Friday, February 17, 2012

Herodias’ Blank Cheque (Mark 6:24)

What did Herodias want from John the Baptist? His head (Mark 6:24)

The Synoptic gospels report that Herod Antipas ordered John the Baptist’s beheading (Matthew 14:3-12; Mark 6:14-29; Luke 3:19-20, 9:7-9). Matthew and Mark flashback to a decadent scene in the royal court to show how the execution transpired (Matthew 14:3-12; Mark 6:14-29).

Herodias’ daughter performs a crowd pleasing dance at Herod’s birthday party (Matthew 14:7; Mark 6:21-22). To show his gratitude, Herod offers the girl “up to half my kingdom.” (Mark 6:23 NASB; cf. Matthew 14:7). In turn, the daughter consults her mother who makes her desire known – John’s head (Matthew 14:8; Mark 6:24-25).

And she went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” (Mark 6:24 NASB)
According to Mark’s gospel, which provides the most thorough account, the girl herself added the dramatic touch- “on a platter” (Mark 6:25). Presumably John is imprisoned close by because her request is granted and the prophet is put to death before the party ends (Matthew 14:9-12; Mark 6:26-28).

Herodias is depicted as the evil genius pulling strings behind the scenes. Her agency in John’s demise is poetic. John is presented as a type of Elijah (Matthew 11:14, 17:10-13; Mark 9:11-13) and Elijah’s nemesis was also a wicked queen, Jezebel (I Kings 18:11-13, 19:2-9).

Herodias holds a vendetta against the prophet because John had denounced the intrigues of the Herodian court, specifically her marriage (Matthew 14:3-4; Mark 6:17-20; Luke 3:19). Prior to being Herod’s wide, Herodias had been married to his brother, Philip, and John had the audacity to point out the illegality of such wife swapping (Matthew 14:3-4; Mark 6:17-18). For those who bemoan the downfall of the family, there have always been nontraditional families and Herod’s family was more dysfunctional than most.

Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) chronicles:

Herod is called king [Mark 6:14], surely an ironic twist because though Antipas ruled Galilee from 4 B.C. to A.D. 39 and had pretensions to be a king, it was precisely...the request for the title...that eventually got him sent into in exile in 39 by a paranoid Caligula. In fact, he was tetrarch of the region of Galilee and Perea. Antipas must not be seen as a good Jew. Besides his forbidden marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, which was prohibited according to Leviticus 18:13 while the brother was still alive, Antipas also built his capital Tiberias on top of a pagan cemetery, something an observant Jew would never sanction. A good Jew would never even enter the city due to its uncleanness. In many ways he was a chip off the old block, being a son born to Herod the Great and his Samaritan wife Malthace in 20 B.C. (Witherington, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 213)
There is some debate as to the Bible’s accuracy in naming the principal players in this affair. C.E.B. Cranfield (b. 1915) reports:
Herodias was the daughter of Aristobulus, the son of Herod the great and Mariamne, and so the niece of Herod Antipas. If by ‘Philip’ Philip the Tetrarch is meant, this contradicts Josephus who says (Antiquities XVIII.136) that Herodias was married to Herod the son of Herod the Great and Mariamne II. Philip the Tetrarch actually married Salome. It would seem either Mark is mistaken, or the Herod to whom Herodias was married had also the name Philip... (Cranfield, The Gospel According To Saint Mark: An Introduction and Commentary, 209)
On a personal note, this family needed more originality in naming its members. These potential discrepancies do not alter the text’s meaning. Sharyn Dowd (b. 1947) assures, “The less interested in such details than in the way his macabre interpretation of the episode can be used to foreshadow the passion of Jesus and perhaps also to suggest future suffering for Jesus’ followers, who have just been sent out on their first assignment (Dowd, Reading Mark: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Second Gospel, 66).”

Herod essentially offers Herodias’ daughter a blank cheque. While this may have been unwise, no one could have predicted her request and the offer was not unheard of in antiquity. Bas M.F. van Iersel (1924-1999) comments, “That he offers her half his kingdom is not unusual at a royal court, especially when the king has had a drop too much. King Ahasuerus addresses Esther twice in the same way in Esther 5:3, where the king is impressed by her beauty, and in Esther 7:2 where he has had some wine (van Iersel, Mark: A Reader-Response Commentary (Library Of New Testament Studies), 222).”

Many blame the women for John’s untimely demise and see the tale as an exemplar of William Congreve (1670-1729)’s famous line:

Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned
Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned. -
Congreve, “The Mourning Bride”, Act III, Scene VIII, 1697)
Tellingly, Herod does not denounce the women, instead taking personal responsibility for the prophet’s death (Mark 6:16; Luke 9:19).

Though John was correct, was he correct to speak? Was this the hill on which he should have chosen to die? Were you Herodias’ daughter, what would you have asked for? Who was most responsible for the death of John the Baptist? Why was John killed?

John was not executed because of his message. The prophet was only arrested because of his proclamation. Josephus (37-100) attributed John’s death to his being perceived as a political threat (Antiquities of the Jews 18.116-118). In response, Vincent Taylor (1887-1968) reasons that “political ends and the anger of an insulted woman cannot be regarded as mutually exclusive (Mark, The Gospel According to St. Mark: The Greek Text with Introduction, Notes, and Indexes, 311).”

The true cause of John’s death was peer pressure. Herodias could not tolerate the prophet’s public denouncement of her character as it could lead to public backlash and threaten her status (Mark 6:18-19). In response, Herod wanted to kill John instantly but abstained because he feared “the crowd” (Matthew 14:5). The witless dancing daughter was willing to succumb to any pressure so long she pleased and unfortunately she chose to dance to her mother’s tune. Then, having given the daughter carte blanche, Herod was more afraid of how he would look in front of his dinner guests than he was of killing an innocent man (Matthew 14:9; Mark 14:26). The only one in the story unconcerned with appearances is John the Baptist.

Do you think Herodias’ daughter ever had buyer’s remorse or was she pleased with her choice? To what extent are you willing to go to appease your friends? What message influences you most: Jesus’ message or the competing messages of the world?

“The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy: the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men! A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else’s imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real!” - Thomas Merton (1915-1968), The Seven Storey Mountain, p. 362

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