Speaking forth God’s message concerning marriage can be controversial to say the least. There are many reasons for this, chief among them is the emotion attached to the subject. It is personal, and yet God still lays out his plan on the matter. Many preachers through the years have pointed to John the Baptist’s untimely death as a prime example of how emotional and controversial such a topic can be. They are right in doing so, since it was John’s confrontation of Herod concerning his marriage that led to John being beheaded.
Usually when we approach a Biblical text while engaging in a topical study, we want to rush to “the end”. We just want to know how something applies to us. What are we to do with these rules? How does this play out in my life? Or the life of my friend? These are good questions, and generally come from the honest heart of an individual seeking to discover how they can walk in a manner that pleases God.
However, we would do well to remind ourselves that when we study scripture, we are not reading something that was written directly to us, about our situation. For us to make appropriate application of the text, we must first understand what it meant to the original audience. Only then, can we make proper application to our lives, where appropriate.
What was it exactly that transpired between John the Baptist and Herod the tetrarch that led to John’s execution?
Mark 6:17–18 ESV
17 For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”
The scene here (also recorded in Matthew 14, and Luke 3) is that John the Baptist had been preaching against Herod because he had married a woman named Herodias. Herodias was the wife of Herod’s brother, Phillip and now Herod had married her. John, while speaking out in condemnation against Herod, told Herod that it was not lawful for him to have her.
We must be careful in our study to not make a text say something that it does not. It can be easy for us to blur those lines and rush to an application that we want to make. Let us be careful not to do that, but just examine this text, in its setting, and understand it’s meaning.
Several things about this passage are abundantly clear. First, is that whatever John was saying to Herod was not easy for him (or Herodias) to hear. In fact, they (she) were so upset concerning what John said, that it eventually led to John’s head being brought to Herodias on a platter (Mark 6:25-28). Another thing that is abundantly clear about what John had taught, is that Herod’s union with Herodias was not lawful.
This is where we need to dive a little deeper. What was meant by “not lawful”? Was this a reference to The Old Testament Law? Was this a reference to the laws of the land? What exactly was John getting at when he said that this union was not lawful? A couple of possibilities present themselves.
Old Testament Law:
Let’s take note of exactly what John had spoken to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” John did not tell Herod that he could not have “a” wife, or that he could not have “a different” wife. He said that he could not have his brother’s wife. Is this significant? According to the Old Testament, this is significant.
Consider a couple of references from the Old Testament Law (which the Israelites were still under during the reign of Herod).
Leviticus 18:16 ESV
16 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness.
Leviticus 20:21 ESV
21 If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is impurity. He has uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.
Two times in the Law it was specifically forbidden for a man to take his brother’s wife. In Leviticus 20, this was viewed in the same category as incest. It was specifically condemned under the law. It bore a penalty of being childless. It is likely, that John the Baptist, was angry that Herod would so blatantly violate the laws that they were under. John condemned his law breaking, and this public rebuke brought much anger and resentment from Herodias that John eventually lost his life for taking a stand concerning God’s laws condemning incest.
Could A Woman Divorce?
This topic has been debated, and there is some disagreement on the matter. However, many believe that during the time that John would have been preaching against Herod, women did not have the right/legal ability to divorce their husband under Jewish law (although Gentile women were allowed to divorce their husbands). Many scholars maintain that only men had the right to initiate a divorce under Jewish law during this time. Consider with me how in Matthew’s Gospel (written to a Jewish audience) when Jesus spoke about divorce in Matthew 5 and Matthew 19, He never addresses women. He only addresses the men. Mark records in his Gospel (written to a more Gentile audience) in chapter 10, that women also were able to divorce and were bound by the same law as men.
So, if it was true that a woman was not allowed to divorce her husband under Jewish law, then if a woman were to separate herself from her husband without him giving the certificate of divorce and sending her away, she would likely still be legally married to her husband. Therefore, it would have been illegal for her to marry another man.
Josephus, the famed Jewish historian writes concerning Herodias and her divorce with Phillip, and it just might shed a little light on this matter. Here is what Josephus wrote in Antiquities-
“but Herodias, their sister, was married to Herod [Philip], the son of Herod the Great, who was born of Mariamne, the daughter of Simon the high priest, who had a daughter, Salome; after whose birth Herodias took upon her to confound the laws of our country, and divorce herself from her husband while he was alive, and was married to Herod [Antipas], her husband’s brother by the father’s side; he was tetrarch of Galilee; … but Herod and Alexander, who, as we told you, were the brothers of Antipater, died childless.” – Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 485.
Two very important details are found in the historians record of Herodias and her marriage to Phillip. The first detail is that she confounded the laws of the country by divorcing her husband. She was not divorced and sent away with a certificate freeing her to marry again. She took it upon herself to divorce, which at that time, many believe was illegal, and would thereby be unlawful. The second important detail contained in this writing is that Herod died childless. This is the exact punishment that was said to be placed upon Israelites who violated God’s laws concerning incest.
So, what exactly was John saying when he said that it was not lawful for Herod to have Herodias? Well, it was not lawful in the sense that it violated their laws of incest (and Herod bore that punishment of dying childless), and there is a possibility that Herodias was never legally divorced from her first husband since she was not legally allowed to do what she did.
John the Baptist sees Herod breaking one (or both) of these laws. He boldly spoke out in condemnation of this sin, and he paid the price with his life. We, likewise, must be willing to boldly proclaim God’s truth on subjects, even if they are sensitive in nature. However, we must be discerning enough to not rush to application without understanding the text.