Matthew 14: 1-12
Parallel Mark 6: 14-29; Luke 9: 7-9
1 At that time Herod the ruler heard reports about Jesus; 2 and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist; he has been raised from the dead, and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” 3 For Herod had arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, 4 because John had been telling him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” 5 Though Herod wanted to put him to death, he feared the crowd, because they regarded him as a prophet. 6 But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company, and she pleased Herod 7 so much that he promised on oath to grant her whatever she might ask. 8 Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” 9 The king was grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he commanded it to be given; 10 he sent and had John beheaded in the prison. 11 The head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who brought it to her mother. 12 His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.
Immediately after Jesus is not received in his hometown, Matthew narrates the death of John the Baptist. Herod Antipas may, like his father Herod the Great, want to be the ‘King of the Jews’ but his actions run contrary to the vision expressed in the law for how a king is supposed to be. He also is sharply contrasted with Jesus in the coming narrative: while Herod fears the crowd Jesus has compassion on them, while the death of one who came ‘neither eating of drinking’ occurs at a feast at Herod’s birthday party, Jesus will provide a banquet in the deserted place for thousands. This story of sex, intrigue and power demonstrates the nature of the kingdom of rulers like Herod. The kingdom that Jesus and John pointed to is an alternative to this Herodian tragedy.
Herod Antipas is the tetrarch, he ruled a quarter of his father’s former kingdom including Galilee. His brother Herod II, also known as Herod Philip, was the husband of Herodias not to be confused with Philip II the ruler of Trachonitis. We learned in Matthew 11:2 that John the Baptist was in prison and now we hear the reason that Herod Antipas took notice of this prophet. The divorce of Herod II and Herodias is also mentioned in Josephus and we know that eventually Herod Antipas married Herodias, but their marriage would have been a scandal among the people of Galilee. Unfortunately, rulers often feel above the law that their followers adhere to. Jesus will speak against divorce multiple times in Matthew and, like John, he wouldn’t have endorsed a brother marrying his brother’s wife serving as the king of the region where Jesus’ ministry begins.
Rulers making wild declarations which have lasting consequences are common characters throughout the bible and these rulers are bound by their words. Herod makes Herodias’ daughter a promise to give her what she asks for. Generations earlier Esther when given a similar opportunity by King Ahaseurus uses the opportunity to save the people and to bring about the death of Haman, the enemy of her people (Esther 5:3, Mark’s parallel telling of this uses identical language in Herod’s and Ahaseurus’ promises) but here the daughter of Herodias asks only for the death of the prophet. Herod Antipas is bound by his rash promise and the presence of those reclining at the table with him.
Herod expresses a belief that John the Baptist has been raised from the dead to his children (NRSV renders the word servants), which points to an understanding of the resurrection of the righteous which would have been an idea shared by the Pharisees and the followers of Jesus. I don’t believe that Herod Antipas would’ve considered himself a Pharisee, but he probably had enough in common with them for them to work together when it served their interests. This may lie behind the collaboration between Pharisees and Herodians in 22:16.
Matthew shortens Mark’s narration of the death of John the Baptist’s, but it does serve important functions in Matthew’s narration of Jesus’ ministry. By coming immediately after the rejection in Jesus’ hometown it demonstrates the resistance to the kingdom of heaven and the cost that prophets and messiahs will pay. It also ends John the Baptist’s role in the story. In Matthew, Jesus and John share identical language in their proclamation but have different roles. Yet, we also will hear others understand Jesus in terms of John the Baptist (16:14). John’s disciples have come to Jesus before, and now they come to Jesus a final time with the news of John’s death, which sets Jesus in motion. Jesus will withdraw to a deserted place, perhaps to grieve and perhaps to avoid Herod Antipas. Herod will stay at his celebration with those who have seen Herodias’ daughter dance and John the Baptist beheaded with the crowds outside. Jesus in going to the deserted place will find the crowds coming and seeking him like sheep without a shepherd, or at least without a good shepherd.