The king, Herod Antipas, my stepfather, had a birthday celebration. Everyone was invited—every high official, including ambassadors, various governors, and all the top Roman generals. My stepfather was drunk and very jolly. He liked being around the Romans, he liked impressing them. Actually, he needed them. Without them, the Jews would have stormed his hated palace and torn him apart.
So he never lost an opportunity to show his gratitude.
He could see that his guests couldn’t take their eyes off me. And he understood why, since he couldn’t take his eyes off me, either. When the musicians would start playing something, he would say, “Dance for us, my daughter. Dance for us!” And all the Romans, just as drunk as he was, would applaud. I kept refusing, and he kept saying, “Dance for us, my daughter! Dance for us! I’ll give you jewels. I’ll give you gold. I’ll give you white peacocks. I’ll give you the veil of the Temple.” Each offer was more outlandish than the other. I kept refusing all his offers, the Romans kept egging him on, and finally he told me he would give me anything I wanted. There was a huge cheer from the guests.
I saw what game was being played and that I had no choice but to accept. At first I thought I would make him do something humiliating—like lifting his robe, bending over, and showing his bare buttocks to his guests. This is something a child immediately thinks of. And in many ways I was still a child. But then my mother came up to me and took me aside. She told me to ask for John’s head. I couldn’t believe it! I said nothing. She had grabbed me by my arm and was squeezing me as hard as she could. I hated her! The wickedness of Jezebel burning in her eyes! But that wasn’t why I hated her. I hated her because she thought she had power over me.
So I performed my dance. I wasn’t ashamed. I knew what they wanted. I was happy to give it to them. And my mother, sitting there so smug and self-confident, watching with pleasure as her daughter writhed like a whore in front of her husband and all his friends.
When the music stopped, my stepfather motioned me over to him like this—two royal fingers wiggling above his head. He bent his head down so I could whisper in his ear. I told him: “Free John from prison, set him free.”
He jerked his head up and said, “No!”
We all knew John. He once worked as one of my stepfather's scribes. He was charming and handsome and clever and at one point my mother's lover. Everyone loved him. I was in love with him myself. Then he changed. He went into the desert to atone for his sins. When he came back, he gave away all his wealth, dressed in rags and went into the streets denouncing both the king and my mother, and preaching the coming of the Messiah.
“You made a promise in front of all your guests,” I said. “Doesn’t Herod Antipas keep his word?”
“This is something I cannot do,” he said.
I could see that he was very distressed. My mother came over to him, and the two of them conferred. Finally, he said in a loud voice, “What you ask of me, child, is very hard, very hard. But I made a promise and I see I must stand by it. If a king is allowed to break his vow, then what example does this show his people? And so I will give you what you asked for.”
Everyone applauded and cheered.
Three soldiers from my stepfather’s personal guard were dispatched to the prison a day’s ride away. When they returned. I went down into the courtyard to meet them.
I said, “Where’s John?”
One of the men said, “Right here, Miss.” And he opened a sack he was carrying and emptied it on the ground. There was a thud. I looked down. All three men broke out in a fit of laughter.
It was all my mother’s work. She was the one who convinced my stepfather what to do. I’m sure she was feeling very proud of herself. She got her revenge on John and on me, and she solved her husband’s problem of what to do with a prophet who didn’t know when to keep his mouth shut. When I confronted her, she didn’t bother to deny it. “Sometimes things just don’t go our way,” she said. “Life teaches us these little lessons. I hope you will learn from them.”
She was right. I did learn from them. It was too late for poor John. There was his head lying on the ground in the dust. I used to think having the reputation as the dancing daughter who asked for a man’s head would ruin my life. That was all my mother’s doing. I used to get very upset and try to set the record straight—now I don’t even bother. What’s the use? It will all soon be forgotten. I think John is mostly forgotten, too. His name was connected to one of the messiahs people were always talking about. I don’t remember which one. There were always so many. This one ended up like all the others. The priests didn’t like trouble being stirred up. So they produced some sort of trumped-up charge and had him crucified by the Romans. Such a sad case. These religious fanatics. Our people are cursed with them. I’ve always maintained religion has done more harm than good. As it happened, my stepfather was interested in this street preacher (I can’t recall his name) because of his close connection to John, and had him brought before him so that he could question him before pronouncing sentence.
I was also curious. This rabble-rousing preacher was much talked about among the soldiers and lower classes. They called him the Anointed One. I have no idea why. He was a thin, small, dark, sad-faced man, ill dressed, ill shod, who didn’t look at all like a messiah to me, never mind an arrogant troublemaker. As he entered the room, his chains clanked against the marble floor. Looking up, his eyes took in the rich furnishings, lamps, tapestries, and carpets.
My stepfather, I was surprise to see, showed him great deference and addressed him as Rabbi, a word we use for a revered religious teacher. “Rabbi it is said you say the first shall be last and the last shall be first. What does this mean?”
The preacher, who spoke in a very firm and confident voice, told him it pertained to those God will allow into paradise after they die.
My stepfather, who may be a very cruel man but not a stupid one, said, “But, Rabbi, help me understand, what justice is there in that? A good person, a good citizen, a person who has worked hard so that their family might prosper—this man is preceded by a beggar too lazy to earn a single shekel?”
The preacher explained that only God—not man—was capable of looking into the souls of each person and deciding who was truly worthy and who was not.
“Yes, I too believe that,” my stepfather said. Really? I couldn’t believe my ears! My stepfather was ever the politic Jew.
Then he asked another question. “Rabbi, it is said you are an advocate for the poor, and this is admirable, but your teaching to the rich is for them to give all they have to the poor. If they follow this teaching, then the poor will be rich, and the rich will be poor. What is the sense of that?”
The preacher said that wealth itself was the root of all evil and that no one should be rich at the expense of another, that no one should be either rich or poor, and that all should live together as equals. My stepfather, for some reason, pretended to like this answer as well and nodded his head.
“Yes, yes, of course. It is said, Rabbi, that you tell us we are to love our enemies, that if someone strikes us on one cheek, we are to offer the other cheek to be struck as well. But if we do this, then most of those people turning their cheeks will be exterminated and the ones who survive will live as slaves. How can this be God’s will?”
The preacher had an answer for this too. He said that the good in people has the power to overcome the evil and that if we always meet violence with violence, the world would never know peace.
“This is very noble,” my stepfather replied. “Far too noble, I’m afraid.”
There were other questions I cannot remember. Finally my stepfather asked, “It is said, Rabbi, that you have the healing touch, that you pray to God and call him Father, but tell me, tell me how this father can inflict sicknesses in the first place, and not just sickness but calamity and suffering and injustice on those who are plainly innocent of any wrongdoing.”
Imagine this coming from the man whose whole life was nothing but an continual effort to visit calamity, suffering, and injustice on his oppressed subjects! Well, the poor man, who seemed to be thinking exactly what I was thinking, said nothing.
“You cannot answer this question, then?” my stepfather said.
The preacher seemed to me greatly troubled but remained silent, either he could not or would not answer. Did he have doubts himself, or just did not know? God had revealed much to him, but apparently not this.
My stepfather had enough fun and sent the preacher away, saying, “You may be a teacher, for there is great wisdom in your words, but you are no prophet A prophet knows the will of God.”
Afterward he told everyone that he could not understand why the Jews were so hungry for the preacher’s blood. “This man is a lamb, not a lion!” he said. “And we know what happens to lambs—they are served for dinner!”
Lamb or lion, whatever this preacher said made no sense to me—or at least it didn’t apply to me. I wasn’t poor, I wasn’t oppressed, I certainly wasn’t religious, and I certainly didn’t see myself as needing to be saved from anything. Like John, this man, too, will soon be forgotten. There will be other messiahs. There will always be messiahs. Most people are weak or lazy or incompetent, and have a need to believe God will send someone to deliver them from their troubles of their own making.
He could see that his guests couldn’t take their eyes off me. And he understood why, since he couldn’t take his eyes off me, either. When the musicians would start playing something, he would say, “Dance for us, my daughter. Dance for us!”
The King's Daughter