The Doom of the Green Tree
An Analysis of Luke 23:27-31
Reading the Gospels with Wisdom
November 28, 2020
Around the world over all of time, there may be no historical account that has received quite so much study and attention as that of Jesus of Nazareth's trial and crucifixion. This extraordinary event has come down the ages recorded in four forms, each with its own peculiar themes, style, impact, and riddles. Scholars and ministers have given nearly all of these features the most painstaking attention across the ages, but even so not all of these features have been given quite the same level of attention. In particular, Luke's account of Jesus' journey from His trial to the cross includes a short scene that has not gone unremarked but nonetheless has received less attention than almost anything else in the wider narrative.
In Luke 23:27-31, as He walked to His death, Jesus left in His wake a crowd of onlookers. Many of them were women, mourning for His tragic fate. However, amid their display, Jesus turned to them and spoke with authority. He warned them that they have a much worse fate to concern them than His own. The "daughters of Jerusalem" and their children were due their own tragedy, a tragedy so great that even the barren would seem fortunate. People would cry out for the hills and mountains to shield them to no avail. Finally, Jesus concluded with a cryptic saying: "For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?" (Luke 23:31).
What is the significance of this saying? Who are “they,” what did Jesus mean by His ominous remark, and what was Luke’s purpose in including it in his narrative? Perhaps most importantly, what does this episode reveal to those who read Scripture as a sacred word from God about His purposes and character? This paper will explore these questions throughout its remainder. In particular, it shall argue that Jesus’ cryptic saying in Luke 23:31 serves to link Jesus’ death with the fate He prophesied for Jerusalem and wider Israel, providing insight into God purposes in both events, Jesus’ identity and vocation, and the relation of this whole story with its Old Testament antecedents. Of first service to these claims is a verbal analysis of the text itself.
The Words of Jesus
The first step to understanding the strange saying of Jesus in Luke 23:31 is to understand what it actually says. Here it is worth including the whole quotation from Jesus:
Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, “Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.” Then they will begin to say to the mountains, “Fall on us”; and to the hills, “Cover us.” For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?’1
Much of the text is relatively straightforward. "Do not weep for me but for yourselves" has something of a prophetic/heroic character. Though Jesus was in great distress (indeed, no Gospel writer shows this more clearly than Luke does2), He stopped to speak a final warning over the following crowd, with special reference to the women. "Daughters of Jerusalem" may refer more specifically to the women of Jerusalem or, more generally, to all the women of Israel, but in this case, it probably makes little difference. The coming days of which Jesus spoke are almost certainly those of the Olivet Discourse in Luke 21, which covers a time of trouble for Jerusalem especially but expressed in terms of cosmic significance. This link is reinforced by the reference here to the good fortune of barren women, which corresponds to the woe for pregnant and nursing women in 21:23. Any catastrophe capable of desolating Jerusalem would almost inevitably wreak havoc on the rest of Israel. Even if it did not do so directly, the centrality of Jerusalem and the Temple to Israel's life would mean that a disaster for one would be a disaster for the other.
The next line about the hills and the mountains seems to be a reference to Hosea 10:8, a detail which will receive more attention later. For now, it suffices to say that the prophesied disaster will be so terrible that the people (at least poetically) will seek refuge, either by quick death or shelter, under the hills and mountains. At this point, the questionable saying begins. It starts with ὅτι, "for," which might indicate a connection in reason between this sentence and the preceding ones. However, the saying is sufficiently unique from the surrounding material that it may have its own language apart from the context (a possibility to be explored below). The rest of the saying is more interesting. It compares green (ὑγρῷ, "moist" or, by implication, "sappy") wood to dry wood, arguing from the case of the former to raise a question about the fate of the latter. The verb ποιέω used for the fate of the green word is in the third person plural, so that "they" do this, but the referent of "they" is ambiguous. By contrast, the fate of the dry wood has no agent attached. The question is simply "what will happen when it is dry?" (literally "in the dry"). This may allow for a difference in agency in each case, but it may also allow that the agency in the second is the same as the first.
Taking these factors all together, François Bovon in the Hermeneia commentary cites from Darrell Bock five possible readings of Jesus’ cryptic saying: it may compare (a) what the Romans are doing to the innocent Jesus with what they will do to the guilty Jews, (b) the Jewish treatment of Jesus with their own impending fate, (c) the sin of the human race against Jesus now against its potential future excess, (d) God’s treatment of Jesus with how He will treat rebellious Israel, or (e) nothing in particular, as it may just be a way of referring to the coming judgment without a more specific meaning.3 Bovon seems to have favored something of a mix of some f these, ascribing the agency of “they” to simply “the human agents of history” and the future event to ambiguous agency between divine intention and the humans who bring about Jerusalem’s fall.4 Not all commentators agree. Stein,5 Fitzmyer,6 and Calvin7 all favor some form of (d), whereas Nolland suspects (e).8 To discern the most likely reading, it will be necessary to analyze the historical, narratival, and canonical contexts surrounding the text.
Is there anything in the historical context behind Jesus' declaration on the way to the cross that might shed light on its meaning? There are in fact a few crumbs. In particular, two Jewish sources from the centuries surrounding Jesus (much further on one side than the other) contain sayings that seem to bear some relevance to His own words in Luke 23:31. First, apparently from around 150 BC, a midrash records Jose ben Joezer on his way to be unjustly crucified saying, "If this happens to those who do his will, what of those who offend him?"9 Comparing this with the text in Luke, the strong similarity in circumstance and the loose resemblance in form suggests that the meaning of two could very well be the same. In this case, Jesus' saying would be taken with the meaning, "If God will lead the innocent and righteous Jesus to suffering and death, how much more will He scourge unrighteous Jerusalem?"
A second source is much later but possibly still relevant. Bovon notes that the Seder Eliyahu Rabbah, written sometime before the tenth century AD, includes a proverb that says, “If the fire consumes the green wood, what will the dry wood do?”10 Though this writing is almost certainly from centuries after Jesus, it is interesting that it identifies the saying as a proverb. As a proverb, it must have been in circulation for an extended time before being written down as commonplace. The proverb’s context pertains to divine judgment on Israel, linking it to what is so far the most promising option for understanding Jesus’ saying. Since the language is so similar, the context imparts a clear meaning, and the proverb must have been in circulation for some time, this phrase deserves no little weight in judging the meaning of Jesus’ statement. Indeed, Bovon suggests on this basis that something like what Jesus said may have already been a Semitic proverb when He used it, and perhaps He had even used it on other occasions before His arrest.11
The historical data, then, is scarce but does seem to point in a specific direction. Though few parallels exist to Jesus' declaration about green and dry wood, those that do suggest the focus is on divine providence: its disastrous outworking in the life of a righteous man as a sign of its much deadlier coming result for the wicked. Whether the narrative and canonical contexts support this as well, and what this all communicates in the end, remains to be seen.
The Narrative Context in Luke
Regardless of any historical questions, Luke surely included the pericope in question in his Gospel for some particular reason suitable to the story he was telling. Of first consideration, then, is the immediate context. This account comes between Jesus’ trial and the crucifixion itself, on Jesus’ way to the cross. In the trial, Jesus was sentenced to death despite being recognized as innocent. Then the women following began to mourn Him, though the crowd of which they may have been to some extent associated called for His crucifixion. After the trip is Jesus’ interaction with the two criminals beside Him. Going a bit further behind, the Olivet Discourse and its dire predictions about Jerusalem stand out, and going further ahead, the fate which the women lament for Jesus gives way to resurrection.
There is also a verbal link to earlier in Luke. The only other occurrence of the word ξύλω for "wood" is in the previous chapter, v. 22:52. When Jesus was arrested, He spoke of the chief priests and the rest of the party as coming to take him "with swords and clubs as if [He] were a bandit." The word for "clubs" here is ξύλω, which is made more interesting by the mention of a "bandit." Immediately after Jesus' reference to wood in 23:31, He is crucified between two criminals. Though 22:52 uses ληστήν and 23:32 uses κακούργοι, that Mark and Matthew both use λησταί for the criminals is curious for whatever the harmonization is worth. Even apart from that additional information, both texts put criminality and wood close together, though neither of those appears much elsewhere in the Gospel. So there seems to be evidence that Jesus' arrest can help interpret His more cryptic saying on His way to the cross.
One more factor of the narrative context of Luke goes back to the beginning of his Gospel. Early on in Luke 2:36-38, the reader is introduced to the character of Anna. Anna the Prophetess, who was a widow and (presumably) childless, rejoiced over the infant Jesus and spoke about Him “to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” Jesus’ proverbial warning comes at a moment of tragic irony developed from this point. As an infant, Jesus was celebrated by a woman of Jerusalem as a harbinger of the city's redemption, and at His death, the women of Jerusalem mourn His fate, which He interprets to them as a sign of the city's destruction.
Taking all these aspects of narrative context together, they seem to partially corroborate the initial conclusions from the historical context. Luke 23:31 comes only after Jesus has prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem, Pilate has judged Him innocent, and He has been handed over to death. Whether one takes ὑγρός as "wet" or "green" (that is, living) in this case, Jesus seems to fit Himself. He is wet wood since, being innocent of all charges made against Him for which He might rightly be punished, He is not the material one would expect to be consumed by judgment. He is living, green wood since, being innocent, righteous, and young, He is not at all the type of limb one would ordinarily cut off and throw into the fire. This contrasts with Jerusalem, especially the religious leaders who have put Him to death unjustly. They will suffer a much more terrible fate, for they are dry wood, as hinted in v. 22:52. For they came to arrest Him with ξύλω as though He were an insurrectionist. The irony is that they are the insurrectionists; they demanded the release of one of their own from Pilate in vv. 18-25, and their revolutionary inclinations will ultimately be what dry them up for a final conflagration when Jesus' prophesies are fulfilled.
The narrative context of Luke 23:27-31, then, indicates that Jesus’ cryptic remark about the green and the dry wood does specifically compare the fates of Himself and Jerusalem. If Jesus’ life is to end in such a disaster despite being innocent, zealous for God, and still young, what more will happen to Jerusalem in its guilt, antipathy, and decrepit state?12 Nonetheless, while this brings some clarity, the agency is still unclear. To whom does the third person plural form of ποιέω refer? It is possible given the evidence so far to read the referent as the Romans, the human agents common to both disasters, or as God, in His providence governing calamity and punishments.13 Some aspects of the historical context above seem to point in the divine direction, as perhaps does the Olivet Discourse’s handling of Jerusalem’s fate, but to finish fully developing the matter will require an analysis of the canonical intertextuality in play.
Luke the Evangelist, the historical Jesus, and Jesus as He is portrayed in Luke’s Gospel all had in common a high regard for the Jewish Scriptures. Quite probably, then, the saying of Jesus in Luke 23:31 does not come ex nihilo but intentionally recalls or alludes to texts of similar language or subject matter in the Old Testament. In these Scriptures, fire imagery corresponds very frequently to divine judgment. On many occasions, particularly in the prophets, God or the prophet describes future judgments in terms of setting a tree, or wood, on fire.14 Sometimes the speaker will heighten the effect specifically by referring to green wood. For example, in Jeremiah 11:16, Jeremiah declares, “The Lord once called you, ‘A green olive tree, fair with goodly fruit’; but with the roar of a great tempest he will set fire to it, and its branches will be consumed.”
Many of these cases flow from a much broader association of the people of God with the image of a tree. Israel, and sometimes specifically its ruler, as a tree, vine, or branch is a common motif throughout the biblical prophets.15 This common pattern seems quite applicable to the passage in question. A symbol which can apply either to a ruler or the whole people works well with the suggestion that Jesus, crucified as King of the Jews, compares His own fate with Israel’s.
Each of these points contributes to the meaning of Luke 23:31. The association of fiery judgment consuming wood is almost exclusively used of divine wrath. This indicates that its implied use in the text does indeed attribute the agency to God, as the historical parallel also suggested. It is certainly not impossible, of course, that there is more to say, and that the ambiguous agency is quite intentional,16 but the divine agency seems to be the most pertinent. However, attributing the agency to God does raise questions about Jesus' role. In this case, the observation about the link of a tree or vine with Israel or her ruler will be relevant.
Both Jesus and Jerusalem in this reading are subjects of divine judgment or, at least, divine misfortune. Yet Jesus is innocent, so this seems odd at first glance. Nolland comments about this:
Jesus does not consider himself to be a natural object of the disaster that he senses is soon to engulf his people as a judgment upon their sins, but he goes to the cross at his Father’s bidding and as his destined mode of participation in that wider impending disaster.17
To understand this a little better, the convertibility between the people and their king under the same symbols is important. Luke wants the reader to see that Jesus is here serving as the King of Israel. He is the Ruler, the Head, and His fate is bound up with hers. Though He is not guilty as she is, He takes responsibility for her crimes and goes into the fire while still green so that she might not be fully destroyed "in the dry."
On this last point, a good reading must take into account that most of the prophetic works against Israel do not end in despair but hope. God usually promises restoration or forgiveness. There is undoubtedly a difference when Jesus’ warning comes against Jerusalem. He speaks with more finality, as the last prophet.18 Even so, there is a sliver of hope. If Luke intended the reader to connect the fates of Jesus and Jerusalem, he could hardly have stopped this at death when the Gospel ends in resurrection. Just as Jesus was raised after His crucifixion, so also would the people of God be raised after Him. As the continuation of the story into Acts makes clear, however, the new life of the people of God will not be the experience of the whole of Israel, but rather of those who, like the criminal crucified beside Jesus to whom He promised paradise, only those who recognize Him for who He is.
This note of hope is nonetheless not pronounced in context. The accent here is certainly on the bleak and dire circumstances coming for the people as a whole. If a few survive as God's people through Jesus and His resurrection, this is good, but the woe and warning are the focus. Jesus lamented the fate of His people and their great city.19 Unlike the parallels in the biblical prophets, Jesus’ prophecy spells the absolute end for Israel as the nation she has been for centuries. When the barren are the fortunate and nursing brings woe, the future is cut off.
At this point, a fairly complete and convincing picture of the significance of Luke 23:27-31 in its context has emerged. Jesus predicted dire judgment on Jerusalem on His way to the cross, and He uttered a cryptic proverb emphasizing their shared doom. From its basic grammar, the historical context, the wider narrative in Luke, and the canonical background, this proverb takes shape as a way of linking the fates of Jesus and Israel under God's providence. If God was willing to see Jesus, who appears here as an innocent man and Israel's King, beaten and murdered as an insurrectionist, how much worse a fate will behalf Jerusalem who has grown old and dry in guilt? The logic establishes a relationship between Jesus and His people as those whom He represents and for whom He goes ahead into the fire, subtly points at hope for at least His own followers beyond disaster, and firmly plants the whole sequence of events in the scheme of divine providence. The reader should see in Jesus a true King, the one Israel needed but did not deserve, first unto death and first unto life, and in Jerusalem a city justly deserving of divine fury yet still pitiable for the sake of its loving Leader who let even His last journey to unjust cruelty be an occasion for warning her.
Bovon, François. Luke 3: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 19:28–24:53. Hermeneia Commentary Series. Translated by James Crouch. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012. Logos Bible Software.
Calvin, John. Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Calvin’s Commentaries. Translated by William Pringle. Bellingham, WA: Faithlife Corp, 2010. Logos Bible Software.
Fitzmyer, Joseph A. Gospel according to Luke X–XXIV: Introduction, Translation and Notes. AYBC 28A. New York, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1985. Logos Bible Software.
Marshall, I. Howard. The Gospel of Luke. NIGCT. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1978. Logos Bible Software.
Nolland, John. Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 35C: Luke 18:35–24:53. WBC 35C. Edited by Bruce Metzger et al. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2018. Logos Bible Software.
Stein, Robert H. Luke: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture. NAC 24. Broadman & Holman Publishers: 1992. Logos Bible Software.
1 Luke 23:29b-31
2 Luke 22:39-46, particularly if vv. 43-44 is accepted.
3 François Bovon, Luke 3: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 19:28–24:53, HCS, trans James Crouch (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), Logos Bible Software, commentary on Luke 23:31.
5 Robert H. Stein, Luke: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, NAC 24 (Broadman & Holman Publishers: 1992), Logos Bible Software, commentary on Luke 23:31.
6 Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Gospel according to Luke X–XXIV: Introduction, Translation and Notes, AYBC 28A, (New York, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1985), Logos Bible Software, commentary on Luke 23:31.
7 John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, CC, trans William Pringle, (Bellingham, WA: Faithlife Corp, 2010), Logos Bible Software, commentary on Luke 23:31.
8 John Nolland, Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 35C: Luke 18:35–24:53, WBC 35C, ed. Bruce Metzger et al, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2018), Logos Bible Software, commentary on Luke 23:31.
9 I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, NIGCT, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1978). Logos Bible Software, commentary on Luke 23:31.
10 Bovon, Luke 3, commentary on Luke 23:31.
12 Cf. Bovon, Luke 3, commentary on Luke 23:31, “Jesus, still young and alive, compares himself with the green wood; Jerusalem, ancient, dry, and hardened, with dry wood.”
13 With respect to God, it is noteworthy that in Luke sometimes the third person plural does seem to be used as divine circumlocution, see Stein, Luke, commentary on Luke 23:31.
14 E.g. Isa 10:16-19, Ezek 15:6-7, 20:47, 24:9-10.
15 Isa 5:1-5, 17:4-6, 53:2, 65:22, Ezek 15.
16 It is not hard to imagine that the Romans could be in view, for Jesus to say that if they kill Him though He is innocent of insurrection, they will do much worse to the nation if the nation rebels, but given the weight of evidence for divine agency in general, this seems either not the actual meaning or, perhaps, an intentional secondary understanding. Though in this paper the author wishes to uphold a more specific position as the best way to read the saying, there is something to be said for Nolland’s view: “It is likely that each of these suggestions is overly precise in its attempt to decode the terms used in the proverb,” Nolland, WBC Luke, commentary on 23:31.
18 See, for example, the parable of the tenants.
19 Cf. Luke 13:34.