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Why did Jesus call Herod a fox?

There is an interesting story in the Gospel of Luke that tells of the day Jesus called Herod Antipas a fox.

Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great, the brutal ruler connected to the birth of Christ, who ordered the deaths of the boys born in Bethlehem in an effort to assassinate Jesus.

After Herod the Great died, his kingdom was divided and his son, Herod of Antipas, received a fourth of his father’s kingdom. He was called a Tetrarch, literally a ruler of a fourth, and his territory included Galilee and Jerusalem.

Herod Antipas, who ruled during Christ’s ministry years and participated in Christ’s crucifixion, also ordered the beheading of John the Baptist, after the prophet criticized Herod’s marriage to his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias, who was also Herod’s niece (Matthew 14:6–11)..

Luke’s story starts with a group of Pharisees warning Jesus to leave Herod’s territory because he was planning to kill the Lord.

31 At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”
32 He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’
33 In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem! (Luke 13:31-33 NIV)

Were these Pharisees genuinely concerned about Christ’s welfare, or were they just trying to intimidate Jesus and scare Him off?

We know that the Jewish leaders were conspiring with the Herodians (supporters of Herod) to kill Jesus (Mark 3:6; 12:13). It was probable the Jewish leaders had initiated these discussions, as they had the most to lose because of Christ’s growing popularity among the Jews.

When Jesus responded that the Pharisees were to tell that fox (Herod), the Lord was still casting out demons and healing the sick, it is important to understand what is being implied here.

First, Jesus was subtly hinting at their allegiance to Herod.

Secondly, Christ was exercising His authority in the heart of Herod’s territory through these miracles. Jesus added that He planned to hang around the villages of Galilee for a few more days.

Then in a veiled message to the Pharisees, the Lord stated that when it suited His God-appointed schedule, Jesus would head to Jerusalem, because that is where the Jewish leaders killed the prophets.

So what was Jesus implying when he called Herod a fox?

In our modern culture, comparing someone to a fox could be perceived as a compliment, suggesting a person was crafty and deceptive.

But we need to keep this in context.

We are talking about a Roman-appointed leader.

In the animal kingdom, everyone feared the lion that killed its prey by brute force, taking on creatures much bigger than itself, while a fox hunted with cunning craftiness, and preyed on the small and the vulnerable.

Calling any leader a fox implied weakness, a lack of real power.

The Jewish Talmud, a collection of ancient Jewish writings, descriptively referred to great men as lions and the weak as foxes.

A certain scholar, thought at first to be brilliant, was by all outward signs inept, and it was remarked about him, “The lion you mentioned turns out to be a [mere] fox.” (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kamma 117a)

By calling Herod a fox, the Lord was stating that Herod was a weak leader, one easily manipulated by others. He was manipulated by his wife Herodias into killing John, and he was being manipulated by the Jewish Pharisees.

And Rome eventually saw this weakness as well and removed Herod Antipas, banning him to Gaul.

The Herod mentioned in the Book of Acts as a persecutor of the Jews is actually Herod Agrippa I, the nephew of Herod Antipas. It is tough keeping track of all these Herods.

READ: Who was Herod Antipas?

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