March 28, 2008

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Biblical women: Herodias and Salome

John F. Fink(Thirty-third in a series of columns)

Herodias and Salome, her daughter, appear in the 14th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel and the sixth chapter of Mark’s Gospel. The daughter’s name is not mentioned in either account, but Salome has become her traditional name.

Mark’s Gospel account says that Herodias was married to Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee and Perea. Perea was east of the Jordan River in what is now Jordan.

When King Herod the Great died in 4 B.C., his territory was divided among three of his surviving sons (he had had three other sons executed): Archelaus received Judea; Herod Antipas, Galilee and Perea; and Philip, the land north and east of the Sea of Galilee in what is now the Golan Heights. In 6 A.D., the Romans took over Judea from Archelaus.

According to both Gospels, Herodias (Herod the Great’s granddaughter) previously had been married to Philip. It was undoubtedly a great scandal when she left Philip for his half-brother, Herod Antipas.

At least the matter was sufficiently notorious that John the Baptist told Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (Mk 6:18).

John quoted Leviticus, “You shall not have intercourse with your brother’s wife, for that would be a disgrace to your brother” (Lv 18:16).

The impertinence of this man angered Herodias. At her insistence, Herod had John thrown into prison.

But that didn’t satisfy Herodias. She wanted John put to death to get rid of him entirely. Herod hesitated. He feared the people, who regarded John as a prophet. Besides, he was strangely attracted to him, regarded him as a holy man, and enjoyed listening to him.

Then came Herodias’s chance. Herod had a large birthday party, and the wine flowed freely. As part of the entertainment, Salome (Herod’s niece and Philip’s daughter) came in and danced. The dance has been called elsewhere the dance of seven veils, but not in the Gospels. We can imagine, though, that it was sensuous and erotic. Herod was so pleased that he told Salome she could have anything she wanted, “even half of my kingdom” (Mk 6:23).

Hurrying to her mother, Salome asked, “What shall I ask for?” (Mk 6:24).

Herodias didn’t hesitate, “The head of John the Baptist” (Mk 6:24).

Salome returned to Herod. “I want you to give me at once on a platter the head of John the Baptist,” she said (Mk 6:25).

King Herod sobered up quickly. He didn’t want that but, since his guests had heard what he had said, he quickly sent an executioner to the prison with orders to behead John and bring back his head. And so it was done. John’s head was brought back on a platter and given to Salome, who in turn gave it to her mother.

Herod Antipas and Herodias ruled until the year 41. At that time, Emperor Caligula made Herodias’s brother, Herod Agrippa, King of the Jews.

Antipas and Herodias went to Rome to get Caligula to reverse his decision, but he would not.

Instead, Antipas and Herodias were sent into exile. We don’t know what happened to Salome.†

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