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A Prophet in Nain: Luke’s Portrait of Jesus in 7:11-16

cemetary sculpture nain 2 sxc hu smallIn my previous post “The Inanity of Nain,” I introduced the importance of the physical association of Jesus’ raising of the widow’s son with Elisha’s wondrous raising of the Shunammite’s. (2 Kings 4:36-37)  Nain and Shunem, not two full miles apart, share the western edge of the hill of Moreh. I held out this physical association as an important part of the story, which has more to do with Luke’s typological portrait of Jesus as prophet, than an exclusive focus on Jesus as a kind and compassion person… though this compassion is part of the typology.

I must clarify immediately that typology, that horribly abused child of preachers, is, when properly cared for, a powerful force for biblical theology… meaning that typology is an important tool used by biblical writers to accomplish their goals. Many modern readers run pell-mell about the Old Testament, mimicking biblical authors uncomprehendingly, seeking Jesus in every tent peg, badger skin, and blade of grain. It reminds me of those children playing funeral. The preacher-boy says over the corpse, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and into the hole he goes.” (You may have to read that out loud to get it.)

Typology, however, takes place under an actor’s or writer’s hand when he or she seeks to replicate the contours and colors of something meaningful from the audience’s experience. In other words, while there are certain things that lend themselves to being used as paradigms, actual typology takes place as a tool of communication that looks backward not forward.

In his article, “Jesus, Prophet Like Elijah, and Prophet-teacher Like Moses in Luke Acts,” J. Severino Craotto[1] does an excellent job detailing Luke’s interest in Jesus as a prophet in distinction to his interest in Jesus as Christ (Messiah, Son of David, yada-yada-yada). He focuses on three different paradigms for “The Prophet.”

  • Elijah type I (The helper of the poor and healer)
  • Elijah type II (Elijah’s future ministry in assumption, return, and forerunner)
  • Moses type (Teacher… the ultimate image of the Prophet like unto Moses promised in Deuteronomy 18:15-18, who is both “every true prophet” and a climaxing “last days” figure.)

In the incident outside of Nain (Luke 7:11-16), Luke develops the picture of Jesus as an Elijah type I prophet, and either THE or A Moses type prophet.[2] By depicting Jesus in the terms of Elijah, Elisha and Moses, Luke is making important statements about the identity and nature of Jesus.

  1. We have already shown that the location of the Nain miracle, parallels a nearly identical miracle by Elisha, helper of widows (2 Kings 4:1-7), in 2 Kings 4:36-37.
  2. Elijah, the first helper of widows (I Kings 17:1-16), also raises a widow’s son in I Kgs 17:17-24.
  3. Luke quotes the LXX version of Elijah’s miracle when saying, “and Jesus gave him to his mother.” (Luke 17:15) 1Kings 17:23 “and he brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother…”
  4.  Jesus, like Elijah, meets the widow at the city gate (Luke 7:12; 1Ki 17:10).
  5. Compassion, as Luke states plainly (Luke 7:13), is an important part of the story, especially in light of Elijah’s, care for the needy, and his cries over the dead boy. (1Ki 17:20) Jesus’ actions are tender. He consoles her first, then, without regard for “cleanness” (remember he is traveling to Jerusalem for festival) He touches the bier. He presents the son to his mother.
  6. The accident of this miracle is questionable. Jesus travels 25 miles into Elisha-land and “happens” upon a funeral that he might have missed by 10 minutes in either direction. In fact, this miracle stands out; it is one of six healings instigated by Jesus; the other five are all Sabbath day healings. (Mark 3:1ff; Luke 13:1ff, 14:1ff; John 5:1ff, 9:1ff.)
  7. The witnesses’ reaction of fear, glorification, and belief are similar to those of the Elijah’s widow. 1Ki 17:24 “And the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.” (The Hebrew is powerfully emotive)
  8. The importance of the people’s specific cry must not be missed. Not only do they see Jesus’ raising of the Widow’s son as sure sign that Jesus is a great prophet like the great Elijah and Elisha of old… but their language reflects the fulfilled promise of God in Deuteronomy 18:18 ” I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers.” Compare, Luke 7:16 “A great prophet has arisen among us!”

The ultimate power of this event, will be brought home in next  Friday’s episode of Biblical Literacy, “Jesus, The Prophet of Prophets.” Stay tuned.

[1] Journal of Biblical Literature 124/3 (2005) 451-465.

[2] THE or A will be settled in my next blog on this passage, “Jesus, The Prophet of Prophets.”

[3] media pic from sxc.hu

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