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

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Man of God & The Old Prophet (I Kings 13)

What happened to the man of God who had been sent to deliver a message and return home without eating or drinking? He disobeyed and was killed by a lion (I Kings 13:24)

When Israel split, the southern kingdom, Judah, retained Jerusalem, the religious epicenter (I Kings 12:26-27). To ensure that his constituents would not need to cross the border to worship, Jeroboam, ruler of the northern kingdom, Israel, erected altars at Dan and Bethel (I Kings 12:28-30). It is in this context that the Man of God enters the biblical narrative (I Kings 13:1-32).

The Man of God’s story is told in two parts (I Kings 13:1-10, 11-32). He strides into Bethel from Judah where he finds Jeroboam burning incense on the unauthorized altar (I Kings 13:1). The Man of God promptly condemns the altar (I Kings 13:2) and his words are validated when he produces a double miracle in which the idolatrous king’s hand is both cursed and cured (I Kings 13:4-6). Before leaving, the Man of God emphatically declines an invitation to dine with the king stating that God had prohibited it (I Kings 13:8-9).

“For so it was commanded me by the word of the LORD, saying, ‘You shall eat no bread, nor drink water, nor return by the way which you came.’” (I Kings 13:9 NASB)
This was a smash and grab job and the Man of God was not to dawdle in Bethel.

The Man of God’s second story arc begins where the first ends when an Old Prophet’s sons relay the Man of God’s exploits (I Kings 13:11-32). Presumably impressed, the Old Prophet and his sons caught the Man of God on his way out of town and asked him to dine (I Kings 13:14-15). The Man of God again notes that he is under strict divine orders not eat or drink on the trip (I Kings 13:8-9, 16-17).

The Old Prophet convinces the Man of God that he is a prophet who has received orders that supercede the Man of God’s and that the Man of God should eat with him (I Kings 13:18-19). While dining, the “word of the Lord” came upon the Old Prophet and he uttered an ominous portent claiming that the Man of God had disobeyed orders and would not make it home alive (I Kings 13:20-22). The prophecy comes to fruition as a lion kills the Man of God on his way home though it devours neither the Man of God nor his donkey (I Kings 13:24-25). The Old Prophet retrieves the Man of God’s corpse and insists that the Man of God be buried in his family tomb (I Kings 13:27-30). He also insists that when the day comes, his sons bury him with the Man of God (I Kings 13:31-32).

The Man of God’s instructions are simple: he was given dining restrictions and told to return home by another way. Inexplicably everyone he encounters offers him sustenance. (Why would his adversary Jeroboam do this?) The Man of God faces two tests, acing the first and flunking the next. August H. Konkel (b. 1948) sumarizes, “The man of God from Judah proclaims God’s word in declaring the folly of Jeroboam, but then chooses the way of folly himself in disobeying what he knows to be God’s word given to him (Konkel, 1 and 2 Kings (The NIV Application Commentary), 244).”

The story is complex and perplexing. Renowned theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) called I Kings 13 “perhaps the most expressive and at any rate the most comprehensive prophetic story in the Old Testament (Church Dogmatics II.2" The Doctrine of God, 409).”

The hero is anonymous much like Clint Eastwood (b. 1930) in Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy” (1964-66) or more recently Ryan Gosling (b. 1980) in Drive (2011). His non-name is emphasized as “the Man of God” is repeated 17 times in the text (I Kings 13:1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 11, 12, 14, 16, 19, 21, 23, 26, 29, 31). Fittingly, the mysterious figure is juxtaposed with an anonymous adversary, the Old Prophet (I Kings 13:11).

Peter J. Leithart (b. 1959) writes:

Commentators often point out that none of the main characters of the story are named...One effect of this technique is to highlight geography. By virtue of his designation, the man of God becomes representative of Judah, while the old prophet stands for Bethel and Israel, suggesting that the whole history of Israel and Judah is somehow foreshadowed in this chapter. (Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 98-99)
The only biographical detail given about the Man of God is his place of origin, Judah (I Kings 13:1, 12, 14, 21). This speaks to the era’s and the story’s fundamental conflict - a man from Judah enters Bethel.

In spite of his final failure, the Man of God, as both his moniker and homeland suggest, is a legitimate divine emissary. Volkmar Fritz (1938-2007) writes:

The center of the narrative is the surprising fact that the lion killed the man but did not eat him. This exceptional behavior of the animal is used to explain the special holiness of the man of God that leads to his burial in a foreign land and the special honor attached to his grave. The corpse possesses a special dignity, because the lion has not touched it; the lion reveals the special status of the man of God and so he is buried by the prophet in his own grave and lamented by him. (Fritz, 1 & 2 Kings: A Continental Commentary,151)
Gene Rice (b. 1925) adds:
He was heroic in obedience to the command to deliver—at great risk to himself—the prophecy against the altar at Bethel, but accepted too readily the alleged revelation of another that contradicted the revelation God had given him. The authentic word of God often seems extreme and unreasonable, and how adept we are in finding reasons to disobey it. The fate of the man of God from Judah is also a word of the LORD, namely, that obedience is a matter of life and death. (Rice, 1 Kings: Nations Under God (International Theological Commentary), 115)
The fact that the man who dies is not the principal evildoer is just one of many difficulties with the text. None of the characters’ motives are given even though there are more inexplicable than understandable actions. The text is also replete with moral ambiguity.

James L. Crenshaw (b. 1934) identifies another difficulty as he laments that “it must be declared that this passage deals the death knell to every attempt to specify absolute criteria by which to differentiate the true from the false prophet, for the ultimate criterion to which contemporary scholarship appeals (the charismatic intuition of a true prophet) fails in this instance (Crenshaw, Prophetic Conflict: Its Effect upon Israelite Religion, 47-48).”

Richard Nelson (b. 1945) summarizes:

The story of the man of God from Judah and the old prophet in Bethel is notoriously problematic for modern readers. The blunt designation of Josiah by name (I Kings 13:2) is so obviously a prophecy made after the fact that the narrative is bast into immediate disrepute for the historically inclined. As a moral tale it is patently offensive. Trickery trumps over the servant of God and the living prophet is rewarded in the end. Is this a crude, insensitive God who violates our ideas of justice? (Nelson, First and Second Kings (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching), 83-83)
What do you find problematic about this story? Why does the man of God fail? Does he presume that someone would not lie about being a prophet? Why does the Old Prophet lie? Why are there seemingly no consequences for his lie? Why does the lion kill but not eat the Man of God? What is the point of the story?

While I Kings 13 raises many questions, its main thrust can be determined. The postscript to the story relays that despite the encounter with the Man of God, Jeroboam did not alter his altars (I Kings 13:33-34). This end stress conveys the story’s primary meaning and represents the first of many assaults on Jeroboam’s policies in the books of Kings.

Paul R. House (b. 1958) concludes:

Basically, 1 Kings 13 continued the book’s emphases on proper worship, the prophetic word, and the slow demise of the covenant people. It also begins to analyze the difference between true and false prophecy (House, The New American Commentary, Vol. 8: 1, 2 Kings, 188-189).”
Marvin A. Sweeney (b. 1953) adds:
The issue of true and false prophecy is secondary to the larger concern with discrediting Beth El. Tensions between Judah and northern Israel come clearly to the forefront when the narrative depicts the old prophet from Beth El as a liar who deceives the Judean man of G-d into violating G-d’s commission. (Sweeney, First and Second Kings: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 181).”
In some ways the story serves as a cautionary tale. The Man of God is held accountable for his actions even though he is deceived. If God would rebuke the Man of God for disobedience how much more so the dissident king?

The Man of God stood as a witness against Jeroboam in both life and death. The story’s true postscript comes many chapters later when the Man of God’s prophecy is fulfilled during the reign of Josiah (II Kings 23:1-30). When Josiah finally obliterates Jeroboam’s idols, he uncovers a tomb of two prophets (II Kings 23:15-20). The tomb served as a reminder that the false worship had been doomed from the start.

Is it significant that the Man of God and the Old Prophet are buried together? Are there any notable tombs or monuments near year? What are they saying? Where does false worship exist today?

“The noblest worship is to make yourself as good and as just as you can.” - Isocrates (436-338 BCE)

Monday, February 13, 2012

Mission Impossible: Abishai (I Samuel 26:6)

Who went with David by night to Saul’s tent and took his spear and water jug? Abishai (I Samuel 26:6)

Before David was a king, he was an outlaw (I Samuel 19:1-31:6). A paranoid king Saul relentlessly pursued him throughout Israel (I Samuel 19:1-26:25). Even in David’s exile, a loyal band of mercenaries stood by the refugee future king.

While a fugitive, David’s spies divulged Saul’s position at the hill of Hachilah (I Samuel 26:4). After confirming the location, David undertook a covert mission to break Saul’s camp (I Samuel 26:5-6). The mission might be perceived as a suicide mission as the “plan” was to go to the heart of the camp to the king himself (I Samuel 26:6). Saul was flanked by 3000+ armed and dangerous men (I Samuel 24:2, 26:2) including his commander Abner (I Samuel 26:5).

David asked two from his militia if they would accompany him. Only Abishai chooses to accept the mission.

Then David said to Ahimelech the Hittite and to Abishai the son of Zeruiah, Joab’s brother, saying, “Who will go down with me to Saul in the camp?” And Abishai said, “I will go down with you.” (I Samuel 26:6 NASB)
David offers no objective for the mission, only the option to go. Robert D. Bergen (b. 1954) speculates:
Under the cloak of darkness, David may have been going there to gather additional information about the one who threatened him (cf. Judges 7:10-15). His covert efforts were rewarded, for he was able to identify the key personnel leading the forces as well as the exact location and arrangement of the camp: on this expedition Saul was accompanied by his cousin Abner. The arrangement of Saul’s camp, combined with the location of the camp at the top of the hill, would have provided Saul with maximum protection. (Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel (New American Commentary: Vol. 7), 255)
Ahimelech the Hittite, the soldier who by his silence tacitly refused the mission, is not mentioned again in Scripture. In contrast, Abishai’s bravery (or perhaps foolishness) portends his later importance.

This incident marks the Bible’s first reference to the sons of Zeruiah, David’s sister’s children (I Chronicles 2:16). Robert Alter (b. 1935) characterizes, “David the warrior chieftain is surrounded by his three nephews, the three bloody-minded sons of Zeruiah: two of them impetuous (Abishai and Asahel), the third, who is David’s commander, ruthlessly calculating (Joab) (Alter, The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel, 163).”

The bloodthirsty brothers were fiercely loyal to David (more so than Israel). As such, they have been viewed as the counterpart to Jesus and the sons of Zebedee (Mark 3:17, 9:38-41, 10:35-40). A comparable modern fighting family might be the Gracie family. The sons of Zeruiah were the type of men anyone would want on their side in a fight.

Abishai had a decorated military career. He served in the elite corps of “mighty men” of David’s army (II Samuel 23:18,19; I Chronicles 11:20, 21) and proved a brilliant field commander who headed one of the three divisions of David’s army in his battle with Absalom (II Samuel 18:2, 5, 12). In one legendary battle, the famed warrior slew three hundred men with his spear (II Samuel 23:18; I Chronicles 11:20).

Who is your most loyal friend? What is the objective of David’s covert mission? Why does David take Abishai: protector, witness, other? Why does Abishai consent? What does he hope to gain from the experience?

Inexplicably, Abishai and David broke Saul’s camp undetected and came to the sleeping Saul (I Samuel 26:7). Abishai offered to off the vulnerable king (I Samuel 26:8).

Then Abishai said to David, “Today God has delivered your enemy into your hand; now therefore, please let me strike him with the spear to the ground with one stroke, and I will not strike him the second time.” (I Samuel 26:8 NASB)
In an instant, the prey became the hunter. In requesting the honor of killing Saul, the confident warrior offered to eliminate David’s rival with one swift lethal blow, pinning the king to the ground with his spear. Ronald F. Youngblood (b. 1931) notes, “Abishai’s sense of conveyed by his ‘today’ and his ‘now’ (Tremper Longman III [b. 1952], 1 Samuel-2 Kings (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary), 256).” This is not surprising as Abishai is always quick to act (II Samuel 16:9-10, 19:21-23).

This was the second opportunity David had to eliminate his rival (I Samuel 24:1-22, 26:6-12). Abishai verbalizes the temptation, even agreeing to do David’s dirty work for him. Abishai’s proposal echoes the words of David’s men at the time when he previously spared the king (I Samuel 24:4, 26:8).

As he had before, David refused to kill Saul (I Samuel 26:9-11). God might deal with Saul but David would not interfere. Instead, he confiscated Saul’s spear and water jug as evidence of his mercy (I Samuel 26:12). Saul’s spear, which had narrowly missed David’s head three times (I Samuel 18:11, 19:10, 20:33), was the visible sign of Saul’s power and rank. The jug was indicative of sustenance, the source of life. The seized spear would later serve as evidence of David’s goodwill (I Samuel 26:22).

Though it is not surprising that a son of Zeruiah would seek a violent resolution, Abishai’s response is the natural one. Surely the risk of the mission was not taken simply to procure souvenirs. In Abishai’s mind, God had given him the opportunity to instantaneously end the conflict and he ought to seize it. It is David’s response that is counter-cultural. Francesca Aran Murphy (b. 1960) explains:

Abishai thinks of murder; David does not. The single, deadly spear thrust proposed by Abishai is more redolent of death than anything that happened at En-gedi [I Samuel 24:1-22] or even in the Nabal story [I Samuel 25:1-25]. Somewhat as he had restrained his toughs as they mingled with Nabal’s shepherds, so now David restrains Abishai...God is alive, David tells Abishai, and has given him two providential signs, the spear and the water jug, Saul’s weapon and water carrier. These iron and bronze implements of life and death are a sign to David that Saul’s life is spent. (Murphy, 1 Samuel (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 245)
A presumably dumbfounded Abishai offers no response to David. The young warrior would not see battle in this encounter. Hans Wilhelm Hertzberg (1895-1965) notes:
Abishai has no opportunity of assisting David in action. The Lord himself has taken care that no one wakes by means of a stupefying sleep (tardēmā) which he has spread over everyone...Abishai is merely...the tempter, through whom the theological concern of the narrative is brought out. (Hertzberg, I and II Samuel: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 209-210)
In the heart of Saul’s camp, David’s temptation came in the form of one of his most loyal subjects.

Why does David resist the temptation to eliminate his competition? What well-meaning friend has tempted you?

“There are many devils...the one which is tempting you now is not the least of all to be feared...Beware of it; it is a demon more beautiful than Apollo — liberty, patriotism, men’s happiness, all these words vibrate like harp-strings at its approach; it is the sound of the silver scales of its flaming wings.” - Alfred De Musset (1810-1857), Lorenzaccio, 1833, p. 94