MY PREVIOUS ARTICLE EXAMINED some unique details in the Gospel accounts of the feeding miracles of Jesus, where just a few loaves and fishes provided a full meal for thousands of people. Why were only the adult males counted in reports of the size of the crowds? Why was so much bread left uneaten, and why was it collected and saved? Two ancient Jewish dining practices, the prayer after meals and the tithing of bread, help shed light on these dynamic events. The presence of such details in the narrative supports the historical validity of the Gospels.
Of course when the evangelists wrote about events like the feeding miracles, they were doing much more than merely recounting episodes from the life of Jesus. Under divine inspiration, they were selecting, arranging, and presenting events to most effectively communicate the fact that Jesus was indeed, the One whose coming was prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures (John 20:31).
For instance, the Messiah was expected to be a prophet like Moses (Deut 18:15-18; Acts 3:22; 7:37), and so the Gospels bring out the ways in which Jesus functioned like a new Moses leading a new exodus. An excellent example of this is found in Mark 4:35-8:10, a narrative portion that includes accounts of two feeding miracles. There are many exodus parallels in this section of the text.(1)
At the time of the first Passover, Moses instructed the Israelites to be ready to depart from Egypt quickly. They were to eat the Passover with their belts fastened, their sandals on their feet, and their staffs in their hands (Exod 12:11).
Similarly, when Jesus sent twelve disciples on a mission to Galilean villages (Mark 6:7-11), he had them travel light, yet their equipment consisted of the same: belts, staffs, and sandals. The implication is that a new exodus was beginning with a call for people to repent and believe the Gospel.
When he led the children of Israel safely out of Egypt, Moses stretched out his hand, and God sent a strong wind to part the Red Sea (Exod 14:21). Similarly, Jesus spoke to calm the wind and waters at the Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:35-41), then later walked across those waters (6:45-52). These details portray Jesus as a divine figure as well as a new Moses.
After the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, they had rest from their enemies in the wilderness. God provided them with food, water, and other necessities of life. The Bible describes God as Israel's shepherd during the exodus (Ps 78:52), and prophecies of a future exodus also picture God in this way (Isa 40:11). Ezekiel 34 describes the Israelites as sheep in need of a shepherd, and God promises to send the Messiah to "feed them and be their shepherd" (v. 23).
Similarly, in Mark 6 when the twelve disciples returned from their evangelistic mission, they crossed the Sea of Galilee to find rest in "a desolate place" (vv. 30-32). Many people sought Jesus in this wilderness region, and he taught them when he saw that "they were like sheep without a shepherd" (v. 34). Mark presents Jesus here in a messianic role as a shepherd of Israel.
The wilderness period was a time of testing and learning for Israel. The people tended to grumble and complain about their anxiety over the limited prospects for food (Exod 16:2-3). God responded by sending manna, nourishing and versatile bread that also taught lessons of faith (Exod 16:4-31). Prophecies about a new exodus describe the wilderness transformed into a new Eden, an appropriate scene for a messianic banquet (Isa 41:18-20; 51:3).
Mark's accounts of the feeding miracles are full of allusions to these ideas. The disciples of Jesus worried about how to feed the large group of people that sought Jesus (6:35-37), and Jesus used these situations as a teaching opportunity (8:1-5). The crowd sat down, reclining as at a banquet. The mention of "green grass" in Mark 6:39 hints at a transformed wilderness. They sat "by hundreds and by fifties" (6:40), organized like the congregation of Israel in the wilderness (Deut 1:15). They received a miraculous meal, where all were satisfied, and yet more food remained at the end than had existed at the beginning (6:42-44).
Since Mark effectively communicates a new exodus message in his description of the feeding of five thousand (6:30-44), why does he go on to cover the feeding of four thousand (8:1-10)? One reason, undoubtedly, is that the repetition emphasizes essential themes from his Gospel, like the disciples' lack of discernment (8:14-21) and the greatness of Jesus in performing such mighty works (8:19-20).
The geographical setting of these miracles suggests another reason. Based on the context in Mark, the feeding of five thousand occurs in Jewish territory, while the feeding of four thousand takes place in a region associated with Gentiles (7:24-37). Mark thus presents Jesus as the Savior of both Israel and the nations.(2)
Our study of the feeding miracles illustrates the fact that the Gospels speak on more than one level. On the one hand, they are historical documents that provide data about late Second Temple Judaism and the origins of Christianity. On the other, they are complex literary works that are part of a larger canon of scripture and contain many allusions to previous parts of that canon.
Even the rich details of the Gospels sometimes carry more than one meaning. For example, the arrangement of the crowds in hundreds and fifties (Mark 6:40) hints at the custom of prayer after meals and also reminds us of the congregation of Israel in the wilderness. Similarly, the bread fragments reflect a tithing practice and also emphasize the magnitude of the miracles. Our understanding and appreciation of the Bible increase as we learn to recognize the multi-faceted nature of inspiration.
(1) See, for instance, Sun Wook Kim, "The Wilderness as a Place of the New Exodus in Mark's Feeding Miracles (Mark 6:31-44 and 8:1-10)," Biblical Theology Bulletin 48 (2), pp. 62-75.
(2) Kim, p. 69. A large number of tithed bread fragments in both incidents implies that both groups included many Jews, but a crowd in a Gentile region still points to Jesus' outreach to the nations.
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