(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

The killing of the Galileans and the collapse of the tower in Siloam

There were some present at that time announcing to him concerning the Galileans, whose blood Pilate mixed with their sacrifices. 2 And answering, he said to them: ‘Do you think that these Galileans were sinners beyond all the Galileans because they suffered these things? 3 No, I say to you, but unless you repent, you all likewise will perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower fell in Siloam and killed them, do you think that they were debtors beyond all the people inhabiting Jerusalem? 5 No, I say to you, but unless you repent, you will all perish in the same way.

I mentioned this passage in the comment on Luke 13:22-24, but it is worth considering in its own right.

First, as modern liberal interpreters we usually understand Jesus to be saying that the Galileans who died were not greater sinners than all other Galileans or that those who were crushed by the tower were not greater ‘debtors’ than everyone else in the city; or that these tragic events should not be taken to mean that these unfortunates were being punished for their sins. In fact, Jesus is saying exactly the opposite – not that the dead are innocent but that all Israel is guilty. His main point is found in verses 3 and 5: unless the Jews who listen to his teaching repent, they will all likewise perish.

Secondly, it seems to me likely that in Jesus’ mind these two disasters anticipate the much bigger disaster that is to come upon the Jews within a generation. If the people of Galilee and Judea do not repent, they will all be slaughtered like the Galilean militants, they will all die in the ruins of Jerusalem when the armies of Titus besiege and eventually destroy the city. Significantly, what follows is a parable about a fig tree – that is, Israel – which will be cut down, if not this year then next year, if it fails to bear fruit.

If as modern liberal interpreters we find this emphasis on judgment distasteful and not at all in keeping with our sense of who Jesus is or was, we should keep in mind that he was doing his best to prevent the appalling catastrophe of the Jewish War. Sinful Israel was on a broad road leading to destruction. He offered for them an alternative narrow road that would lead to life, but it would take repentance to find it.


Well, for what it’s worth, I’m with you on this. And I think you’re right to see the context of imminent judgement as the key to the passage. Even when this passage is used in ‘problem-of-evil’ discussions it is not connected to Jewish restoration, which shapes the reading of it away from the full force of the passage. (That is to say, the implication there is that we are all as guilty or innocent as the next person, but the world is filled with random and gratuitous violence, suffering and evil.) But Jesus is clearly speaking within the exile and restoration motif of Israel … and working within the Second Temple emphasis of imminent judgement specifically.