For if They Do These Things in a Green Tree, What Shall Be Done in the Dry?

Luke 23:31: “For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?” 

This is an excellent example of a verse that is almost unintelligible in the Greek in which it has been preserved.  It makes much more sense when translated back into Hebrew.  Every first century sage in Israel taught the Biblical text in Hebrew to our knowledge, but many also spoke Aramaic and Greek.

The Greek text reads, literally “if they do these things in a green tree….”  To “do in (someone)” is a Hebrew idiom which means literally “do to (someone),” and it is this idiom that has confused our English Bible translators.

In this passage Jesus is employing another hint or “remez/kesher connection” and referring to the “Green Tree” and “Dry Tree” mentioned in Ezekiel’s prophecy against Jerusalem and it’s temple (Ezekiel 20:45-21:7).  Allegorically, the “Green Tree” is the righteous, and the “Dry Tree” is the wicked.  Ezekiel is referring to a forest fire in the Negeb (southern Israel) that is so intense it even burns up the green trees.

Jesus is heartbroken for the people the same way Ezekiel was heartbroken:

“Sigh therefore, son of man, Sigh before them with broken heart and bitter grief.  And when they ask you, “Why are you sighing?”  Answer, “Because of the tidings which will come.  Every heart will melt and every hand go limp; every spirit will faint and all knees turn to water.  It is coming!  It will come to pass!” (Ezekiel 21:6-7).

Many scholars believe that Jesus was warning the people what would soon happen at the hands of the Romans.  The women in the passage were weeping for what was happening to Jesus at the time, but if they were aware of the coming Roman occupation, they would have been much more concerned about themselves it seems.

Jesus says, “don’t weep for me,” instead, “weep for yourselves.”  In other words, if this is done to the “Green Tree” of Ezekiel (i.e., Jesus), what will happen to the “Dry Trees” (i.e., the less than righteous)?  The dry trees will face the same fate at the hands of the Romans, and perhaps worse.

One thing I found fascinating when I started to learn about the historical and cultural background of the Bible is that Jesus often gave very subtle hints to his messianic identity.  He doesn’t come right out and say, “I am Messiah,” we we expect; instead he hints at it in very rabbinic ways.  In this instance he hints at a passage in Ezekiel, which was understood to contain a reference to the coming Messiah.  In this passage in Luke 23 Jesus refers to himself as the “Green Tree” of Ezekiel 20:47 — a very subtle yet clear messianic claim.

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