The story of John the Baptist’s imprisonment and death is an interesting foreshadowing of what was going to happen to Jesus. John prepared the way for Jesus but he also prefigures his life. John’s imprisonment, binding, and death also occur to Jesus. Still, the question of why John the Baptist was imprisoned is an interesting one and it’s what I would like to explore in this pilgrim.
King Herod, as the text calls him, was Herod Antipas the ruler of Galilee and the Transjordanian region of Perea. He wasn’t really a king. He was a tetrarch, a puppet ruler for the Romans. In Mark 6:14-29 He is responsible for the killing of John the Baptist. His Father Herod the Great was a Jew by religion and an Edomite by birth. Herod the Great married a woman from the Hasmonean family. It was a politically motivated marriage but Herod did love her. The marriage solidified Herod the Great’s position in the eyes of the Jews because the Hasmonean dynasty was a powerful Jewish family. When Herod died his kingdom was divided by Rome according to his wishes. His sons were each given an area to govern. Herod Antipas, was the most accomplished ruler between the brothers. He reigned for about forty years.
The trouble began when Herod Antipas divorced King Aretas’ daughter in order to marry his niece Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Philip. John the Baptist condemned this marriage and it eventually led to his death. Why did John feel the need to speak out? Obviously it had something to do with this new marriage. The family tree of the Herodian’s is complex due the fact that Herod the Great had ten wives. It’s further complicated because intermarriage was common in the family. Herodias was the daughter of Aristobulus IV one of Herod the Great’s children. This made Herodias the niece of her first husband Philip (not to be confused with Herod’s other son, Philip the Tetrarch). When Herodias divorced her husband/uncle and married his half-brother Herod Antipas she was engaging in an illicit incestuous marriage in two ways. First, due to the incestuous behavior of the family she was Herod Antipas’ niece. Herodias’ daughter, the one who danced for him at the party was Herod’s niece, his grandniece, and his stepdaughter. This is more than enough reason for John to speak against Antipas’ new marriage.
Second, Leviticus 18:16 and 20:21 prohibit such a marriage.
“You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness.” (Lev. 18:16)
“If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is impurity. He has uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.” (Lev. 20:21)
So Herodias is, according to these laws like a blood relative. She is like a sister since she was married to Antipas’ brother. The fact that Philip and Antipas were only half-brothers doesn’t make the marriage acceptable. Only in the case of Deuteronomy 25:5-10 is it permissible for someone to marry his brother’s wife and it’s more like a requirement than permission. Deuteronomy 25:5-10, is about the perpetuation of a sibling’s family line. The marriage is protection for the widow and the deceased husband since he died without children. This is not the case with Antipas and Herodias. She already has a child with Philip and he is still alive.
What we are left with is an illicit incestuous marriage. John boldly attacks Herod Antipas for this behavior. His scathing attacks against Herodias drive her to scheme against him. She found the opportunity to attack John when her daughter, Herod Antipas’ step child, danced for Antipas and leading men of Galilee. This lewd act garnishes favor with Herod and ultimately leads to John’s death.
This brief epic is like a seedy soap opera but it also depicts a powerful martyrdom story. Herod himself recognizes John the Baptist as a “righteous and holy man”. John is the man who challenges a “king” bravely standing up for righteousness in the world and fighting the political machine. The Hellenistic world loved bold speeches such as John the Baptist’s denouncement of Herodias’ marriage. They would certainly have honored him for this virtue.