• Scott Fairbanks

Prodigal Echoes 2

Updated: May 8, 2019


Ken Bailey's teaching on the prodigal son introduced me to how scripture tells and retells stories. According to Bailey, the pedigree of Luke 15 starts at Psalm 23. Here, the psalmist describes God as a good shepherd, who provides for the needs and desires of his sheep.

Bailey shows the roles of the shepherd and the sheep being recast in Jeremiah 23, Ezekiel 34, Zechariah 10. In these latter episodes, Israel's leaders are cast as bad shepherds.

In this tradition, Jesus retells the story casting himself as a good shepherd, who will leave the ninety-nine to seek out and restore a single lost sheep. He further explains that the shepherd, the woman with the lost coin, and the father of the prodigal are all pictures of him and the Father. Bailey was brilliant, his analysis was spot on.

Further influences:

However, I don't think he described all or even the primary allusion in this text. One of the prevalent recurring story-lines in scripture involves two brothers: one righteous, one errant.

-Cain brings a token offering, while Abel's offering is accepted.

- Esau marries Canaanite women, Jacob does not.

- Ishmael is the child who is conceived by human manipulation, Isaac is a child of promise.

- the prodigal and his brother in Luke 15

@JamesBejon convincingly showed that Gen 38 and 39 presents Judah and Joseph as foils. Like the earlier examples, they are brothers. Where Joseph is chaste and restrained, Judah is licentious and short tempered. Of the twelve sons of Jacob, Judah and Joseph are the two that the reader is asked to compare and contrast. When Judah persuades his brothers to sell Joseph to the Midianite traders, we should recall Cain striking down Abel in the field.

While Jesus told the parables in Luke 15 with Psalm 23 and its OT echoes in mind, he also weaved imagery from Gen 38 and 39 with Judah and Joseph.

The prodigal plays the role of Judah. Recall in Genesis 38 Judah traveled the road to Timnah, where he impregnated Tamar his daughter in law, thinking that she was a prostitute. In lieu of payment he left her his cord and ring as a pledge. Later Judah's friend returned to claim these implements of authority with a goat as payment. Tamar however, keeps the pledge until later when she shows pregnant. Intemperate Judah then calls for her death, at which point Tamar produces Judah's tokens. Judah then comes to himself. He realizes that his actions have caused the unfavorable situation. He sees that Tamar is the righteous one. The episode ends with a restoration, Tamar does not become Judah's wife, Judah does not have further relations with her. she is restored as a daughter.

These details all have strong resonances with the prodigal. Like Judah, circumstances drive the prodigal to a place where he must confront his depravity. He realizes that it is his actions that have driven him to his low station. He returns home. Like Judah the prodigal is presented with evidence of his father's commitment. The father shamelessly runs to him and embraces him and restores the prodigal. The ring and cord were forsaken by Judah, the father restores the ring and robe that were implicitly forsaken by the prodigal( tokens of authority @zugzwanged). Bailey makes the point that the prodigal's request at the start, amounted to wishing for his father's death. If so, then both Judah and the prodigal son wished death on the righteous family member.

The barb to the story is found in the presentation of the older brother. Like Joseph, the older brother is pious. He has kept the rules. Recall that Joseph was home alone with his father while his brothers were in Shechem and Dothan . This is also the image that the older brother paints. He has stayed with his father. The father in the prodigal story eveb says that the older brother was always with him.

Jacob asks Joseph to go find his brothers and he obeys. The prodigal's brother, however, disobeys the father, refusing to join his brother. This is how the story ends.

Jesus addresses this parable to the leaders of Israel. In Jesus retelling of this story, he displaces the leaders and casts himself as the shepherd/father. He casts the role of the silent and innocent Abel/Joseph figure with Israel's bad leaders. The rest of Israel is cast as the penitent younger brother. Is Israel's leadership ready to forsake their claims to righteousness like the younger brother and enjoy the banquet thrown by Jesus?

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