A curious and oft quoted Biblical verse, one of the very rare verses which describes God by analogy through the use of feminine imagery, comes at the very end of Jesus’ great Eschatological temple sermon about the end of days. He says:
Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation.
‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” ’
Just tonight while listening to a fascinating lecture, part of a series available on iTunes on ‘the N.T. Wright podcast’, N.T. Wright, an eminent New Testament scholar (perhaps among the very best in the world) suggested that this passage suggests the imagery of a barnyard fire. More precisely, that in a fire the mother Hen would gather her chicks under her wings, so that once the fire was put out and the rubble was being sorted, one would find at last a dead Hen, burnt to a crisp, and her chicks still chirping alive under her wings. This interpretation is rife with meaning, and lends itself to a Biblical exegete both as surprisingly plausible, and pleasantly problematic. It is plausible because the image is one with which Jesus’ audience could and would have been familiar, and it is problematic because it seems to imply that Jesus of Nazareth not only thought that he was the Messiah, but thought that in some special way he was to inaugurate the redemption of mankind by some means which included his death (and possibly resurrection). Of course, there’s nothing very special about the fact that Jesus thought he was going to die, especially given his challenging temple related activities, for which he was ultimately brought to trial. Nor, indeed, is it surprising that he believed he would be raised from the dead – all faithful Pharasaic Jews believed that, as can be seen easily enough by even a cursory perusal of Jewish literature at the time. What is surprising is that somehow this implies that Jesus seemed to think of his ministry as one which was reflected in this image, as a hen dying for her children – and it is difficult to see how he could have used such a provocative image unless he was indeed both Messiah and Son of God, as Christian theology proposes. The modern scholar may have a difficult time, operating on enlightenment presuppositions, accepting that this image (once it is understood) came from the lips of Christ, rather than being pasted on them by a later evangelist. Moreover reading this passage in this way provides a deeper meaning worth exploring in his proceeding words “See, your house is left to you, desolate.” where ‘your house’ refers not to Israel broadly, but rather to the temple itself as the symbol and kernel of the people of God, the house in which the people of God meet with, in the context of covenant, their God. This may also, therefore imply that Jesus here is predicting precisely the destruction of the Temple, or something like it.