Barry Newman's Blog

November 21, 2012

The parable of the Mustard Seed (part XI)

Filed under: Parables of Jesus,The parable of the Mustard Seed — barrynewman @ 9:21 pm

Old Testament Allusions? (part 1)

If there is an allusion to an Old Testament passage or passages in the parable of the mustard seed, possible contenders as references to which the allusion could be made would be those “parables” found within Ezekiel 31, Daniel 4 or Ezekiel 17.  The Ezekiel 31 and Daniel 4 texts both contain references to a tree and “the birds of the air” in that tree.  However both conclude with the tree being destroyed.  And in one case the birds become birds of prey and in the other, the birds flee.  In the parable of the mustard seed there is no hint of the tree being destroyed or “the birds of the air” changing their relationship to the tree.

What of the tree referred to in Ezekiel 17 (verses 22- 24)?  In Ezekiel 17 the tree is planted by Yahweh which has some parallel with the tree that developed from the mustard seed for the parable of the mustard seed concerns the “kingdom of heaven”.  It does not concern the kingdom of the evil one or of any earthly potentate. Furthermore, the tree of Ezekiel is planted on a high and lofty mountain – the high mountain of Israel and in parallel, the kingdom of heaven of the parable that Jesus told obviously has its roots in Jesus himself and his 12 disciples – the members of the true Israel. The Ezekiel tree begins as a mere twig, while the mustard “tree” begins as a very small seed. While in the Ezekiel parable the birds are not described as “the birds of the air” they do come to dwell in the shade of its (dangling) branches and there are a lot of them – every bird of every wing – probably meaning every bird of every kind. In the parable that Jesus told, “the birds of the air” perch in its branches (Matthew and Luke) or perch in its shade (Mark).  The tree in Ezekiel 17 brings forth boughs and becomes a stately cedar.  In the parable, the seed develops into the greatest of (all) herbs (Matthew and Mark) and produces large branches (Mark) even becoming a tree (Matthew and Luke).  The tree of Ezekiel 17 is a good contender as a reference to which an allusion is being made in the parable of the mustard seed.

Yet there are some difficulties. The birds that might relate to the tree that develops from a mustard seed are not normally going to be large birds.  The tree could not cope with large birds.  They will be small ones, whereas the tree of Ezekiel has birds of every kind. Yet in the Ezekiel 17 passage the Hebrew word translated “birds” is “tsippor” and the suggestion has been made above that the word can refer to “small birds” or “hopping birds”. The Authorised Version translates “tsippor” in Psalm 84: 3 and 102: 7 as “sparrows”. However, it is not being suggested that in the Ezekiel passage the birds there are all small birds of every kind. That would go against the general impression being conveyed that there was a multiplicity of different kinds of birds.  Furthermore, Jesus could have referred to “small” birds” but he did not.  The size of the birds does not seem to be an issue in either parable.

Another matter to consider is how the parable is related in the Septuagint version. There the text reads, “Every bird (“orneon”) shall rest beneath it and every bird (“peteinos”) shall rest under its shadow; its branches (“klema”) shall be restored.” (17: 23).[1] In the parable of the mustard seed, the translation “birds” is based on the Greek word “peteinos” but in the Septuagint the birds of any kind are not explicitly said to be dwelling in the shade of its branches. They simply “rest under its shadow”; though presumably that means they are in the branches which provide the shade.  This aspect is not unlike the relevant part of the version of the parable told by Jesus as recorded in Mark.


[1] In the Greek Septuagint, what is “tsippor” in the Hebrew text is sometimes “peteinos” (e.g. Ezekiel 39: 4) and sometimes “orneon” (e.g. Ezekiel 39: 17)

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