Why will Sodom and Gomorrah be present on the day of God’s judgment against Israel?

I have argued that a “day of the Lord” in biblical terms happens not at the end of history but in history. It is a day when the God of Israel steps in to “judge” or “put right” a bad situation—to punish impiety and injustice, to deliver his people from their enemies, to re-establish his reputation among the nations, and so on. There is not one final day of the Lord, there are only days of the Lord—and we may be long overdue for one.

From Jesus’ perspective the foreseen “day of judgment”—he doesn’t call it a day of the Lord—was the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the invading armies of Rome. This is the first thing we need to get clear in our heads if we want to understand the Synoptic Gospels.

On this day, the current wicked generation of Jews would suffer the “judgment of Gehenna” and Jesus would be seen—in the terms of Daniel’s vision—coming with the clouds of heaven to receive, or having received, the authority to rule over his people, thoroughly vindicated by events.

But what are Sodom and Gomorrah doing there: “Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town” (Matt 10:15)? Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed long before. If they are present on this day of judgment, do we not have to understand the event in transcendent and final terms, involving a resurrection of all mankind for judgment? No, we don’t.

The saying about Sodom (and Gomorrah) occurs twice in Matthew.

When Jesus sends out the twelve, he says that “it will be more bearable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in a day of judgment” than it will be for the towns that reject their message about the coming kingdom of God (Matt. 10:15). He also says, with reference to the same mission, that they “will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (Matt. 10:23).

In a later passage, he denounces “the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent” (Matt 11:20). It will be more bearable, he says, for Tyre and Sidon and for the land of Sodom on the day of judgment than for these cities. So in what sense did Jesus think that they would suffer less than the cities and towns of Israel on the coming day of judgment?

Luke has combined the sayings about the cities and appended them to the sending out of the seventy-two (Lk. 10:12-15). He also says that the Queen of Sheba and the men of Nineveh will “rise up at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them”—because the Queen of Sheba sought wisdom from Solomon and the men of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah (Lk. 11:29-32).

This perhaps suggests a more widespread mission—the proclamation of the coming of the kingdom of God to Jews among the Gentiles. But these symbolic witnesses still come to testify against and condemn this wicked generation of Israel. The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple remains the focal point of the day of judgment.

Paul makes a similar point in Romans when he says that the Gentile (not the Christian Gentile) who “keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law,” on that day when “God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Rom. 2:16, 27).

The day of judgment in view, therefore, is a judgment on the unrepentant towns and cities of Israel before the coming of the Son of Man, within a generation (Matt. 16:28; 24:34), to execute YHWH’s kingly rule over his people and vindicate his faithful disciples. Jesus can only have meant by this the disastrous impact of the Jewish revolt and Roman retaliation as a consequence of Israel’s refusal to heed the call to repentance.

The presence of Tyre, Sidon, the land of Sodom, the Queen of Sheba, and the men of Nineveh at the judgment of this wicked generation of Jews would appear to be rhetorical.

Jesus’ point, on the one hand, is that “something greater” than Solomon and Jonah is here (Lk. 11:31-32). The significance of the comparative “more bearable” (anektoteron), in real terms, is arguably only that these neighbouring regions, despite their ancient sins, would not suffer during the course of the war—at least, not nearly as badly as Israel would suffer.

In any case, the trope belongs to a long-standing prophetic critique of Israel:

As I live, declares the Lord GOD, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it. Samaria has not committed half your sins. You have committed more abominations than they, and have made your sisters appear righteous by all the abominations that you have committed. Bear your disgrace, you also, for you have intervened on behalf of your sisters. Because of your sins in which you acted more abominably than they, they are more in the right than you. So be ashamed, you also, and bear your disgrace, for you have made your sisters appear righteous. (Ezek. 16:48–52)

Ezekiel’s comment that Sodom and Gomorrah “are more in the right than you” is equivalent to Jesus’ statement about it being more bearable for the land of Sodom on the day of judgment. Jesus may well have had this passage in mind. He speaks in the same poetic-prophetic idiom.

The relevance is even clearer in the Septuagint, where the “rendering right” of Sodom and Gomorrah is judgment language.

And you shall bear your trial, for you ruined your sisters with your sins by which you acted lawlessly beyond them and rendered them right (edikaiōsas) beyond yourselves, and be ashamed, you, and receive your dishonor for rendering your sisters right (dikaiōsai).

Ironically, Sodom and Gomorrah will be justified by the more heinous sins of Israel.

We read in Acts 12:20, finally, that the people of Tyre and Sidon sought to make peace with Herod “because their country depended on the king’s country for food” (Acts 12:20). There we have a concrete historical explanation for the implication of Tyre and Sidon in a day of judgment against Jerusalem. They will suffer on account of the disruption and destruction of war, but this will be nothing compared to what Israel will have to endure.

If you enjoyed reading this post, why not share it with associates, friends, and loved ones?
Submitted by peter wilkinson on  Fri, 08/21/2020 - 17:59

Thanks for your response to my (unacknowledged) comment in the previous post — “When should we expect a day of the Lord?”. 

To revert to this previous post, you were arguing that “day of the Lord” and judgment passages were always used in a historical, not a final sense. You said:

We should assume that the Jewish followers of Jesus understood the terminology more or less as it is used in the Old Testament unless there is clear evidence that they gave it a different sense.

I hope it has become clear that there is evidence that “day”/judgment language in the O.T. was used in both senses: within history, and, as far as Israel and the nations were concerned, a final sense. The same is true of  Jesus and his followers in the N.T., except that where there are clear references, the final judgment is ahistorical. We may not agree on all the passages but we do agree on some of them. The question is: which of the remaining passages refer to judgment in history or final judgment? 

In the current post, you conclude:

The presence of Tyre, Sidon, the land of Sodom, the Queen of Sheba, and the men of Nineveh at the judgment of this wicked generation of Jews would appear to be rhetorical.

It’s not at all clear that their presence is rhetorical from any of these particular passages, and your insertion of “this wicked generation of Jews”  is your own addition, rather than contextual evidence of a judgment within history. I could go further and say that you are making the passages fit your overall argument, rather than letting the passages stand as counter arguments, or at least holding open the possibility that they are talking about something other than the day of destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Roman armies.

I think there are even greater difficulties when examining verses that appear to speak of a judgment in history in the wider gentile world in the NT. If Paul was talking about a Greek/Roman/Gentile judgment in history in Romans 2, it’s very hard to see when it was, or exactly how Romans 2:16 and 17, for instance, were fulfilled in history. The difficulties can easily be illustrated by looking closely at some of the verses listed in the paragraph immediately under the subheading “The revelation of Jesus to the nations” in the previous post. 

I think you over-read the Ezekiel passage about Sodom and Gomorrah, in which the references are all in the past tense, apart from one - “they are more in the right than you”. In this case, the sentence is the exception which proves the rule: the rest of the passage describes Sodom and Gomorrah as past history, not as rhetorically in the present. The Matthew/Luke passages are all future or future conditional tense.

Thanks for rounding up all the stray “judgment” verses, by the way.

You quote this:

The presence of Tyre, Sidon, the land of Sodom, the Queen of Sheba, and the men of Nineveh at the judgment of this wicked generation of Jews would appear to be rhetorical.

And then you say:

…and your insertion of “this wicked generation of Jews”  is your own addition, rather than contextual evidence of a judgment within history.

In Luke 11:29 Jesus says that “This generation is an evil generation” because it seeks a sign, and that the sign that will be given to “this generation” will be the Son of Man. He then goes on to say that both the Queen of the South and the people of Nineveh “will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it.”

So how can you say that “this wicked generation of Jews” is my own addition and accuse me of making the passage fit my overall argument?

Is your point that I have sneakily added “of Jews”? Are you suggesting that Jesus meant by “this generation” not early first century Jews in Judea but all humanity ever? That would hardy be possible exegetically. All the way through, Jesus’ critique is aimed at the current leadership of Israel—the “brood of vipers” that came out to be baptised by John, fleeing from the wrath to come (Matt. 3:7; 12:34), who now seek a sign.

“This generation” can only refer to people currently living. God’s mercy is on those who fear him “from generation to generation” (Lk. 1:50). The people of “this generation” are like children in the market place because they dismissed John as an ascetic and Jesus as a drunkard (Lk. 7:31-34). Jesus asks how much longer he must put up with this “faithless and twisted generation” (Lk. 9:41). Luke 11:50-51 clearly contrasts “this generation” of unrighteous Israel with past generations:

…so that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation.

It is “this generation” that will reject Jesus (Lk. 17:25), and “this generation” will not pass away until Jerusalem is trampled under foot by the Gentiles and the Son of Man is vindicated (Lk 21:32).

So if we do not interpret as figurative the presence of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Queen of Sheba, and the men of Nineveh at the judgment, they have still risen up for the purpose of condemning this current generation of wicked Jews. (The “rising up with” may be a courtroom image rather than a reference to resurrection—they stand up to take the position of an accuser.) This is a judgment that must take place before this generation passes away—otherwise it will be too late, they will have been let off the hook.

Apologies — “this wicked generation” is there staring you in the face in 11:29, as you have said. Sheer carelessness on my part.

I agree with all the other references to “generation” you have pointed out in Luke (as well as the Matthew references)! No problem. 

By the way, I think Luke 11:50-51 is not contrasting “this generation” with previous generations, but saying that the previous generations who murdered the prophets are just as bad, but their accumulated sins will be visited on this generation. It might be thought that this is going a bit far, especially as the accumulated sins stretch back to the murder of Abel, who wasn’t even an Israelite! So here, either there’s some explanation of the meaning which eludes us, or it’s a highly hyperbolic way of condemning the Pharisees, who did not even represent an entire generation.

However, this was actually a minor point in my response. I was pointing out that  

- we had seemed to come to an agreement in the previous post that there is both historical (on-going) and final judgment in OT and NT, and there should be an awareness of both throughout the NT

- that there isn’t any particular sense in Luke 11:29-32 itself that the rising up/standing “at the judgment” of various figures is rhetorical; “this generation” is said to accompany the “rising up” of the Queen of Sheba, and the “standing up” of men of Nineveh, (11:31, 11:32), which is more like a post mortem final resurrection and judgment than a rhetorical way of speaking about their destruction in history;

- that there are even greater difficulties with many texts which you take to be judgment in history in the wider gentile world in the NT (we could explore these further);

- that trope or not, you have over-read the Ezekiel passage, which is 99% in the past tense, unlike most of Luke 11:29-32 (Jonah is an exception).

I’m pursuing this because when it comes, the slaughter accompanying the destruction of Jerusalem, which was historical reality, does not quite seem to be presented in Luke or any of the accounts as God’s righteous judgment. On the contrary, it is a cause of great sorrow to Jesus (Luke 19:41-44), not righteous satisfaction. The only direct suggestion of punishment is in Luke 21:22 — “days of vengeance, that all things that are written may be fulfilled”.

If this is God’s vengeance on Israel in the sense that we commonly understand the word, then we should immediately all walk away from a faith which colludes in violent mass murder. Is this how you understand ἐκδίκησις ? (There’s always a bigger picture, isn’t there?).

By the way, I think Luke 11:50-51 is not contrasting “this generation” with previous generations….

The point was only that “this generation” is limited in time, not a reference to all humanity. The “contrast” is precisely the fact that this generation will suffer the consequences, not their fathers. There probably is an element of hyperbole in the reference to Abel, though he is viewed as an archetypal prophet not as an archetypal victim.

which is more like a post mortem final resurrection and judgment than a rhetorical way of speaking about their destruction in history

If it’s “final” it’s a final judgment on this wicked generation of Israel, and perhaps of its neighbours, not of all humanity. Daniel 12:1-3 shows that a limited resurrection may attend a judgment in history.

Yes, in Ezekiel 16:48-50 the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah is in the past, but in verses 51-52 their judgment has been revised in the present:

Bear your disgrace, you also, for you have intervened on behalf of your sisters. Because of your sins in which you acted more abominably than they, they are more in the right than you. So be ashamed, you also, and bear your disgrace, for you have made your sisters appear righteous.

In effect, by her behaviour Israel has justified her sisters (the Hebrew does not say that Israel has made them “appear” more righteous, as in ESV): the trope is brought up to date. It’s not exactly Jesus’ development of it, but it would be easy for the prophet Jesus, with perhaps a later belief in resurrection at the time of judgment in mind (cf. Dan. 12:1-3), to take it a step further and imagine Sodom and Gomorrah being justified in the assize at which their sister Israel is condemned.

If this is God’s vengeance on Israel in the sense that we commonly understand the word, then we should immediately all walk away from a faith which colludes in violent mass murder.

Boldy said. But to my mind, there’s no question that Jesus, like the prophets of old, foresaw the destruction of Jerusalem and the attendant suffering and loss of life as YHWH’s punishment of a sinful people.

For the expression “days of vengeance” (hēmerai ekdikēseōs) see Deuteronomy 32:35; Jeremiah 26:10, 21; 27:31; Hosea 9:7, where it refers to a time of punitive destruction for Israel or the surrounding nations. Ben Sirach says, “Be mindful of wrath in days of death and of a time of vengeance in the turning away of a face” (Sir. 18:24).

Or read Lamentations. It was intrinsic to the prophetic witness that a disaster on the scale of the destruction of Jerusalem must have been the Lord’s doing.

Jesus compares the fate of Israel on the day of judgment with that of Sodom and Gomorrah because he imagines judgment after the same manner but on a more terrible scale. For Capernaum to be brought down to Hades on the day of judgment was for the town to be destroyed and its inhabitants killed. The judgment would be the destruction the towns and cities of Israel—though perhaps this needs to be reconsidered in light of Samuel’s comment below!

The judgment would be like the slaughter of the Galileans by Pilate or the crushing of the residents of Jerusalem by the falling tower. The revealing of the vindicated Son of Man to Israel would be like the punishment of the flood. The enemies of the master of the house were slaughtered before him. The master of the vineyard would destroy the wicked servants. Those who fell on the stone rejected by the builders would be broken to pieces.

There is no contradiction between Jesus’ predicting divine judgment and his weeping as a prophet over the fate of the city. He wept because the city would be besieged and torn down, and then he entered the temple and explained why this would happen: they had made it a den of robbers, therefore God would destroy his sanctuary, just as he earlier destroyed the temple at Shiloh.

And of course the destruction of Jerusalem would be the “days of vengeance to fulfil all that is written”—days of “wrath against this people.” For Jesus the destruction of Jerusalem was God’s punishment of his people in fulfilment of the scriptures.

Your clarification on Luke 11:50-51 is understood. However, I don’t think it is possible to read the passage literally. It would be a contradiction of justice as well as scripture that “this generation” should suffer judgment for all the blood shed by Prophets from the beginning of the world. In fact, Jesus’s diatribe is against the Pharisees, not that entire generation of Israel, who would suffer the coming violence. It’s more like a warning and wake up call that those who plotted and brought about his own death would commit the ultimate  opposition to God’s purposes as prefigured in the deaths of the prophets. The previous deaths had not gone unpunished, as the violence suffered by Israel was directly predicted by the same prophets.

The suggestion of resurrection in Luke 11:29-32 bears no association with Daniel 12:1-3, as it is Gentile figures who rise/stand and condemn Israel, rather than a limited resurrection of the righteous in Israel.

If there is a connection between Luke 10:12 and Ezekiel 16, Jesus takes it much further by placing Sodom entirely in the future. When Ezekiel speaks of Sodom and Gomorrah in the present, it’s the one point where he is clearly being rhetorical, since Israel’s unrighteousness did not actually make Sodom and her “sisters” righteous. It’s just a rhetorical way of condemning Israel.

I don’t see the destruction of Israel as “YHWH’s punishment of a sinful people”. It’s not an accurate interpretation of Luke 11:50-51, nor directly of anything else reported as Jesus’s words. The association of YHWH as the direct instrument of violence on Israel in Jeremiah is much more pronounced, and raises issues about the language of the prophets, and the connection between suffering and God’s direct actions — a debate which is highlighted in Job. The O.T. does not speak with a uniform voice. Jesus does not directly echo Jeremiah. You cited two Greek equivalents of “days of vengeance” in the OT, but added to these the passages from Jeremiah/Lamentations which raise the issues I am highlighting.

Yes, Jesus does compare the destruction of Israel with the destruction of Sodom in Luke 17:28-29, and to the flood in Luke 17:26-27. But the behaviour he highlights in both is not egregious sinfulness, but the ordinary activities of everyday life. He changes the emphasis completely, and we should take note. 

In Luke 13:1-5, Jesus is addressing an underlying question about sin and punishment in both events, but his point is not to answer the question in the terms put to him, but to bring the focus onto the questioners, and in this case I agree that their need is also to repent — from a simplistic Deuteronism we saw in the Pharisees which blinds the offenders from seeing what God is doing before their eyes in Jesus. I disagree that the sins of the questioners were worse than those who had suffered and died in the two events, since the events raise the connection between sin and suffering which Jesus fails to affirm. Yet the questioners’ fate could be worse if they failed to see God’s greatest, final provision and prophet.

There is no contradiction in Jesus, because he weeps over the destruction of Jerusalem and there is no clear message of God as the direct author of violent  judgment anywhere in the gospels. (Light the blue touch paper and retire, but we’ve been over all this before Andrew, so let’s not start again!).

Yes, Jesus does compare the destruction of Israel with the destruction of Sodom in Luke 17:28-29, and to the flood in Luke 17:26-27. But the behaviour he highlights in both is not egregious sinfulness, but the ordinary activities of everyday life. He changes the emphasis completely, and we should take note.

It can hardly be said that he “changes the emphasis completely”: “and the flood came and destroyed them all” (Lk. 17:27); “fire and sulphur rained from heaven and destroyed them all” (Lk. 17:29). Does he think that these were just natural disasters and not acts of divine judgment? His point is only that these catastrophes overtook them in the course of normal life, taking them by surprise.

The reason for this emphasis, in Luke’s mind, presumably has something to do with the saying about the kingdom of God being “in the midst of you” (Lk. 17:21). It will not be a matter of signs and spectacular heavenly phenomena. First, at least, there will be a series of mundane human events, from the killing of the Son of Man to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans—divine judgment in the midst of ordinary life, as in the days of Noah and Lot.

Andrew — you have added divine judgment when nothing at all is said a about it in this discourse of Jesus!

“His point is only that these catastrophes overtook them in the course of normal life, taking them by surprise.” Yes, exactly.

But he is answering a question about when the kingdom of God would come (Lk. 17:20, 22). He is not answering a question about whether the destruction of Jerusalem would be an act of divine judgment. But the flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah were outstanding judgment narratives to the Jewish mind, and it seems inconceivable that Jesus would have cited these events without taking this aspect into consideration. Nolland: “there is a Jewish tradition, probably with roots already in the OT, of typological appeal to the deluge (and more extensively to the destruction of Sodom) to demonstrate the certainty of God’s judgment upon sinners.”

The theme of impending violent judgment against Israel is almost as evident in Luke as in Mark and Matthew:

  • God brings down the mighty from their thrones (1:52);
  • John warns the crowds of a “wrath to come,” when bad trees will be cut down and thrown into the fire (3:7-9);
  • the chaff will be burned with unquenchable fire (3:17);
  • the rich will soon “mourn and weep” (6:24-26);
  • if the disciples judge and condemn one another, they will be judged and condemned along with the rest of Israel (6:37);
  • if Israel does not build its house on Jesus’ words, it will be swept away in a flood, which is a parable of judgment (6:46-49; cf. Ezek. 13:8-16);
  • John is the messenger sent to prepare the way for the Lord to come in judgment (7:27; cf. Mal. 3:1-4; 4:5-6);
  • the towns that reject the disciples’ message will suffer a violent destruction worse than the destruction of Sodom when the kingdom of God comes, which will be within a generation (10:11-15; cf. 9:27; 21:32);
  • the blood of the prophets, from Abel to Zechariah, will be charged against the current wicked generation of Israel (11:49-51); as he dies, Zechariah prays that the Lord will avenge his death, and later that year the army of the Syrians “came to Judah and Jerusalem and destroyed all the princes of the people from among the people and sent all their spoil to the king of Damascus” (2 Chron. 24:22-23);
  • unrepentant Israel will suffer death by the Roman sword or by the destruction of the city (13:1-5);
  • the fig tree that does not bear fruit next year will be cut down (13:6-9);
  • the temple will be left ruined and desolate because Jerusalem killed the prophets (13:34-35);
  • the coming of the Son of Man within the lifetime of this wicked generation of Jews will be like the destruction of the flood and of Sodom (17:22-30);
  • when the kingdom of God comes, the citizens who rebelled against the Lord will be slaughtered (19:27);
  • Jerusalem will be razed to the ground because its inhabitants did not repent or recognise the coming time of their visitation (19:41-44; cf. Is. 10:3 LXX);
  • the temple has been made a “den of robbers” and for that reason will be destroyed (19:46; cf. Jer. 7:11-14);
  • when the owner of the vineyard comes, he will destroy the wicked tenants (20:15-16);
  • the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans will be “days of vengeance, to fulfil all that is written” (21:22; cf. Hos. 9:7 LXX);
  • when Jerusalem is at war, they will “say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us,’” echoing the cry of the Israelites when YHWH destroys the corrupted sanctuaries (Luke 23:30; cf. Hos. 10:8)

Some of these “proofs” are very questionable — and just to pick out two at random: 

the temple will be left ruined and desolate because Jerusalem killed the prophets (13:34-35);

The verses do not say that the temple will be ruined because Jerusalem killed the prophets. Jerusalem has rejected violently the prophets sent to her; if she had listened instead, and listened to Jesus in particular, the destruction would not have happened. You are reading judgment into this.

Jerusalem will be razed to the ground because its inhabitants did not repent or recognise the coming time of their visitation (19:41-44; cf. Is. 10:3 LXX);

Again, you are reading your own version of judgment into this. Luke 19:41-44 says, echoing somewhat the sentiments of Luke13:34, that Jerusalem rejected the way of peace (42). As a result, Rome would come (in response to the uprising) and destroy  its inhabitants and its temple. There is no mention of judgment here.

Some of your references are simply repeating your previous assertions, which are simply wrong. I’m not going to go through them all, though for instance, I responded to ”days of vengeance” (just about the only reference, though indirect and God isn’t mentioned, in all Jesus’s sayings) a previous post, as I have in posts before that! Quoting the OT for the meaning of the NT only gets you so far, and can distract you from what Jesus is actually saying!

I would like to question your interpretation of Luke 17:20-21. I do not think it can possibly refer to a/the coming violent destruction of Jerusalem, because it came very visibly (“The kingdom of God does not come visibly”), and nobody says of the kingdom, according to Jesus, ”Here is is or there it is” (unlike the destruction of Jerusalem). So what is the kingdom? It is “among you” or “in your midst”, because the followers of Jesus are now those to whom the kingdom of God has been given Luke 12:32, and has been taken away from those who thought it belonged to them (eg Matthew 21:43). So the verses mean the opposite of violent judgment. Instead, the kingdom of God is given to those who reject violence in following Jesus.

Jerusalem has rejected violently the prophets sent to her; if she had listened instead, and listened to Jesus in particular, the destruction would not have happened.

So why does Jesus tell a parable about wicked tenants in a vineyard who do not produce the fruit expected of them, who kill the servants and then the son—and then have the master of the vineyard come and destroy the tenants? That’s a very odd story to tell if he thought that his task was simply to call them to peace with Rome. This is about Jerusalem and God, not about Jerusalem and Rome.

The whole point of his teaching is not that the Jews are behaving recklessly and risk a war against Rome which they cannot win. It is that they have angered God by their wickedness and as a result face a day of vengeance when God will judge and punish them.

The prophetic antecedents suggest that he understands the desolation or abandonment of Jerusalem’s house in terms of violent divine judgment:

I have forsaken my house; I have let go of my heritage; I have given my beloved soul into the hands of her enemies.

Or Jeremiah is instructed to say to the king of Judah:

But if you will not obey these words, I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that this house shall become a desolation. … I will make you a desert, an uninhabited city. I will prepare destroyers against you, each with his weapons… (Jer. 22:5-7 LXX)

You could argue that I’m reading Jeremiah’s understanding of judgment into this, but then Jesus clearly thinks of himself as one bringing the same message as the prophets before him, presumably with the same consequences. The passive “your house is forsaken” is itself a statement of divine rejection and judgment.

Commentators on this passage don’t seem to have any problem connecting Jerusalem’s rejection of the prophets with a coming violent judgment.

So Nolland writes: “The coming destruction of Jerusalem will be as God’s judgment, in which he abandons her to her foes…” (J. Nolland, Luke 9:21–18:34 (1993), 742).

Or Joel Green:

As a consequence of its rejection of Jesus, Jerusalem will be judged. Drawing on language and images from Jer 12:1–7; 22:5, Jesus announces that, for its failure to conform to God’s purpose for it, Jerusalem’s “house” will be abandoned. … Judgment, according to the image Jesus uses, would entail God’s vacating Jerusalem, leaving it to its own devices. (J.B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (1997))

Or Bovon:

To be sure, there were humans who were responsible for the destruction, but, at a deeper level, it had a divine cause. Israel was the root cause of its own loss, and Rome was the instrument of its desolation. But God must have willed these events and caused them to happen. (F. Bovon, Luke 2: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 9:51–19:27 (2007), 330)

“God must have willed these events and caused them to happen” - Bovon.

Really? Why? Where does it say that in the New Testament?

The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. (Matt. 22:7)

Hagner:

The wrathful reaction of the king (in 18:34 ὀργίζεσθαι, “be wrathful,” is also used in reference to a “king” [18:23], to whom Jesus likens his “heavenly Father”) results in the sending of soldiers, the destruction of the guilty and treasonous people (τοὺς φονεῖς ἐκείνους, “those murderers,” intensifies that guilt; cf 21:41), and the burning of “their city” (τὴν πόλιν αὐτῶν). These details, on the one hand, seem rather far-fetched for the story of the parable itself and, on the other hand, correspond remarkably to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 so that it is easy (though hardly necessary) to see a reference to that event here. However that may be, it is virtually impossible for post-70 readers of the Gospel not to see the destruction of Jerusalem alluded to in these words.

Harrington:

burned down their city: Matt 22:7 is a very graphic description of how the king punished those who mistreated his emissaries. … The Matthean statement is usually taken as a description after the fact of what happened to Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

France:

Most interpreters agree that this is a specific allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, when large parts of the city were burned by the conquering Romans (Josephus, War 6.353–355, 363–364, 406–408). … To attribute the Roman devastation to the troops of the king (God) echoes the robust theology of the OT prophets who hailed pagan conquerors as God’s instruments (Isa 10:5–11; 44:28–45:7; Jer 25:9 etc.). The phrase “their city” thus depicts the devastating result of the failure of Jerusalem’s current leadership; Jerusalem is now no longer God’s city, but “theirs,” and the community as a whole is implicated in their rebellion and its punishment, as had so often happened in the past when Israel’s sins had led to the city’s destruction by invading armies.

Luz:

The idea corresponds to the conceptual model of the Deuteronomistic tradition about prophet murders and can be formulated with similar sharpness in Jewish statements that reflect on the destruction of Jerusalem. It differs from the Jewish statements solely in the context. After the destruction of the city of those murderers the king seeks new guests for the wedding feast of his son. …

“Definitive judgment” is not to be understood in the sense of the last judgment that according to Matt 25:31–46 comes to every individual person. It is, rather, a judgment within history. It brings to a close a long epoch of God’s approach to Israel that was revealed in the mission of the prophets and came to a climax in the mission of the son and his messengers. After 70 this historical period is definitively at an end and is replaced by the Gentile mission.

See also Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 326-336, concluding with this statement:

They are typically prophetic oracles, issuing, in the name of Israel’s god, warnings to his rebellious people. And the judgment which was to come was conceived in classical scriptural terms: invasion and destruction by foreign armies, allowed to do what they are doing because YHWH, having warned his people beyond patience and beyond hope, has deliberately abandoned them to their fate. Assyria and Babylon had been the instruments of YHWH’s wrath before; now it would be the turn of Rome. (336)

Hagner - compares the wrath of the king in Matthew 22:7 to the king in Matthew 18:34, and to God the Father in 18:35. But the parable of the unmerciful servant is a parable, not a literal like-for-like analysis of God’s character and actions. Otherwise we would have to approve of the practice of unending torture (βασανιστής — “torturer”) imposed by God . There is a huge truth in the parable, but it does not depend on this kind of literalistic and misleading interpretation. Hagner virtually contradicts himself by saying, These details, on the one hand, seem rather far-fetched for the story of the parable itself” and then: “These details  … on the other hand, correspond remarkably to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 so that it is easy (though hardly necessary) to see a reference to that event here”. Having got himself into this contradiction, he tries to extricate himself by saying: “However that may be (!), it is virtually impossible for post-70 readers of the Gospel not to see the destruction of Jerusalem alluded to in these words.” Yes indeed, but maybe the allusion, in the form of a parable, is not intended to be taken quite so literally. We use our intelligence, with a healthy dose of ethical criticism, to work that out.

Harrington’s comment is much briefer, and I am certainly not arguing that the destruction of Jerusalem is not in some way envisaged in the parable (even if “after the fact”). However, in your reference, Harrington goes further: Strictly speaking, the parable is not a description, but a story which requires considerable, though not difficult, interpretation (see France below). Also, if the parable is “after the fact”, Jesus may not have spoken it at all!

France shares the views of Hagner on God as the instrument of violent angry judgment on Jersualem, echoing “the robust theology of the Old Testament prophets”. But how far do you want to take this?  “I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and daughters, and they will eat one another’s flesh during the stress of the siege.” - Jeremiah 19:9 (God speaking)? What is strikingly clear about Jesus is the absence of this kind of direct attribution to God of angry and violent judgment in the predicted destruction of Jerusalem. Let’s read the language on its own terms. 

This is also what France says of Matthew 22:1-14,

The story then becomes quite bizarre, with the murder of the messengers and a military campaign taking place while the dinner gets cold! To burn their city is a very extreme reaction to a refused dinner invitation. But parables are imaginary stories and do not need to mirror real life, (italics mine), and the symbolism is clear enough. Israel’s refusal in its leaders to respond to God’s call through Jesus would lead to the destruction of their city, Jerusalem (New Bible Dictionary)

This pays close attention to what the parable actually says, and avoids grossly literal interpretation of its meaning. 

Luz - I have no disagreement with any of this, but you certainly do! Luz interprets Matthew 25:31-46 as ” ‘definitive’ (ie ‘final’) judgment which comes to every individual person”. 

Wrightin this extract at least, comes close to how I see the destruction of Jerusalem, by describing judgment as “YHWH, having warned his people beyond patience and beyond hope, has deliberately abandoned them to their fate”, which isn’t quite the same as describing the angry judgment and violent punishment inflicted directly by God as envisaged in OT prophecy with the previous destruction of Jerusalem and temple (Jeremiah especially). You have also quoted here another commentator with whom you are in disagreement about much else.

I don’t see anything in that to suggest that I should shift my ground. Matthew’s Jesus warns the leadership in Jerusalem that if they reject the Son whom God has sent, they will suffer the judgment of God in the form of military invasion and the destruction of the city.

However odd Matthew 22:7 may look in the context of the parable, Matthew clearly thought that it reflected Jesus’ understanding of what God would do. It may not meet your own high ethical standards, but then you’re not a first century Jew.

Jesus’ parables often have odd unrealistic details—why is the poor chap without a wedding garment treated so badly (Matt. 22:11-14)? But in the context of Jesus’ teaching in this last week, the saying about the king, who is unquestionably to be identified with God, who burns the city of the people who killed his servants is not so out of place.

Jesus has evoked Jeremiah’s oracle of divine judgment against the temple. He has cursed a fruitless fig tree and it has withered. He has told a parable in which the wicked tenants of the vineyard of Israel, who killed the owner’s servants, are put to a “miserable death” by the owner. He angrily tells the scribes and Pharisees that their generation will pay the price for Israel’s long history of rejecting the prophets. In that frame of mind he predicts the destruction of the temple in the midst of a tribulation from which few would be saved.

I can’t imagine that it could be more clearly shown that the commentators you have quoted do not demonstrate what you claim, nor that they even at times demonstrate what they themselves are saying!

If Matthew 22:1-14 has links with Matthew 18, then God is not an angry tyrant who has his servants tortured, nor is God a king who angrily burns and destroys the city of those who opposed and killed his messengers. Hagner and France avoid making this crude connection.

Jesus does quote Jeremiah 7:11. It’s striking that he doesn’t quote from the rest of the prophecy, so doesn’t, actually, personalise Jeremiah’s other predictions of God’s direct violent actions.

In Matthew there is both a cursing of the fig tree and a revival of the fig tree -Matthew 24:32. Mark adds that it wasn’t the season to bear figs. Luke gives the fig tree another chance in what seems to be a related parable. I’ve lost count of the sermons I’ve heard where the hidden meaning of these cryptic passages is finally and fully revealed. But yes, it seems related to the barrenness of the temple and it’s priesthood and “elders of the people” whom Jesus was about to encounter in the temple. Quite what the connection is with the prayer of faith is obscure. Maybe the mountain which could be thrown into the sea was a synecdoche for the temple, with the idea that those who understood the incident should be praying for the removal of the temple, though.that would seem to be redundant. What do you think?

The parable of the tenants is another example of Jesus using the parable medium, and the implication is quite clear to the chief priests and Pharisees, even if in this story form as with other parables, we’re not invited to treat it as an allegory with every detail having its exact correspondence with a fulfilled meaning. As with the parable of the unmerciful servant, the unjust judge, etc.

I’ve looked in detail at Jesus’s diatribe against the Pharisees, and have shown that Matthew 24:35-36 cannot be a rationally described justification of judgment, with all the details literal. But it is a warning of catastrophe, and hypocrisy the unrepentant Scribes and Pharisees. They do “pay the price”, but not in a sense that their destruction will be a literal payment. More like an inevitable consequence. 

The conclusion of this diatribe is hardly a tone of judgmental anger; more heart-rending sorrow.

I think we are invited to make ethical evaluations of the Bible, and not simply accept everything as how it must be, simply because the Bible says it. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus refers to the OT six times, making ethical evaluations which include rejecting the Torah. It’s no longer a question of taking the scriptures literally, and in fact it never was — even in OT times. Jesus invited us to make radical evaluations based on his own practice, making himself bigger than the scriptures, and at times contrary to what had been understood and universally accepted. If you don’t do this, you are in danger of falling into the same delusions as those who opposed him. 

It’s not unreasonable to think that when Jesus quotes the beginning or a salient part of a passage he means the whole passage to be remembered. Or the the author means the whole passage to be remembered. That makes good sense of the quotation of Psalm 22:1 from the cross, for example. In fact, it’s just daft to think that Jesus was carefully excluding the rest of the passage.

That’s not a revival of the fig tree.

You can’t keep dismissing the bits of the parables that you don’t like, saying that we should not allegorise the parables. When Jesus interprets his own parables, he allegorises them (Matt. 13:18-23, 36-43).

It’s no longer a question of taking the scriptures literally, and in fact it never was — even in OT times.

It’s not about taking the scriptures literally. It’s about understanding the scriptures as they were understood at the time. And if anything, the “you have heard it said” statements reinforce the Old Testament perspective—they make it a matter of the heart rather than of external behaviour. It is not just the person who acts contrary to the Law who will be liable to the violent punishment of Gehenna but the person who thinks contrary to the Law. Jesus certainly does not relativise these judgments in the way that you suggest.

Andrew — I think this dialogue has probably gone on long enough. Obviously you have a case to argue, and if there wasn’t evidence to support it you wouldn’t be doing so. My concerns are where this case takes you, in terms of what is left of the Christian message for today once you have accepted the terms of your argument. For me, the conclusions don’t stack up. When the argument is probed closely, I find it has numerous points of weakness. I think you weaken your own case by not acknowledging these. However, the purpose of this site seems to be polemical, in that you are wishing to establish your case, rather than look at contrary or alternative points of view.

During the course of these exchanges over time, my own views have been developing as well, and I have a very different way of reading and interpreting the bible today than I had a few years ago. In this I have been influenced by you and others who have taken the  narrative-historical route. I think it makes an important contribution to biblical interpretation, but the bible itself does not, in my opinion, fit neatly into the categories which I think this method can tend to impose upon it. Its most glaring weakness is that it tends to remove the focus of the bible from what it may say to me today, by asserting that for the most part, the bible somewhat exclusively addresses past history. This is far from where I place the role and ministry of Jesus in particular as it is rolled out in the NT.

As part of the journey that I have personally been on, I think there is huge internal variety and disagreement within the bible, and on-going development. So I don’t think any more that it’s possible to take a simplistic view that what God said, or was said to have done, in one part may be true of all or later parts of the scriptures. Which also means that how God is envisaged within scripture is itself subject to change and development, and that we also are encouraged to take a somewhat critical view. It remains, for me, the the inspired word of God, but not necessarily to be taken always at face value. It’s quite clear that even the authors themselves were taking an evolutionary view of scripture, and within the NT, perhaps a more radically different view from much of the OT than you are able to accept.

I have also taken on board the importance of paying particular attention to the language of scripture, what it actually says rather than what it is implied to have said, as you will have seen in my responses to you in this comment thread. While the OT is clearly hugely important in considering how the NT speaks, it is also important to see how the NT differs from the OT in its use of language. I think you take too little account of this, not least because it doesn’t fit your interpretation. I think I’d sum this up by saying I see far more discontinuity between OT and NT than you. Since this difference in interpretation lies at the heart of our disagreements, it’s unlikely to be resolved easily. I do think, however, that you overstate your case, and because of this your case is weakened.

I have also taken on board the importance of bringing ethics into biblical interpretation. For this, Richard Dawkins (as one of the new atheists) has been an ally of biblical interpretation, not an enemy. Usually the violence which is attributed almost unremittingly to God in the OT narrative and prophetic books is somehow sidestepped by those who promote the bible unquestioningly as uniform, reliable and authoritative in all its details. This is why I have more recently been challenged, largely by this site, to look carefully at what the NT, for instance, does say about violence in issues of God’s wrath and judgment, and what it doesn’t say. The biblical authors and books were all products of their time, and all influenced by a background which was steeped in violence and a belief in God’s angry infliction of punishment and judgment. However, I am now more struck by how little in the NT “wrath” language is expressed as God’s explicit and direct infliction of violent judgment. Although I have had some of the language quoted against me, I continue to observe that it is rarely if ever expressed in the same way as some/many of the OT prophets. We are even arguing about quotations from the OT which you say have a context proving the violent judgment of God, and me saying but the contexts are consistently left out of the quotations!

So there we are. Clearly you are on a journey. I am also most definitely on a journey, and have been over the last five years in a more accelerated form since I was more or less forced out of my job because I expressed sympathy for gay people who want the freedom to decide how to live their own lives. It was arising from this issue that I started to look more carefully at other issues which I had conveniently sidestepped over many years.

So thanks for the opportunity to engage with you. I doubt it this is the last you’ll here from me, but the site is really to promote your own views, and though my questioning of these has not ceased to diminish, there are limits to which a guest in someone else’s house can continue to criticize the layout and design as well as all the furnishings and decor! Hence though I was tempted again to answer your foregoing comments in detail, I will forego the temptation — much as I would have liked to pursue the exchanges. 

Submitted by Samuel Conner on  Sun, 08/23/2020 - 16:25

Thank you, Andrew — this is helpful.

Last Sunday, I read Whiston’s translation of Josephus’ “The Jewish War” basically straight through (though I skimmed over many of the speeches, which were IMO interminable). It puts some meat on the “wicked generation” language in the Synoptics. Also “not knowing the way of peace,” that is cited by Paul in his indictment of Israel in Romans 3.

I’m curious what you make of Jesus’ prophecy that Capernaum would be “thrust down to Hades.”  That city did not suffer much in the War, though another city in Galilee, Jotapata, in the region under Josephus’ command, was besieged (with Josephus commanding from within the city) and the population slaughtered after about 7 weeks of siege — they were certainly thrust down into the realm of the dead. IIRC, there is one other notable siege in the Galilee region, again with a lot of civilian casualties, but Capernaum seems to escape basically unscathed. 

This is not a challenge; I’m genuinely curious. I fully embrace your understanding of Jesus’ prophetic ministry as being addressed to the crisis then facing Israel. Indeed, I suspect that the “saving efficacy of the Cross” toward Israel is that it discouraged those among Jesus’ contemporaries who were looking for the violent redemption of Israel and who hoped Jesus might be the looked-for redeemer (it must have been deeply discouraging that the redeemer was killed by the Romans before he even got to strike a single blow), and so delayed the war for a while — until the generation of those who were old enough to remember Jesus had been replaced by a younger generation, of the same character, who were not impressed by the failure of the would-be revolt in the early ’30s. This is getting a bit into the weeds, but I find it interesting that many diaspora Jews must have been aware of Jesus’ death (it happening at Jerusalem and at Passover, when many diaspora Jews were present) and there was little diaspora participation in the first war. Perhaps they remembered that notorious Passover. Jesus’ death did save the nation and even the diaspora communities (both mentioned in Jn 11:52-52), though not permanently. OTOH later, during the Bar Kochba revolt, there was massive diaspora participation, so much so that volunteers were turned away. 

I think if we all read The Jewish War, we wouldn’t have half as much trouble understanding the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels as we do. And thanks for highlighting the significance of the Roman campaign in Galilee. I’ve given some consideration to it in this post, but only on the basis of a very cursory rereading of some of the accounts. I think it might explain the odd reference to Capernaum’s self-exaltation to heaven and fall to Hades, if we take the city as a symbol of the revolt generally.

Your speculation on the impact of Jesus’ death on Jewish militancy is historically cogent. I just wish there was more evidence for it.