Herold’s Banquet, Fra Filippo Lippi, Fresco Duomo, Prato (Wikimedia)

Mark 6 (NRSV) 22 When his daughter Herodias[e] came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” 23 And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24 She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25 Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26 The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s[f] head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28 brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

Sometimes the Common Lectionary winds up and throws you a curve ball. I think that’s certainly the case with the gospel reading for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost. But even when that happens, and I’m going to try to say this without stretching the baseball metaphor too far, I think you can still get a good clean base hit.

This one’s definitely a curve ball, though.

It’s the story of Herod’s daughter, who danced before the king and demanded the head of John the Baptist. On a platter, no less. It’s been a common, if lurid, motif in western religious art. (The painting by Italian quattrocento master Fra Lippo Lippi, above, is more decorous than most.) And it’s taken on a life of its own, sometimes in decidedly unreligious settings.

So when we read St. Mark’s account in this week’s Zoom pericope study session, the first thing I had to get out of my mind was one of those songs like “Lloyd George Knew My Father” and “Here We Sit Like Birds in the Wilderness” that we sang as kids at church camp:

Salome was a dancer, she danced before the king
She danced and she danced, and she took off everything.
The king said, “Stop, we’ll have none of that in here”;
She said “Oh yes we will,” and she grabbed the chandelier.

I do kinda like the way Salome (who is an unnamed daughter of Herod Antipas’ wife Herodias in the gospel stories) stands her ground in the song. But I was singing it at camp 15 or 20 years before women’s lib came along with better models of assertiveness. So I’m inclined to think Salome is one of those women in the bible, like Mary Magdelene, whose stories were sexualized over the years.

With one big difference. Mary of Magdala was the first, and arguably therefore the most important, apostle of the early Christian church. But Salome’s role in history, both sacred and secular, was quite different. According to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who first mentioned her name, Salome was indeed a stepdaughter of Herod Antipas. While history doesn’t record that she was an exotic dancer, she was definitely caught up in the kind of messy, borderline incestuous dynastic relationships that figure so heavily in the stories of ancient Greek tragedy, the more colorful Roman emperors, Renaissance and the royal families of Europe.

And I think that dynastic, political angle is why the story of Salome, aka an unnamed stepdaughter of Herod Antipas, figures so heavily in Mark.

At least that’s what I get out of the story. I couldn’t care less if she danced the hootchie-kootchie, and I doubt Mark did either, but the atmosphere of seedy palace intrigue grabs my attention (if not the chandelier). The whole passage begins as Herod hears of Jesus’ ministry and exclaims, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” The story’s about Jesus, not the girl.

Recall that in the very beginning of his gospel, Mark sets the scene by talking about John: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’.” He’s in Galilee to proclaim the kingdom. And what better contrast to God’s kingdom than the palace intrigue in Herod Antipas’ court?

Even by the later standards of the Borgias in Renaissance Italy or the English Houses of Lancaster and York in Shakespeare’s history plays, his family was dysfunctional. Herod Antipas was a son of Herod the Great (the same Herod who figures in the Christmas stories). Named Tetrarch (a Roman hereditary ruler) of Galilee, Herod Antipas divorced his first wife to marry Herodias, who had been married to his half-brother Herod II but divorced him while he was still alive, thus “confound[ing] the laws of our country,” as Josephus put it. And according to Mark’s gospel, John the Baptist told Herod Antipas, quite correctly, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” (At least not while his brother still lived.) Confused yet? Herodias’ daughter Salome, to call her by the name Josephus gave her, first married Herod Philip II, another half-brother of Herod Antipas’ who was tetrarch of an adjoining province in Galilee and what is now Syria. When he died, Salome married Aristobulus, a grandson of Herod the Great, and they had three sons, Herod, Agrippa, and Aristobulus. Got all that? Me neither. I think the takeaway here is that family relations are complicated at the best of times when you’ve got a dynasty to maintain. So that’s one kind of kingdom.

Here’s another: Jesus and his disciples went from village to village in Herod’s Galilee healing and preaching the kingdom of God. This would have ominous overtones for a Jewish overlord who ruled at the behest of the Roman Empire. Some were saying “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers [of healing] are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.”  But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

Yep — if I were Herod Antipas, I’d be nervous too. But what does all of this have to do with us 21 centuries later? Where’s the good news — the gospel — in it?

When I read scripture, I like to start with the historical Jesus. Then, once I feel like I’ve got Jesus of Nazareth grounded in the historical reality of his day, I feel like I can better apply what he said to the realities of my own time and place. It’s not the only way to read scripture, or necessarily the best way, but it works for me. Usually I turn first to historical Jesus scholarship, and it’s served me well, but this time I happened to think of something by Rabbi Harold Kushner that jumped up off the page at me. He’s best known as the author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, and his focus is on what I’d call pastoral counseling.

But another book of Kushner’s, titled To Life!, turned up in my mother’s belongings. I came across it the other day when I was looking for something else (story of my life), and I never got around to reading it till now. It’s written for a Jewish readership (the title is a translation of the Hebrew toast L’Chaim), but Kushner has a way of getting abstract ethical concepts across to ordinary people, whether they’re Jewish, Christian or none of above. That’s where the rubber meets the road, as far as I’m concerned (or where the sandals meet the road to Calvary). And Kushner has a useful, common-sense way of talking about Jesus of Nazareth that I find helpful.

He begins by setting the stage in familiar terms. Times were so hard and the Romans so firmly entrenched in Judea and Galilee, Kushner says, that most Jews believed deliverance would involve an apocalypse, a disaster so vast that it required “divine intervention on a miraculous scale.” Into this historical reality came Jesus of Nazareth. As Kushner tells the story:

The young man (whose Hebrew name meant “God will save”) grew up to be a compelling and charismatic teacher and preacher, offering a view of Judaism (shared with many of the leading Jewish teachers of that time) that emphasized inward perfection more than external performance.

In Jesus’ time Jews expected, quite literally, the end of the world. Not just the world as they knew it, but the end of the world. Period. And Jesus of Nazareth seems to have fully shared that expectation. Citing Albert Schweitzer’s classic Quest of the Historical Jesus, Kushner says:

[…] the central idea in Jesus’ teaching was the conviction that the world was going to end very soon, probably in his lifetime. Everyone, therefore, needed to put aside all other concerns (getting married, earning a living) and prepare for he End of Days and the Judgment. That is why he preached an ethic (turn the other cheek, don’t hate or covet, don’t worry about your parents of family) that people might be able to follow in the short run but not for a lifetime.

I’m more inclined to think Jesus’ commandments were aspirational rather than literal, and you don’t have to wait for the apocalypse to practice turning the other cheek. But I can appreciate his urgency. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. When have we ever not expected an apocalypse? Today it’s climate change and paralysis in government instead of Roman tetrarchs. Saturday’s New York Times carries stories of 130-degree temperatures in Death Valley and a town in British Columbia destroyed by wildfire after a week of 115- to 120-degree heat. What will tomorrow bring? That said, I’m still more attracted to Jesus’ ethical teachings.

And Kushner is helpful here, too. He makes a distinction between the “religion of Jesus (love your neighbor, turn the other cheek, prepare for the End of Days)” and the “religion about Jesus,” all the high and low Christology and abstract speculation about atonement and justification that have occupied theologians since at least the beginning of the second century of the Common Era. I make the same distinction, and I’m drawn to Jesus’ emphasis on inward perfection (although I’d choose another word than perfection for it) rather than external performance.

So, with all that in mind, where’s the good news for me in Mark’s story of Herod, Salome and the head of John the Baptist? More than anything else, I find it in the arc of Mark’s story.

Let’s step back a minute and look at the narrative context. Jesus has been preaching and healing on the lakeshore around Capernum; he’s attracted huge, and largely adoring, crowds; and he’s experiencing what Andy Warhol might call his 15 minutes of fame. But he’s just been all but thrown out of town when he preaches in Nazareth. (In the gospel of St. Luke, he is quite literally thrown out.) And now he’s attracted the attention of Herod Antipas, to whom he sounds like a troublemaker.

At this point, in a flashback, Mark introduces the story of Salome, the dance at the banquet and the execution of John the Baptist. He ends it by foreshadowing what will happen to Jesus. When [John’s] disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb. I’d always thought Mark was a clumsy writer, artless, episodic. But we’re only halfway through Mark in this year’s lectionary readings, but I’m reevaluating my opinion. He knows exactly where he’s going with the narrative.

In a word, it’s time for Jesus and the disciples to get busy.

So what can I do 2050 years later in a world that looks just as bleak and apocalyptic as Roman Judea and Galilee did in Jesus’ time? Again, Rabbi Kushner is helpful.

Elsewhere in To Life! he says God “has the power to turn evil into good.” He cites his own experience, channeling his grief and anger at the death of his young son into “a book [When Bad Things Happen to Good People] that would bring healing to millions.” Citing other examples of modern-day healing and redemption as well, Kushner recalls the story of Joseph the son of Jacob, who forgave the brothers who sold him into slavery in Egypt. “They all echo the words of Joseph: You intended to do me harm, but the Lord showed me how to turn it into something good and life-sustaining.”

Isn’t this central to the religion of Jesus and the religion about Jesus alike? Haven’t I been called to take the dreck of a broken world and turn it into something good and life-sustaining? Aren’t we all?

Within limits, of course. I’ve never danced before a king. (I did meet King Olav V of Norway once, in a reception line for international students at the University of Oslo. Nice guy, very gracious to us all, but I kept my clothes on.) And I have no particular gifts of prophesy. So when I spoke truth to power, it was at the local level as a courthouse reporter and later as an English and journalism teacher at a liberal arts college. I’m no more cut out to be a messiah than a belly-dancer, but I can try to find something good and life-affirming in our current apocalypse. Maybe that’s what I’m called to do.

Citation: Harold S. Kushner, To Life! A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking. (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1993), 157-58, 280-83, 86.

[Published Tuesday, July 13]

2 thoughts on “What can Rabbi Kushner and a bawdy church camp song tell us about John the Baptist and the kingdom of God?

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