There are many beheadings recorded in the Bible. Beheading was a common manner of execution in ancient cultures. Beheading one’s enemy was a way to announce a complete victory over him. Displaying the severed head of an enemy left no doubt in anyone’s mind that this enemy was no longer a threat.
In the New Testament, the most prominent account of a beheading is that of John the Baptist by order of the tetrarch Herod Antipas (Matthew 14:10). John had publicly rebuked Herod for his immorality (Herod had taken his brother’s wife, Herodias—who also happened to be Herod’s step-niece). John’s rebuke so enraged Herodias that she tricked her husband into giving her the head of John the Baptist on a platter (Matthew 14:8). Although Herod did not want John killed, Herodias elicited the promise in front of Herod’s guests, so he did as she asked so as not to lose face (Mark 6:17–29). A few years later, James the brother of John was beheaded by Herod Agrippa I in an effort to curb the explosive growth of Christianity (Acts 12:2).
The most famous Old Testament beheading is found in 1 Samuel 17 when David defeated Goliath. As the giant Goliath threatened the Israelite army day after day, young David came against him with a slingshot and the power of the Lord (1 Samuel 17:45). The first stone connected with Goliath’s head, and the giant fell. David then ran to him, drew out the giant’s own sword, and cut off his head (verse 51).
At another time, however, King David was grieved when his men thought they were pleasing him by killing and beheading Ish-bosheth, one of King Saul’s remaining sons (2 Samuel 4:7–8). The assassins brought the head of Ish-bosheth to David, expecting a reward. Instead of commending them, David was outraged that they had killed an innocent man in his own house. Rather than display Ish-bosheth’s head and reward his killers, David buried the head and had the men executed. David did not behead them but had their hands and feet cut off and displayed as a warning to anyone who would murder innocent men for political gain (2 Samuel 4:12).
Second Kings 10 tells us of a mass beheading that took place when God removed wicked King Ahab from the throne and instructed that all his sons and followers also be executed. God, through the prophet Elisha, anointed Jehu as the next king and commanded him to rid Israel of all remnants of Ahab’s evil reign, including all worshipers of Baal (2 Kings 9:1–10). Jehu obeyed; he first slaughtered the king’s seventy sons, beheading them and piling their heads at the city gate of Samaria (2 Kings 10:7–8). Jehu then called a fake festival for all Baal worshipers in the land in order to gather them in one place (verses 18–19). When the idolaters had all arrived and packed the building, Jehu ordered his men to kill them all with the “edge of the sword,” which may or may not imply beheading (verse 25).
Other beheadings in the Bible include the Egyptian baker, beheaded by Pharaoh (Genesis 40:20); King Saul, beheaded by the Philistines (1 Samuel 31:8–10); and Sheba, beheaded by the people of Abel Beth Maakah (2 Samuel 20:21–22). Abishai threatens to behead Shimei, but David forbids him (2 Samuel 16:9–10). Ashpenaz, the chief Babylonian court official, fears beheading by King Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 1:10). Of special interest is the “beheading” of the Philistine god Dagon. The Philistines had stolen the Ark of the Covenant and placed it in their temple of Dagon, “but following morning when they rose, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord! His head and hands had been broken off and were lying on the threshold; only his body remained” (1 Samuel 5:4). The Lord God of Israel, in cutting off Dagon’s head, plainly showed His victory over all false gods.
Beheadings are nothing new, and, according to Revelation 20:4, beheadings will continue and increase until Jesus comes again. The martyrs of the end times’ tribulation will be beheaded because they refuse to take the mark of the beast or deny Jesus as Lord. We see this type of martyrdom already occurring around the world with the proliferation of evil religious zeal that sets itself against the truth. As it was in Bible times, beheading is often used as a means to terrorize potential enemies and silence opposition. But truth will not be silenced (Luke 19:40). We must remember that, even when our enemies flaunt their evil and brandish the heads of martyrs, Jesus told us not to fear, for He has “overcome the world” (John 16:33).