47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” 49 Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
When Nathaniel followed Phillip’s advice and went to see Jesus, Jesus welcomed him in (vs.47) with the words “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” With these words Jesus assured Nathaniel that he saw him under the fig tree doing something that only Nathaniel knew had happened. Not knowing what it is exactly that Jesus referred to (1:48) it is hard to explain exactly why Nathaniel, whose name means “God gave”, responded to Jesus’ words with a declaration: “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel” (vs.49) One important note is that Hebrew literary structure of parallelism is used here. Son of God and King of Israel are therefore (meaningwise) one and the same concept.
It is significant that Jesus referred to Nathaniel not as Ioudaiois (a Jew) indeed, in whom there is no guile, but in a more generic way – “an Israelite indeed in whom there is no guile.” (1:47) Nathaniel’s response, therefore, may point in the direction of inter-Israelite polemic present in this Gospel as the mainconcern and context for John’s gospel. Nathaniel referred to Jesus not as the king of hoi Ioudaioi (the Jews), but as the king of Israel (1:49).
In vs. 51 Jacob’s dream is evoked. According to the Biblical story, Jacob most likely dreamed about an ancient ziggurat-like structure that in the mind of the ancients normally had a temple on the top of that mountain with stairs leading to it. The angels were ascending and descending upon Bethel (house of God), where Jacob slept on a stone anxious about Esau’s reception of him after many years away and that under questionable circumstances. Samaritans thought that Bethel and Gerizim were one and the same place since Bethel is connected with Luz and Luz is connected to Mt. Gerizim. Up until today the Samaritan village of Luza is located essentially next to the Mt. Gerizim.
Jesus in talking to Nathaniel assured him that he has not yet seen much (“…you shall see the heavens opened, and the messengers of God ascending and descending on the son of man.”) In Genesis story it was “Samaritan” Bethel that was the foot of “Jacob’s ladder” (Gen.28), but in John’s gospel the house of God (Bethel) has become – the person of Jesus (1:51). In making a reference to Jacob’s dream, Jesus indicated to Nathaniel that he will also see the angels ascending and descending again, but not on Bethel as it was in the story of Jacob, but upon Jesus instead. This is, of course, linked with what we will read in Jn.4 when Jesus will talk with the Samaritan woman: “…the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.” (Jn.4.21) The basic idea is clear: When all is set in done, Jesus for both Judeans and Samaritans will be the focal point of meeting with Israel’s God.
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