he thought they challenged his power. This was the man to whom the wise men came and who murdered the infants of Bethlehem.
One of Herod’s wives was Mariamne, the mother oof Aristobulus. Aristobulus was the father of Herodias (in our story) and Agrippia I. Agrippa eventually became king of Judea and father of Agrippa II and Bernice, who show up in the book of Acts.
Another of Herod’s wives was also named Mariamne. She was the mother of Herod Philip, who was really sort of a nobody as Herods go. Herod Philip was the husband of Herodias (in our story) and the father of Salome (the dancing daughter in our story, also named Herodias by Mark but named Salome by the historian Josephus).
Yet another of Herod’s wives was Malthace, the mother of Archelaus who ruled Judea for a while but was then deposed by Rome. Another of Mathace’s sons was Antipas, whom Rome gave the right to call himself Herod. This is the Herod of our reading from Mark.
Still another of Herod’s wives was Cleopatra (not that Cleopatra, but a descendant), who was mother to Philip who became Tetrarch of the Decapolis. He later married Salome (the dancing daughter in the story.
Is it all clear now – the Herods, the Philips, the Herodias, and Salmoe? Clear as mud? There sure was a lot of marrying in the family back then. And a lot of people in the family with similar names.
Herod Meets Herodias
Let me see if I can put this simply. On a business trip to Rome, Herod Antipas met and fell in love with Herodias. She was his cousin and the wife of one of is half-brothers named Philip with whom they had a daughter named Salome. Despite the fact that both Herod and Herodias were already married, Herod promised to marry her. Herod was married to the daughter of an Arabian king named Aretas who learned about Herod’s intentions and went running home to daddy (who, by the way, eventually went to war with Herod over this and defeated Herod’s army. The Jewish population said God was getting back at Herod for what he did to John). Herodias and Salome came to live with Herod, and thus the stage is set for our story. Clear now?
John the Baptist Objects
Into this situation, John the Baptizer came and said to the king: there’s something wrong here. The Law prohibited a man from marrying his brother’s wife except in the case of levirate marriage. If a man died childless, his brother could marry his widow to preserve the family name. That was not the case here, so the basic prohibition applied.
Now it’s hard to jump directly from the Old Testament laws to our situation. In some ways, the Old Testament was more permissive than contemporary law; in other ways, it was more restrictive. While we are not bound by Old Testament law per se, this passage does make it hard to accept the claim that the New Testament is not interested in a private matter like marriage. For Jesus, remember, the bottom line was found in Genesis 2 and God’s intention in creation: one man, one woman, in permanent union, intimacy and openness. This is God’s intended context for sexual intimacy and this is the context for parenting.
There are, in fact, even some Christians who dismiss the moral aspects of John’s criticisms. They point out that Josephus discusses only Herod’s fear of John’s political influence. Within the gospel of Mark, however, Herod and Herodias took John’s criticism of their moral choices personally. Mark says that Herodias held a death grudge against John.
Christian morality certainly concerns things like how we treat those in need and how we try to live in peace with our neighbors, but it concerns personal moral choices as well. You can’t pick and choose which of God’s laws you think are important. You can’t pick and choose which you are going to follow when it suits you.
Herod does a Bad, Bad Thing
So the king arrested him, and when the king’s daughter, the royal princess, did a hoochee coochee dance at a state dinner, the king had John’s head brought into the royal banquet on a platter for the amusement of his guests.
That’s the story, isn’t it? Am I reading too much into the story to envision a depraved, drunken, sexually charged atmosphere at the banquet? We know that ancient royal banquets were not unfamiliar with such decadence. I find it hard to imagine that the king is chopping off heads after an exquisite production of Swan Lake or The Nutcracker. We’re supposed to find this disgusting. I’m sure that at one time I could have laughed at the image of John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Recent events have reminded us that such evil is real and not a cartoon.
But come on, is the king really such a bad guy? Darth Vader, remember, first appeared as pure evil. Black suit. Faceless. Mechanical. Soulless. In “The Empire Strikes Back”, we find out that he is Luke’s father, a former Jedi knight gone bad. In “Return of the Jedi”, he becomes even more human, becoming the object of Luke’s’ affection and eventually finding redemption. So, even though he had destroyed entire planets with their entire populations, even though he choked men to death by the sheer power of his mind, it turns out he wasn’t so bad, after all. Maybe Herod isn’t such a bad guy if we dig deep enough.
A Defense of Herod
Let me offer a few mitigating factors. See if they sound familiar.
1. Herod liked to talk about religious matters. I remember a movie from my childhood with a scene of Herod going down to the dungeon and talking to John. That’s what Mark 6:20 says. Herod liked to talk to John. He respected John as holy & righteous. That should count for something, shouldn’t it.
I’m amazed at the people who like to talk about religious matters. People in trouble through some bad choice of their own will say, “Well, you know, I believe in God.” Drunk people really seem to like to talk about God. People who show no trace of Godliness in their lives love to engage in theological conversations.
I never quite know what to do with that. Is it a seed of faith and spiritual hunger planted in them by God that can ultimately lead to real faith? Or ist it just a self-justifying mechanism that inoculates them against real religious commitment, as an injection of dead virus can inoculate you against a full-blown disease.
Maybe it’s both. But I’m not sure that the mere fact of being interested in religious matters means a whole lot.
2. Herod and Herodias were deeply in love. Ah, what love! If loving you is wrong, I don’t want to be right. This is our culture! Herod and Herodias would be heroes of love. John would be an old stick in the mud – out of touch with reality – trying to impose his morals on somebody else.
Rules may be important, but what’s really important is how I feel. Except I don’t buy it. What is right cannot be based on how I feel, because how I feel changes. In the marriage ceremony, we don’t ask, “How do you feel about this person.” We ask WILL you love, honor, keep. We ask about what you will do! We ask about what commitment you will make!
And I really don’t mean to single out marriage and sexual ethics as the only arena for self-deception. Everyone engages in self-deception to justify their actions. Some of us do it in professional ethics, some in our concern for the poor and needy, some in our social relationships. We can always find a reason why we are an exception t the rule. The rules apply to others, but not to us. Our case is special, and if people just knew what we felt or what we experienced, they would understand. Not so much.
3. Herod felt really, really bad about what he did. That ought to count for something, too. You can tell how guilty he felt. When Jesus came along, he said, “It’s John – that fellow I beheaded.” Even before – when Herodias’ daughter asked for John’s head – he felt really bad about having John killed. Mark tells us that he was exceedingly sorry. And you even get the feeling that he even felt bad about having John arrested, him knowing that John was a holy and righteous man and all.
So Herod felt bad – that’s good – that’s a sign of a conscience that’s not totally dead. Yes, feeling bad doesn’t change anything by itself.
People addicted to unhealthy behaviors – alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex – wake up in the morning after doing something foolish or destructive, and they feel bad. They feel guilty. And then they do it again. People who beat their spouses or their children feel bad afterwards. And then they do it again. People who choose to do what they know is wrong feel bad afterwards.
And they want – we want – people to let us off the hook because, after all, we feel bad about what we did. But feeling bad does not change behavior. Feeling bad does not excuse wrong behavior.
Herod Antipas felt bad, but still had John arrested. He felt bad, but he still had John killed. He felt bad, and thought Jesus was John come back from the dead, but he still had Jesus killed. How many times do you have to feel bad before you stop doing the things that make you feel bad?
Is there Hope?
There is no hope for Herod – or for anyone else for that matter – in the kinds of defense that I have offered for Herod. The only hope, it turns out, is in the kingdom of power and grace preached by John and fulfilled in Jesus.
John the Baptist appeared proclaiming the coming Kingdom of God. God was going to act to set the world right and he offered all of Israel the opportunity to repent. He told about the coming one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
We don’t know what John and Herod talked about there in the prison. Wouldn’t it have been something if John had been able to get through to Herod. None of Herod’s excuses mattered in the least. The kingdom of God and the opportunity for repentance proclaimed by John, now that’s the only thing that did matter. Herod missed his opportunity, so we’ll never know what might have been.
This is a horrible story about people doing horrible things. I think that it’s interesting that in the book of Acts, the Apostle Paul appeals to Herod’s cousin (or is it nephew) Agrippa to put his faith in Christ. In the New Testament story, not even the members of this horrible family are unredeemable. And if, in the grace of God, even the Herods are redeemable, then there’s hope for us.
What about you and me? Are we using the same old excuses as Herod?
- I’m religious – sort of – from time to time.
- I felt so strongly about it I, I just had to do it, even though I know it was wrong.
- I really feel bad when I do the wrong thing. Isn’t that enough?
No, not really.
- What’s right does not ultimately depend on how I feel, but on God’s word.
- Feelings of guilt and remorse are not the same as repentance, which is a change in direction in one’s life.
- Religious interest is not the same thing as faith, which is a core-level commitment of trust in Jesus Christ.
Jesus died for all … for the Herods, for you and for me.
- Instead of a touch of religion, he offers a life of true faith.
- Instead of wrong disguised as right, he offers the path of true righteousness.
- Instead of guilt, he offers forgiveness.
Why should we be satisfied anything less?