I am pleased to share another guest post from my daughter, Katie Laurence, a second-year seminary student at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California. Here she is looking at the death of John the Baptist and pondering the questions “How do we read the Bible?” and “How do we read this specific story in the Bible?”
Today I want to look at the story of the death of John the Baptist in the Gospel of Mark and ponder with you the questions “How do we read the Bible?” and “How do we read this specific story in the Bible?” Follow this link to read Mark 6:17-29 online so the story is fresh in your mind.
When we’re reading the Bible for devotions, a great question we might start with is “Where am I in this story?” This can help us hear what the Bible has to say to us in our lives today. However, at first it seems unhelpful in this story, because it’s harder to connect with people like Herodias and Herod than to connect with the Good Samaritan, Peter, or Martha.
Another way to read the Bible is to focus on what it tells us about historical events and figures, like Herod and John the Baptist. However, the story Mark tells us here focuses more on the parts of the story that can’t be proven historically, like Herod and his wife Herodias’s feelings about John the Baptist, and Herod’s conversation with his (step) daughter. Without getting into the weeds of reading the Bible historically, it seems clear that Mark isn’t telling this story to document a historical event. Instead, we’re meant to get some other kind of message from this Bible story as followers of Christ.
I believe that every word in the Bible is there for a reason, and that the many human writers who contributed to the Scriptures we have today were guided by the Holy Spirit in their writing. So, I believe that when we study the Bible as Christians, we need to study the whole thing, even the parts that seem confusing or challenging, because every passage has something to say to us today in our lives. This includes this story of John the Baptist’s death.
How do we read this Bible story?
Let’s go back to our classic devotional question then and dig a little deeper: “Where am I in this story?” To start with, it might be helpful to spend time with each person in the story. An idea I encountered recently in seminary is to let yourself be haunted by the people in a Bible story, instead of trying to find the “correct” interpretation of a passage.
Being haunted by the people in a Bible story means letting them into our minds as full people, not holding ourselves as at a “safe” distance from the text and thinking we understand exactly what’s going on in it. It means allowing ourselves to be impacted by what we’ve read, to be connected with it. I like the word “haunt” partially because it says that this relationship with the people we read about in the Bible isn’t easy; it’s letting ourselves be troubled by what we read, letting it nag at us and weigh on our minds.
So with this in mind, as we look at each person in this story, I’m not going to argue for a specific interpretation about them. Instead we’ll wonder about some different possibilities as a way to connect with them.
Herodias, wife of Herod
Let’s start with Herodias, the wife of Herod. At first, she seems like a scheming, bad person; how can we connect with someone so manipulative, who is out to kill John the Baptist and succeeds? Stepping into her shoes for a moment, Herodias had very little of her own power as a woman in this time and place. Any power, and even security, she had came from the men in her life.
Now, John the Baptist has been speaking out against the unlawfulness of Herodias’s marriage to Herod, and Herod has apparently been listening to John and being perplexed by his words, maybe including John’s words about Herod’s marriage. Of course, John is speaking out against the political authorities of his day in other ways as well. But what if Herodias saw that her position as Herod’s wife was threatened?
What if she feared for her and her children’s well-being if Herod decided their marriage was unlawful? Her powerlessness and dependence on men for her well-being was unjust, and so was John the Baptist’s arrest for his prophetic criticism of those in power. Instead of seeing that both herself and John were suffering from the unjust state of the world, Herodias chose to use the power she did have access to in order to murder John and keep her position secure.
How can we let Herodias’s challenging and violent decisions haunt us as we go about our Christian lives, experiencing our own power and powerlessness, and making hard decisions about whether to challenge injustice or protect ourselves at the cost of others?
Herodias’s daughter is barely a person in this story. Many interpreters of the Bible have been as distracted as Herod was by her dancing figure, leading them to ignore the other parts of this passage and focus instead on the sensuality of her dancing. But who is she? And did she plan this evening’s dance to manipulate her stepfather, or did she simply run to her mother, feeling overwhelmed with the options, when Herod offered her anything she wanted? How did she feel when her mother told her to ask for a man’s head? Perhaps she is being used by the adults in her life, trapped by these power systems, and yet follows her mother in using the little power she has on this one day to murder a man who is also trapped by unjust uses of power.
Herod comes off as a manipulated victim in this Bible story. He likes listening to John; he protects John; and he is deeply grieved to have to kill John. However, he is the ruler with all the power in this story. He chose to arrest John; he chose to offer his stepdaughter anything; he chose to follow through on his promise and order John beheaded. How did he really feel about the events of this day? And is Mark’s version of this event what actually happened? Those with a lot of power often get to control how history gets told, and we know that John was stirring up trouble wherever he went; did Herod want John dead? Whatever really happened that day, it’s easy to be haunted in our own lives by Herod pretending he’s powerless to prevent this sinful order to kill John, while really being the most powerful person in this Bible passage.
Soldier and guests
Herodias, her daughter, and Herod aren’t the only people involved in the death of John the Baptist. The soldier of the guard obeys Herod’s orders without complaint, and the guests sit idly by, watching this violence occur. How could the guests passively watch a terrible injustice play out in front of their eyes? How could the prisoner of the guard obediently participate in it? Everyone present is complicit in this violent death.
John the Baptist
Now that we’ve connected with and been troubled by each of the people complicit and complacent in his death, let’s spend a moment being haunted by John the Baptist, a person of faith who spoke out against sinfulness and evil in his time, even (and especially) when that meant putting himself at risk by speaking out against those in power. He died a terrible death, and each of the people involved in his death viewed him through their own limited perspectives, not seeing him as a human being, but rather as a threat; a prisoner; a head on a platter; maybe even an unusual anecdote about a birthday dinner.
Now that we’ve spent a few minutes together opening ourselves up to being disquieted by the people in Mark’s telling of the death of John the Baptist, is it easier to answer the questions “Where am I in this story?” and “What does this Bible story have to say to us about our lives today?”
What do you think is happening in this Bible passage? Are any of the people we met in this passage going to haunt you, or weigh on your mind? Did you think of more questions to ponder about their thoughts, feelings, and lives? How do you see the Holy Spirit at work in this Bible story?
You can find Katie’s other guest posts here: