AN EVIL WOMAN’S REVENGE
But when Herod heard about it, he said, “This is John, whom I beheaded, risen from the dead.” For Herod had sent and seized John and had bound him in prison because of the affair of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife–because he had married her. For John had said to Herod, “It is not right for you to have your brother’s wife.” Herodias set herself against him, and wished to kill him, and she could not succeed in doing so, for Herod was afraid of John, because he well knew that he was a just and holy man, and he kept him safe. When Herod listened to John he did not know what to do, and yet he found a certain pleasure in listening to him. But a day of opportunity came, when, on his birthday, Herod was giving a banquet to his courtiers and to his captains and to the leading men of Galilee. Herodias’ daughter herself came in and danced before them, and she pleased Herod and those who were reclining at table with him. The king said to the maiden, “Ask me for anything you like and I will give it to you.” He swore to her, “Whatever you ask me for, I will give you, even up to half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What am I to ask for myself?” She said, “John the Baptizer’s head.” At once she hurried into the king and made her request. “I wish,” she said, “that here and now you will give me the head of John the Baptizer on a plate.” The king was grief-stricken, but, because of the oath he had taken, and because he had taken it in front of his guests, he did not wish to break his word to her. So immediately the king despatched an executioner with orders to bring his head. The executioner went away and beheaded him in prison, and brought his head on a plate, and gave it to the maiden, and the maiden gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took away his body and laid it in a tomb.
This story has all the simplicity of tremendous drama.
First, let us look at the scene. The scene was the castle of Machaerus. Machaerus stood on a lonely ridge, surrounded by terrible ravines, overlooking the east side of the Dead Sea. It was one of the loneliest and grimmest and most unassailable fortresses in the world. To this day the dungeons are there, and the traveller can still see the staples and the iron hooks in the wall to which John must have been bound. It was in that bleak and desolate fortress that the last act of John’s life was played out.
Second, let us look at the characters. The marriage tangles of the Herod family are quite incredible, and their inter-relations are so complicated that they become almost impossible to work out. When Jesus was born Herod the Great was king. He was the king who was responsible for the massacre of the children in Bethlehem (Matt.2:16-18). Herod the Great was married many times. Towards the end of his life he became almost insanely suspicious, and murdered member after member of his own family, until it became a Jewish saying, “It is safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.”
First, he married Doris, by whom he had a son, Antipater, whom he murdered. Then he married Mariamne, the Hasmonean, by whom he had two sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, whom he also murdered. Herodias, the villainess of the present passage, was the daughter of this Aristobulus. Herod the Great then married another Mariamne, called the Boethusian. By her he had a son called Herod Philip. Herod Philip married Herodias, who was the daughter of his half-brother, Aristobulus, and who was therefore his own niece. By Herodias, Herod Philip had a daughter called Salome, who is the girl who danced before Herod of Galilee in our passage. Herod the Great then married Malthake, by whom he had two sons–Archelaus and Herod Antipas who is the Herod of our passage and the ruler of Galilee. The Herod Philip who married Herodias originally, and who was the father of Salome, inherited none of Herod the Great’s dominions. He lived as a wealthy private citizen in Rome. Herod Antipas visited him in Rome. There he seduced Herodias and persuaded her to leave her husband and marry him.
Note who Herodias was: (a) she was the daughter of his half-brother, Aristobulus, and therefore his niece; and (b) she was the wife of his half-brother Herod Philip, and therefore his sister-in-law. Previously Herod Antipas had been married to a daughter of the king of the Nabataeans, an Arabian country. She escaped to her father who invaded Herod’s territory to avenge his daughter’s honour and heavily defeated Herod. To complete this astounding picture Herod the Great finally married Cleopatra of Jerusalem, by whom he had a son called Philip the Tetrarch. This Philip married Salome who was at one and the same time (a) the daughter of Herod Philip, his half brother, and (b) the daughter of Herodias, who herself was the daughter of Aristobulus, another of his half brothers. Salome was therefore at one and the same time his niece and his grand-niece.
By putting this in the form of a table it is easier to see:
. HEROD THE GREAT (married 5 women) . . 1. Doris . 1. Antipater, murdered by his father . . 2. Mariamne the Hasmonean . 1. Alexander, murdered by his father . 2. Aristobulus, murdered by his father . a. Herodias . . 3. Mariamne the Boethusian . 1. Herod Philip, who married Herodias . a. Salome . . 4. Malthake . 1. Herod Antipas, who married Herodias . 2. Archelaus . . 5. Cleopatra of Jerusalem . 1. Philip the Tetrach, who married Salome
Seldom in history can there have been such a series of matrimonial entanglements as existed in the Herod family. By marrying Herodias, his brother’s wife, Herod had broken the Jewish law (Lev.18:16; Lev.20:21) and had outraged the laws of decency and of morality.
Because of this adulterous marriage and because of Herod’s deliberate seduction of his brother’s wife, John had publicly rebuked him. It took courage to rebuke in public an oriental despot who had the power of life and death, and John’s courage in rebuking evil wherever he saw it is commemorated in the Prayer-book collect for St. John the Baptist’s Day.
“Almighty God, by whose providence thy servant, John the Baptist, was wonderfully born, and sent to prepare the way of thy Son our Saviour, by preaching of repentance; Make us so to follow his doctrine and holy life, that we may truly repent according to his preaching; and after his example constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth’s sake.”
In spite of John’s rebuke Herod still feared and respected him, for John was so obviously a man of sincerity and of goodness; but with Herodias it was different. She was implacably hostile to John and determined to eliminate him. She got her chance at Herod’s birthday feast which he was celebrating with his courtiers and his captains. Into that feast her daughter Salome came to dance. Solo dances in those days in such society were disgusting and licentious pantomimes. That a princess of the royal blood should so expose and demean herself is beyond belief because such dances were the art of professional prostitutes. The very fact that she did this is a grim commentary on the character of Salome, and of the mother who allowed and encouraged her to do so. But Herod was pleased; and Herod offered her any reward; and thus Herodias got the chance she had plotted for so long; and John, to gratify her spleen, was executed.
There is something to learn from every character in this story.
(i) Herod stands revealed before us.
(a) He was an odd mixture. At one and the same time he feared John and respected him. At one and the same time he dreaded John’s tongue and yet found pleasure in listening to him. There is nothing in this world so queer a mixture as a human being. It is man’s characteristic that he is a mixture. Boswell, in his London Diary, tells us how he sat in church enjoying the worship of God and yet at the same time was planning how to pick up a prostitute in the streets of London that same night.
The strange fact about man is that he is haunted both by sin and by goodness. Robert Louis Stevenson speaks about people “clutching the remnants of virtue in the brothel or on the scaffold.” Sir Norman Birkett, the great Q.C. and judge, speaks of the criminals he had defended and tried. “They may seek to escape but they cannot; they are condemned to some nobility; afl their lives long the desire for good is at their heels, the implacable hunter.” Herod could fear John and love him, could hate his message and yet not be able to free himself from its insistent fascination. Herod was simply a human being. Are we so very different?
(b) Herod was a man who acted on impulse. He made his reckless promise to Salome without thinking. It may well be that he made it when he was more than a little drunk and flown with wine. Let a man have a care. Let a man think before he speaks. Let him never by self-indulgence get into a state when he loses his powers of judgment and is liable to do things for which afterwards he will be very sorry.
(c) Herod feared what men might say. He kept his promise to Salome because he had made it in front of his cronies and was unwilling to break it. He feared their jeers, their laughter; he feared that they would think him weak. Many a man has done things he afterwards bitterly regretted because he had not the moral courage to do the right. Many a man has made himself far worse than he is because he feared the laughter of his so-called friends.
(ii) Salome and Herodias stand revealed before us. There is a certain greatness about Herodias. Years after this her Herod sought the title of King. He went to Rome to plead for it; instead of giving him the title the Emperor banished him to Gaul for having the insolence and the insubordination to ask for such a title. Herodias was told that she need not share this exile, that she might go free, and she proudly answered that where her husband went she went too.
Herodias shows us what an embittered woman can do. There is nothing in this world as good as a good woman, and nothing as bad as a bad woman. the Jewish Rabbis had a quaint saying. They said that a good woman might marry a bad man, for by so doing she would end by making him as good as herself. But they said that a good man might never marry a bad woman, for she would inevitably drag him down to her own level. The trouble with Herodias was that she wished to eliminate the one man who had the courage to confront her with her sin. She wished to do as she liked with no one to remind her of the moral law. She murdered John that she might sin in peace. She forgot that while she need no longer meet John, she still had to meet God.
(iii) John the Baptizer stands revealed before us. He stands as the man of courage. He was a child of the desert and of the wide open spaces, and to imprison him in the dark dungeons of Machaerus must have been the last refinement of torture. But John preferred death to falsehood. He lived for the truth and he died for it. The man who brings to men the voice of God acts as a conscience. Many a man would silence his conscience if he could, and therefore the man who speaks for God must always take his life and his fortune in his hands.
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