Last week, we saw Peter sleeping in prison while chained between two guards, and with two more standing watch at the prison gate. In relating the events of that story, I made mention of the Herod family but didn’t go into much depth. This week, I want to give you a history lesson on this revolting family that played such an extensive role in the birth and early life of the church.
Setting the Scene
Jesus is growing in popularity and notoriety. This was a matter of concern for Herod Antipas, not through jealousy, but rather fear. Herod Antipas is the one who had John the Baptist beheaded, and he was hearing rumors that Jesus was John raised from the dead. Herod was just paranoid enough to believe it.
For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled yet he liked to listen to him. – Mark 6:17-20, NIV-1978
What follows is an eyebrow-arching story of what happened when Herod threw himself a birthday party. During the banquet, the daughter of Herodias performed a dance so provocative that it prompted Herod, in his bravado, to offer her up to half his kingdom, making this offer in the presence of all his dinner guests. Was this just to impress them? Whatever the case, it did not end well for Herod.
The end result is that Herodias got exactly what she wanted. Having consulted with her mother . . .
At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” – Mark 6:25, NIV-1978
Despite his fear of John, Herod could not save face and refuse this request.
To make sense of the death of John described above, we have to understand the family of Herod, beginning with Herod the Great.
Herod the Great is a man who would just as soon kill you as look at you. This is the Herod who gave as one of his first orders after ascending to the throne, to kill the entire Sanhedrin. He later murdered 300 court officials. He murdered his wife and three of his sons. This is the Herod we read about in Jesus’ birth narrative who ordered that every male child under the age of two in Bethlehem and the surrounding area be slain in order to protect his throne. There was a saying among the Jews that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than his son. Even as he was dying he ordered the murder of a number of high officials in Jewish society.
I tried to chart this out, but it just got so messy that I stopped. I’ll try to be as clear as I can in describing the Herod family below.
We start with Herod the Great at the top of this family tree. He first married Doris and together they had Antipater whom Herod later murdered.
His next wife was Mariamne, the Hasmonean. With Mariamne, Herod fathered both Alexander and Aristobulus. As he did Antipater, Herod murdered Aristobulus, but not until after Aristobulus fathered, Herodias, the topic of our current controversy. Herod murdered the wife of Aristobulus as well as his wife’s mother, Alexandra.
Next, Herod married Mariamne the Boethusian, and with her, he fathered Philip whom he cut out of his will. Philip married Herodias (above), the daughter of his half-brother, and the granddaughter of his father. Philip and Herodias had a daughter named Salome. She’s the great-granddaughter of Herod and the one who did the provocative dance that got Herod so excited.
Herod the Great married a fourth wife named Malthake. With her, he had two sons, Antipas and Archelaus. If you’re still tracking this head-spinning family tree, Antipas is the Herod in our passage in Mark 6. Herod Antipas went to Rome to visit his half-brother, Herod Philip. While there, Antipas seduced Herodias, Philip’s wife, and persuaded her to return to Judea with him as his wife.
So, let’s take another pulse here. Herod Antipas has just married the daughter of his half-brother, and therefore his niece. She is the wife of another half-brother and therefore his sister-in-law. She is Antipas’ niece, sister-in-law, and wife all at the same time. Are you able to see why John the Baptist had a problem with this?
To complicate this further, Herod Antipas has previously been married to one of the daughters of the king of the Nabataeans, a woman who escaped when her father invaded Herod’s territory to avenge her honor, and who gave Herod a sound thumping.
But we’re not quite done. Herod the Great took a fifth wife, Cleopatra of Jerusalem, and with her had Philip the Tetrarch (a different Philip than the one above). This is the guy we read about in Luke’s gospel, the Tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis. This Philip married Salome, the daughter of the other Philip, Herod Philip, and Herodias (from before she ran off with Antipas), and in doing so, Salome became his niece, grand-niece, and wife all at the same time.
This is one complicated family.
John the Baptist showed tremendous courage in rebuking this godless situation. He is calling out a public official who has the power of life and death over him. Herod has a conflicted reaction to John. John’s message irritates him and fascinates him at the same time. But not Herodias. With her, it is a very clear picture of deep hostility.
Now we return to the birthday feast. A lot of important people are there, and in the midst of their revelry, Salome does something that simply does not happen with members of the royal family (but then this is no common royal family). Salome enters the banquet hall and does this dance. Imagine the reaction of these many official guests when they realize who the dancer is. “Whoa! It’s Herod’s adopted daughter!”
We have a notorious crowd of drunken high officials, and someone decides that it would be okay for the daughter of the king to basically do a striptease in front of them. It is shocking that it happened, and even more shocking that Herod and/or Herodias did not shut it down immediately.
Solo dances in those days in such society were disgusting and licentious pantomimes. That a princess of the royal blood should so expose and demean herself is beyond belief because such dances were the art of professional prostitutes. The very fact that she did this is a grim commentary on the character of Salome, and of the mother who allowed and encouraged her to do so. – William Barclay
What do we learn from this ghastly scene?
1) For starters, look at the conflict within Herod Antipas. He hated John but enjoyed him at the same time. He is the double-minded man of James 1:8, “unstable in all his ways.” It is Pilate wanting to release Jesus yet wanting to be aligned with the public. So he “washed his hands” of the affair, yet history recorded his failure.
In his unstable moment, Herod made a very foolish vow, and the result of that vow was that his wife who was not conflicted in the least called for the head of the very man about whom Herod was conflicted. Don’t make important decisions when you’re compromised and/or conflicted.
2) It’s best to lose face and do what’s right than it is to let your pride drive you to do what’s wrong. Herod had to follow through on his vow because he made the vow in front of a large crowd of powerful and influential people. If he were to back off the vow, he would appear weak before them. Don’t let your bravado speak for you.
3) Stand by your convictions. In John the Baptist we see a man who preferred death to falsehood. We could do well to adopt that same attitude when the environment screams at us to silence our conscience. A man of truth and a man of God will throw his life and his fate to the wind before he will compromise his values.