I am doing some background research for my Yeshua in Context podcast (a new episode will be posted later today). Since I am focusing on the parables of Yeshua at the moment in the podcast, I wanted to look into the parables in Rabbinic literature and decide what, if anything, they tell us about Yeshua’s parables. Some writers point to the Rabbinic parables as parallels to those of Yeshua in spite of the fact that the Rabbinic parables are from a much later period. I want to be more cautious and give the possible relationship between them more thought. I am very skeptical of any of any suggestion that Yeshua’s parables are in some way related to those we find in Rabbinic documents.
As I began to look into this, I realized the beginning point really is the parables of the Hebrew Bible. There are basically five story parables in the Hebrew Bible. I found a handy list of them in Gary Porton’s article, “The Parable in the Hebrew Bible and Rabbinic Literature” in The Historical Jesus in Context, ed. Amy-Jill Levine, Dale C. Allison Jr., and John Dominic Crossan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).
The Bramble King, Judges 9:7-15
Jotham is the last surviving son of Gideon (a.k.a. Jerubbaal) besides Abimelech, the leader of a coup who slaughters his own brothers in order to consolidate power. Jotham’s life is forfeit and he climbs a mountain to cry out a parable before going into hiding.
In Jotham’s parable, the trees are looking for a king. The good and productive trees and even the grapevine are too busy doing useful things like making olives, figs, and grapes to waste time on ambitions to power. So the trees approach the most useless among them, the bramble, and make him king. The bramble suspects they don’t really respect him and says that if they have made him king in bad faith, may fire come from the bramble and consume the trees.
Jotham then applies his parable in vss. 16 and following, giving us insight into the meaning of his parable. If the people of Shechem have acted in bad faith, they will be consumed by the violence of their bramble king, Abimelech.
This ancient parable is not easy to understand as the story does not exactly fit the details of Abimelech’s coup. In the story the bramble king himself warns of fire whereas in life it is Jotham, not Abimelech, who gives warning. We learn from this oldest of parables that the genre of parable is not a simple thing. Parables are riddles requiring work to solve and one to one correspondences are not required.
The Wealthy Sheep-Thief, 2 Samuel 12:1-14
Nathan’s morality tale exposing for David his own inner corruption is rightly famous. A wealthy landowner who has many sheep is obligated to give hospitality to a traveler. The greedy rogue that he is, the landowner takes the beloved pet sheep of a poor man so he will not reduce his multitudinous flock by one ewe or ram.
The genius of Nathan’s parable, of course, is using stereotyped characters and symbolic correspondences to trick David into condemning himself. David has taken the lone wife of a good man though David was rich in women. As David pronounces outrage and death upon the parabolic wealthy landowner, his own fate is sealed by the prophecy given to Nathan. God is more merciful to David than David would have been to the landowner.
We learn from this parable the value of figures and symbols in story. Symbols in story can remove us for while from our bias regarding events that entangle our lives. The simplicity of a story can make clear what our own memory and conscience keep at arm’s length.
The Brother-Slayer, 2 Samuel 14:1-20
David fell a second time to the ruse of a story purporting to be a case for the king to decide, which in reality was about his own affairs. This time Joab, general and advisor, sent a woman unknown to the king with a story. A widow had two sons as her only comfort in the world and in a dispute one son accidentally killed the other. The friends of the slain son sought to avenge him, forcing the surviving son to flee to a place of refuge. Now the widow had lost both sons, one to violence and another to a desire for brute justice. She begged the king to offer his protection to the surviving son and bring him out of refuge and exile.
The story is about David’s own family, as Absalom has been in exile for three years, having slain his brother Amnon for the rape of Tamar. The widow, in Joab’s mind, is like Israel, in desperate need of Absalom, whom Joab regards as the fitting king to follow David.
Again we learn that symbolic story can remove the ambiguity of life’s confusing turns.
The Stricken Prophet, 1 Kings 20:35-43
Ahab has won a battle though seriously outnumbered by Syrians under the command of Ben-Hadad. Though Ahab’s forces looked like two little flocks of goats and Ben-Hadad’s covered the land, by the prophetic word of God Ahab has prevailed. In the aftermath, Ahab let Ben-Hadad go and made a treaty with him, contrary to the word of prophecy.
A prophet approached another prophet and said, “Strike me.” Refusing to strike his fellow, this second prophet was killed by a lion for not obeying the prophetic command. A second time the prophet asked a man to smite him and this time he was wounded as he desired. Being wounded allowed the prophet to don a bandage and disguise himself so that Ahab would not recognize him.
Wearing the bandage, the prophet appeared before the king and told a story, “I was commissioned to guard a prisoner upon pain of death or pay a talent of silver if I failed.” Ahab told him that there was no need to bring a case as the judgment was evident: either death or a talent of silver. Like David before him, Ahab was deceived into pronouncing his own judgment. Ahab was the man who let the Ben-Hadad survive contrary to his commission from God.
The Sorry Vineyard, Isaiah 5:1-7
This last example of the parable in the Hebrew Bible is the most significant. It is the one that lies behind many of Yeshua’s own parables. Israel is a vineyard. God dug it, planted it, tended it, and yet it yielded wild grapes in spite of all God’s tender care. Therefore God will let his vineyard be devoured by removing his protection.
In several of Yeshua’s parables, God is the vineyard owner and Israel the vineyard. Yeshua said that the owner was coming soon and that his wrath would be displayed against his vineyard. In other places Yeshua uses the image of Israel as the vine in other ways. In John 15 Yeshua is the vine, the true Israel and the source of divinely-given life to the branches who are his disciples.
The parable of Isaiah 5 is much like the other parables of the Hebrew Bible. Using symbols the story deceives the listener into sympathizing. Who would not share the vexation of the vineyard owner who worked hard only to see wild grapes take over his vineyard? Who could not imagine in wrath digging up the fence and letting the failed vineyard be devoured by overgrowth?
The trick of the parable comes when the symbols are revealed. It is me. I am the vineyard. I have vexed the God who made me. It is I who will be devoured.
Yeshua had a precedent for these stories which invite hearers to indict themselves, to see themselves from a distance, to take a deeper look into reality and see a new perspective. In many ways they served Yeshua’s purpose: teaching without raising the alarm from the Temple leadership or Rome too quickly. Yet they also served a greater purpose: to give those with ears to listen a new paradigm, a surprising one, in which their lives would be re-ordered and forever changed.