The moral character of a ruler can reach such low ebb that prophets arise to name and condemn the scoundrel’s behavior, even if the ruler strikes back. In totalitarian states, immoral rulers imprison or murder adversaries. In democracies, they discredit and counter-accuse.
John the Baptist saw and condemned the immorality of Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee, and paid for it with his life. Having been educated in Rome, this Herod was a son of Herod the Great. He schmoozed Rome and named his new regional capital in Galilee “Tiberias” after the reigning emperor. Herod Antipas recklessly wielded power to stroke his ego and eliminate foes. Jesus called him “that fox” (Luke 13:32), and Herod eventually helped preside at Jesus’ trial.
But even as he rubbed out opponents, Herod perversely wanted to meet them. When the Tetrarch finally encountered Jesus in a Jerusalem courtroom, Herod was “very glad, for he had been wanting to see him for a long time, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see him perform some sign” (Luke 23:8).
Called Tetrarch because he inherited one-fourth of his father’s kingdom, Herod controlled two separate regions: Galilee in the north, and Perea, an area east and north of the Dead Sea. When John the Baptist began to speak out against corruption, economic injustice and spiritual leaders in cahoots with Rome, he took his ministry to desert regions of Perea and the Jordan River valley.
Paranoid about the possibility of insurrection, the Herod family maintained scattered palace-fortresses as safe houses. One was Machaerus, which crowned a dramatic peak in mountains east of the Dead Sea. Not far to the north, John was proclaiming, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance. . . . Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees.”
When Herod seduced and married his brother’s wife, John publicly rebuked him (Mark 6:17-29). The marriage was both adulterous and incestuous because the woman was Herod’s niece. Herod’s new wife wanted John dead, but, fearing public-relations pushback, Herod simply threw him in prison.
An opportunity for revenge came when the narcissistic ruler celebrated his own birthday with a party which, according to Josephus, was at Machaerus. He invited officers of his court and leaders from Galilee. Salome, daughter of Herod’s new wife, performed such a beguiling dance that Herod promised to give whatever she asked. Consulting with her mother, the girl said, “The head of John the Baptist!” With the pesky prophet apparently in a dungeon at Machaerus, Herod ordered immediate execution, and the head arrived on a platter.
Today it is an easy hike up Machaerus mountain, and the ruins are sobering: a courtyard that perhaps is where Salome danced, an adjacent hall where Herod likely feasted, and various underground rooms that could have been dungeons.
The Romans eventually tired of Herod’s erratic and power-grabbing governance. In A.D. 39, a few years after killing John and Jesus, he was stripped of power and sent into exile in France, where he died.
I admire the moral fiber of John, who stood up to corrupt and narcissistic power. I honor the courage of John’s disciples who came to collect his body. I support peaceful protesters, pastors and prophets who confront corrupt and narcissistic power today in this country and around the world.
J. Nelson Kraybill is a pastor at Prairie Street Mennonite Church, Elkhart, Ind., and president of Mennonite World Conference. See more of his reflections at peace-pilgrim.com.