Proper 10(B): New Complexity in an Old Story
By: Colin Cushman
If you are like me, this story has always been pretty straightforward: John the Baptist gets beheaded because he’s been speaking out about Herod’s incestuous relationship. And his daughter is the agent of this action through her stellar dancing skills.
If we were getting more historical-critical, we could even note that at the time of writing, John the Baptist likely still had disciples of a parallel messianic cult, making this story part of the gospels’ polemic ensuring Jesus’ priority. However, if you peel apart the layers and really dig around a little bit, the basic story doesn’t change but all of a sudden it becomes much richer.
As a prelude to the main story, we see Herod in a panic. Like Macbeth, he is haunted by from having killed John the Baptist and sees him around every turn. When he looks at Jesus’ ministry, he can’t escape the specter of this executed holy man. And so the author takes us back in time to relive the events that lead to this state of affairs.
This flashback provides a prime case study of intertextuality (the way that multiple texts play off of each other and shape each other’s meanings). Echoing through this passage are numerous other Biblical stories that should shape our interpretation. Two immediate Hebrew Bible parallels come to mind. First, when we read that Herod ends up killing John on the basis of a rather stupid promise that he made, it evokes the tale of Jephthah, who kills his daughter as a sacrifice because of a similarly stupid vow he takes. Second, we also see traces of Elijah, Ahab, and Jezebel. So too in this story does a “king” (Herod is technically a tetrarch, not a king) succumb to his wife’s wily manipulations to kill Naboth and steal his land. Moreover, this story also had a similar afterlife: the belief circulated that Elijah would come heralding The Day of the Lord—a view that echoes the previous rumors about John.
The most prominent parallel, however, involves foreshadowing. Through his account of John’s death, our author primes our expectations for Jesus’ own death. Note the striking parallels. Both are executed unjustly by the dominant political rulers. Each ruler has a strange attraction to them, but through the pressure of an external agent, is coerced into executing them. Note, too, that the stories are even parallel in their implausibility: Pilate was withdrawn from his position by Rome (the very people who watched people fight to the death for sport) for being too violent; Herod massacred scores of people, including much of his immediate family, because he thought they might one day usurp the throne. It doesn’t seem particularly feasible that either of these rulers would be cowed into doing something they didn’t want to. Rather, Josephus’ account is more likely: Herod killed John because he saw the crowds he was gathering and eliminated him as a threat—just as he had done to so many others during his reign.
If we dig down into this story, another curious dynamic emerges. In verse 20, we hear a delightful yet confusing tidbit: “John’s words greatly confused Herod, yet he enjoyed listening to him.” Remember the content of what John was preaching. Q (the source behind Matthew and Luke) contains a condensed version of John’s sermons: “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives…. The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire.”
That is exceptionally harsh and not at all fun if directed at you. John’s caustic message was compelling, especially among those disenfranchised for whom the current system wasn’t working. But enjoyable? Especially for someone in power? That was who John was most directly attacking. That just doesn’t square up. Which begs the question: If not John’s actual content, what was Herod hearing?
One conjecture is that Herod saw this as a spectacle rather than caring about the actual content. It’s not uncommon that one develops a morbid interest toward things that should not be enjoyable in the slightest. Consider Alice Cooper or car crashes or the Jackass movies. All of these, intentionally or not, are grotesque, yet many people can’t take their eyes off of them. Perhaps Herod, rather than enjoying the substance of John’s message, was similarly captivated by the human drama and fallout surrounding John’s acerbic message.
It is worth noting one additional dynamic in this story. The author really leans into the motif of food and eating. Immediately after this story, we see Jesus feeding the 5,000. The author juxtaposes these two to contrast the world’s power with the power manifested through Jesus. On one hand, you have a roomful of the most powerful players in society gorging themselves on a luxurious meal, which culminates in the macabre pièce de résistance: a platter of John’s head. On the other hand, you have a homeless man supplying a mostly poor mob with enough basic staples to fill them in the present moment. The contrast could not be starker. While Herod is entertaining a perverse orgy of the powerful, Jesus insists that God’s abundance covers all, including the poor and needy, with the basic necessities of life. Where Herod’s meal brings death, Jesus’ brings life.
As we noted earlier, while this story does hold up to our traditional, basic reading, it is also resilient enough to survive our poking and prodding. And out of this exploration comes a wealth of themes and additional nuances. This story derives meaning from these other complementary tales, while at the same time reading new layers back into the old stories—all of which combine to shape this into a fascinatingly complex depiction of the life and times of Jesus.
If you want to dive deeper into the literature on John the Baptist, consider The Immerser: John the Baptist within Second Temple Judaism by Joan E. Taylor (Eerdmans, 1997).
Colin Cushman is a pastor in the United Methodist Church. In July, he will be starting his new appointments at Central: Seedro-Woolley UMC and Bayview United Methodist Church in the greater Seattle area.