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By: The Rev. Caleb Tabor
The story of Herod the Tetrarch (not the same King Herod of the birth narrative) having John the Baptizer beheaded is one that has always sort of captured my attention. It is an oddly detailed story for Mark, given that so many other things are rushed through in his gospel. In this account of a political assassination, I see bits and pieces of so many other stories from Scripture. The first and most obvious parallel here is that it is a continuation of the king/prophet relationship established at the start of the monarchy of another tragic king, Saul, and another shabby looking but important prophet, Samuel (there are also parallels between Samuel and John and Jesus’s birth narratives). When verse 18 tells us of John skulking about, reminding Herod of his misdeeds in taking Herodias as his wife, I can’t help but think of Nathan confronting King David over Bathsheba. Images of Ahab and Jezebel as an antagonistic power couple against a beleaguered prophet Elijah also spring to mind.
The strange thing about Mark’s account here is that Herod isn’t actually portrayed as an actively antagonistic or malicious person towards John. He may not like what John has to say, but Herod actually sees the prophet as a sacred, holy man who should be protected. I find myself having a little bit of a soft spot for Herod here. Herod is doing something that a great many other people would not – he protected someone who was openly denouncing him because he knew that person was holy. In a political and social culture where we often won’t even listen to people who disagree with us, much less stick up for them or protect them, Herod’s example here is something of a startling jolt to one’s ethical system.
This is, of course, overshadowed by what happens next, and what happens next is even more tragic. Herodias asks for John to be assassinated. Not just assassinated but killed in such a way and with such pageantry that he will be made an example of and disgraced. The story tells us that at this point that Herod can no longer protect John. Not because Herod agrees with Herodias, not because Herod is tired of protecting John, and not even because Herod wants to impress Herodias, but because Herod wants to do what would be considered right and keep an oath he made. He promised Herodias, in front of guests, that he’d give her whatever she wanted as a show of gratitude for her beautiful dance. This put him in a bit of a rock and a hard place. Does he break the commandment saying that we should keep our oaths or does he break a commandment and have an innocent person murdered? I know which one I’d pick, but I’m not an ancient king who made a rash promise in front of my whole court. If I look like a fool in front of my friends, it’s just another Tuesday around here. This brings to mind the tale of Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11), in which another innocent person had to be killed because of a rash promise made by one ruling over Israel. Even though Herod may be named after his father, he seems more like an amalgamation of the tragic rulers Jephthah the Judge and King Saul. Ultimately, Herod goes with keeping his oath and killing a prophet (a bit cowardly, if you ask me, but I wasn’t there).
To further serve the tragic figure motif, thee story says that Herod was “deeply grieved” by this. This is also demonstrated when Herod hears of Jesus working miracles among the people. Herod’s immediate assumption was that it was not a new teacher Jesus but actually that John the Baptizer had been raised and was out working wonders among the people. More specifically, he thinks that “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” Signs of a guilty conscience. I wonder if he’d have been so concerned over simply breaking an oath and looking foolish.
This is a story about a lot of things. One of the big ones is that it is about the real danger of people with power and privilege (not just “bad” people, but anyone with that much influence and authority over another life). John the Baptizer spoke a lot of words, and he won over a number of hearts, but not once did he give a quick order and have his goal accomplished so swiftly as Herod did when he took John’s head. A word, a request, an action, in the hands of powerful and privileged people can become quite deadly quite quickly if their motives are off or their courage is weak. Herodias is a prime example of a person of privilege (though not the most privileged in her society) harboring a prejudice against someone that turns out to be deadly. Herod is a prime example of what happens when people of decent conscience just go along with it. The words of another murdered prophet, Martin Luther King Jr, come to mind in this instance. He spoke out against the silence of the children of light and of the danger of the white moderate who allows injustice to stand in the name of keeping the peace or maintaining the status quo. These words, warnings, and culpabilities lay on all people in positions of power or privilege who, out of some confused sense of misplaced virtue or perhaps just cowardice, let hate and violence continue to claim the lives of innocent people, a number of whom may well be prophets.
There is a final comparison I want to make, but it is by no means the last one could engage in this rich story, and that is between Herod and Pilate. Herod doesn’t show up again in Mark to judge Jesus. It is a solo job for Pilate, and he ends up playing the role in the killing of Jesus that Herod plays in John’s murder – the powerful person presiding over injustice. They both seem to have a lot of internal problems about their respective executions, but Herod at least seems to understand and assume his responsibility in John’s murder, rather than just trying to shift the blame as Pilate is famous for doing. Both people reach out through the pages of Scripture and force us to consider our culpability in the social evils all around us.
As I contemplate this story, it brings important and unnerving questions to mind. Am I being John the Baptizer, speaking truth to power, come what may, cost what it will? Am I Herodias hating a person who dares to disagree with or criticize me? Or am I Herod, who lets my mouth get ahead of me, doesn’t learn from past mistakes, and facilitates evil in the world, with my only defense being excuses and my only consolation being my broken conscience?