Green Tree

March 15, 2013 in Hebrew Understanding

Luke 23:31 - “For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry ?”

Here is an example of a verse which is unintelligible in the Greek in which it has been preserved, but which makes perfect sense when re translated into Hebrew. Yeshua is referring to the “green tree” and the “dry tree” mentioned in Ezekiel’s prophecy against Jerusalem and its temple

Ezekiel 20:45-21:7 - Moreover the word of the Lord came unto me, saying, Son of man, set thy face toward the south, and drop thy word toward the south, and prophesy against the forest of the south field; And say to the forest of the south, Hear the word of the Lord; Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I will kindle a fire in thee, and it shall devour every green tree in thee, and every dry tree: the flaming flame shall not be quenched, and all faces from the south to the north shall be burned therein. And all flesh shall see that I the Lord have kindled it: it shall not be quenched. Then said I, Ah Lord God! they say of me, Doth he not speak parables? And the word of the Lord came unto me, saying, Son of man, set thy face toward Jerusalem, and drop thy word toward the holy places, and prophesy against the land of Israel, And say to the land of Israel, Thus saith the Lord; Behold, I am against thee, and will draw forth my sword out of his sheath, and will cut off from thee the righteous and the wicked. Seeing then that I will cut off from thee the righteous and the wicked, therefore shall my sword go forth out of his sheath against all flesh from the south to the north: That all flesh may know that I the Lord have drawn forth my sword out of his sheath: it shall not return any more. Sigh therefore, thou son of man, with the breaking of thy loins; and with bitterness sigh before their eyes. And it shall be, when they say unto thee, Wherefore sighest thou? that thou shalt answer, For the tidings; because it cometh: and every heart shall melt, and all hands shall be feeble, and every spirit shall faint, and all knees shall be weak as water: behold, it cometh, and shall be brought to pass, saith the Lord God.

Allegorically, “the green tree” is “the righteous,” and “the dry tree” is “the wicked.” A forest fire, which God starts, sweeps through the forest of the Negeb. The heat is so intense that even the green trees are burned up. On his way to a cruel death, Yeshua is not oblivious to the women who are wailing and weeping for him. What a terrible destruction would soon sweep down on Jerusalem, engulfing them and their children! Like Ezekiel. Yeshua is heartbroken.

Ezekiel 21:6-7 - Sigh therefore, son of man, Sigh before them with broken heart and bitter grief. And when they ask you, “Why are you sighing?” answer, “Because of the tidings which will come. Every heart will melt and every hand go limp; every spirit will faint and all knees turn to water. It is coming! It will come to pass!”

The women were weeping for Jesus. If they had only known what was coming, they would have been weeping for themselves. “Don’t weep for me,” Jesus says, “weep for yourselves. If they do this to me, what will they do to you?” In other words, if this is done to the “Green Tree” of Ezekiel 20:47 (i.e., to Jesus), what will happen to the “dry trees” (i.e., to the less than perfectly righteous)? The “dry trees” would face the same fate at the hands of the Romans, and worse.

The Greek text reads, literally “If they do these things in a green tree….” To “do in (someone)” is a Hebrew idiom which means to “do to (someone),” and it is this idiom that has confused our translators. Some translations, the Revised Standard Version, for instance, attempt to make sense out of this verse by translating: “For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” The same idiom appears in Matthew 17:12, referring to John the Baptist: “They did to [literally, "in"] him whatever they pleased.” There, because the context is so clear, the idiom “do in” has not seemed to cause most translators any trouble. But in Luke 23:31 there exists one additional difficulty: in order to understand, and then translate correctly, the translator must also know something about rabbinic methods of scriptural interpretation. In a very rabbinic way, Jesus is hinting in Luke 23:31 at a passage of Scripture in the Old Testament. Our translators are not aware of this, many even translating “green wood” instead of “green tree.”

In 1901 William Wrede, a German scholar, proposed what he called ” Das Messiasgeheimnis” (“The Messianic Secret”), a theory still widely accepted. Wrede suggested that Mark’s Gospel was to a large extent an apology. In order to explain why almost a generation after the death of Jesus the Jewish nation as a whole had still not accepted Jesus as Messiah, Mark inserted in his Gospel the notion that Jesus deliberately kept his messiahship a secret. Wrede personally did not believe the historical Jesus thought of himself as the Messiah, or ever claimed to be the Messiah. He believed that was an idea invented by the Church after Jesus’ death.

Nothing could be farther from the truth! Had Wrede known more about rabbinic argumentation and methods of scriptural interpretation, he would never have erred so completely. The truth is that Jesus seems hardly ever to have spoken without somehow or in some way making a messianic claim. Jesus does not come right out and say, “I am the Messiah,” as we moderns might expect; but in a very rabbinic way he hints at Old testament Scriptures which were understood to be references to the coming Messiah. In this passage, for instance, Jesus refers to himself as “the Green Tree” of Ezekiel 20:47 – a clear messianic claim.


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