The Galilee of Yeshua
“Put your hand in the hand of the man who stilled the water,
Put your hand in the hand of the man who calmed the sea,
Take a look at yourself and you can look at others differently
Put your hand in the hand of the man from Galilee”
The Galilee of Jesus
The chorus of the 1976 hit song, Put Your Hand in the Hand by Alan Garrity, clearly identifies Yeshua as “the man from Galilee”. Yeshua was raised in the region, and large sections of the four Gospels are written about Yeshua’s ministries in Galilee. So, to properly interpret the Gospels we must interpret scripture within the context of life in the region. The focus of Yeshua’s teaching taking place in Galilee must not be seen as an accident of history. It was foreordained by God, He had a plan and a purpose behind the location of the Messiah.
“When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— to fulfil what was said through the prophet Isaiah (9:1): ‘Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned’.” (Matthew 4:12-16)
Galilee, in the North of Israel, was far from the country’s cultural and religious centre – Jerusalem in Judea. Galilee was mostly an agrarian region, with fertile land and moderate climate, it was a very pleasant area to live in. The wild flowers and weeds growing among the crops, the fig trees and grapevines dotting the hills, the fields white unto harvest, the labourers separating wheat from the chaff, and the socio-economic division of the landowners and the labourers, would all feature in the parables and sayings of Yeshua.
Galileans were viewed as being less literate and sophisticated in comparison to the aristocratic Judeans. However, they were devout Jews who hoped in the soon coming of the Messiah. This belief, along with a strong sense of independence, often put them in conflict with their Roman overlords. Most of the rebellions against Rome had their origins in Galilee.
Eleven of the twelve disciples were from Galilee, only Judas like Yeshua was from Judah. There is a parallel here in that David was betrayed by his brethren the Ziphites: “The Ziphites went up to Gibeah to betray David to Saul by telling Saul that David was hiding in the woods up on their mountains (1 Samuel 23:19; Psalm 54), and Yeshua was betrayed by the only Judean among the twelve disciples – Judas.
Parables in the Context of Galilee
Due to anti-Semitism and the influence of Greek philosophy, parables were interpreted allegorically by the Catholic Church, resulting in parables meaning whatever the interpreter wanted them to mean. An example of allegorical interpretation of the parables is Augustine’s interpretation of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:29–37). He believed that the Samaritan represented Jesus Christ – who saves the sinful soul, the man coming down from Jericho is Adam, the robbers are Satan and his minions, the inn is the Church and innkeeper is one of the apostles. A basic introduction to modern day Hermeneutics (method of interpreting scripture), would expose Augustine’s error, as one of the first lessons in a Hermeneutics study is to always interpret scripture in its context, especially the parables. Yeshua used the Parable of the Good Samaritan to answer the question “who is my neighbour?” Through the parable He reveals that we must love others, and show compassion to those we encounter along life’s journey. The main character of Yeshua’s parable being a Samaritan, would have been deeply shocking for the Jews, as they treated Samaritans with contempt. The Samaritans being a people group that were a blend of lower class Israelites, who were not exiled when the Northern Kingdom was destroyed in 722 BCE, and the different nationalities that the Assyrians had resettled in the area.
Parables need to be interpreted with an understanding of who the original audience was, the location of the parable, the characters within the parable and what response Yeshua was wanting from His listeners. The parable of the labourers in the vineyard is a good example. All Galileans – the original audience – were familiar with day labour work on the farms, and would identify with the sentiments of the full day labourers, thus being “caught” by the message.
Parables – A Jewish Tradition
Parables are not just a New Testament phenomenon, the use of parables is found in the Old Testament, and in Jewish literature from the inter-testament period. Dwight Prior records that “Rather than being ‘the 400 silent years’ (between Malachi and Matthew), this was one of the most fertile and formative times in Jewish thought. Over 4 000 parables can be found in the teachings of the Sages of Israel. To the Hebrew mind, great spiritual truths are best conveyed, not in theological propositions, but in evocative stories. Indeed, the Old Testament is well remembered by us because much of it is narrative – it is a story!” (1).
One third of the teachings of Yeshua, were in parables, showing that Yeshua was not only well aware of the Jewish traditions of teaching – using short visual stories to convey a profound spiritual truth, but also the susceptibility of His audience to such teachings.
- D. A. Pryor, Behold the Man, Centre for Judaic Christian studies, 2005. P41.
Problems with Interpreting Yeshua’s Parables:
Dwight Prior gives three main reasons the Church has had problems in interpreting the parables of Yeshua:
- Lack of Hebraic mindset and knowledge of Jewish culture.
- ‘Spiritualising’ or trying to derive esoteric, allegorical meaning for the parable.
- Not understanding the context of the Galilean parables. Knowing the actual circumstances of the situations in which Yeshua taught particular parables.
- D. A. Pryor, Behold the Man, Centre for Judaic Christian studies, 2005. P43.
A fourth reason is that some theologians believe that Yeshua spoke in parables so that the crowd would not understand the spiritual truth! They attain this erroneous understanding from Matthew 13:10-11, where after telling the crowd the parable of the Sower and the Seed, a difficult parable to understand, Yeshua gave no explanation. This caused the disciples to ask Yeshua why He spoke in parables, He answered them saying: “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of Heaven, but to them it has not been granted”. What must be understood is that this narrative occurred at the end of Yeshua’s three years of ministry, and the people’s hearts were still hardened to the truth. Yeshua later clarifies His statement by saying that anyone who already has will be given more, and anyone who does not have will end up with nothing. The people had been given much, but only a few had opened their hearts to the truth, and to them more would be given.
That the Jews were able to interpret Yeshua’s parables with ease, is made clear when He tells the parable of the Wicked Tenants before a crowd that has a number of religious leaders. The parable is about a landowner who leases his vineyard out to tenant-farmers. When the owner tries to collect his rent, the servants he sends are beaten by the tenant-farmers, and when the landowner sends his son, believing that his son would be respected, the tenants kill his son (Matthew 21:33-46). The chief priests and Pharisees understood Yeshua’s words, and knew full well that they were the tenants in the parable (Matthew 21:45).
Parables were stories of familiar topics from their everyday lives to illustrate a spiritual, Kingdom reality to the people. Therefore, it is of great importance for us to understand the Jewish culture of the first century, to be able to correctly interpret the context of the parable. “With many similar parables Yeshua spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything” (Mark 4:33-34). The idea certainly seems to be, to make things as accessible as possible. Yeshua and his audience were all steeped in the Hebrew tradition of parables.
An extremely important statement made by Dwight Prior regarding the interpretation of Yeshua’s parables is: “One of the radical differences between the Hebraic world view of Jesus and our Western worldview is that the latter is fundamentally egocentric. Everything is related to “me” or “I”. Yeshua in His thinking was instinctively and without exception theocentric. Everything is about God” (1). I would like to expand on this statement by emphasizing that not only is Western interpretation of scripture egocentric, it is also tainted with a cultural bias. Greek philosophy has heavily influenced Western thought and so is relied upon when interpreting scripture. Therefore, our Western interpretation of parables has two interconnected flaws – egocentricity and cultural bias.
(1) D. A. Pryor, Behold the Man, Centre for Judaic Christian studies, 2005. P43.
“Prodigal Son” or “Merciful Father?”
Dwight Prior points out that the Western mind sees the well-known parable entitled the “prodigal son,” as a sinful young man – hence the title it has been given. However, this parable, in its original Jewish setting, as spoken to a Jewish audience, was actually a shocking story about a merciful father. In Luke 15:11-32, Yeshua immediately captures the attention of His audience when He opens His parable saying:
“There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them”.
To the modern ear, this does not mean much, but for the Jewish culture of the time it was deeply shocking, and would have captured the attention of the whole audience. Respect for parents at that time was of great importance for family structure, and required from all children. For a son to demand his inheritance from his father, was the same as wishing he was dead! An act that was incredibly insensitive and disrespectful, an act that would not only have rocked the family, but also the whole community. The fact that the older brother also accepts his share at this time is showing his flawed character as well, and hints at the challenge to arise at the end of the story.
The parable’s conclusion has the younger brother returning home after coming to his senses and repenting of his wayward behaviour. All the local inhabitants and neighbours witness the father’s great mercy towards his son, forgiving him of the insulting rejection of his loving care. All join in the happy reunion (except the older brother). The family unity is restored:
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate”.
The parable has a particular relevance to those who because of a tragedy in their lives, question their faith. In their struggle to rationalise their circumstances, they conclude that there is no God, as the atheist philosophy Nietzsche put it, to them “God is dead”. The message of God’s great love for us rings through the parable, that even when an individual turns their back on God, deriding Him and insulting Him, The Heavenly Father’s arms will always be open to restore the repentant individual.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31-32)
One of the possible practical reasons that Yeshua used parables, is that parables teach a concept or idea by using word pictures. By depicting concepts, the message is not as readily lost to changes in word usage, technology, cultural context, or the passage of time as easily as it might be with a literal detailed narrative. Two thousand years later, we can still understand concepts like sameness, growth, the presence of evil influence, etc. This approach also promotes practicing principles rather than inflexible adherence to laws. However, the parable still must be considered from the context of Galilean Jews. This is helpful when emphasis on a singular point is given, and repeated in multiple parables that are given consecutively on the same subject, as is the case with the Parable of the Mustard Seed.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed is contained in all three of the synoptic gospels. However, the Gospel of Matthew provides us with the most peripheral information, as it includes one parable before and after the mustard seed parable, each teaching on the same subject – the presence of evil in the Kingdom. The three parables are: the weeds among the wheat, the mustard seed, and the leaven in the dough, where evil is symbolized by weeds, birds of the air, and leaven respectively. The arrival of the Messiah announces the start of the Kingdom which exists in the realm of Satan. This means that the work of the Kingdom and those that do the work – Yeshua’s disciples – will be under attack by Satan. He will allow no good work of Yeshua to go unopposed. Satan’s goal is to contaminate, corrupt, and undermine the work of Yeshua. The cultural problem with these parables comes into play with the interpretation of the presence of evil.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31-32)
“The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
Yeshua uses a shrub/tree coming from a seed (see also John 12:24) to represent Kingdom growth (Ezekiel 17:23 and Daniel 4:11-21 [Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom]). So, the picture painted in the Parable of the Mustard Seed by Yeshua, is of the humble beginnings of the Church experiencing an explosive rate of growth. It grows large and becomes a source of food, rest, and shelter, for both believers and false professing individuals that seek to consume, or take advantage of its benefits while residing or mixing among what was produced by the seed (2 Corinthians 11:13; Galatians 1:7; Colossians 2:8). In Israel birds such as chicken, ducks, geese, partridge, pheasant, quail, pigeon, dove and house sparrow are kosher, representing true believers. While the rest of the birds – the majority – are not kosher, and represent the apostate church.
In other words, Yeshua predicts that, while the Church will grow extremely large from just a small start, it will not remain pure. While this is not a condemnation of the “bigness” of modern Christianity, it does show us the greatest burden that comes with it. The Parable of the Mustard Seed is both a prediction and a warning. May we listen to its message.
The Parable of the Tares and the Wheat (Matthew 13:24-30)
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds (Tares), is filled with spiritual significance and truth. But, in spite of the clear explanation of the parable that Yeshua gave (Matthew 13:36-43), this parable is very often misinterpreted. Many commentaries and sermons have attempted to use this story as an illustration of the condition of the Church, noting that there are both true believers (the wheat) and false professors (the weeds) in both the Church at large and individual local churches. While this may be true, Yeshua distinctly explains that the field is not the Church; it is the world (v. 38).
Even if He hadn’t specifically told us the world is the setting of the story, it would still be obvious. The landowner tells the servants not to pull up the weeds in the field, but to leave them until the end of the age. If the field were the Church, this command would directly contradict Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18:15-17, which tells us how to deal with unrepentant sinners in the Church – they are to be put out of the fellowship and treated as unbelievers. Jesus never instructed us to let unrepentant sinners remain in our midst until the end of the age. So, Jesus is teaching here about “the Kingdom of heaven” (v. 24) in the world.
In the agricultural society of Yeshua’s time, many farmers depended on the quality of their crops. An enemy sowing weeds would have sabotaged a farmer’s business. The tares in the parable were likely Darnel Ryegrass (Lolium Temulentum), because that weed until mature, appears as wheat. Without modern weed killers, what would a wise farmer do in such a dilemma? Instead of tearing out the wheat with the tares, the landowner in this parable wisely waited until the harvest. After harvesting the whole field, the tares could be separated and burned. The wheat would be saved in the barn.
In the explanation of this parable, Yeshua declares that He Himself is the sower. He spreads His redeemed seed, true believers, in the field of the world. Through His grace, these Christians bear the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-24). Their presence on earth is the reason the “Kingdom of heaven” is like the field of the world. When Yeshua said, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17), He meant the spiritual realm which exists on earth side by side with the realm of the evil one (1 John 5:19). When the kingdom of heaven comes to its fruition, heaven will be a reality and there will be no “weeds” among the “wheat.” But for now, both good and bad (counterfeit) seeds mature in the world.
The enemy in the parable is Satan. In opposition to Yeshua Messiah, the devil tries to destroy His work by placing false believers and teachers in the world who lead many astray. One has only to read about the latest televangelist scandal, or watch the charlatan prosperity preachers put on a show, to know the world is filled with professing “Christians,” whose ungodly actions bring reproach on the name of Christ. The master – Yeshua – will only judge these people when He returns at the end of the age, when angels will separate the true from false believers, for only in the harvest will purity be possible. Attempts to achieve it before then will prove disastrous – it will destroy the good with the bad.
The focus of the parable is on how to deal with the tares, and that one-day Yeshua Messiah will establish true righteousness. After He raptures the true Church out of this world, God will pour out His righteous wrath on the world during the seven years of Tribulation. There will be Tribulation saints who recognise the fulfilment of prophecy and believe. At the end of the Tribulation, all unbelievers will be judged for their sin and unbelief in the valley of Jehoshaphat; then, they will be removed from Jesus’ presence. The unbelievers will include the apostate church (tares), who Yeshua referred to in Matthew 7:21, when He said, “not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the Kingdom of heaven.” these apostates will claim to have served Yeshua, but He will say to them “I never knew you.” True followers of Yeshua will then reign with Him for a thousand years. What a glorious hope for the “wheat.”
The Parable of the Yeast and the Dough (Matthew 13:33)
“The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”
Leaven in this parable is not the Gospel, as leaven in the Bible is a symbol for evil – sin (Lev.2:11; Matt. 16:6-12; 1 Cor. 5:6-8). It represents false doctrine. Leaven, being a bit of sour dough, which when placed in new dough, the leaven spores multiply rapidly contaminating the whole lump. Because of this action, leaven in scripture is symbolic of sin and decay. Left to itself it will corrupt the whole batch of dough. The Gospel does not work that way, or the whole world would have been converted. The meal is not humanity; the meal does not come from the “tares” but from the wheat. Meal represents the “seed” of the word. The woman hid the leaven, why hide the Gospel? The woman represents a “false system”, she is the Jezebel of the fourth church (Thyatira), the leaven is false doctrine that infiltrates the Church such as image worship, legalism, justification by works, prosperity theology, church traditions, etc.
Leaven in both the Old and New Testaments is used to symbolise that which is evil, either in doctrine or practice. In the Old Testament leaven is seen as that which must be put away, an example would be the feast of Unleavened Bread, a part of the Passover feast which lasted for seven days (Exodus 23:14-15). The feast required the home to be swept clean of leavened bread. A little leaven leavened the whole batch; any sin allowed into our lives contaminates the whole being. Leaven produces fermentation within the bread which is the natural process of decay. So, bread baked during the Passover – called matzahs – was baked without leaven, and would be the only bread that could be eaten.
The New Testament clarifies the spiritual significance of leaven in five different ways:
- The leaven of Herod (Mk. 6:14-28; 8:15) – the spirit of worldliness.
- The leaven of the Sadducees (Matt.16:6-12) – the modernism of the church, i.e. miracles do not occur.
- The leaven of the Pharisees (Matt. 16:6-12; Mark 8:15) – hypocrisy.
- The leaven of Corinth (1 Cor. 5:6) – sensuality and pride.
- The leaven of Galatia (Gal. 5:9) – legalism.
The Galilee Kingdom of Heaven Parables
The three Kingdom of Heaven parables, are all set in the daily scenes of Galilee, and require an understanding of the culture of the time. The parable of The Mustard Tree, requires a knowledge of birds as being either kosher or none kosher, to be able to interpret the Kingdom of Heaven consisting of both true and false believers. The Tares among the Wheat, requires an understanding of a Galilean weed, that is similar in appearance to wheat. This allows the reader to interpret the parable as the true Church and the apostate church being in the field of the world. Then finally the leaven is false doctrine that is placed in the dough by a woman, representing a false system. So, all three Kingdom of Heaven parables warn of deception and apostacy entering into the Kingdom of God. Unfortunately, these parables have been subject to interpretation that ignores the cultural setting, resulting in the warning by Yeshua of the apostacy of the enemy within the Church being largely ignored.
Symbolic or Literal?
In following the teaching methods of His day, Yeshua used figurative language to relate common objects or concepts with Himself or His Kingdom. This was done to provide an imagery, so that His audience could better understand His character and purpose.
In interpreting scripture, context determines meaning. So, the Bible is to be taken literally, except where the context demands a figurative or symbolic interpretation. The apostle John for example records the seven great “I am” statements of Yeshua. Not only was Yeshua emphasizing that He was the Great “I am” that spoke to Moses, He was also using the seven statements to metaphorically reveal the different aspects of His character. He was Bread, Light, Door, Good Shepherd, Resurrection and Life, Way, Truth and Life, and the True Vine. The message is clear – abide in Yeshua and He will supply all your needs.
After the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, people were following Yeshua for the wrong reason, they wanted to be provided for, just as their ancestors were given manner from heaven. Yeshua uses this occasion to teach an important lesson saying “‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty’” (John 6:35). When the Jews began grumbling at Yeshua comparing Himself to manner, Yeshua went even further and said, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). Now in context, we can understand that Yeshua by calling Himself “bread of life,” was saying that, as bread sustains them physically, He would sustain them spiritually, and that eternal life could only be gained through Him.
There are two important points that must be noted from this narrative in John 6: Firstly, Yeshua is clearly contrasting the temporary benefits of the physical manner with the eternal benefits of life in the spirit. Then secondly, the narrative does not connect with the Lord’s supper, which Yeshua only institutes in the upper room, the evening before His crucifixion. Yet, despite these facts, the Catholic Church uses this scripture as evidence that the Eucharist (bread) is the actual body of Yeshua.
According to the Catholic Church the Eucharist is not just the body of Jesus, it is Jesus. The Catholic mass involves a priest having the power to change a sun disc shaped host (bread) into the “whole body” of Jesus – the Eucharist. This occurs when the priest utters the magic words hoc est corpus meus (hocus pocus). The change that takes place is not in the substance of the bread – for it is still bread – but rather in the mind of the Catholic, it has become the flesh of God.
During Mass the Priest’s “Eucharist Christ” is carried in a monstrance, a tower shaped vessel with a burst of sun rays around the glass encased Eucharist. As the monstrance procession passes, those in attendance bow and worship the Eucharist. At the end of the Mass, “the remaining hosts are placed in a tabernacle… to provide a focal point for prayer and worship of Christ and his real presence” (1).
So, grave errors can be made when wrongly interpreting the figurative language used by Yeshua. John Macarthur in his book Christ’s Prophetic Plan (2), gives three questions that should be asked when determining if scripture should be interpreted symbolically:
- Does it possess a degree of absurdity when taken literally?
- Does it possess a degree of clarity when taken symbolically?
- Does it fall into an established category of symbolic language?
When we apply these three criteria to the statement made by Yeshua in John 6, that He was the bread that came from heaven, we can agree that it has a degree of absurdity if taken literally. When the scripture is taken in context with the six other “I am” statements, and that the Jews of Galilee were looking for a continual miraculous provision of bread, the symbolism becomes clear. Finally, the category of symbolic language is easily seen as a metaphor, which again matches the use of six other “I am” metaphors. For the Roman Catholic Church to then interpret Yeshua’s statement as literal, is therefore not only poor hermeneutics, but an extremely dangerous error which has resulted in idol worship.
- (1) Questions and answers on the Eucharist, Pennsylvania Catholic conference, 2000 Harrisburg, PA, Catholic information Service Knights of Columbus Supreme Council. Emphasis added).
- (2) John Macarthur, Christ’s Prophetic Plan, Moody Publishers,2012. P132
- God uses the agrarian environment of Galilee to establish the Gospel story of Yeshua. Therefore, to interpret the Gospels correctly, there must be a sound understanding of the environment of Galilee and customs of the Galileans.
- Parables are not just a New Testament phenomenon, the use of parables is found in the Old Testament, and in Jewish literature from the inter-testament period.
- To the Hebrew mind, great spiritual truths are best conveyed, not in theological propositions, but in evocative stories. Indeed, the Old Testament is well remembered by us because much of it is narrative – it is a story!
- The Kingdom of Heaven parables, require a knowledge of the Galilean environment and the cultural practices of the Jews. To ignore the context of the Jewish environment of first century Galilee, will result in errors in interpreting the Gospels.
- A common Church error is ‘Spiritualising’ or trying to derive esoteric, allegorical meaning for the parable.
- In the Western worldview everything is related to “me” or “I”, while the thinking of Jesus was instinctively and without exception theocentric. Everything is about God.
- Yeshua use three parables as a warning of the reality of a contamination of the Kingdom by a counterfeit apostacy.
- In following the teaching methods of His day, Yeshua used figurative language to relate common objects or concepts with Himself, or His Kingdom.