Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Fleeing Wrath, Burning Rubble, and Turning Around

What follows is a rough translation and some interpretive notes for Luke 3:7-18, the Revised Common Lectionary gospel reading for the 3rdSunday of Advent. I am approaching this translation with an agenda, so I want to put it out there plainly. It is my contention that, too often, when we read Scriptures that speak of ‘fire’ and ‘wrath’ that we slip into a kind of conditioned way of thinking that it is God’s anger that is at hand and hell’s fire that is the ensuing punishment. In some cases, that may be an entirely warranted reading of the text. But, my argument is that we assume too quickly that in every case that there is wrath or fire we read it as a “Turn or burn” kind of threatening text. It seems to me that we’ve also pigeonholed John the Baptizer into this kind of character, interpreting his ascetic clothing and lifestyle as a “wild man” who screams and hollers and, for reasons odd and scary, attracts a crowd. 

I am approaching this text differently and deliberately to challenge that caricature of John. No doubt I will be guilty of reading too much or too little into it, but at least I’m trying to be aware of the interpretive lens that I am wearing. It is not anger, fire, or damnation in itself that I am arguing against, but the way that we’ve conditioned our reading to see damnation in every reference to anger and fire. 

Your comments are always welcomed. 

Luke 3:7-18
7  Ἔλεγεν οὖν τοῖς ἐκπορευομένοις ὄχλοις βαπτισθῆναι ὑπ' αὐτοῦ, Γεννήματα ἐχιδνῶν, τίς ὑπέδειξεν ὑμῖν φυγεῖν ἀπὸ τῆς μελλούσης ὀργῆς;
Therefore he was saying to the crowds that were going out to be baptized by him, “Spawn of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 
Ἔλεγεν: IAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἐκπορευομένοις: PMPart dpm, ἐκπορεύομαι, 1) to go forth, go out, depart
βαπτισθῆναι: APInf, βαπτίζω, 1) to dip repeatedly, to immerse, to submerge (of vessels sunk)  2) to cleanse by dipping or submerging, to wash, to make clean  with water, to wash one's self, bathe
ὑπέδειξεν: AAI 3s, ὑποδείκνυμι 1) to show by placing under (i.e. before) the eyes  2) to show by words and arguments, i.e. to teach
φυγεῖν: AAInf, φεύγω, 1) to flee away, seek safety by flight 
1. Verses 7-9 are rough, with very strong language. However, the tone changes in vv.10ff. In fact, John’s encouragements to the various sectors among the crowd are very practical. 
2. Interestingly, Matthew has Jesus use the phrase “viper spawn” twice, in 12:34 and 23:33.  It’s a strong phrase, because it points to the ongoing nature of destructive behavior, which is both inherited and passed down from generation to generation. I find this to be insightful language about how evil works, much better than simply vilifying a single viper. 
3. We notice that “the wrath” is a coming wrath, but there is no agency. John does not say that it is God’s wrath. Another possibility – and this is only to suggest thinking about it broadly – could be that Luke the Writer and John the Baptizer are separated by the destruction of the temple and a significant part of Jerusalem, as well as the decisive quashing of a rebellion, between 66 -70CE. While it was history for Luke (whom, we suppose, was writing around 85 CE), this could be a reference to that awful event as the “wrath to come” from the perspective of John the Baptizer. 
4. The location of the Jordan River may signify a crossing point to flee from one place to safety.  

ποιήσατε οὖν καρποὺς ἀξίους τῆς μετανοίας: καὶ μὴ ἄρξησθε λέγειν ἐν ἑαυτοῖς, Πατέρα ἔχομεν τὸν Ἀβραάμ, λέγω γὰρ ὑμῖν ὅτι δύναται  θεὸς ἐκ τῶν λίθων τούτων ἐγεῖραι τέκνα τῷ Ἀβραάμ. 
Therefore bear fruit worthy of repentance; and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham Father,’ for I say to you that God is able out of these stones to raise up children of Abraham.  
ποιήσατε: AAImpv 2p, ποιέω, 1) to make  1a) with the names of things made, to produce, construct,  form, fashion, etc.
ἄρξησθε: AMSubj 2p, ἄρχω, 1) to be chief, to lead, to rule 
λέγειν: PAInf, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἔχομεν: PAI 1p, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
δύναται: PMI 3s, δύναμαι, 1) to be able, have power
ἐγεῖραι: AAInf, ἐγείρω, 1) to arouse, cause to rise
1. The practical edge begins here, but first John has some polemical work to do. It strikes me that one of the extended theological conversations (or arguments) in the Old Testament is whether God’s covenant with Abraham is an entitlement or a calling. (I’m using ‘entitlement’ in the best sense, because I think it is stupid that it has become a term of derision in the political sphere.) To simplify: Some voices seem to emphasize that Abraham’s children are the elect, the chosen ones. Others seem to emphasize that to be chosen means to be poured out for the good of the whole world. The two are not necessarily exclusive, but it does seem to be a common prophetic refrain that being God’s chosen people requires faithful response and not just a reliance on God’s faithfulness. John declares that the crowd is more an offspring of vipers than an offspring of Abraham. 

ἤδη δὲ καὶ  ἀξίνη πρὸς τὴν ῥίζαν τῶν δένδρων κεῖται: πᾶν οὖν δένδρον μὴ ποιοῦν καρπὸν καλὸν ἐκκόπτεται καὶ εἰς πῦρ βάλλεται.
Yet even now the axe to the root of the trees is laid; therefore every tree not bearing good fruit is cut down and is thrown into fire.” 
κεῖται: PMI 3s, κεῖμαι, 1) to lie 
ποιοῦν: PAPart nsm, ποιέω, 1) to make  1a) with the names of things made, to produce, construct,  form, fashion, etc.
ἐκκόπτεται: PPI 3s, ἐκκόπτω, 1) to cut out, cut off  1a) of a tree 
βάλλεται: PPI 3s, βάλλω, 1) to throw or let go of a thing without caring where it falls
1. John has not attributed either “the wrath” in v.8 or “the axe” in v.10 to God. There is nothing necessarily violent about of a farmer cutting down a barren or soured tree and burning it, particularly if it might cross-pollenate with good fruit-bearing trees. This is a way of protecting the good trees and ensuring good fruit. 
2. However, the context is set with the language of “brood of vipers” and “wrath,” so this may well be John’s way of interpreting history and assigning guilt for the tragedy that Israel experienced. 

10 Καὶ ἐπηρώτων αὐτὸν οἱ ὄχλοι λέγοντες, Τί οὖν ποιήσωμεν; 
And the crowds were questioning him, saying, “Then what shall we do?”
ἐπηρώτων: IAI 3p, ἐπερωτάω, 1) to accost one with an enquiry, put a question to, enquiry of,  ask, interrogate
λέγοντες: PAPart npm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ποιήσωμεν: AASubj 1p, ποιέω, 1) to make  1a) with the names of things made, to produce, construct,  form, fashion, etc.
1. The verb ἐπηρώτων can mean to question, inquire or interrogate. That is, it can have a challenging edge to it. But, in this case, it seems that the crowd is not challenging but responding. The question asks, “What shall we do to bear fruit worthy of repentance?” 
2. There are three groups who ask questions: The crowds, the tax collectors, and the soldiers. To each, ‘bearing fruit worthy of repentance’ means something a little different. 

11 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ἔλεγεν αὐτοῖς,  ἔχων δύο χιτῶνας μεταδότω τῷ μὴ ἔχοντι, καὶ  ἔχων βρώματα ὁμοίως ποιείτω. 
Yet answering he was saying to them, “Whoever has two coats give to the one who does not have, and whoever has food do likewise. 
ἀποκριθεὶς: APPart nsm, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer
ἔλεγεν: IAI 3s,  λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἔχων: PAPart nsm, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold
μεταδότω: AAImpv 3s, μεταδίδωμι, 1) to impart
ἔχοντι: PAPart dsm, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold
ἔχων: PAPart nsm, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold
ποιείτω: PAImpv 3s, ποιέω, 1) to make  1a) with the names of things made, to produce, construct,  form, fashion, etc.
1. For the crowds, ‘bearing fruit worthy of repentance’ involves radically sharing resources with those who are poor. 
2. This answer seems to change the direction of this fiery sermon. After all of the harsh language of vv.7-9, language of guilt and wrath, the answer to the question of “What shall we do?” is to share one’s food and clothing. You could argue backwards and derive that the guilt that invokes wrath is the misdistribution of basic needs, the tendency of some to hoard while others are deprived. 

12 ἦλθον δὲ καὶ τελῶναι βαπτισθῆναι καὶ εἶπαν πρὸς αὐτόν, Διδάσκαλε, τί 
Yet tax collectors came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 
ἦλθον: AAI 3p, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come  1a) of persons 
βαπτισθῆναι: API 3p,βαπτίζω, 1) to dip repeatedly, to immerse, to submerge (of vessels sunk)  2) to cleanse by dipping or submerging, to wash, to make clean  with water, to wash one's self, bathe 
εἶπαν: AAI 3p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ποιήσωμεν: AASubj 1p, ποιέω, 1) to make  1a) with the names of things made, to produce, construct,  form, fashion, etc
1. The assumptions about tax collectors are fairly well-known. They paid an amount to the government, and had some authority/ability to exact more than that amount from the people, enriching themselves. They are noted occasionally as among the more notorious of sinners, and Jesus is criticized for eating with them. Yet, they, too, came to be baptized by John. And they, too, are asking what to do to bear fruit worthy of repentance. 

13  δὲ εἶπεν πρὸς αὐτούς, Μηδὲν πλέον παρὰ τὸ διατεταγμένον ὑμῖν πράσσετε. 
Yet he said to them, “Do not transact more than what is prescribed for you.” 
εἶπεν: AAI 3p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
διατεταγμένον: PerfPPart asn, διατάσσω, 1) to arrange, appoint, ordain, prescribe, give order
πράσσετε: PAImpv 2p, πράσσω, 1) to exercise, practise, to be busy with, carry on
1. For the tax collectors, who had the power of exploiting, fairness and restraint is how one bears fruit worthy of repentance. Again, it’s a prescription that addresses the material conditions that disempowered people face. 

14 ἐπηρώτων δὲ αὐτὸν καὶ στρατευόμενοι λέγοντες, Τί ποιήσωμεν καὶ ἡμεῖς; καὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Μηδένα διασείσητε μηδὲ συκοφαντήσητε, καὶ ἀρκεῖσθε τοῖς 
ὀψωνίοις ὑμῶν.
Yet even those who were soldiering were questioning him saying, “What shall we do as well?” And he said to them, “You shall not extort or accuse wrongly, and be content in your wages.” 
ἐπηρώτων: IAI 3p, ἐπερωτάω, 1) to accost one with an enquiry, put a question to, enquiry of,  ask, interrogate
στρατευόμενοι: PMPart npm, στρατεύομαι, 1) to make a military expedition, to lead soldiers to war or to  battle, (spoken of a commander)  2) to do military duty, be on active service, be a soldier
λέγοντες: PAPart npm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ποιήσωμεν: AASubj 1p, ποιέω, 1) to make  1a) with the names of things made, to produce, construct,  form, fashion, etc
εἶπεν: AAI 3p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
διασείσητε: AASubj 2p, διασείω, 1) to shake thoroughly  2) to make to tremble  3) to terrify  4) to agitate  5) to extort from one by intimidation money or other property
συκοφαντήσητε: AASubj 2p, συκοφαντέω, 1) to accuse wrongfully, to calumniate, to attack by malicious devices
ἀρκεῖσθε: PPImpv 2p, ἀρκέω, 1) to be possessed of unfailing strength  1a) to be strong, to suffice, to be enough  1a1) to defend, ward off  1b) to be satisfied, to be contented 
1. This is quite a statement! My assumption would be that these are not Gentile Roman soldiers, but conscripted Jewish soldiers (still under the critique of assuming an inheritance from Abraham). As a reader pointed out in 2015, here is an article suggesting that there were more Jewish soldiers serving the Empire than previously thought:
I am not a historian or archeologist, so I cannot say one way or another about the circumstances under which a Jew might serve in Rome’s army. It must, however, have been a source of tension. One legend is that soldiers who joined the Roman Legion (I don’t know if this is true of conscripts) would drink wine as a way of pledging their own blood to the Empire – an act that rubs against the Shema, “The Lord your God is God alone.” Even if that legend is overblown, the Empire did exercise discipline and demand total allegiance. For soldiers to turn to the prophet in the wilderness and ask, “What shall we do?” may be an act of treason. What if John said, “Kill your Generals”? They had no idea what the answer would be, but by asking the question they are expressing a loyalty other than Rome and opening themselves to any number of possible answers.  
2. John’s answer seems rather tame, compared to what one might say to soldiers during an imperial occupation. John could have urged them to revolt. It challenges our ‘wild-eyed’ view of John that his response was much more measured than that. And it seems to demonstrate that John is not aiming to overthrow the Empire as much as to demonstrate how to be faithful under an empire. (IMHO, that is an ongoing question throughout the Scriptures, with answers varying from Joseph’s ‘play along to get along’ to Esther’s ‘enough is enough’ to Daniel’s ‘non-conformity.’)
3. Some of these terms are kind of fun. The verb διασείω, which I translate as "extort," means "to shake." I assume that might be why extortion is sometimes called a "shake down." And if you sound out "συκοφαντέω," which I translate as "accuse wrongly," it sounds like sycophant, a flattering, obsequious minion.  

15 Προσδοκῶντος δὲ τοῦ λαοῦ καὶ διαλογιζομένων πάντων ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις αὐτῶν περὶ τοῦ Ἰωάννου, μήποτε αὐτὸς εἴη  Χριστός, 
Yet while all the people were anticipating and deliberating in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 
Προσδοκῶντος: PAPart gsm, προσδοκάω, 1) to expect (whether in thought, in hope, or in fear)  2) to look for, wait for
διαλογιζομένων: PMPart gpm, διαλογίζομαι, 1) to bring together different reasons, to reckon up the  reasons, to reason, revolve in one's mind, deliberate 
εἴη: PAOptative 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. Hey, it’s the optative mood (the verb εἴη)! That is a rarely used mood that suggests hopeful or wishful thinking. 
2. Verses like this imply that there was, in 1stcentury Israel, an expectation of a messiah/Christ. John’s preaching seems to be the kind of voice that many expected from the coming one.

16 ἀπεκρίνατο λέγων πᾶσιν  Ἰωάννης, Ἐγὼ μὲν ὕδατι βαπτίζω ὑμᾶς: ἔρχεται δὲ  
ἰσχυρότερός μου, οὗ οὐκ εἰμὶ ἱκανὸς λῦσαι τὸν ἱμάντα τῶν ὑποδημάτων αὐτοῦ: 
αὐτὸς ὑμᾶς βαπτίσει ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ καὶ πυρί: 
John answered saying to all, “I am baptizing in water; yet the one mightier than me is coming, the laces of whose sandals I am not worthy to loose; he will baptize you in a holy spirit and fire;
ἀπεκρίνατο: AMI 3s, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer
λέγων: PAPart nsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
βαπτίζω: PAI 1s, βαπτίζω, 1) to dip repeatedly, to immerse, to submerge (of vessels sunk)  2) to cleanse by dipping or submerging, to wash, to make clean  with water, to wash one's self, bathe 
ἔρχεται: PMI 3s, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come  1a) of persons
λῦσαι: AAInf, λύω, 1) to loose any person (or thing) tied or fastened
βαπτίσει: FAI 3s, βαπτίζω, 1) to dip repeatedly, to immerse, to submerge (of vessels sunk)  2) to cleanse by dipping or submerging, to wash, to make clean  with water, to wash one's self, bathe 
1. It’s curious that John uses the adjective “mightier/stronger” to describe the coming one. 
2. This is the second reference to fire and it seems to be a refining fire, rather than a punitive one. 
3. “holy spirit” is a dative clause without a definite article. Hence, “a holy spirit.” 
4. John’s water baptism is a curious thing to me. What did it mean? Why were people so attracted to this act? Is there a historical basis for it that gives it meaning? Any historical reference that I’ve ever seen seems rather tenuous and vague for its meaning. Of course, since baptism is a sacrament of the church, we assume that it has sacramental meaning in this text. But, it is subordinated to baptism/bathing in a holy spirit, which is what the coming will do. (For many reasons, I think the ‘doctrine of baptism’ is multivalent throughout the New Testament.) 

17 οὗ τὸ πτύον ἐν τῇ χειρὶ αὐτοῦ διακαθᾶραι τὴν ἅλωνα αὐτοῦ καὶ συναγαγεῖν τὸν 
σῖτον εἰς τὴν ἀποθήκην αὐτοῦ, τὸ δὲ ἄχυρον κατακαύσει πυρὶ ἀσβέστῳ. 
for whom the winnowing basket [no verb here; supply ‘is’] in his hand to cleanse his floor and to gather the wheat into his granary, but to burn up the chaff in asbestos fire.” 
διακαθᾶραι: AAInf, διακαθαρίζω, 1) purge thoroughly. 
συναγαγεῖν: AAInf, συνάγω, 1) to gather together, to gather
κατακαύσει: FAI 3s, κατακαίω, 1) to burn up, consume by fire 
1. πτύον is defined as a “winnowing shovel,” which could be a basket-like or a rake-like tool, used to toss the wheat into the air, letting the wind blow the chaff while the heavier grain falls back down into a pile. What follows is to gather the grain and then sweep up the chaff. 
2. δια/καθᾶραι, is a combination of the root καθαρίζω (cleanse, catharsis) with the prefix διά (through) to make like a thorough cleansing. 
3. The excellent web site,, describes the “asbestos” fire this way: “In Homer the word is applied to undying fame, prolonged laughter, the incessant roar of the ocean, and indefatigable strength. So in the Prophets, it is used of a fire that has gone out, but which could not be put out until it had consumed all that on which it fed...” 
4. Here is the 3rdreference to fire in this pericope. This one is intensive, asbestos fire. But, again, it is not violent imagery in itself. Burning chaff is not something one does yelling, “Take that!”  It is simply part of the process, like burning unproductive trees. 

18 Πολλὰ μὲν οὖν καὶ ἕτερα παρακαλῶν εὐηγγελίζετο τὸν λαόν:
Therefore while indeed encouraging many other things he evangelized the people. 
παρακαλῶν: PAPart nsm, παρακαλέω, 1) to call to one's side, call for, summon  2) to address, speak to, (call to, call upon), which may be done in  the way of exhortation, entreaty, comfort, instruction, etc.  2a) to admonish, exhort  2b) to beg, entreat, beseech  2b1) to strive to appease by entreaty  2c) to console, to encourage and strengthen by consolation, to  comfort 
εὐηγγελίζετο: IMI 3s, εὐαγγελίζω, 1) to bring good news, to announce glad tidings
1. The verbs παρακαλέω and εὐαγγελίζω can be very positive words. παρακαλέω particularly is the verbal form of the noun “paraclete” that John uses to describe “the comforter” whom Jesus will send to his followers after his death and resurrection. The tone of this verse seems quite different from the opening line from John, “You vipers’ spawn!” 


  1. If you tuned into this post before midday on Tuesday, please know that I have corrected one of the very obvious errors. I know that the writer of the Gospel of Luke should be called "Luke" and not "John," but sometimes I do things like that. Sorry.

  2. Great work on this text.

    Do you see a connection to spawn of vipers and generation of Abraham? Does Genesis 3 shed light? Original sin? Virgin birth?

  3. All good questions. I'm intrigued by whether Luke is connecting viper spawnage with the serpent of Gen.3 or with being "children of Abraham." I hadn't thought about the virgin birth angle, especially since I've thought it was a Middle Ages concept to interpret the v.b. in terms of sin being inherited from the father.
    I'm not quite at the point of saying that the connections are warranted by the text, except perhaps the contrast between Ab's offspring and viper offspring. But, my, they are suggestive and intriguing.

  4. (Hi, this is Victoria Gaile. The "Name/URL" option seems to have disappeared from your comment form.)

    "The verb ἐπηρώτων can mean to question, inquire or interrogate."

    Your description of this verb made me think of two things. First, it sounds like the verb that might be used to describe traditional rabbinical debate, as when Jesus is challenged throughout his public ministry. Is it?

    But more relevant to this passage, thinking myself into the place of the crowd, a crowd gathered in a time and place when the Powers That Be must have seemed so overwhelmingly powerful and impossible to challenge in any meaningful way, a time when people must have felt helpless... I'm thinking "challenge" might be exactly right:
    "Oh yeah? What can *we* do, in the face of all that? What can we *do* that will make any difference?"

    I wondered who the solders were too. It feels like a very important question. I would have expected that Jews would have been exempted from service in the imperial army, in the same way that they were exempted from the imperial cult: do we know for sure that Jews were conscripted? Might some Jews have volunteered for the army? Was it a way to earn citizenship, earn money, gain social status? If they were Jewish, were they locals, or were they Diasporan Jews who had been sent to the area as occupying troops in the hopes of improving relations between the locals and the occupiers?

    If the only reason that we assume they were Jewish is that they came to hear this Jewish prophet speak, well, is it possible they might have been Gentile "God-fearers"? I ask because it would be an interesting foreshadowing of the presence and response of the Gentile Roman soldiers at the crucifixion. Or transposition, I guess, because that scene is not in Luke though it is in both Mark and Matthew.

    συκοφαντήσητε - I was struck by the cognate with "sycophant". Is that a possible meaning here? Telling the soldiers, basically, "don't suck up to the wealthy and powerful"?

    παρακαλῶν - The relation to paraclete is really interesting here. If John was παρακαλῶν-ing the people in his ministry, that makes him a forerunner of both Jesus and the Holy Spirit, in a way.

  5. Hi Victoria,
    I had to change the identity procedure because of the intense amount of spam that was getting through before. Now I'll know you as Gaudetetheology. Nice.

    What great points you are making here. The verb ἐπηρώτων is often used to describe the religious leaders' questions to Jesus, as well as the disciples whenever they seem to be challenging him.

    I was only assuming that the audience gathered to hear John were Jewish because of the previous comment regarding their understanding of themselves as "children of Abraham." Whether they were God-fearers, Diasporan Jews, or something else is a great question. I don't know if I can answer it. Likewise, the question of whether they were volunteers, rather than conscripts. Great question to which I could only posit guesses as answers.
    Do you know more than you're letting on about it? I'd love to hear if you do.
    Sycophant: Nice observation.
    Thanks for the notes. They'll keep me thinking.

  6. There were Jews in the Roman army. See

    1. I'm three years late on saying this, but thanks for this interesting link.

  7. Children of Abraham: Entitlement or Calling? There's probably a sermon in that. Thanks for your insights; they provide food for thought which I pass on to my Bible Study class.
    Mark Houghton

  8. Do you see any difference in the words Luke/Acts uses that are translated 'soldiers?' stratiōtēs vs. στρατεύομαι? The former seems to be used for 'commmon' soldiers. Could these have been 'generals' or leaders?

    Thanks for your work!

  9. I don't know, Bill. That question will be in the back of my mind whenever I approach this text from now on. Thanks.

  10. Your excellent work provokes these thoughts in me: Perhaps the deepest meaning is of God's warning, not God's wrath. God is not trying to scare us into submission but warn us what will happen (on its own) if we do not listen.
    Perhaps wrath is self-generating, not imposed from without.
    Thank you!

    1. Thank you, Vic. Warning, not wrath, is a great direction.
      Thanks again,


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