Why did Jesus refer to Herod as “That fox” in Luke 13:32”?

Here are some more of my background thoughts for preaching on Sunday’s Gospel text for the Second Sunday in Lent: Luke 13:31-35.

I have been wondering why Jesus told the Pharisees “Go and tell that fox for me . . .” after they had warned him to leave town because of Herod. Why call Herod a “fox”?

Herod was the tetrarch (meaning “ruler of a fourth,” for the kingdom was divided) of Galilee, in whose territory Jesus was active. We all know about Herod the Great, the one who was in power when Jesus was born and who slaughtered the innocent children after the Magi told him about the Christ child, but this is his son, Herod Antipas.

What do we know about him? Well, when Jesus calls him “that fox,” he is not saying that he is as sly as a fox, although he might well have been. No, Jesus is actually insulting him, for a fox is an unclean animal in the Israelite holiness codes. We need a little history lesson to know why Jesus thought Herod fit to be insulted in such a way.

Though Herod often tried to appear the pious Jewish leader, he had more than a few problems maintaining the loyalty of his Jewish subjects. His first problem was his very authority. He had been put in power by Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor, in 4 BC. And then in 17 AD, to honor his Roman overlords, he build a grand new capital city named Tiberius, after the current emperer, only to discover that it was built on top of an old Jewish cemetery. No pious Jew ever entered it, and it was inhabited almost exclusively by Greeks and Romans.

Then he also had serious women problems. He divorced his first wife, which had been a political union, as she was the daughter of an Arab ruler, in order to marry Herodius. She had been the wife of his half brother, also called Herod just to confuse us.  It was not unheard of in those days to marry the ex-wife of one’s brother, but she was also the daughter of another half-brother, Aristobulus. Marriage to one’s niece was also permitted, but marriage to a woman who was both one’s sister-in-law and ones’ niece was irregular, or as my kids might say, “sketchy.”

It was this Herod who had John the Baptist killed. John had been a persistent critic of Herod for his dubious marriage and his general immorality. The Gospels say he had John killed because he had promised his daughter Salome anything she wanted if she danced for him, and John’s head on a platter is what she wanted. The historian Josephus wrote that Herod’s subjects believed that the war that broke out in 36 AD with the Arabs (recall the first divorced wife), and the subsequent Arab military successes, were divine punishment for Herod’s many transgressions.

So for these reasons, and for the fact that he let his daughter dance in public, which was considered a shameful act, the readers of this story would have understood that Herod Antipas was an unrighteous man and an unfit ruler.  No pious Jew would ever have let his daughter dance in front of strangers.

In short, Herod Antipas was an unsavory and unscrupulous puppet ruler of the Romans, and certainly not one to be trifled with. Jesus would have had every reason to have been afraid of him. This is the gist, I think, of the Pharisee’s warning to Jesus to stay away from him. They were no friend to Jesus, but most likely were even less enamored of Herod Antipas. Jesus was in danger from Herod, and so he left for the countryside, not because he was afraid of Herod, but because “his time had not yet come.”

Jerusalem, which figures prominently in this passage and in the larger story, was part of the Roman province of Judea, which is why Jesus, as the creed says, “suffered under Pontius Pilate‚” the Roman procurator. Herod’s role in turning Jesus over for trial to the Romans, as described in Luke, is much debated by historians. Most likely the reason was that Jesus was active in his district. But it was smart for someone who was attracting crowds as Jesus was to keep clear of Herod.  An unpopular puppet ruler with a tenuous grip on power was then, as now, someone to be afraid of.

(Picture: Salome Dancing before Herod by Jacob Hogers (1630-55). Rijksmuseum.