Friday, May 17, 2013

Pro Tip: Beheading People is Wrong

So, remember John the Baptist? He was pretty great. Unfortunately, in Matthew 14:1-12 he gets beheaded.

But nobody wants to see a picture of that. Instead, enjoy this lawn gnome. Image source.

So before we actually get into the content of this passage, let's clarify the timeline. Here is how the passage is structured:
  • Verses 1-2: Herod hears about Jesus and thinks Jesus must be John the Baptist raised from the dead.
  • Verses 3-5: Herod arrests John.
  • Verses 6-12: Herod ends up beheading John.
So it seems that verses 3-12 are a flashback, a clarification of Herod's thoughts in verses 1-2. As far as how this fits in with the previous and next chapters of Matthew, I'm not really sure- though remember John was in prison back in chapter 11. Beyond that, the chronology is unclear. (Though writers of the time tended to prioritize grouping similar events rather than making sure everything was written down in the exact order it happened.)

So anyway. Here are the details of what's going on in this passage:

Herod arrests John the Baptist

So apparently Herod stole his brother's wife, and John was not a fan of that. And John kind of got in trouble for speaking his mind about it. Matthew's account says, "Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered John a prophet." Mark's gospel says, "So Herodias [the wife] nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him."

So Herod seems a little torn over what to do with John.

And then things turn bad.

So, Herod had a party, and Herodias's daughter danced and Herod was so impressed that he offered her anything she wanted. So obviously her mother, an upstanding role model, makes her ask for John's head on a platter.

So what's Herod going to do? "The king [Herod] was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison."

Well, eww.

It seems like Herod really didn't want to do it, but all these people just saw him make a promise and he can't take it back. (Which seems a bit odd to me- if you're at a fancy dinner, and someone gets beheaded... doesn't that kind of reflect BADLY on the host?)

An important dimension to consider here is culture. I know that Asian culture is very honor/shame-based, much different from Western/American culture. And the ancient Middle East was more honor/shame-based than the modern American culture I come from. So for Herod to make a promise and not do it- even if it was something terrible- was probably a much bigger deal in that culture than it seems to American readers.

(Okay now I have to define what I mean by "honor/shame-based." At the risk of over-simplifying and stereotyping, I'll define it like this: When someone makes a very obvious failure in front of others, they carry a lot of shame for that. And when someone directly addresses someone's wrongdoing or mistake, it comes across as insulting and can ruin the relationship. So communication is indirect and conflict is hidden, or maybe just expressed in more subtle ways that drive me crazy when I'm in China. I MEAN SERIOUSLY why don't people just SAY what they wanna say? No, actually it's fine and all cultures are beautiful and I love China but this is something I need to adapt better to.)

SO ANYWAY. Now we move on to the question that has haunted me my whole life: What should Herod have done?

I remember reading this passage many years ago, and wondering for a long time what Herod should have done. He had made a promise to give the girl whatever she wanted. When you make a promise, you have to do it.

But that would mean killing John the Baptist! And Herod really didn't want to kill John. When he made that promise, he didn't mean it like that.

So what can he do? You CAN'T break a promise. You just CAN'T. But but but... he doesn't want to kill John...

Probably something else you need to know here: My way of thinking is super-literal and rigid. (Related: I have Asperger's and I'm totally going to blog about that at some point.) So I just had this idea in my head that you CAN'T break a promise- you just CAN'T. I didn't think "well let's weigh the consequences here: breaking a promise, or murder..." because you just CAN'T break a promise.

She said, "Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist." And yes, all those years ago, I came up with a loophole, a way that Herod could keep his promise, AND not kill John.

All right, ready? Here it comes.

Image source.

I went the literal genie route. You know, sometimes in fairy tales there's a genie who promises to grant a wish, and they take the request far too literally and the wisher ends up with something completely different than what they wanted.

So, Herod should have taped a platter onto John's chin- you know, with John fully alive and intact, and then brought him out to say hi to the girl, and that's that. Nobody gets killed, but there you have his head on a platter.

Image source.

Umm, right. So, haha, no that's not what I think of this story now. (Though seriously, that WAS literally my thought process at one time.) Because now I think it is okay to break a promise under certain circumstances. (Such as when you accidentally promise to murder someone. Also, please lie to Nazis.) Herod should have just been like, "no, actually when I said 'ask for anything' I didn't mean it like that, sorry for the confusion, what do you want instead?"

Also, when I think of this story of Herod and John the Baptist, I can't help but relate it to the story of Jephthah and his daughter in Judges 11, a similar bible story which occurred hundreds of years before Matthew 14.

Jephthah was the leader of Israel's army. Before the battle, he made a vow to God- if God gives them victory, Jephthah would go home and sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house.

So, they won the battle. And Jephthah went home and his daughter came out to meet him. Well darn.

So yeah he killed her.

Actually I have heard some less gory interpretations where he took her to the temple to serve there for life (kind of like Hannah and Samuel?) but... I don't know about that...

But really, what was he supposed to do, break a promise to God?


YES! ALL DAY LONG! Because I don't believe in a God who is pleased when people sacrifice their freaking children!

(Umm but what about the thing with Abraham and Isaac? I don't know, man, that was just weird and messed-up.)

All right, to sum this all up, I would like to quote from Slacktivist's post on Jephthah's daughter:
What impresses me in this commentary is the rabbis’ condemnation of Jephthah’s vow as “not valid.” That’s quite different from the way I was taught this story in my own evangelical/fundamentalist Christian tradition, in which this story is almost always referred to as that of “Jephthah’s Rash Vow.”

That word — “rash” — is treated as the key point of this story, which is presented as a cautionary tale against imprudent or reckless promises. I don’t recall ever hearing a Sunday sermon on the story of Jephthah, but I probably heard a half-dozen Sunday school or Bible class lessons, and all of them pointed to this as the moral of this immoral story: Don’t make rash vows, because you will be bound by them just like Jephthah was.

And that’s monstrous — almost as horrifying as the original story. Those well-meaning Sunday school teachers all assumed, as Jephthah did, that he was absolutely bound by his vow, no matter what. And thus they all repeated Jephthah’s error — assuming that such vows and rules might somehow matter more than the life of Jephthah’s daughter.

That seems to me to be precisely the opposite of what this brutal little story actually illustrates. It shows us the lethal ignorance and sinful pride of remaining “inflexible.” The story of Jephthah is the story of everyone who decides that vows and codes and rules must be absolute. That way of thinking always ends in death.
(click here to read the whole thing)

Well-said. Herod should have said no. Jephthah should have said no. Murder is wrong, and no amount of promises or social pressure can change that.


This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: Sell Everything (Matthew 13:44-58)

Next post: Jesus' Time Management (Matthew 14:13-36)

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.

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