Gospel parables are probably the most widely identifiable teaching form of Jesus. However, readers seldom recognize Jesus’ sophisticated skill as a first-century Jewish parabolist. Indeed, many Christians are unaware that his use of story parables is one of the strongest links between Jesus and contemporary Jewish piety. His parables also demonstrate that Jesus taught in Hebrew.
While Christian scholars in this century have written volumes attempting to reconstruct Jesus’ parables in Aramaic, they have largely overlooked the simple fact that there exists no story parables in Aramaic, Greek or Latin. All are in Hebrew! In stark contrast to the dearth of story parables in these languages, literally thousands of Hebrew parables are preserved in Rabbinic literature.
In this study of The Parable of the Sower (Luke 8:4-8) we want to look closely, not only at the message of Jesus’ parable, but how he told it, with particular attention to its Hebraic elements and its Jewish background. Let me encourage the reader, while we course our way towards the eventual destination of understanding what Jesus meant to say to his hearers, to enjoy the journey of discovering how Jesus communicated that message. My hope is that you not only hear and understand more clearly the words of Jesus, but that you appreciate more fully what a masterful teacher he was.
Like other Rabbinic parables, our story reflects the physical and social realities of the local setting. Ours is a farming parable, and it assumes that we already know how people living in the eastern Mediterranean planted crops. The relatively haphazard style of broadcasting seed prepares the reader for the “four-fold” outcome of the sowing. While in this instance, most of us can imagine the setting, sometimes the essential background is unfamiliar to us. Unlike the original hearers of the parables, we are separated by time, land, culture and language.
In “The Man Who Would Be King,” we noted that Jesus’ parable of the man who went away to receive a kingdom (Luke 19:11-27) assumed that we knew the story of Herod’s son, Archelaus, who went to Rome to inherit his father’s kingdom (Josephus Flavius, Jewish War 2:34). On other occasions, Jesus seems to reshape existing parables to serve his own purposes. The Gospel writers assume that we recognize those changes, and sometimes the key to understanding Jesus’ aim lies in knowing how he has changed the familiar parable.
While adaptation of existing parables is common in Rabbinic Judaism, Christian students are surprised to observe how closely Jesus’ parable of The House Built upon the Rock (Matt 7:24-27; Luke 6:47-49) resembles an ancient similitude in Avot de-Rabbi Natan (Version A, chap. 24; Goldin, p. 103). Not only is the metaphor of building a house on a firm foundation employed in both, but the very aim of the parables is similar. They emphasize the need for action and obedience!
Undergirding both parables is the ancient debate about the relative importance of hearing God’s word (i.e., study of the Torah) and doing it. Recurring in the discussion is mention of the unusual Hebrew word order in Exodus 24:7, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will hear.” The Sages asked, how is it possible to “do” before we “hear”? This question epitomized the divergence in opinion about which was more important, to study God’s word or to do it. Jesus represents the opinion of those who put strong emphasis on action – without, of course, neglecting the importance of studying the Scriptures. Remember his warning about the example of some Pharisees: “Do what they say, but not what they (don’t) do!” (Matt 23:2).
In fact, this same emphasis lies at the heart of the Parable of the Sower. The four types of soil represent the four types of “hearers.” Even the literary structure of four types of soil represents classical Jewish teaching style. If a sage intends to describe various “types,” then typically there will be four. In Mishnah, Avot 5, we read several lists of “four types.” Jesus’ parable follows this pattern by providing four types of hearers (Luke 8:11-15). Our assumption that the aim of the parable is to encourage the listeners to be “good hearers” (i.e., ones who hear the word of God and do it!) is strengthened by Mark’s command in the opening to the parable: “Listen!” (Mark 4:3).
The Lukan parable is marked by Hebraisms in its Greek. It begins (Luke 8:5) with the repetitive narrative prose: (literally) “the one who sows seeds seeded his seed.” To understand this Hebraic style, it is important to know that Hebrew words are built from three-letter stems. These stems form the basis for creating related nouns, verbs and adjectives. For example, the three-letter stem for “book” (SePHeR) is “S-PH-R.” Built from this same stem one finds the words for “story” ( SiPuR), “scribe” (SoPHeR) and “to tell” (SiPeR). Hebraic narrative style enjoys stringing these related words (cognates) together in sentences. It is this kind of identifiable Hebraism in Luke’s parable that attracts the attention of scholars in Jerusalem, who are interested in the Hebraic undercurrents to the Synoptic Gospels. While our canonical Gospels are Greek, they often exhibit primitive Hebraic tendencies. Other Hebraisms that can be observed in Luke’s version of the parable are “the birds of the air” (Luke 8:5; see Gen 1:30; 2:19; cf. Matt/Mark’s “birds”); “on the rock” (Luke 8:6; cf. Matt/Mark’s “on rocky ground”); “make [yield] fruit” (Luke 8:8; see Gen 1:11, 12:2; 2 Kgs 19:30; cf. Matt/Mark’s “give fruit”).
The physical imagery of the four-fold outcome of the sown seed suggests the manner of terraced farming in the hill country. On the slopes of the hill, the farmer gathers the stones from the field and uses them to construct retaining walls. This has the combined advantage of removing the stones from the field and preventing soil erosion. Paths through these fields are usually alongside the retaining walls. It also is along the margins that the thistles flourish and choke out other vegetation. According to the parable, seeds fall on the footpath where they are trampled and eaten by the birds of the air. Some drop on the rocks. Others fall among the thistles. All of the seeds that fail have fallen in the margins of the field. While one must be careful not to allegorize a parable, the message to be a “good hearer” is reinforced by the agricultural imagery: “Don’t be marginal. Be committed and obedient.”
A final Hebraism may be present in the description of the seed that fell into good soil. It yielded a “hundredfold.” The language and setting echo another “hundredfold crop” sown by the patriarch, Isaac: “And Isaac sowed in that land, and reaped in the same year a hundredfold. The Lord blessed him, and the man became rich, and gained more and more until he became very wealthy” (Gen 26:12-13).
The Sages discuss in ancient commentaries the significance of Isaac’s blessing from the Lord and his “bumper crop.” One interesting interpretation suggested that Isaac knew the promise, “And I will bless you and multiply your seed for my servant Abraham’s sake” (Gen 26:12). Nevertheless, “Isaac expounded [this blessing] and said, ‘Since a blessing is earned only through one’s actions…,’ he arose and sowed” (Tosefta, Berachot 6:8). Thus, Isaac’s blessing resulted from his obedience to act upon God’s promise.
The parable concludes with Jesus’ charge, “The one who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Most readers pass over these words as if they were just an archaic way to say, “pay attention.” However, in the context of the parable they have a more profound significance for the listener. They serve as the exclamation point, the final challenge to those who heard Jesus’ parable: “Be good hearers! Be those who hear the word of God and act upon it. Then, like Isaac, you will be blessed, and you will see the hundredfold fruit of your obedience.”
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Reprinted with permission from the Jerusalem Perspective.