When we think of parables it is usually the parables of Jesus that come to mind. His parables were one of the most characteristic features of his ministry. Yet they are not the first parables to be found in the Bible – parables were an essential part of the religious teaching of ancient Israel. The book of Hosea tells us, for example, that God: “... spoke to the prophets … and told parables through them” (Hosea 12:10). If we learn to recognize them, we can actually find this form of teaching throughout many books of the Old Testament; and understanding its nature can help us better understand the parables that Jesus gave.
The key to recognizing true biblical parables in the Old Testament (as opposed to figurative or metaphorical statements, short riddles, or stories with an obvious moral) is that a true biblical parable has two parts. In the first part – called the marshal in Hebrew – a simple story is told for the sake of conveying a deeper truth. But that truth is never obvious in the story itself; it has to be revealed in the second part of the parable – called the nimshal – which provides the “key” to unlocking the parable’s meaning. The two parts of content and intent are only brought together at the conclusion of the narrative – which is why, of course, we read in the New Testament that Jesus often taught in parables and later explained them by providing the nimshal or key to his disciples (Luke 8:9, Mark 4:33-34, etc.).
We see this two-part structure in one of the earliest parables of the Old Testament. The book of Judges records that the young man Jotham told the people of Shechem a detailed story of how the trees of the forest made themselves a king (Judges 9:7-15). When the parable is finished, he explains it by showing how the parts of the story fit their own political circumstances (Judges 9:16-20).
We also see the two-part structure in the famous story that the prophet Nathan tells King David about a sinful rich man who took his poor neighbor’s only lamb when he had plenty of lambs himself. When David indignantly states that the evil man deserves death, Nathan provides the nimshal to the parable by simply saying “you are that man” – because David had taken the only wife of his general, Uriah (2 Samuel 12:1-4).
In these cases, the connection between the marshal/content of the parables and their nimshal/ntent is easy to grasp, but sometimes the Old Testament gives parables that would be very difficult to understand without the explaining “key” or the background we are given. Such is the case with the story of the two fighting brothers that was told to David by the wise widow from Tekoa (2 Samuel 14:1-7). In this story David’s general Joab carefully constructs a parable with a meaning we would not guess unless it is explained – as it is by the wise widow (2 Samuel 14:13-14).
When we look for such stories that have to be explained in the course of the narrative in which they appear, we find many parables in the Old Testament. Parables were especially favored by the Hebrew Prophets and the book of Ezekiel, for example, contains at least nine of them. Isaiah also uses parables in his teaching, and some of these parables clearly influenced those given by Jesus. In Isaiah chapter 5 the prophet tells a parable of a vineyard and its bad fruit (Isaiah 5:1-6) which he then explains as being relevant to the nation of Israel (vs. 7). Although Jesus altered the details slightly in his parables found in Matthew 21:33–44 and Luke 13:6–9, the stories are recognizably similar, and their message is identical.
Jesus often framed his own parables on both parable and non-parable stories found in the Old Testament. His parable of the Good Samaritan is an example of this and appears to be based on a section of 2 Chronicles which tells of the kindness given to Judean captives by men of Samaria who:
“… clothed all who were naked among them. They clothed them, gave them sandals, provided them with food and drink, and anointed them, and carrying all the feeble among them on donkeys, they brought them to their kinsfolk at Jericho, the city of palm trees. Then they returned to Samaria” (2 Chronicles 28:15).
In this simple narrative, Jesus found the basis for one of the most profound of his parables, the lessons of which are far-reaching and apply in every age. But the greatest reliance of Christ’s parables on the Old Testament is found not in their use of Old Testament story plots, but in their use of imagery applied to God. Old Testament parables show God as a king, a father, a husband, and in other key ways. Of the somewhat more than forty parables of Jesus recorded in the New Testament, at least twenty metaphorically refer to him by means of the same imagery used of God in Old Testament parables and stories. This self-portrayal with imagery used of God is unique to the parables of Jesus and ties directly to his teachings of his own messianic role.
So the parables of the Old Testament are important not only in their own right, in the stories in which they are found, but also in forming the basis for some of Jesus’ own parables, as well as providing images for his parables that Jewish hearers would associate with God when they understood the parables’ nimshal key or intent. But although there are numerous well-crafted parables in the Old Testament, there is no doubt that Jesus perfected the art of parable-telling and brought to the form a subtlety and spiritual depth that had not been seen before.
R. Herbert (a pen name), Ph.D., was trained in biblical studies and Ancient Near Eastern languages and archaeology. He writes for a number of Christian venues as well as for his websites at LivingWithFaith.org and TacticalChristianity.org where you can also find his free e-books.