There’s a lot of women in the Bible who we can admire. Strong women. Smart women. Gentle women. Brave women. There are women who triumph when everyone else crumbles. There are women who save the day. There are women who believe when all hope appears to be gone.
There are other women who are the exact opposite. There are of course plenty of men in the Bible who lead the people into idolatry and death. Here though, we meet one of the women who’s inappropriate authority over her husband, leads them all into wickedness and evil.
Today’s passage deals with the death of John the Baptist.
The story is that Salome, the step daughter of Herod, dances for him and he is so enchanted that he says she can have anything she wishes. Salome, in consultation with her mother Herodias (Herod’s wife) asks for the head of John the Baptist.
There’s a mix of history and theology here that turns this Hollywood-style thriller into a tragedy and triumph at the same time.
Herod Antipas was the ruler of Galilee and Perea as a Roman client state. He was the ruler of the Jews and was also raised as a Jew. He was married to the daughter of the king of Nabatea – and he divorced her to marry Herodias, who had been married to Herod’s half-brother. It’s not clear whether she walked out on the half-brother and married Herod anyway, or divorced him before marrying Herod.
Confused yet? It’s like a plot line from The Bold and the Beautiful isn’t it?
John the Baptist had preached against Herod and Herodias’ marriage, which was against Old Testament law (although it was not against Roman law so they must have snuck it in under that). This is all attested by Jewish historian Josephus who was writing at the time of the events.*
Herod appears to have had a conflicted relationship with John. In Mark 16:19-20, Herodias wants to kill John but can’t because Herod feared him. The original Greek here implies more a reverential fear – which fits with the passage saying “Herod would listen to John” and he would be greatly perplexed but he would like it. Herod knows he is a holy and righteous man and likes listening to him, even though he doesn’t really understand.
Herod had imprisoned John because of what he was saying (6:17). But he also protected him from Herodias who wanted to kill him (6:19).
Josephus says John was imprisoned in the fortress of Machaerus where John appears to have been for a while because in the other gospels, John receives visits from his disciples and from Jesus’ disciples (Matthew 11 and Luke 7). It must have been bleak and seeing the fortress reminds us we are dealing with real people and real events.
We are also dealing with a narrative arc of the Bible. Herodias’ murderous hatred of John points us back to Jezebel in the Old Testament and her hatred of Elijah. In 1 Kings 18 Elijah had defeated the prophets of Baal. In 1 Kings 19, Jezebel swears to kill Elijah too and he flees.
This echo of Jezebel is deliberate – not because Herodias is equally as wicked (although she is), but because of the association with Elijah. Since the beginning there has been association of John with Elijah and the prophet who prepares the way for the Messiah.
Herod is a weak fool. Herodias and Salome defeat him with their wits. They manipulate him and he walks right into it. Herod doesn’t want to kill John, he knows he is innocent. He is perplexing and maybe a threat to his authority but he’s done nothing wrong. And here we see a foreshadowing of Jesus with Pilate. Pilate sees Jesus as a possible threat but knows he has broken no laws.
When John is executed, John’s disciples come and take the body and lay it in a tomb – as Jesus’ disciples would soon do. Another foreshadowing.
Until this point, John has been the main landmark on Herod’s horizon. After John’s death, Jesus’ ministry really rises to the fore. When Herod hears about Jesus fears that John has been raised from the dead. Some people are even saying this. This is telling on a few fronts. Firstly, that the association between John and Jesus is evident. While people have yet to clearly distinguish them, it shows that at the time, they were not two distinct movements but seen as one a progression of the other. This is certainly what John himself had understood as he prepared the way for Jesus, and that he must become less and Jesus becomes more.
It also shows Herod’s guilt and shame. His fear almost feels as though he thinks he is being haunted by the ghost of this innocent man he has murdered.
It also points forward again the Jesus – who was raised from the dead. It’s interesting there was a rumour that John was raised from the dead, but it never went anywhere because he wasn’t. He demonstrably wasn’t. He didn’t appear anywhere and nobody saw him. When the rumour erupts of Jesus’ resurrection, he is seen in many places by many people. There’s no denying that that really happened. Here, however, it is just a rumour because of the similarity between John’s preaching of baptism and repentance, and Jesus’ preaching of repentance and faith. John baptised with water, but Jesus baptised with the Holy Spirit.
So John’s death was tragic. But it was also a triumph. It pointed us back to Jezebel to re-affirm John as the Elijah figure who prepares the way. It also points forward to what will happen with Jesus – the ultimate triumph.
I find it staggering that God provides these sign posts for us to help us understand and interpret what happened in the past, what is happening at the time and what is to come. Without John, the events around jesus’ ministry and sacrifice would be harder for us to interpret. With these events, God gives us a deeper and profound picture of what is happening and why.
God is gracious in his revelation to us. What he communicates is like a set of keys to unlock scripture. Nothing is in code. It’s not secret knowledge. It’s all there for us to read, understand, think about and look back to him in awe and reverence.
* Josephus Book 18, chapter 5. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-18.html
This blog is a stand alone piece but it is also part of a weekly online bible study. If you have missed any or would like to reference back to the beginning, the links are below:
- Week 1: “Who do you say I am”. Introduction to the gospel
- Week 2: The Beginning. Mark 1:1-20
- Week 3: The Who, the what and the why. Mark 1:21-45
- Week 4: Jesus didn’t come for the super-religious. He came for you. Mark 2:1-17
- Week 5: There is nothing you can do to start – or stop – God’s plan. Mark 2:18-28
- Week 6: Jesus wasn’t the man they wanted him to be. Mark 3:1-12
- Week 7: Jesus made us a new family – does church really feel like that? Mark 3:13-35
- Week 8: Is fruitfulness something we do or something we are to be? (Mark 4:1-20)
- Week 9: What will the kingdom of God be like? (Mark 4:21-34)
- Week 10: Jesus goes out of his way to specifically find you (Mark 4:35-5:20)
- Week 11: The only person who could save her was him (Mark 5:21-43)
- Week 12: Misunderstood, disrespected, unloved, written off (Mark 6:1-13)