In Matthew 14:4, Mark 6:18 and Luke 3:19-20, Herod was rebuked by John because Herod had married his brother’s wife among other sins he committed (Lk. 3:19-20). The current understanding of the Jewish law at that time allowed for subsequent marriages and multiple wives (Deut. 24:1-4; 21:15-17; Judg. 8:30-32; 1 Sam. 1:2-3; 2 Sam. 12:7-8; etc.), even though polygamy was no longer a common practice by this time. The Levitical law condemned sleeping with and marrying certain relatives even if it was a half-relative:
“The nakedness of your sister, the daughter of your father, or the daughter of your mother, whether born at home or elsewhere, their nakedness you shall not uncover” (Lev. 18:9).
“Cursed is the one who lies with his sister, the daughter of his father or the daughter of his mother” (Deut. 27:22).
One of the condemnations that fell under this category was taking your brother’s wife in marriage:
“You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness” (Lev. 18:16).
“If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing. He has uncovered his brother’s nakedness They shall be childless” (Lev. 20:21).
The “taking” of someone encompasses the idea of marriage (See also: Lev. 20:14, 21; same word is used for “take”). This law began after Israel was led out of Egyptian bondage. Prior to the writing of Leviticus, there are no Old Testament passages that condemn incest. In the whole book of Genesis, incest is a common practice. Abraham married his half-sister (Genesis 20:12), and both Isaac and Jacob married kinsmen (Genesis 22:20ff; 24:4; 24:43). Of course, all of Shem, Ham, and Japheth’s children, Jacob, all of Adam and Eve’s grandchildren, Isaac, Esau, etc. would have been in incestuous relationships. The people of the Patriarchal Period, therefore, were not under the specific regulations of the Mosaic Code.
“Prior to Moses time, incest in many of the forms later proscribed, were not thought to be wrong. Thus, even Moses’ own father, Amram, married an aunt, his father’s sister, Jochebed (Exodus 6:20)” (Hard Sayings of the Bible, eds. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., F. F. Bruce, p. 101).
In the early stages of human history, marriage among kinsmen was not deemed immoral. In fact, it was a necessity from the nature of the situation. The children of Adam and Eve married kinsmen for there were no other people on earth except those who descended from the original pair. Therefore, the laws on incestuous relationships were not given until the earth had been populated and the Old Covenant was given to Moses.
While Herod the Great and Herod Antipas were Idumeans (Edomites), Herod Antipas (being the client King of the Jews) would have been subjected to the Jewish law. The Idumeans were subjugated by the Jews and forced to convert to Judaism around the time of the Maccabean wars. Herod Antipas was Tetrarch of Galilee, the part of the kingdom assigned to him. Thus, Herod Antipas clearly and publicly violated the very law he was supposed to be upholding and following as a Jewish king when he took his brother’s wife in marriage.
Here is the chronology of Herod and Herodias’s marriage: Herodias was the granddaughter of Herod the Great through his son Aristobulus IV through his wife Miriamne I, Herod’s 2nd wife. Philip (Herod II) was the son of Herod the Great through Miriamne II, Herod’s 3rd wife. So Philip and Herodias were uncle and niece. While the Law did not prohibit an uncle from marrying his niece (e.g., Judges 1:12-13), it did prohibit a nephew from marrying his aunt (Lev. 18:12-14) and it prohibited a man from marrying his brother’s wife (Lev. 18:16; 20:21). [It should be noted that there is an exception to this found in Deuteronomy 25:5, but this wasn’t applicable to the Herod-Philip-Herodias case].
This condemnation took place under the Jewish law (Heb. 9:9-15). The current understanding of the Jewish law allowed for things such as divorce (for any reason), remarriage and multiple wives (Mt. 19:1-3). Everyone appears to acknowledge that Herod and Herodias were violating a common Jewish law. There is no record of Herod even attempting to defend his action(s). Instead, it was assumed everyone knew Herod and Herodias were in sin — including themselves.
John the Baptist died very early in the ministry of Christ. Most place his imprisonment around 27 c.a. (Matthew 4:12; Mark 1:14). Either way, Jesus did not begin correcting the Jews’ teaching on marriage, divorce and remarriage until Matthew 5:31-32 when John was already in prison (Mt. 4:12). The other recorded instance when Jesus spoke on marriage, divorce and remarriage didn’t even come until after John was dead (Mt. 14). John rebuked Herod before Jesus began correctly teaching on marriage and divorce.
According to Josephus, Herodias had divorced Philip (Josephus, Antiquities 18.5.3 136). Some have argued that Herod was wrong because he married Herodias who had unlawfully divorced Philip instead of Philip divorcing Herodias upon Jewish law.
Under Jewish law, a man could divorce a woman, but a woman could not divorce a man (Deut. 24:1-4; Rom. 7:1-4). However, the Greco-Roman culture had influenced society where women were divorcing their husbands. Instead of the man (Phillip) treating his wife treacherously, the woman (Herodias) treated her husband treacherously by unlawfully divorcing him to marry Herod. Therefore, this could possibly be what John was referring to (Mal. 2:14-17).
Some assume that because John told Herod that it wasn’t lawful for him to take/have his brother’s wife, that meant he had to repent by divorcing her. However, we must consider the context and other passages of Scripture. Consider the same type of wording when it came to David taking Bathsheba to be his wife. The Bible says that David sinned because he:
“…killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword; you have taken his wife to be your wife…” (2 Sam. 12:9). “…because you have despised Me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife” (2 Sam. 12:10).
The sin that took place with David is that he unlawfully took Bathsheba to be his wife. He lied, cheated and killed in order to have Bathsheba. The sin that took place with Herod is that he unlawfully took Herodias to be his wife. Since repentance didn’t demand that David divorce Bathsheba, it shouldn’t be automatically assumed that repentance demanded that Herod divorce Herodias, especially if they had repented as David did (2 Sam. 12:13). If such had been the case, then God would have “put away” their sin just as He did with David and Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12:13). Such repentance and forgiveness did not require a future divorce.
If a man took his brother’s wife in marriage, it was a sin but the Bible assumes the couple would naturally continue in their marriage. Consider Leviticus 20:21:
“If there is a man who takes his brother’s wife, it is abhorrent; he has uncovered his brother’s nakedness. They will be childless.”
While it was a sin to marry your brother’s wife, it simply says that they would suffer the consequence of being childless in their marriage.
Whether the rebuking was due to Herod unlawfully taking Herodias because she unlawfully divorced Phillip (thus violating the Jewish law) or whether it was due to the incestuous union (or perhaps a combination of both; Lk. 3:19-20), nothing in this context would prove that repentance demanded divorce (Deut. 24:1-4). Of course, even if one did attempt to argue that repentance demanded a divorce in this context, it would not have been on the basis of a subsequent marriage after a divorce since the law allowed for such (Deut. 24:1-4). This context is not dealing with how to repent of a subsequent marriage after an unlawful divorce, but rather a condemnation of man marrying his brother’s wife.
– Kevin Pendergrass
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