It has been a while since we looked at the bible. The three week series “It’s not in the bible, but…” was great. It is helpful and good to hear from each other about our everyday spirituality and what keeps us moving forward, even if it is not strictly in the bible.
Today we return to the bible and what do we get? An R (or is it X) rated story with a leering incestuous step-father, abuse of power, blood and more. No wonder we turn to other sources for inspiration!
This grotesque story of the death of John the Baptist, featuring King Herod, Queen Herodias and her daughter, often known as Salome, appears in Mark and Matthew. It also appears in untold numbers of paintings, poems, plays and operas. (If you have the nerve, just google and you’ll see what I mean.) One wonders if there is any other biblical story that has inspired so much art.
As popular, or perhaps infamous, as this story is in the art world, it is not one we read all that often in church. We like to focus on the positive parables and healings from Jesus’ ministry, or the teachings of Paul that inspire us to navigate difficult situations, or the stories of God’s grace despite the Israelites unfaithfulness, or visions of the future with new heavens and new earth or… But every three years, whether we want it or not, the prescribed lectionary gives us this cautionary tale.
This story of the death of John the Baptist is sort of an interpolation, an interlude, in the midst of stories about Jesus’ work and travels. Jesus has just sent the disciples out, two by two, with nothing but the clothes on their backs – and that is one set of clothes, no cheating by putting on an extra layer. Their mission is to cast out unclean spirits and in each town search for a home that will allow them to stay until their work is done there.
You probably remember what they are supposed to do if they are not welcomed – “shake off the dust that is on your feet, as a testimony against them.” It sounds innocuous enough. But think about what showing the sole of your foot means in the Arab world today; it is a huge sign of disrespect. Jesus couldn’t possibly be telling his disciples to “diss” those who don’t let them stay in their homes, could he? Jesus would never be that impolite! He must mean something like, “I wash my hands (and feet) of you.”
And so they set off, proclaiming repentance as they went. They cast out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them. (Mark 6:12-13)
Meanwhile, in the palace, Herod hears about Jesus and it frankly terrifies him that there is another prophet among the Jews. He thought he had taken care of the head of the problem, the prophet John, and now here is another troublemaker. Could it be that John, who Herod so throughly got rid of, is back to haunt him? The gospel writer of Mark then tells the horror story of how Herod did indeed take care of John the Baptist.
Herod is a man of power, in fact the name “Herod” means “song of the hero.” This Herod comes from a long line of Herods who rule with cruelty and death. The Herods seem to have little conscience, killing their subjects and even slaughtering their own family members. It is this Herod’s ancestor (in Matthew’s gospel) who demands all the baby boys under two be killed because he feels threatened by the birth of the baby Jesus.
Right upfront, we get the sense that this Herod is not quite as powerful as he likes to portray himself. He is scared of John; he is scared of Jesus. It is his former sister-in-law, now wife, that seems to actually run the show. Herodias is offended and infuriated that John the Baptist would dare condemn her marriage to her brother-in-law Herod. She wants John the Baptist killed for his criticism of her immoral marriage but since Herod refuses to do that, Herodias makes sure that John is imprisoned and in chains.
We need to interrupt this interpolation to talk about jail.
Now that I have been arrested for civil disobedience, I have a new connection with my friend who has been part of the Catholic Worker movement for decades. I have two little post and forfeit arrests (which means I spent no time in jail. I just paid the $50 fine and am back to living my comfortable life.) My friend has probably lost count of the number of times that he has been arrested. And he has spent days, weeks and, one time, six months in jail. He says, “When you are in jail, then the real ministry begins.”
The people who enter jail out of a moral choice have a voice on the inside that the long timers do not, can not, have. For example, my friend said he was in for two months one time and they never, ever, let any of them go outside. It was written prominently that they were to get one hour outside for recreation every day. But no one ever did. So my friend, and his compatriots who had been arrested for civil disobedience, filed a petition. Because they were “special” it was granted and everyone got to go outside for an hour a day while they were there. When the civil disobedience folks were released it all went back to the usual deprivation and no one went outside, ever.
My friend told me about his co-conspirators who were locked in a women’s prison with awful conditions. Again, the long timers couldn’t speak out for fear of retaliation, for fear of being moved to another facility farther from their families, or beaten or deprived of food. The co-conspirators were able to speak, through a lawsuit. They won and the facility had to be cleaned up.
Given what we know about the cruelty of Herod, there must be others in prison with John the Baptist. And there are probably not legal avenues for John in terms of making prison life better for himself or others. One wonders how he ministers to his fellow prisoners, if his messages of repentance are softened while he is in chains or if he is just as fiery as ever.
Back in the palace, Herodias finally finds an opening to get what she wants: Herod’s birthday party. Herod’s party is not quite as gigantic as the party King Xerxes throws for himself in the book of Esther but the strategy is ever the same with these insecure rulers. Gather the people around and have them fawn over the ruler to make him feel important. In the book of Esther, Queen Vashti refuses to follow the king’s command – to show herself in front of her husband and his male guests. Her refusal to participate in the king’s drunken display of power results in Vashti being deposed and replaced with a new queen – Esther.
In Herod’s palace, the women are all too wiling to show themselves to the king, Well, Herodias is willing to offer up her daughter – in order to get what she wants. The daughter of Herodias, Salome, offers a birthday dance to her step-father, in front of all the court officials, military officers and other leaders of Galilee. We might wonder why a young woman offers to dance for her step-father, especially given that this dance has come to be known traditionally as the dance of the seven veils – a striptease. We might wonder what abuse the poor girl has suffered or what kind of threats compel her to offer herself like this at such an event.
Herod and the obsequious men gathered are so delighted, enchanted, excited by Salome’s dance that Herod takes the opportunity to show how powerful he truly is. Herod offers to give Salome whatever she asks for, even half of his kingdom. To further show his power and importance he makes it an official oath; he will be bound to grant whatever she asks.
Here we need another interpolation within the interpolation.
This oath taking by men who are anxious to show how powerful they are does not turn out well in the bible. Remember the story of Jeptha, in Judges 11? Jeptha was the son of a sex worker and a prominent man from Gilead. Raised by his mother, he is disowned and rejected by his father’s family and becomes an outlaw. Then his relatives need a military leader and approach Jeptha for the job. After some negotiations that allow Jeptha to have power and position even after the military crusade, Jeptha agrees to lead the fight against the Ammonites.
“The Spirit of the Lord came on Jephthah” but Jeptha, in his desperation to make a good impression and demonstrate his power, does not notice that God is with him. Instead, he makes an oath to God – “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”
Jeptha wins the battle, handily, and returns home to receive a heroes welcome. First to greet him is his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She is his only child; he has no son or daughter except her. When he sees her, he tears his clothes, and says, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.”
Jeptha’s unnecessary and foolish oath leads to his sacrifice of his only daughter. And he has the nerve to blame his beloved, unnamed daughter for his ridiculous and dangerous decisions.
So when Herod promises, under oath, to give Salome whatever she wants, we should be pretty suspicious that this is not going to end well, that this unnecessary display of power with an unwarranted and bragging oath will lead to death – for someone.
Which brings us back to poor Salome. If she thought dancing for her step-father and his creepy cronies was the end of it, now she has to come up with a gift to receive from him. Put on the spot, Salome does not seem able to think for herself. She cannot think of anything she could possibly want from Herod – except probably to get as far away as possible from him. But she goes to her mother and Herodias gets exactly what she has hoped for all along, the upper hand to her weak husband. “Ask for John the Baptist’s head.”
I have imagined Salome as a pawn in this whole power play. But then we are given this little clue that perhaps Salome has become more affected and infected by the cruelty of her mother and family than one would hope. When Salome returns to the festivities to present her request, she sees the banquet laid out, she sees the tables overflowing with food and she goes one step further than even her mother could go. “Give me John the Baptist’s head – on a platter.”
One wonders if the grown men who have been so taken with this young woman, who have seen her as so much meat, feel their stomachs lurch at the thought of this next dish to be delivered to the banquet hall. Certainly Herod is not excited about the thought and yet, like Jeptha, he swore an oath and if he wants to save face and preserve his power, he must deliver on this request. It does not take long for the body guard to return from the prison. Salome receives the head on the platter and takes it out of the banquet hall to her mother.
Almost as an afterthought we are told that John’s disciples come and remove his body so they can place it in a tomb – which is more than we can say for Jesus’ disciples. When Jesus was so cruelly killed, Mark doesn’t mention the male disciples at all but tells us the women, who followed Jesus and provided for him, look on from a distance. (It is Joseph of Arimathea, a rich, sort of secret, disciple that buries Jesus’ body.) Strangely enough, one of the women who watches from a distance is named Salome. It is a common name in Jesus’ day – still one wonders.
A story so violent and twisted seems better left between the closed pages of the bible. But this gut-wrenching, morbid, cautionary tale reminds us that the stories of the bible are not so far removed from our own contemporary stories.
It reminds us to pay attention to the interpolations that seem like interruptions that can be overlooked.
It reminds us how dangerous it is to have a leader so impressed by power, prestige and position that he is easily manipulated by people behind the scenes, for all kinds of evil ends.
And it reminds us that to be a truth teller, like John the Baptist, is a very dangerous proposition, not without consequences.
May God give us wisdom and courage as we carry the gift, and burden, of truth and justice, following in the footsteps of Jesus.