The Death of John The Baptist

The Death of John The Baptist

Herod, the son of Herod the Great, hears about the miracles done by Jesus and his disciples.  While he is the son of a great and greatly bad man, he is only a shadow of his father. The Scottish preacher Andrew MacLaren described him this way: “This Herod was a son of the grim old tiger who slew the infants of Bethlehem. He was a true cub of a bad litter, with his father’s ferocity, but without his force. He was sensual, cruel, cunning, and infirm of purpose.” That describes him perfectly.  His father was one of the most powerful kings of the Roman Empire – called King of the Jews by the Emperor Tiberius but his son had become ruler only because he was not killed by his father like his brother had been  Herod was no threat to his father but was also his last choice to follow him. He was never a king – as much as he wanted the title – but only a tetrarch or one who ruled one fourth of the kingdom his father had. Even his father never saw much potential in him but gave him something that would prop him up for life.

In fact, it is Jesus who perfectly describes him as “that fox.” While sometimes people interpret that to mean he was sly and cunning, the term means something far different. It was not a grudging compliment but a way of dismissing Herod completely. He was calling him a little man who thinks of himself as someone powerful. A fox was an immoral pretender surrounding himself with weak and immoral people.

”Jesus called Herod a fox after some Pharisees reported that Herod wanted to kill Jesus. Jesus’ response challenged any such plans: “Tell Herod I’ve got work to do first.” Jesus was not implying that Herod was sly, rather he was commenting on Herod’s ineptitude, or inability, to carry out his threat. Jesus questioned the tetrarch’s pedigree, moral stature and leadership, and put the tetrarch “in his place.” This exactly fits the second rabbinic usage of “fox.” 

The word “fox” can also have moral connotations, as a saying from the Mishnah demonstrates: “Be a tail to lions rather than a head to foxes.”This saying could be paraphrased, “It is better to be someone of low rank among those who are morally and spiritually your superiors than someone of high rank among scoundrels.” 

When Jesus labeled Herod a fox, Jesus implied that Herod was not a lion. Herod considered himself a lion, but Jesus pointed out that Herod was the opposite of a lion. Jesus cut Herod down to size, and Jesus’ audience likely was laughing at Herod’s incompetence and ego.”

While many believe Herod was struck with guilt about beheading John and that explains his reaction to hearing about the miracles of Jesus, I think it may be something else  Yes, it may be that he is afraid that John has come back from the dead to haunt him but I think it was something more consistent with his character.  I think he is curious  I believe Herod had lost all ability to feel guilt about anything given the level of cruelty he had achieved. Like many tyrants, he was most afraid of being subverted by those around him. He was not intimidated by John or even the ghost of John but by anyone who had loyalties to something or someone other than him. Fools like Herod are incapable of understanding or dealing with people who question them or attempt to hold them to a higher standard. They embrace followers quickly and are just as quick to throw them under the bus. They trust no one but, as we will see, are easily manipulated by others who understand them.

I think Herod here is the same Herod we meet at the end of the ministry of Jesus in Luke 23.  “When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him.  From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform some miracle. He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer..Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him.  Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate.”

Weak men pretending to be strong are mockers. They ridicule people. They cannot understand genuine strength – only abuse of those they cannot control.

Who was at the party that night? It was his high officials. We would call them his cabinet members. It was the commanders of the military who needed to keep the commander in chief happy and he needed them to keep his strong man image intact.  He wanted to be seen as a force to be reckoned with. One of the reasons Herod was eventually banished was the discovery that he had built up the military far beyond what was needed for protection. He had accumulated enough weaponry to support an army of 70,000 men. It was suspected that he had in mind his own revolution against the Empire.

It was the leading men of the community who had traded their reputations for being a part of Herod’s court. I have often wondered what the other people at the dinner must have thought about the rash behavior of Herod. Were they repulsed or shocked? Were they scandalized? Did they leave in disgust? I suspect they were used to his making wild statements and oaths. They had accommodated themselves to his abuse and anger. After all, I doubt they would have been a part of his court unless they had proven they would not make any objections to his bragging and outbursts.  I am sure they even defended him. Otherwise, they would have been treated like others who had displeased or intimidated him. They would not be there for next year’s birthday party and losing a place at the table was more than they could bear. There was a price to be paid for influence, favor, and power and they were silent about his darker side. They were afraid of what he could do if triggered but they also knew how easily manipulated he was by his own stupidity.

John Calvin wrote: “When we perceive that the guests are compelled to pollute their eyes by beholding this detestable exhibition, let us learn from it, that those who sit at the tables of kings are often involved in many crimes; for, granting that the table is not stained by murder, every thing partakes so largely of all sorts of wickedness, that they who approach to it must be at least given up to debauchery.”

Everyone wanted to please someone. The guests wanted to please Herod.  The daughter wanted to please her mother. Herod wanted to please the Emperor.  Men like Herod do not stand on their own. There is always someone pulling their strings.  Someone propping them up. Someone they want to please. Of course, it is always the leader who sets the standard for everyone around them and Herod’s behavior was a reflection of the Emperor Caligula.

”Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, contemporaries of Caligula, describe him as an insane emperor who was self-absorbed, was angry, killed on a whim, and indulged in too much spending and sex. He is accused of sleeping with other men’s wives and bragging about it, killing for mere amusement, deliberately wasting money on his pet projects, causing starvation, and wanting a statue of himself erected in the Temple of Jerusalem for his worship. Once, at some games at which he was presiding, he was said to have ordered his guards to throw an entire section of the audience into the arena during the intermission to be eaten by the wild beasts because there were no prisoners to be used and he was bored.”

There is really nothing in the text about the dance by his step-daughter being erotic.  All the films about the story – especially with Rita Hayworth as Salome – focus on how seductive she was. All it says is she danced and pleased Herod and his dinner guests. It could have been ballet or two-stepping or even an Irish reel for all we know. All we do know is he wanted to impress her and the guests at the dinner with his show of appreciation. No, I don’t think it was even appreciation.  I think it was just another way to show off and impress his sycophants with something grand and deserving of someone of his stature. His gesture had to be outrageous to impress them.

Of course, there seems always to be a real cunning fox behind the throne – and it is true here as well.  It may be a man or a woman. It may be someone close or far off. It may be family. It may be a consultant or advisor. Here, it is Herodias. Herod respected John and even protected him because there was something about John that even a moral midget like Herod could appreciate and even though all that talk about repentance and faithfulness only puzzled him, he still liked to listen to him. It was not like Ahab, Elijah, and Jezebel. Herod actually was intrigued by John because he had never had anyone like him in his life. No one else would tell him the truth. No one else could get away with it and, likely, no one in the court wanted John around. A corrupt Herod was a convenient Herod. John was not so much a threat to Herod but he was a threat to everyone else around Herod – especially Herodias.  It was not enough for John to be in prison. Herod could always visit now and then or even pardon him. She needed him dead. She needed him disgraced. I think Herodias more than anyone knew the threat John posed. She understood the power of reality he possessed.

I’ve wondered if her case against John was not so much the fact that he was pointing the finger at her and her blatant immorality but that if he was around there was the chance that Herod would listen to him. Would he even repent?  What would that mean for all of them? They would lose what they valued the most – the access to power and the permission to be as corrupt as Herod.  No one wanted any changes in the way things were. That, I think, was the root of why Herodias wanted the head of John the Baptist. She was afraid of the influence he might have over her idiot that she had under her thumb.

On his own, I doubt Herod would have actually had John beheaded. The text even says he was greatly distressed but it would make him look weak to back down in front of his guests. No doubt, he would liked to have found a way around it but he had painted himself into a corner. He had to follow through. She knew how weak he was and so she made it impossible for him to back out.

It reminds me of Shakespeare’s Lady MacBeth.  After she and Lord MacBeth had determined to kill Duncan, the rightful king, she sensed that he might not follow through and that he was having second thoughts. He was doubting the decision they had made.

“Yet do I fear thy nature;

It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness

To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,

Art not without ambition, but without

The illness should attend it.”

I know you have ambition and desire to be great but you do not have what it takes.  You will not seize the opportunity right in front of you. You lack the constant prodding and affliction of true ambition. She did not. Neither did Herodias.

But for all that Herod and Herodias die in disgrace and exile.

Herodias, jealous at her brother Agrippa’s popularity with Caligula, persuaded Herod to ask Caligula for the title of king for himself. However, Agrippa simultaneously presented the emperor with a list of charges against him – allegedly plotting against the Emperor himself. In the summer of 39 AD, six years after the death of Jesus, Herod’s money and territory were turned over to Agrippa, while he himself was exiled. The place of his exile is given by Josephus as what we now know as Lyon in the south of France. Caligula offered to allow Herodias, as Agrippa’s sister, to retain her property. However, she chose instead to join her husband in exile. They disappeared and died with no further mention. Had they not been associated with Jesus and John we would likely know nothing about them at all.  They are famous and remembered in the worst way. They were nothing on their own. As Scripture says, “They worshiped worthless idols and became worthless themselves.”

Why do saints suffer the consequences of such wicked fools?  Why is John’s head paraded around the room for the pleasure of Herodias and the lasting shame of Herod?  Why are those who call for repentance so often those who are sacrificed?  Because they are faithful and faithfulness is not always measured by success.  In fact, likely just the opposite.

”And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.”

None of us can know if we will be those who conquer kingdoms, administer justice, and gain what was promised or those who face jeers and flogging, chains and imprisonment. All we can pray is that we would be faithful and leave the rest up to God.

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