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Bad Girl of the Bible? Or Bad King?

A veritable Bad Girls of the Bible-fest.

by Lia Scholl

Gospel Reading: Mark 6:14-29

For Sunday, July 15, 2012: Year B—Ordinary 15

The life of Herod Antipas sounds like an episode of Jerry Springer. Initially married to the daughter of a king, Herod visited his half-brother, Herod Philip I, and fell in love with Herod Philip’s wife, Herodias. Herodias is the granddaughter of Herod the Great, who is the father of Herod Antipas. In other words, Herodias is Herod’s niece.

Mind you, Herod Antipas was a Jew. And being married to your niece, is, according to the law, is incest and therefore a sin. And let’s not even go to the part about being married to your brother’s wife when your brother is still alive.

To add to the debauchery, Herod threw a party. Herodias’ daughter, (unnamed, but assumed to be) Salome, danced for him. Just a little word about that dancing: it wasn’t clogging. Chances are that Salome was nude, and the dance was sexual.

After watching his stepdaughter/niece/grandniece dance naked, a presumably titillated Herod makes an oath, to give Salome whatever she desires, up to half of his kingdom. When the time comes for her to request what she wants, Salome asks her mother for instruction. In some way, this makes Salome’s mother her pimp.

What’s Esther Got to Do with It?

Because the Book of Mark is commentary on the Hebrew Bible, and because it would be used as a worship document in the first century, it is important to consider that phrase, “up to half of my kingdom.” Found in Esther, twice in chapter 5 and once in chapter 7, King Xerxes asks, “What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be given you.”

Why would Mark want to bring Esther into the discussion?

Perhaps it’s the literary tool of juxtaposition. Esther, who saved her people, would be the opposite of Salome, who was looking out for the selfish needs of her mother. King Herod is also a clear foil of King Xerxes. Herod is a puppet for the Romans, where Xerxes was the king of Persia (and a bit of a puppet to his advisors). Given the opportunity to do something honorable for the Jews, Xerxes responds. Given an opportunity to do something honorable for the Jews, Herod seeks his own pleasure. And although they were in exile, the Jews thrived under Xerxes. The Jews, in their homeland, were suffering under Herod, the Jewish king.

In Defense of Herod?

Our writer seems to support Herod by pointing out that Herod defended John the Baptist, and that Herod liked to listen to him. The writer even says that Herod was deeply grieved at having to keep his oath to kill John. Why this defense of Herod? What value is there to Mark to make Herod out to be a decent fellow, and Herodias or Salome the antagonist?

There could be many reasons. One might be that the writer of Mark is worried about the power of Herod. However, Mark is dated after 70 CE, though, and Herod was probably long dead by then.

Another reason might be that Herod’s political power lingered through his lineage and through his followers. This is a possibility, although the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE makes sucking up to Herod’s people too little, too late.

It’s also possible that Mark copied this story from the Q source, written at a much earlier date, which may have had some sense of protecting the new community from political powers by not criticizing them.

The Hardest Question

Why do you think the writer defends Herod? And why would Salome or Herodias be blamed? Is using the age-old “blame the woman” defense? Like other “Bad Girls of the Bible,” one-dimensional women who do bad things make a great literary tool. From Eve to Delilah, from Michal to Jezebel, the evil woman motif gives great men the opportunity to evade responsibility for their own actions.

Will you, as the preacher, let hold Herod responsible?


Rev. Lia Scholl serves as pastor at the Richmond Mennonite Fellowship in Richmond, Virginia and is a sex work ally, a Board member at the Red Umbrella Project. Her book, I <3 Sex Workers, is forthcoming from Chalice Press. Find out more at www.liascholl.com or you can find her on twitter at http://twitter.com/roguereverend.

Comments

  1. Rev. John Cofield says:

    “Chances are that Salome was nude, and the dance was sexual.” Hmm. let’s see if I get this? Herod is already in an incestuous relationship with his wife/niece. And, now he’s getting off on watching his

    “stepdaughter” dance. It really doesn’t matter how much Herod enjoys listening to and talking with John the Baptist, while none of us are irredeemable, Herod is very close to crossing that line.

    “When the time comes for her to request what she wants, Salome asks her mother for instruction. In some way, this makes Salome’s mother her pimp.” This bowled me over.

    The connections to Esther, the insights and comparisons are much appreciated.

  2. Lia says:

    Thanks, John. Will that help at all with sermon planning? I can imagine that many congregations would have a difficult time with that. Anyway, I appreciate you commenting.

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