“Herod was in awe of John –
whenever Herod listened to John,
he was miserable with guilt –
and yet he couldn’t stay away.
Something in John kept pulling him back…”
Mark 6 – The Message
Whenever the name Herod appears in the Bible –a bloody trail of heinous tragedy ensues. This Herod (the one who orders John the Baptist beheaded) was Herod Antipas – son of Herod the Great. You’ll remember Herod the Great as the one who slaughtered all the innocent infant and toddler boys under the age of 2 in Bethlehem. Papa Herod had been known for ruthless killing before. Jewish historian Alfred Edersheim comments, “The murder of a few infants in an insignificant village might appear scarcely worth notice in a reign stained by so much bloodshed.”[Edersheim, 149] Evidently, this irreverent monarch was accustomed to such atrocities. The ancient historian Josephus failed to record Herod’s massacre in Bethlehem. Whether for fear of his own life, or simply because he did not think it worthy, we are only left with what Matthew reports for us in his gospel. And here, in only one verse, the scripture merely alludes to the resulting mayhem: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”[Matthew 2: 18 and Jeremiah 31:15].
Eleven to thirteen years after Herod unleashed his jealous terror, there would be no Bar mitzvahs in Bethlehem. No pre-teen boys would head off to the Yeshiva to prepare for their big coming of age ceremony. There would be a two year hiatus where all of those present on that fearful day – the day of Herod’s massacre – would have to remember. Their minds would relive the horrid echoes of scampering feet through the narrow streets: a scream, steel against bone, and the moan of beloved neighbors. They would remember the taste of the bloody, sweaty air as they bent over the still warm corpse of the boy, who minutes ago had filled their hearts with delight and hope. They would reluctantly open up their grievous wounds and be reminded that their sons “are no more.”
The fury of a fearful despot is devastating. Kathleen Norris, who has a penchant for poetic observation, says this about Herod: “Herod’s fear is like a mighty wind, it cannot be seen, but its effects dominate the landscape.”[Kathleen Norris. Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. (New York, NY.: Riverhead Books, 1998) 225]. Herod feared that another king, even a mere toddler, might rain on his parade. His power, coupled with his overwhelming desire to maintain his position and reputation at all cost, propelled him into “furtive, pathetic and futile attempts at self-preservation.”[Norris, 225].
Herod the Great’s son, Herod Antipas, learned his own “furtive, pathetic and futile attempts at self-preservation” from his father. Herod Antipas was a fickle man – one moment hanging on John’s every word and protecting him – the next being disturbed to the core. And at the request of his niece, (acting as the emissary of revenge for Herod’s enraged wife, Herodias), Herod with exceeding sorrow, orders John the Baptist beheaded. He did it in order to save face in front of his distinguished guests. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to be in that room when John’s head arrived on a platter. Did heads turn in disgust? Did anyone cringe? Or were they all bloodthirsty, arrogant and engrossed onlookers?
Herod succumbed to the same fate as Pontius Pilate – caving into the crowd instead of living out a heart conviction. It’s no surprise, then, that Herod and Pilate became friends a few years later at Jesus’ trial.
It’s easy for me to think that I could never be as evil as these wicked, selfish, pathetic men. And yet, each time I yield to my propensity to people please, instead of standing up for what is right, I edge toward the susceptibility for sanctioning (consciously or subconsciously) a greater evil. Fear always devastates the landscape – and apart from God’s help to make me more valiant in conviction and action, I will only remain fickle and floundering – tossed about on the waves from living double-minded.