Like a mustard seed, a lump of leaven (ζύμη) is small and hidden into fresh dough. Like a sourdough starter, leaven is naturally present in flour. When you knead the leaven into flour and water, the leaven will ferment. If you let the dough sit for seven days, the dough will begin to rise. Then that starter batch can be worked into more dough to bake bread. There is a difference between leaven and yeast; yeast in the modern sense is a leavening agent that you can buy in a store as a dry powder. Leaven in the ancient world is simply fermenting dough.
Like the mustard seed growing into a tree, there is hyperbole in the Parable of the Hidden Leaven. This woman is making a very large quantity of bread. “Three measures is the equivalent of almost 40 liters, enough for a meal for more than 150 persons or for approximately 110 pounds of bread” (Luz, Matthew 8-20, 262). About four pounds of leaven would be needed! This is not normal story about a woman baking bread for her family, it is a shocking hyperbole.
Leaven and Sin?
One problem with the parable of the Hidden Leaven is that in the rest of the Bible, leaven or yeast is a metaphor for sin. A week prior to the Passover, the Jews were to clean their homes and get rid of all the old leaven (Exodus 12:15, 19). This is called the Feast of the Unleavened Bread and explains the tradition of matzah bread at the Passover meal. Any bread made for Passover would not have any leaven in it and would therefore not rise. Cleaning out all the old leaven from the house represents removing sin before the Passover.
In Matthew 16:6-12 Jesus will warn his disciples about the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees, referring to their teaching (16:12). In the overall context of Matthew the leaven of the Pharisees is their hypocrisy.
Paul uses leaven as a metaphor for sin in the Corinthian church (1 Cor 5:6; cf. Gal 5:9). Like a little leaven in a lump of dough causes the bread to rise, even a little bit of sin corrupts the whole church.
The Hiddenness of the Kingdom of God
Rather than focusing on the leaven as an image for sin, Jesus’s emphasis is on the hiddenness of the leaven. What the kingdom is not at all obvious during the ministry of Jesus. Like a bit of leaven hidden in a lump of dough, Jesus’s announcement that the kingdom is present in his ministry is not at all what the Jewish people were expected from the Messiah. When the kingdom comes, it comes all at once! It is the hole loaf, or the fully grown tree from the very start.
Like the tree in the previous parable, when the kingdom fully arrives it will bless the whole world (like a woman who bakes 110 pounds of bread!) Like the birds building their nests in a tree, there is no need to allegorize the parts of the saying. The woman, the bread, the oven are all props in the story necessary to describe hidden leaven.
Parables and Millennialism
Do the parables of the mustard seed and the hidden leaven teach that the church is “building the kingdom of God”? (Or, to put this in systematic theology terms, is Jesus teaching post-millennialism?) Not at all. But these are the best verses in favor of post-millennialism. For example, Swete thought the leaven refers to “the kingdom’s subtle power of spreading itself through society and transforming it” (The Parables of the Kingdom, 43-44).
However, there is an already state of the kingdom (the seed, the leaven) and the not yet state of the kingdom (the tree, the loaf). There is no middle state of the kingdom, there is nothing here instructing the disciples to be the growing tree or the fermenting leaven.
As with the parable of the mustard seed, this parable encourages the disciples of Jesus who may have wondered (along with the Pharisees and others) how Jesus’s announcement of the kingdom of God could possibly be related to the glorious promises of the Old Testament.
Jobes, Karen H. John through Old Testament Eyes. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Academic, 2021. 374 pp. Pb. $29.99 Link to Kregel Academic
Karen Jobes’s new volume in Kregel’s Through Old Testament Eyes series joins Andrew Le Peau’s Mark commentary (Kregel, 2017). Subtitled “A Background and Application Commentary,” the series is a basic commentary on the English text with a special emphasis on using the Old Testament to illuminate aspects a New Testament book.
Near the end of the book, Jobes observes “the Scripture of Israel are woven throughout the Gospel of John, though with a technique different from the other Gospels” (p. 319). Citing Richard Hays’s Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, John “simply and steadily presupposes the law of Moses and the words of Israel’s Scripture as the essential hermeneutical matrix for recognizing and understanding Jesus’s testimony” (p. 320). Jobes describes this as John’s “verbal artistry” (p. 24). She offers as an example Jesus changing the water to wine (John 2:1-11). As he tells this story, John has in mind the “symbolic value of wine in the Old Testament as a symbol of the messianic age and of blood” (p. 27). The six stone jars are an odd detail for most modern readers, but Jobes suggests an allusion to messianic imagery in 2 Baruch.
In her brief fifteen-page introduction to the Gospel of John, Jobes observes we cannot know for sure the author is John, the son of Zebedee, nor if the Beloved Disciple is John. However, she cites B. F. Wescott’s view the fourth Gospel was written by the disciple whom Jesus loved, by John the son of Zebedee with approval (p. 22). There is nothing in the introduction on often complicated theories of composition. In fact, she is clear in the introduction this commentary only briefly addresses the topics typically encountered in exegetical commentaries (p 14).
The body of the commentary proceeds through each chapter of John (except for John 15:26-27 which is included with chapter 16). The commentary is verse-by-verse, with occasional reference to Greek and Hebrew words (always transliterated). There is some interaction with secondary literature, although almost entirely in the endnotes. These notes include recent major academic commentaries and monographs. As expected, Jobes takes notice of allusions to the Old Testament.
There are three types of sidebars in each chapter, set apart from the main body of the chapter with a grey background. First, most chapters end with an overview of the section’s contribution to the theme of the series, “Through Old Testament Eyes.” For example, Jobes discusses the dignity of menial labor in the context of John 13 (Jesus washing his disciples’ feet). Commenting on John 15:1-17, Jobes discusses vine and vineyard imagery in the Old Testament, such as Isaiah 5:1-7. Given the title of the series, it is curious there are no “Through Old Testament Eyes” sidebars in chapters 4, 5, 8 and 11.
Second, each chapter has at least one section entitled “What Structure Means.” For the most part, these sections discuss the outline of John and how the pericope in view fits into the overall context of the Gospel. There are occasional comments on Synoptic parallels or explanations of other literary features. For example, Jobes discusses the chiasm in John 4:4-42, which centers on true worship (p. 101). On one occasion she deals with a historical theological issue, the Filioque Debate.
Third, each chapter has at least one “Going Deeper” sidebar. Here is where Jobes deals with background details and practical implications of reading John through Old Testament Eyes. Some of these sidebars are theological in nature (the work of the Holy Spirit, p. 250-52). She discusses eating and drinking as a metaphor for faith (p. 144-45) and the sin of religious pride (p. 156).
This commentary does not attempt to point out the Jewish background to John’s Gospel as illustrated by the Mishnah and Talmud. For example, commenting on the six stone jars in John 2, Jobes discusses the regulations from Leviticus, but is not concerned with Rabbinic literature on utensils (m. Kelim 10:1, for example). Commentators tend to wear out their copy of Strack and Billerbeck to offer a “Jewish background” for details in John’s Gospel. Even her comments on the Jewish Festivals are grounded in the Old Testament rather than later traditions (p. 109, for example).
Conclusion. As series editor Andrew Le Peau observes in his series preface, although the commentary represents solid scholarship, Jobes does not write for an academic audience. There is no extended discussion of method or technical exegetical comments connecting some aspect of John’s gospel to a particular Old Testament passage. Occasionally the chapters seem frustratingly brief: John 15:26-16:33 is a mere eight pages, with no comments at all on 16:14-20, no sidebars on structure or “Through Old Testament Eyes.” In fact, two of the eight pages are a sidebar discussion of the work of the Holy Spirit in John 14-16..
However, John through Old Testament Eyes provides the reader with a basic guide for reading John’s gospel in the context of Israel’s scripture and Christian theology.
NB: Thanks to Kregel Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed is the first of two short parables linked together by the theme of a small beginning that has great results that benefit a large group. This eventual conclusion is far more than one might have guessed. The Kingdom of God will begin very humbly (as a carpenter in Nazareth, the twelve disciples), yet the message of the kingdom will eventually bless the whole world. There is probably not a “growth” theme in the parables, the emphasis is in the small / large contrast, not on the mechanism for how that growth occurs (so no post-millennialism here!)
In this parable, Jesus says The Kingdom of Heaven is Like a Mustard Seed, a small seed which grows into a tree.
While there is at least one rabbnic statement about a house using timber from a mustard plant for roofing material (BabTalmud Ketuboth, 111b, cited by Hagner). Most commentators see this as hyperbole for the sake of effect: a tiny seed grows into a massive tree.
The mustard seed is “proverbially small,” both Hellenistic and rabbinic sources are clear on this (see BAGD 751, SB 1:699 for sources, Hultgren 395 notes 12 and 13.) The seed is only .075 inches in diameter and can produce a shrub as tall as large as fifteen feet tall. The modern world would probably not use the word tree to describe the plant, but the Greek dendron is sufficient broad in semantic range to include large shrubberies.
The tree is large enough that birds make nests in its branches. Like most of the parables, this is hyperbole, a mustard plant does not grow as large as an oak tree. The point the contrast between the small seed and the large tree is unexpected.
Does Jesus draw on the Old Testament for the Parable of the Mustard Seed ?
There are several texts which describe a large kingdom as a tree that gives food and shelter to the birds. In Daniel 4:12, 21, Nebuchadnezzar has a vision of Babylon as a great tree supplying food and shelter to all the animals and birds. A similar metaphor is used in Ezekiel 31:1-9, Egypt was like a towering tree where all the birds made their nests. So great was this tree that the trees of Eden envied it!
In both of these cases, the tree represents the arrogance of nation and foreshadows the eventual demise of the great kingdom (God will chop the tree down and it will come to nothing). In the case of Egypt, it is brought down to Sheol. Jewish writers interpreted the birds of Daniel’s vision as Gentiles and thought this indicated Gentiles will participate in the Kingdom.
However, in Jesus’s Parable of the Mustard Seed, Gentile salvation is not the point at all. Jesus’s point is that the mustard plant grows from a tiny seed to tree large enough for birds to nest.
A more likely source for the image of a large tree for the kingdom of God is Ezekiel 17:22-24. In the future God will plant a tree on the heights of Israel and it will grow into a “noble cedar” and every kind of bird will live in its branches.
Ezekiel 17:22–24 (ESV) Thus says the Lord God: “I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and will set it out. I will break off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, and I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. 23 On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest. 24 And all the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord; I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it.”
Ezekiel is talking about the restoration of Israel after the exile. The Lord will bring them back to the land and they will be like a large cedar tree and bless the whole world.
What is the Meaning of the Parable of the Mustard Seed?
If the tree represents some aspect of the kingdom, the restoration of Israel in the land, living in peace and prosperity, then the unexpected, shocking part of the parable is that this kingdom will start small, almost invisible, but will eventually bless the whole world.
The parable of the mustard seed answers the question – “what could Jesus and his disciples have to do the Kingdom of God?”
“This wretched band, comprising so many disreputable characters … God’s miraculous power” will “cause … to swell into the mighty host of the people of God in the Messianic Age” (Jeremias, Parables, 149).
“What may not look like much to the world will in fact fulfill all God’s promises” (Blomberg, Matthew, 220).
How could someone as humble as Jesus be the Messiah? How could someone like Jesus establish the kingdom over the Roman Empire? This question could come from both the faithful disciples (who perhaps were beginning to wonder about the direction of Jesus’s teachings) and from detractors to Jesus’ ministry who were not seeing the sorts of things that they expected from the so-called Messiah-Jesus.
The mystery of the kingdom of God here is that the kingdom will begin in an unexpected way. The Jewish people in the first century were expecting a mighty cedar tree, but Jesus is more like a tiny seed.
Imagine the comfort of this teaching to the disciples who first heard it and later recalled it as they were being persecuted in the early years of the church. Despite their own humble origins and the difficulties of their suffering, God will certainly do great things.
The Parable of the Weeds compares the kingdom of heaven to a field sown with both wheat and weeds. No one can tell the difference between Jesus’s true disciples until the coming judgment.
The Parable (13:24-30)
The parable of the weeds compares the kingdom of heaven to a man sowing good seed in his field. Although the farmer sowed good seed, an enemy sowed bad seed into his field (13:24b-26).
The weed is darnel (ζιζάνιον, sometimes translated as “tares”), a slightly poisonous grass which looks very much like wheat. Keener says Lolium temulentum is referred to as “false wheat” (Keener, Matthew, 387). Eating the weed can cause a drunken nausea, the Latin temulentus means “drunk.” Sowing a wheat field with this type of weed would cause a great deal of trouble at the harvest since it would need to be carefully sorted from the wheat.
When the workers see the wheat and weeds growing together, they ask if they wonder whether weed the field (13:27). The owner of the field suggests they wait until the harvest and then separate the good wheat from the bad weeds (13:28-30) The good wheat into the barn and the bad weeds are thrown on to the fire.
The Interpretation (13:36-43)
Like the parable of the Sower, the disciples ask about the meaning of the parable of the weeds. On the interpretation of the parable, Klyne Snodgrass comments “The differences between the parable and its interpretation in Matthew make this one of the more difficult parables” (Stories with Intent, Second Edition, 191).
The one who sows good seed is the Son of Man (13:37). As is typical of the parables either God or Jesus is the main character of the story and there are two contrasting characters, the (good) wheat and the (bad) weeds.
The field is the world (13:38). In 9:35-38 Jesus used the metaphor of a field for the place where ministry of the Gospel happens.
The good seed is the “sons of the kingdom” (13:38). This refers to the disciples, those who have responded properly to Jesus’s preaching of the kingdom of heaven.
The weeds are the “sons of the evil one” and the enemy is the devil (13:39a). How does the devil “sow weeds” in Jesus’s ministry?
The harvest is the “end of the age” (13:39b; 40). When the harvest comes, the wheat is harvested and brought into the barn (where it belongs) and the weeds are destroyed in the fire. The noun συντέλεια and the related verb (used in Mark 13:4 in the introduction to the Olivet Discourse) point to the fulfillment of the prophecies of the restoration of the kingdom to Israel, the “end of the age” refers to the end of the present age when Jesus spoke, not necessarily the end of the church age. This is the culmination of Jewish expectations for the coming of the Son of Man who will rule over the nations (Dan 7:14).
The image of a harvest for the end of the age appears in other parables. In addition to Matthew 9:37-38 (the fields are plentiful), the parable of the wicked tenants (21:34-41). In Matthew 3:12 John the Baptist said the one who is coming has his winnowing fork in his hand and he will gather the wheat into the barn and put the chaff on an unquenchable fire.
The metaphor of a harvest for a final judgment on the day of the Lord appears in the Old Testament. In Joel 3:13, for example, “Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, tread, for the winepress is full. The vats overflow, for their evil is great.” A similar image is used in Revelation 14:14-20 (cf. 4 Ezra 4:28-32; 2 Baruch 70:2).
1 Enoch 42:11 Happy is he who sows right seed, for he shall harvest sevenfold!
4 Ezra 4:28-32 For the evil about which you ask me has been sown, but the harvest of it has not yet come. 29 If therefore that which has been sown is not reaped, and if the place where the evil has been sown does not pass away, the field where the good has been sown will not come. 30 For a grain of evil seed was sown in Adam’s heart from the beginning, and how much ungodliness it has produced until now, and will produce until the time of threshing comes! 31 Consider now for yourself how much fruit of ungodliness a grain of evil seed has produced. 32 When heads of grain without number are sown, how great a threshing floor they will fill!”
2 Baruch 70.2 Behold, the days are coming and it will happen when the time of the world has ripened and the harvest of the seed of the evil ones and the good ones has come that the Mighty One will cause to come over the earth and its inhabitants and its rulers confusion of the spirit and amazement of the heart.
Where there is Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth
This parable ends with the apocalyptic judgment at the end of the age (13:40b-43). The Son of Man sends his angels to weed out anything which causes sin and evil from the kingdom. In Matthew 15:12-14, in response to offending the Pharisees, Jesus says “every plant my heavenly father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots.”
The weeds will be cast tin a blazing furnace, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. This phrase appears in several similar contexts in Matthew. In Matthew 8:12, many who will come from the east and west and enter into the banquet, but the “sons of the kingdom” will be outside in the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” In 13:50 the evil fish will be cast into a fiery furnace where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. In Matthew 22:13 the man who was not prepared for the wedding banquet is bound foot and hand and cast out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. In Matthew 24:51 the foolish servant is cut to pieces and put int eh place of the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. In Matthew 25:11-12, the foolish virgins do not enter the wedding banquet and are left outside in the darkness. In Matthew 25:30 the worthless servant is cast out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. In Matthew 25:31-46 the Son of Man returns with all his holy ones and separates the sheep from the goats. These goats are sent away to the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:41); in 25:46 this is called “eternal punishment.”
The Meaning of the Parable of the Weeds in Matthew
The parable is directly applicable to the ministry of Jesus, and as we observed with the parable of the sower, there are two contrasting “seeds” – the wheat and the weeds.
Among the community of disciples following Jesus, there are some disciples that are weeds. At this point in the ministry of Jesus the weeds cannot be detected, but they will be “picked and burned” at the judgment. The obvious example is Judas, but all of the disciples fall away at the time of the arrest of Jesus. In Acts Ananias and Sapphira are people who appear to be true believers until their actions prove otherwise. Paul mentions several coworkers who abandoned him and were “shipwrecked in their faith.”
It is possible Matthew included the parable because there was a real conflict in his church. If there were false teachers causing a schism in the church, then they are the weeds and the true disciples need to be on their guard against them. The judgment of the weeds is saved for the end when Christ returns and renders final judgment. Until then, the true disciple must be aware of the dangers posed by people masquerading as true believers. The true disciples must contend with the bad until the day of judgment, knowing that there will always be the possibility of false discipleship.
What is the application of the parable “for today”? The weeds still exist and it is still trying to choke out the wheat. In the parable, it was difficult to tell the difference between the wheat and the weeds because the enemy chose to make the damaging weeds look similar to the wheat. Most Christians are not tempted to start cooking meth or join a satanic murder cult. That looks so different from the truth it is easy to see and avoid. Satan’s tactics must be very subtle, making the weeds look like the wheat. There are many examples of people who appear to be good family value televangelist who are later discovered to be cheating on their wives or preying on young girls or boys. There are plenty of politicians who claim to be solid Christians to get elected but have no relationship with Christ outside of the image they want to put forward to the voters.
It is God who judges the weeds, not the disciples. We ought to be aware of and avoid bad seed. We must teach the truth in contrast to the weeds who try to choke out the true believers.
Waltke, Bruce K. and Ivan D. V. De Silva.Proverbs: A Shorter Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2021. 472 pp. Pb; $38.00. Link to Eerdmans
When Eerdmans published Bruce Waltke’s two-volume NICOT Proverbs commentary in 2004, reviewers immediately recognized it as one of the most comprehensive and insightful commentaries on Proverbs written in the twentieth century. It was one of those books reviewers call “magisterial.” Now fifteen years later, Waltke and his student Ivan De Silva have simplified the technical aspects of the earlier commentary and brought it up to date.
The authors are clear; they did not simply condense the earlier commentary. There is considerable revision, primarily in the recent literature now cited in the footnotes. Most influential is Michael Fox’s two-volume Proverbs commentary in the Yale Anchor Bible (2008, 2009). The only new research in the commentary is on the “foreign woman,” the Sitz im Leben for the dissemination of Proverbs in ancient Israel, the existence of doublets, and a few exegetical comments in the body of the commentary.
There are several differences from the original commentary. First, the book now conforms to the Chicago Manual of Style and Hebrew translations are more gender neutral, although in sections addressed to a son the masculine pronoun is retained. Second, Waltke translates the divine name as I AM. Readers familiar with Waltke’s An Old Testament Theology (Zondervan, 2007) will be familiar with this practice. Third, unlike the original commentary, the shorter commentary does not arrange proverbs into larger meaningful clusters. Since the shorter commentary does not engage in a detailed exegesis of the Hebrew text, the clusters are less evident. Fourth, the shorter commentary includes a subject index so teachers and pastors can quickly find proverbs on a subject (pages 442-55).
The sixty-two-page introduction discusses the various collections within Proverbs, suggesting “Solomon’s fingerprint can be found in all but the last two collections” (p. 6). After a very brief notice of Ancient Near Eastern parallels, Waltke introduces readers to the features of Hebrew poetry and the wisdom genre. Two-thirds of the introduction is a theology of the book of Proverbs, including expected topics like God, Revelation and anthropology. Proverbs commentaries normally include a section defining the wise and the fools. The wise are the righteous, the ones who are upright and blameless. The wise fear the Lord and will receive their reward, including wealth and life. In contrast, the fool is unrighteous, senseless and sluggardly. They too will receive their own reward, the grave. Because experience demonstrates many wise people suffer and fools prosper, Waltke asks, “does Proverbs promise too much?” After looking briefly at three common suggestions for solving the problem, Waltke suggests the promises found in Proverbs are “mostly validated by experience” (p. 43). Proverbs tell the truth, but not the whole truth (there are exceptions). The book is a “primer on morality for the young” (p. 44) and does require trust in I AM.
Since this is a Christian commentary, it is not surprising to see a section on Christology. Since the original commentary, Waltke contributed two books on reading Psalms as Christian scripture, The Psalms as Christian Worship (Eerdmans 2010), The Psalms as Christian Lament (Eerdmans 2014, reviewed here) and The Psalms as Christian Praise (Eerdmans, 2019). Like the Psalms, Waltke argues the Proverbs are directly relevant to the Christian, although the book is surpassed by the teachings of Jesus (p. 57). He also includes several pages surveying and evaluating the “Wisdom Woman as a type of Christ” (p. 59-61). Although commonly found in early church discussions of Christ, the apostles themselves ever use Proverbs for their Christology. He does offer a short list of “striking similarities” between the personification of wisdom and John’s representation of Jesus (p. 61).
The body of the commentary works through the book verse-by-verse, usually devoting a brief paragraph to each saying. All Hebrew appears in transliteration and the editors removed most technical details of Hebrew syntax present in the original commentary. Most readers will have no trouble following the commentary.
Conclusion. In the introduction to the volume, the authors state the commentary is “intended for the Bible lover” (xvi). This shorter commentary is exactly what most teachers and pastors need for understanding the book of Proverbs. Eerdmans is to be applauded for publishing this affordable major commentary and making Waltke’s work available to a wider audience.
NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.