By Kluane Spake
Salome is depicted by Christian traditions as an icon of dangerous female temptresses. She is famous for what was considered an erotic dance that no man could resist, the "Dance of the Seven Veils."
Who was she?
Why did she dance for John the Baptist?
What really happened?
Sometimes, the Bible stories can be difficult to understand unless we consider the culture that radically differs from ours. Background historical information can help us get a more clear picture.
The story can be confusing because there were a few different Herods. First, there was the madman, Herod the Great, who strangled his wife and murdered two of his sons. Herod married 10 wives in all. He was the one who had all the baby boys of Bethlehem put to death.
Herod the Great had four remaining sons: Archelalus, Herod Antipas, Herod Philip, another Herod Phillip, and Aristobuus who was the father of Herodias and Herod Agrippa.
One of his surviving sons, Herod Philip, was a sedate but competent man. But, Philip had no land and no crown! And his niece-wife, Herodias wanted a crown and position! She figured out that the way to get a crown was to marry his half-brother Herod Antipas instead. (Both brothers were her uncles.)
Another son of Herod the Great was Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee. Jesus called him, "The Fox!" Herod Antipas was known as a libertine (he loved magic, sex, luxury, and fine food). Antipas ruled over Galilee and Perea, the land where Jesus and John preached.
Antipas happened to visit his brother in Rome and that's where Herodias and Antipas fell in love. Herodias and her uncle-husband Phillip had a daughter named Salome (she is unnamed in Scripture, but Josephus told us her name). Salome in Hebrew comes from the word "shalom" meaning "peace."
Herodias may have just been bored with her life. But, she would not leave her husband until Antipas promised to divorce his current wife, a Nabatean princess, who was the daughter of King Aretas IV.
Soon, Herodias and Antipas divorced their spouses and married one another, and the daughter Salome went with her mother.
Importantly, Antipas lost his alliance with Aretas.
John the Baptist objected to that marriage and his views were considered a political threat to Antipas. What was wrong? Antipas married his half-brother's wife and she was also his niece. (She was also the grand daughter of Herod the Great, which could account for her evilness.) In Jewish law, a marriage to a brother's wife while he was living was considered incestuous (Lev. 18:6, also Lev. 20:10, 19-23). Also, the punishment for a woman in adultery was still death by stoning.
Perhaps, John the Baptist felt Herodias was more to blame because she was the daughter of Simon the high priest, and knew better. But, powerful rulers like her would not accept criticism.
Antipas regarded (John) as a prophet. He looked like a wild-man with uncombed and uncut hair, wearing only camelhair clothes and a leather belt. John was well known for his preaching and baptizing, and Antipas feared that that spiritual influence could cause greater political unrest and possibly an uprising.
Herodias was furious with John the Baptist for speaking out against her marriage. How could he dare embarrass her? At her insistence, (Matt. 14:1-12), her new husband seized John the Baptist, had him bound, and put him into a deep dungeon far within the fortress for over a year.
Princess Salome was about 10-13 years old and was called "korasion" in the Quan-Tuppim, meaning a young woman of social status not yet of marriageable age. (This is the same word used for the 12 year old daughter of Jarius whom Jesus cured.) Using this word also implies that she was the "apple" of Atipas' eye.
Herodias wanted to silence the righteous voice still prophesying in her basement dungeon and she conspired to kill John the Baptist (Mark 6:17-19). How dare he speak against her? So, she conspired with her daughter on various ways to end his life.
On Antipas' birthday, a banquet was prepared in Machaerus, his palace east of the Dead Sea high upon the mountains. Down the deep ravine and over to the valley from here one could see Jerusalem and Jericho. At night the lights of the city glowed.
Herod and the Guests Were Pleased
The leading men of the city gathered to eat the delicacies of the king, bird tongue, gazelle meat, pomegranates, grapes, and the fanciest desserts. Everyone wore garlands on their heads and drank never-ending vessels of wine. Music filled the air and dancers leaped across the floor. Storytellers and poets amused the guests.
And then, Salome danced for the guests. She probably began to spin and twirl in circles. It was very uncommon for royal young women to dance for male strangers at a party. In fact, young girls of royalty in the fist century court were secluded from male entertainment. Jewish men and women celebrated these occasions separately.
Scripture says that Herod and the guests were very "pleased." What made them "pleased?"
That Antipas would have young Salome dance at a men's party, shows an ambiguous desire for Salome. (It reminds us of how Vashti refused to dance for Ahasuerus because that would change her role into that of hetaria.)
Did Herod Antipas have an incestuous desire for his step-daughter?
We know that Antipas had a sordid life.
Antipas was so pleased that he said to Salome, "Ask me for what you want, and I will grant it, even half my kingdom! This oath to give up to "half his kingdom" is a popular idiom that indicated a very generous gift, but was not meant to be taken literally.
Her mother, Herodias allowed Salome to dance like that before her new husband and "many courtiers and officers and the leading men of Galilee" (Mk. 6:21).
Why did the mother allow her daughter to dance in front of strangers?
The entire story of the child-daughter and her dance is omitted from the book of Luke.
Salome's dance is known as the "Dance of the Seven Veils," but this appears to be a legend and is not in the early records– just the movies. Her story was greatly enlarged in the 19th century.
At her mother's advisement (Matthew 14:6-11), the young Salome was probably still kneeling at Herod's feet after finishing her dance, when she said, "I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter."
Herodias filled her young virginal girl with horrific ideas of murder.
Why would a mother teach her child to have a violent request?
What was Salome's motive to conspire with her mother?
Was Salome a ruthless child?
Herodias uses her daughter to accomplish her revenge. Salome may well have been an innocent pawn in her mother's revenge.
The King was sad about the request, but all the guests heard it. The soldiers went in immediately and beheaded John the Baptist and brought his head on a (silver) platter and gave it to Salome who gave it to her mother.
Why did Herod Antipas give in to a child's request?
Why did the King do something he didn't want to do?
Did they plan this together ahead of time?
According to Jewish tradition, breaking an oath was taboo. The social pressure was immense. It was not long before the executioner comes back into the party. Imagine seeing the prophet's blood streamed down his beard and across the platter. He gives the platter to Salome who then gives it to her mother.
The death of John the Baptist takes place on a "dies natalist," Herod's birthday.
The disciples take the body and bury it – and Jesus grieved for his cousin. This is the pivotal point in history where the ministry of Jesus became more visible.
John was the last Old Testament prophet. This story is presented at the beginning of what would be the New Covenant and the coming Kingdom of God.
Herod feared Jesus may have been John, whom he beheaded, raised from the dead (Mark 6:16). This murder further alienated Herod from his subjects.
Amazingly, a little less than three years later, Herod Antipas and Herodias go to Jerusalem for the Feast of Passover, on the very day that Jesus appeared before him accused of crimes. Herod asked Jesus to perform a miracle for his own amusement. Jesus refused. Then, Herod sent him back to Pilate, who had the authority to have Jesus crucified.
Luke 23:11-12 "Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him (Jesus). Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate. That day Herod and Pilate became friends before this they had been enemies." Jesus was crucified.
Defeat of Antipas
Meanwhile, Antipas' first wife had returned home to her father King Aretas. The avenging Aretas subsequently went to war against Antipas and soundly defeated him!
Antipas is totally defeated and humiliated. But Herodias still wants her crown and urges him to go to Rome and petition Emperor Caligula to crown him.
But, Herodias has a brother (named Herod Agrippa I) who accused Antipas of sedition. Caligula banishes Herod Antipas to Gaul, where he soon dies. Josephus adds that Herodias joined Herod Antipas in exile in Lugdunum (Antiquities of the Jews 18, 7,2).
Soon, Salome married her uncle Aristobulus, who was the brother of Agrippa. (Josephus: Antiquities 18.5.4)
For centuries, poets, artists, and the songs have expanded the myth about how Salome was evil. Surprisingly, women in the Bible are often made out to be a seductress, a nymph, a temptress, or a seducer — even though there is no Biblical text to support any of these accusations.
What we learn: Doing evil can sometimes improve our present status — but there are powerful eternal consequences.
Dr. Kluane Spake