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One Dysfunctional Political Family, Part 3: Hard of Hearting

It is said that ‘hurt people hurt.’ Herodias was no exception.

Born to Herod the Great’s son, Aristobulus, in the middle of family conflict and dysfunction, Herodias’ childhood was full of pain. Grandpa Herod had had her paternal grandmother executed before Herodias was born, and when she was eight years old, he had her father strangled to death. After her father’s death, her mother was forcibly married to an elderly uncle-in-law and sent away. Her younger brothers were sent to Rome to be educated there; her older sister was betrothed to an uncle and sent away to live with him. And at the tender age of eight, Herod the Great espoused the orphaned girl to her Uncle Philip, heir apparent to his throne. Someday, Herodias would be Queen.

Herodias may have been young, but she had ears to hear what was going on—and the smarts to stay out of arms’ reach of her grandfather. To protect itself from further pain, little Herodias’ heart began to harden.

Herodias and Herod Philip were married when she turned fifteen. They moved to Rome, where they lived safely as private citizens. In the seven years between their betrothal and marriage, suspicious Grandpa Herod the Great routinely had any and all rivals for his throne either murdered, executed, or persuaded to commit suicide. Many of the victims were Herodias’ and Herod Philip’s siblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles. Herodias’ heart continued to harden. Her comfort was that someday she would be queen, and then everything would be different.

Herod the Great was told that Herod Philip was implicated in one of the plots to take his throne. This, despite the fact the throne would be his upon the Great’s death anyway. At almost the last minute, Herod the Great changed his will and had Herod Philip removed from succession. When Herod the Great died, Rome divided his kingdom among three of Herod Philip’s brothers: Antipas received one quarter, Archelaus received half, and Philip received a quarter. (Yes, you read that right: Herod the Great had TWO sons named Philip—at the same time—by different wives).

And what did Herodias get from Grandpa’s will? Nothing. At that time, royal women were simply pawns of the rulers. Anything they had they obtained by means other than inheritance. Herodias’ dreams of rule died with Herod the Great, and her hard, power-hungry heart grew harder.

A woman’s heart usually softens when she has a child. However, there is no biblical nor extra-biblical evidence that Herodias’ heart softened when she gave birth to her daughter, Salome. In Matthew 14:3-10, we find the opposite. After Salome was born, Herodias decided to take her future into her own hands, making a series of bad choices that affected not only her but her precious daughter. With each bad choice, Herodias’ heart grew harder. She was living up (or down) to her name.

When her daughter was twelve, Antipas, one of Herodias’ uncle/husband’s brothers, came to Rome for a visit. History is silent about what Herodias did or said at that time, but Mark 6:16-19 paints a picture of a woman who had long harbored hatred in her heart—and ultimately acted on her hatred. Whatever happened, by the end of the visit, Antipas had fallen hard for Herodias.

Herod Antipas asked Herodias to marry him, even though he already had a wife back home. Herodias accepted his proposal on the condition he divorced his wife. To marry her powerful Uncle Herod Antipas–King Herod–Herodias divorced her husband/uncle, Herod Philip. She and Salome moved with Herod Antipas to Machaerus, a beautiful Herodian palace overlooking the Dead Sea.

Did obtaining her heart’s desire for power soften Herodias’ heart? There is no historical evidence that it did.

Instead of taking advantage of this fresh start and vowing to break any generational curse, Herodias—once an innocent child just as her daughter was now—began to teach Salome how to be powerful; how to conquer powerful men. Once a victim herself, Herodias wanted her daughter to always be victorious, no matter what situation the girl might find herself in. Herodias schooled Salome in wicked women’s wiles, and as she did, Herodias’ heart continued to harden.

A consequence of having a hard heart is that it affects one’s internal hearing. When your heart is hard, it’s difficult to hear the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit calling you to Himself.

At Machaerus, Herodias would have been surrounded by people who’d been baptized by John, and at least one, Joanna, who was a believer in Jesus (Luke 8:3 and 24:10). Granted, they were soldiers and servants, but sometimes a trusted guard or a loyal servant is able to speak a word into his or her master’s ear at an opportune time—when no one else can—and it makes all the difference. But Herodias’ years of bad choices had gradually made her heart hard and ears dull. It got to the point where it was going to take some fire-and-brimstone preaching to get through to her. Enter John the Baptist.

John the Baptist was just the man for the job. According to an early 20th-century expert on John’s life, he was “not the kind of preacher who made an absolute divorce between religion and politics. He tried to put religious principles into politicians” (Robertson, p. 39)[1]. John boldly called Antipas and Herodias out for their sin. Herodias hated him for it and leaned on Antipas to have him arrested.

Even though the Baptist was never charged with a crime, everyone knew he was imprisoned because of what he’d said about Herod’s sin. Whenever a person is unjustly incarcerated, the source of the injustice is political. Injustice is when the worst things happen to the best person.

Having John imprisoned in the Machaerus dungeon wasn’t enough punishment for him, in Herodias’ cold-hearted, dull-eared, hate-filled opinion. Her husband was visiting John and after every visit, Antipas was thoughtful—and instead of torturing John, he appeared to be protecting him! Herodias looked for an opportune time to have John the Baptist killed, and she found it. Enlisting her daughter’s help, Herodias set a trap for the king.

Right up until the axe fell across John the Baptist’s neck, there was a chance for Herodias’ heart to soften and to recall the executioner. She didn’t. We can hope that there was a time after that when Herodias’ heart softened enough to hear God’s gentle, loving voice as he called her soul to Himself, but there is no record of that ever happening.

Tragically, as far as we know, the once heartbroken little orphan girl who became the most wicked woman in first-century Judea died in her sin.



[1] Robertson, A.T., John the Loyal: Studies in the Ministry of John the Baptist. (Nashville, Broadman Press, 1977). 39.

About The Author, Steve BErger

Steve is known for his straight talk in dealing with various hot-topic cultural issues that many pastors avoid. He serves on the Executive and Pastoral Advisory Boards for Promise Keepers International, and the Jerusalem Prayer Breakfast Board. Whether preaching or writing, in great joy or pain, Steve longs to be a proclaimer of the grace and hope that Jesus came to offer. Since June of 1987, he has been married to Sarah, the love of his life, and together, they have four beautiful children and four grandchildren.