Category: The Life of Messiah
Life of the Party
Tags: bride, bridegroom, Jewish eschatology, messianic era, wedding banquet, wine
D. Thomas Lancaster
The Miracle of Changing Water to Wine
May Messiah, who came and changed water into fine wine, change us from wickedness to goodness. (Syriac Hymn)
In the early days of Yeshua's vocation as a teacher, he miraculously transformed the water of six stone pots into the finest of wine. The water-to-wine incident seems like nothing more than a delightful anecdote from the early memories of the disciples. It happened prior to the arrest of John the Immerser and, therefore, prior to the beginning of the Master's formal ministry.
This obscure incident is more than just a memorable miracle story. The Gospel of John reports that the water-to-wine incident was the first miraculous sign Yeshua performed. The miracle convinced his early disciples that they had found the messiah. John says, "This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him" (John 2:11).
But did the miracle have some greater significance that inspired faith in Yeshua's claim to be the promised messiah of Israel?
Wedding in Cana
A wedding was underway in Cana. The family hosting the wedding had extended an invitation to Miriam of Nazareth and her children; they were probably relatives of the wedding party. John Lightfoot observes that Miriam seemed to have had the "care of preparing and managing the necessaries for the wedding, as having some relation to either the bridegroom or the bride."1
In the small, provincial world of the first-century Jewish Galilee, everyone was related to everyone else in some way or another. Cana was not far from Nazareth, and the two communities were probably intertwined.
Weddings are big events in Judaism. The wedding party always wants a rabbi in attendance. This particular wedding party had specifically invited Miriam's eldest son, Yeshua--an up-and-coming rabbi--to attend.
Not that the rabbi was needed to conduct the marriage ceremony; anyone could do that, so long as two legal witnesses were present. The rabbi was needed to provide the entertainment. The rabbis were the life of the party.
The sages deemed it a religious duty to delight a newly married couple, and particularly to bring joy to the bride on her wedding day. In order to do so, the disciples of Hillel used to sing before the bride, "Behold, a beautiful and graceful bride." Reb Dimi reported that in the land of Israel the sages used to sing to the bride, "Without powder, without paint, without waving of the hair, she is still a graceful gazelle." Rabbi Yehudah bar Illai used to take a myrtle branch and dance before the bride while singing, "A beautiful and graceful bride!" Rabbi Shmuel the son of Rabbi Yitzchak danced before a bride while juggling three such branches. Rabbi Acha used to take the bride up on his shoulders and dance while holding her aloft (but some of sages felt that this was crossing a line of propriety that should not be crossed).2
It may be that people at the wedding looked to Yeshua as a visiting rabbi and held out the expectation that he would add joy to their celebration. In the tradition of the sages, it was incumbent upon him to bring joy to the bride. His opportunity was not long in coming. Soon after Yeshua's arrival, Miriam pointed out to him, "They have no wine!" The wine had run out.
Running out of wine at weddings may have been a common problem in those days. First-century wedding celebrations were traditionally seven days long. The addition of Yeshua and his accompanying thirsty disciples at the celebration may have exacerbated the problem. Miriam felt that Yeshua should do something about it, and for some reason, she felt that he could.
A Disrespectful Reply?
Yeshua replied to His mother, "Woman, what does that have to do with me? My hour has not yet come" (John 2:4). To our ears, the response sounds curt and disrespectful. The KJV is even more literal and more impertinent sounding: "Woman, what have I to do with thee? Mine hour is not yet come."
This reply is actually not as harsh as it sounds. The address "woman" was a term of endearment. The Master speaks the same way when he commends her to the care of his beloved disciple in John 19:26. That is why the NIV translation softens the Master's reply to His mother to read, "Dear Woman, why do you involve me?" Though this is a paraphrase, it is a more accurate translation of the actual sentiment. Yeshua's words harbored no disrespect; He was simply saying, "What can I do about it? My time has not come yet."
What did Miriam expect Yeshua to do about the wine shortage, and what did he mean by saying that his "time had not yet come"? To understand this curious exchange between mother and son, we need to learn a little bit about Jewish eschatology and messianic expectation.
Wine of the Messianic Era
When the appointed hour of Messiah comes, tradition tells us that the righteous will be seated at a great banquet, and they will be served wine that is preserved in its grapes since the creation of the World:
In the World to Come, the Holy One, blessed be He, will make a banquet for the righteous in the Garden of Eden ... He will give them to drink wine preserved in its grapes since the six days of creation ...
(Numbers Rabbah 13:2)
The messianic-age banquet imagery is surely behind the Master's curious expression, "My hour has not yet come." The same banquet imagery is also the meaning behind the words Yeshua spoke over the cup at his last Seder: "I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom" (Matthew 26:29).
In addition to the wine served at the banquet of the righteous, Jewish eschatology expected miraculous grapes and wine to proliferate in the messianic era. Jewish lore is very clear on the topic. When the time of Messiah arrives, the wine will not run out:
In the world to come a man will bring one grape on a wagon or a ship, put it in a corner of his house and use its contents as if it was a large wine cask ... There will be no grape that will not contain thirty kegs of wine, for as it is said in the Scriptures [in Deuteronomy 32:14], "You drank the foaming blood of the grape." (b.Ketubot 111b)
In the prophetic oracle of Genesis 49, the patriarch Jacob prophesies that, in the messianic era, the vineyards of Judah will produce such hardy vines that they will be of sufficient strength for tethering animals. What is more, the wine will be in such abundance that it will be as common as laundry water. Hence, "he has washed his garments in wine" (Genesis 49:11).
Several other examples could be cited to prove that the abundance of wine was a general expectation of the days of the Messiah, but perhaps the most intriguing is found in a non-canonical saying of Yeshua, reported by the Apostolic Father Papias:3
The days will come in which vines shall grow ... and on every one of the clusters ten thousand grapes, and every grape when pressed will give five-and-twenty measures of wine. (Fragments of Papias 4)4
When Miriam said to her son, "They have no more wine," she was in essence saying, "I know you are the promised Messiah, who is supposed to bring in the endless supply of wine, so bring some now." The Master essentially responded, "What can I do about it now? The messianic era, when the supply of wine will be inexhaustible, has not yet come." The hour of the Son of Man, when wine will be as common as laundry water, had not yet arrived. Miriam ignored her son's objections and instructed the servants, "Do whatever he tells you" (John 2:5).
Wedding Supper of the Lamb
Jewish eschatology compares the coming of the Messiah to a wedding banquet. That concept is reflected in the Gospels and Apostolic Scriptures. John the Immerser refers to himself as the friend of the bridegroom and to the Messiah as the bridegroom (John 3:29). Yeshua calls himself the bridegroom (Matthew 9:15). He compares the kingdom of heaven to a wedding banquet and, even more specifically, to the feast given by a king for the wedding of his son (Matthew 22:1ff). The Apostle Paul speaks of the assembly of believers as a bride betrothed to the Messiah (Ephesians 5:24-32). The book of Revelation calls the messianic banquet the "marriage supper of the Lamb" (Revelation 19:9) and refers to the New Jerusalem as "a bride adorned for her husband" (Revelation 21:2). The messianic wedding imagery lends a sense of prophetic anticipation to the John 2 narrative of the wedding in Cana.
Six Stone Jars
The presence of the stone jars is common in a first-century Jewish context. Israel's archaeology of late-second-Temple Jewish sites has revealed a variety of stone vessels. Stone was used because it cannot contract ritual impurity.
The quantity of water that these stone jars held, however, is a little surprising. The Greek indicates that each jar contained as much as thirty gallons. These would have to be very large water pots indeed. John indicates that the water was intended for some type of ceremonial purification, probably the washing of hands, but it may have also simply served as the water supply for the wedding party. The stone protected the water from being rendered ritually impure.
We are probably meant to find some symbolism in the six stone jars that were used for ceremonial washing, but what that symbolism may be is lost to us. For one possible interpretation, see my comments on John 2:6 in Torah Club Volume Four. The safest explanation is simply that there happened to be six stone water jars at the wedding. The number six may have no further meaning than that.
The Cup of the Gospel
Yeshua instructed the servants to fill all six water pots to their brims. After the servants filled the water pots, Yeshua told them to "draw some out now and take it to the headwaiter of the feast" (John 2:8 NASB).
When the headwaiter tasted the water that had been changed to wine, he declared it to be of the finest vintage. John Lightfoot understands the "headwaiter" character to be the master of ceremonies who was charged with pronouncing the seven wedding blessings over the bride and groom.5 The seven blessings were recited on each of the seven days of wedding festivities, always at a banquet and always over a cup of wine. The cup of wine was called kos habesorah (×›×•×¡ ×”×‘×©×•×¨×”), which means "cup of the good news." The cup of the good news was also connected with the declaration and certification of the bride's virginity.6 Lightfoot says:
He, therefore, who gave the blessing for the whole company, I presume, might be called the governor of the feast. Hence to him it is that our Saviour directs the wine that was made of water, as he who, after some blessing is pronounced over the cup, should first drink of it to the whole company, and after him the guests pledging and partaking of it.7
It is interesting that kos habesorah could also be rendered as the "cup of the gospel."
"Life" of the Party
Jewish tradition held Yeshua--the rabbi attending the wedding--responsible for gladdening the bride and the groom. Picture the Master leading his disciples in a dance for the bridal couple's entertainment or serenading them with a song. Who knows what antics the young rabbi from Nazareth might have offered the wedding party as the seven days of consecutive evening banquets wore on? It was the water-to-wine miracle that proved to be the most dazzling, though. He attempted to be discreet about it, but the servants knew what had happened, and word spread quickly.
It would be a mistake to interpret this miracle as simply a concession to Yeshua's mother or another charming amusement for the sake of the bride and bridegroom. It certainly accomplished both of those purposes, but to the disciples and guests present at the wedding, the miracle was an important sign that pointed toward the messianic era when wine would flow in abundance, and to a time when the Messiah would be the "toastmaster." In that day there will be a great wedding banquet, and Yeshua himself will be the way, the truth and the life of the party, proclaiming the wedding blessings over his bride.
1. John Lightfoot, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica (4 vols.; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.) 3:253.
2. b.Ketubot 17a.
3. See article in Messiah Journal #100 on page 33.
4. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers (10 vols.; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2004), 1:153. For more on this quotation see the adjacent article, "Grain, New Wine, and Talking Grapes: An Apostolic Era Midrash."
5. John Lightfoot, Commentary to the New Testament, 3:255.
6. b.Ketubot 16b.
Adapted from Messiah Journal #100. Â© 2012 First Fruits of Zion. All rights reserved. We encourage you to share this material with your friends for further personal study. However, this material may not be republished, in print, electronically, or any other form without our prior permission.
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