The Decapitating Dance
Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, written in 1891, was banned from the London stage for forty years until it was produced by Nancy Price at the Savoy Theater, casting her daughter as Salome and herself as Herodias. In Victorian England it was banned over its blatant sexuality and violence, but I believe the writer of the second Gospel would be more upset that Wilde distorted his biblical account by focusing on the lust of the eye—both Salome’s lust for the prophet John and Herod’s incestuous dirty eye for the daughter of his illicit wife--and the blood that flows when John resists Salome’s seduction.
Take the time and track Mark’s account carefully, tracing the tensions, the confrontations, the blood curdling climax, and the resolution when John’s disciples come and bury the body. And I do need to give you a “trigger warning.” This is not a g-rated Sunday School lesson.
“But when Herod heard about Jesus’ fame he said, ‘He’s John, the one I beheaded. He has been raised.’ For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of Philip, his brother, because he had married her.
John’s response to Herod was, ‘It’s not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife!’ Now Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to put him to death, but she was not able to do it because Herod feared John, knowing that he was righteous and holy. The king kept John safe. When he listened to John, he was uncertain, but he kept on listening to him gladly.
One day the right opportunity came. It was his birthday, and Herod threw a great dinner party for his nobles, his military officers, and the leading men of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias entered and danced, it pleased Herod and those reclining at the table with him. The king said to the girl, ‘Ask of me anything you want and I will give it to you!” He emphasized his promise with an oath, ‘Ask me for anything, I swear, I’ll give it to you, up to half my kingdom.’ She went out and asked her mother, ‘What should I ask for?’ She said, ‘The head of John the Baptist!’
Immediately, the girl hurried and went back in to the king. ‘I want you to bring to me this instant upon a platter the head of John the Baptist.’ The king became deeply grieved because of his oath. But because of it and saving face before those reclining at the table with him, he didn’t want to refuse her. Immediately, he sent the executioner and commanded him to bring John’s head. The executioner left, beheaded John in the prison, and carried his head upon a platter, and gave it to the girl. And the girl gave it to her mother. When John’s disciples heard, they came and took away his body, and placed it in a grave.” Mark 6:17-29
Mark’s account creates tension by confronting us with Herod’s guilt, his adultery with his brother’s wife, his weird passion to keep listening to John, his insight that the prophet was indeed righteous and holy, and also his inability to resist his wife’s hate and cunning plan to murder, and the deep, dark reality that he would behead a good man just save face before his dinner guests.
In Song of Songs there is a beautiful, very erotic sensuous dance (6:13-7:10) where a committed husband and wife climax their love, so the Bible is hardly Victorian. But Mark doesn’t even let us get a glimpse of the young woman dancing before the hungry eyes of lecherous Herod and his male dinner guests. Mark’s already told us a story about a man taking the hand of a young girl. Jesus took the hand of a twelve year old and raised her from the dead. In this episode a morally corrupt politician is seized by the girl’s dance and it ends in decapitation. We also need to take note that Mark presents a powerful foreshadowing that Jesus, like John, is heading toward a murder.
LORD, cleanse my own heart of any Herodian lust, duplicity, and entrapment by a desire to please others, especially powerful influencers. Thanks for the devotion of John the Baptist’s followers who, like Marines, came back for the body of their fallen leader, and thanks most of all that when your Son returns and resurrects those who believe in him, John will be alive with a head on his shoulders forever.
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