Short Stories by Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine

Short Stories by Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine

Author:Amy-Jill Levine [Levine, Amy-Jill]
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: HarperCollins
Published: 0101-01-01T00:00:00+00:00

A Little Bird Suggested . . .

The parable, however, has more than just seed and tree; it also has birds. Thus commentators, who cannot find mustard in the scriptures of Israel, go bird hunting. “Birds of the heaven” (Heb. of ha-shamayim; Gk. peteinoi tou oranou) fly through the Tanakh almost fifty times, starting as early as Genesis 1.26, where God states of humanity, “Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” To have a more convincing intertext, however, a connection between birds and trees is in order.

The connections do appear. Several times these same scriptures associate the birds with sheltering in trees, and the parable can be read in terms of any of these associations. Psalm 104.12, 16–17, the paean to divine greatness that begins, “Bless the LORD, O my soul,” affirms, “By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation; they sing among the branches. . . . The trees of the LORD are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted. In them the birds build their nests.” With this intertext, the parable hints not only of divine greatness, but also of humanity’s participation in that greatness even if we do not realize it.

However, it is not to the benevolent sheltering trees that commentators go in search of understanding the mustard seed. Instead, they go to Ezekiel 31 and Daniel 4, both of which associate birds and trees with fallen empires. Ezekiel, writing in the context of the Babylonian exile, advises: “Consider Assyria, a cedar of Lebanon, with fair branches and forest shade, and of great height, its top among the clouds. . . . All the birds of the air made their nests in its boughs; under its branches all the animals of the field gave birth to their young; and in its shade all great nations lived” (31.3, 6). Given that readers then, and now, knew that Assyria fell to Babylon—the empire that destroyed Ezekiel’s Jerusalem and took the prophet into exile—the tree’s demise is not unexpected: “Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: ‘Because it towered high and set its top among the clouds, and its heart was proud of its height, I gave it into the hand of the prince of the nations; he has dealt with it as its wickedness deserves. I have cast it out’” (31.10–11). Deserted by its human inhabitants, Assyria’s ruins are home only to the wild creatures: “On its fallen trunk settle all the birds of the air, and among its boughs lodge all the wild animals” (31.13).

Daniel echoes the prophecy. According to the story, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had dreamt of the cutting down of a tree “visible to the ends of the whole earth. . . . The animals of the field found shade under it, and the birds of the air nested in its branches, from it all living beings were fed” (4.


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