The Feeding of the 5000 is one of only a few stories appearing in all four Gospels. Jesus miraculously feeds a large crowd and intentionally evokes several images from the Hebrew Bible in order to reveal something about himself. The authors of the Gospels include the story as part of their presentation of who Jesus is.
First, is introduced in a way that recalls Israel’s history. “Sheep without a shepherd” reflects an image used for Israel in the Hebrew Bible (Num 27:17; 1 Kings 22:17; Ezek 34:5). The miracle itself is not unlike Elisha in 2 Kings 4:42-44, who fed a crowd of 100, some would draw an analogy to the manna in the wilderness in the book of numbers (Moses fed the people in a wilderness place as well both with manna and quail.)
When the disciples point out to Jesus that the place they are in will not be able to meet the physical needs of the crowd, Jesus tells the disciples to feed the people. They assume that Jesus is speaking about physically feeding them, and respond that they could not possibly buy the food required to feed a crowd of that size. Did Jesus mean literal food here? Probably, but on a more subtle level he is setting up the miracle. Jesus has them recline on the “green grass” then provides them with their food. The way of telling the event highlights the people as sheep who have found their true shepherd, Jesus makes them lie down in a green pasture and provides them with their daily needs.
This is an important event, important enough to be included in all four Gospels. What makes it so significant? This event is an anticipation of the Messianic Banquet. There are two events in Hebrew Bible this miracle may evoke. In both cases the food is literal, and the provision is from God. God provides food for his people. In Exodus 16 God provides for the people of Israel with manna and quail. Elisha feeds 120 men in 2 Kings 4:42-44.
At least some Jews expected the return of manna at the beginning of the messianic age. In The Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch (2 Baruch), the great chaos monsters Behemoth and Leviathan will be slaughtered and fed to those who have survived to until the time the Anointed one appears. Then…
“the earth will also yield fruits ten thousandfold. And on one vine will be a thousand branches, and one branch will produce a thousand clusters, and one cluster will produce a thousand grapes, and one grape will produce a cor of wine. And those who are hungry will enjoy themselves and they will, moreover, see marvels every day. 7* For winds will go out in front of me every morning to bring the fragrance of aromatic fruits and clouds at the end of the day to distill the dew of health. And it will happen at that time that the treasury of manna will come down again from on high, and they will eat of it in those years because these are they who will have arrived at the consummation of time.” (Translation by A. F. J. Klijn, in James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 1:630–631.)
If there was indeed an expectation among some Jews that the long exile would soon be over and a true shepherd would appear to lead Israel as Moses did in the wilderness, then it makes sense manna would return in the eschatological age since manna was the food provided by God for his people in the Wilderness, the place where God first made Israel his people. If Jesus is claiming to be the Messiah expected by the prophets, it follows that he would intentionally evoke the expectations of people living in Galilee in the first century. 2 Baruch is written sixty years after Jesus, but it was constructed on the foundation of the same Hebrew Bible Jesus and his contemporaries used.
Is Jesus intentionally alluding to stories from the Hebrew Bible in order to call attention to his own role in the presence of the kingdom? Is this an “already” aspect of the kingdom? If this is the case, then what is this miraculous feeding saying about Jesus?
12 thoughts on “The Messiah and the Miraculous Feeding”
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I think you are exactly right. The feedings seem to be a hint as to who Jesus is. When the disciples “do not understand about the loaves” they do not yet realize Jesus is the Messiah, a figure working out the will of God on earth. So when in the same breath Jesus tells the disciples to beware the leaven of the pharisees and Herod, I think he is referring to differing opinions about who Jesus is. The Pharisees from Mark 3 think Jesus is demon-possessed and Herod thinks he is the resurrected John the Batpist. Both wrong.
Perhaps that Jesus feeds first a Jewish crowd and then a Gentile crowd suggests Jesus sees Messiah not just as king of the Jews but king of the world.
Seeing as Jesus is all-knowing, it makes sense that He would allude to the Hebrew Bible in order to call attention to the kingdom. It seems strange to me, however, that physical food was a concern of Jesus’. It’s interesting to see how He still provides for the crowd with their physical needs, but doesn’t address their spiritual needs in that instance. Perhaps this is because Jesus wanted them to recall back to the Israelites and their wandering in the desert, noting the parallel He was fashioning. It is definitely an example of the “already” aspect because Jesus was stating that He was like Moses in that He would save the people. Providing food, could almost be taken to the extreme of His foreshadowing of His own sacrificing of Himself, in order to save us. In the Luke account of the feeding, found in chapter 9, the section is followed by Peter’s declaring Jesus as the Messiah and then Jesus’ predicting His own death. There is some deep foreshadowing following what seems like a triumphant and joyous occasion with the crowd. Let’s consider, however, the intentionality of the placement by the Gospel writers and look at the impact that order has. Jesus declared Himself the Messiah by feeding the crowd (a small example of His provision), Peter declared Jesus the Messiah because of God’s revelation and His own knowledge and relationship with Jesus, and then Jesus predicts His sacrificial messiahship. I have never considered the intent of the feeding of the five thousand, but seeing it paired up with the follow excerpts in Luke 9, I better understand what Jesus was conveying to the crowds of people, namely that He was the Messiah that would lay down His life to save the world.
If Jesus is really alluding to stories from the Hebrew Bible to point out His own role in the kingdom then the feeding of the 5,000 is really showing that Jesus is God. It certainly makes sense that He would be alluding to these ways in the Old Testament that prove God provides in plenty for His people’s needs. As Strauss suggests, the rest of the nature miracles could be interpreted with greater meaning than just the fact that Jesus can defy the laws of nature, they also show that He is working out the kingdom of God (Strauss, 464-65). For example, the miracle of turning water into wine was not merely to be kind and help the host to avoid embarrassment, it was to show, as Jesus explains later in a parable, that the new things God is doing cannot be put into the old traditions and legalistic ways of thinking that the Pharisees were stuck in. Hence the reason He didn’t simply fill the old wine skins (Mark 2:18-22, John 2:1-11). So certainly Jesus providing for the people in a way familiar to the ways God had provided for them in the past by feeding them in a place that seemed desolate and hopeless of getting any food, Jesus is showing them that God is present with them and is working out His plan in their lives still at that time. But of course they only see the shallow implications of this and desire the bread, not the promise of provision, which frustrates Jesus (John 6:26).
Through this feeding of 5,000, I think Jesus was not only talking literally, but he was also alluding to the presence of the kingdom and his role. Everyone thought it was impossible to be able to feed this amount of people with the resources they had at the time. In fact, “When the disciples point out to Jesus that the place they are in will not be able to meet the physical needs of the crowd, Jesus tells the disciples to feed the people” (P.Long). I do agree that Jesus was being specific to the physical needs of the crowd, but he was also alluding to the kingdom. By doing this, Jesus shows that he is enough to feed all of us. Not only the physical feeding of bread, but also the feeding of our souls through his ministry and the kingdom. I do think that this is an “already” aspect of the kingdom because Jesus is showing that because he has come, the kingdom is revealed which will sustain everyone who believes. He does this by using the symbol of the bread. This same alluding can be found in the Lords’ prayer. When the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, he gave them the Lord’s Prayer which included: Matthew 6:11, “Give us today our daily bread” (NIV). This entails all of our daily motivation, direction and energy to be in God’s will and do his works. This shows that Jesus is truly the fulfillment of the Kingdom and that it has arrived with his presence.
I love the parallels between the feeding of the five thousand and the Hebrew Bible. But I’m just a sucker for parallels. It seems to me that this would be an “already” aspect of the Kingdom. The parallel, now that it has been pointed out to me, seems pretty obvious. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, takes care of his flock by providing for them. He even makes them “lie down in green pastures” (Ps. 23). There was a messianic expectation at the time of Jesus. As you said, the Jews were waiting for a Good Shepherd to deliver them from harm and feed them and protect
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…them. I think, like a lot of the parable Jesus told, these references and allusions to Old Testament writings would have been pretty obvious to the Jews who knew and studied these stories.
The feeding of 5,000 was truly a miracle set in place to point out the presence of the kingdom and Jesus’ role in it. As stated, Jesus was concerned with the physical needs of the people reflecting much of how Moses was concerned with the physical needs of the people during the exile. Since Moses’ feeding (with the manna) was reflective of the messianic banquet, I believe that this feeding was directly related to that as well. Which allows Jesus to allude the the “already” aspect of kingdom. However, I do believe that the “already” aspect of the kingdom has to be the spiritual aspect Jesus was bringing to their attention. The continuing growing faith in the already/not yet kingdom was being built through these miraculous acts. Jesus was the Shepherd to these “sheep without a shepherd”.
I think that Jesus knows everything, and that he was alluding to his role in the presence of the kingdom. The miracle he did by feeding 5,000 people is incredible. He was able to show all of those people the power that he had. I think that was what this feeding of 5,000 was really doing, showing his power and control that he had over everything.
I agree with Cody that The Feeding of the 5,000 was definitely set in place as a picture of the Kingdom of God. Whether or not Jesus had intended for all these other different allegories I am not sure but they’re all plausible. The idea that Professor Long suggested about the people sitting like sheep and finding their shepherd was a beautiful analogy. Jesus was taking care of his sheep and possibly alluding to things to come and the Kingdom of Heaven. The idea of it referring to the Israelites being fed manna in the desert and being led to the promise land by Moses was also a good analogy. The story of Moses itself was almost alluding to this moment, and to what was to come. Jesus was the savior, and it was a lot like when Moses led the people out of bondage. Exodus 3:17 paints this picture very well, “I have promised to rescue you from your oppression in Egypt. I will lead you to a land flowing with milk and honey—the land where the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites now live.” Jesus had rescued his people then and would once again.
Growing up in church, you hear this story a lot in Sunday school or sermons, but I have never thought too deeply about what it means in a non-literal sense. Jesus does physically provide for the needs of the people that came to him, but it is more than that. Jesus is the shepherd of the people who are in need of a savior. This miracle that Jesus does shows the already/not yet aspect of the Kingdom. Strauss says, “For Jesus, the miracles are not showy demonstrations of power or even proof of his identity. They are rather manifestations of the in-breaking power of the kingdom of God, a foretaste and preview of the restoration of creation promised by God…” (Strauss, 466). Jesus was confirming the already aspect of the kingdom through this miracle and foreshadowing the “not yet” that is to come in His second coming.
I think Jesus alluded to the Old Testament while performing this miracle for a number of reasons. One is to make the Old Testament relevant. Even though
it was not as old as it is today, The Old Testament was still “old” back then, and Jesus wanted to bridge the gap between the then and now. Jesus also wanted to show that God was the same God as in the O.T., as he provided for his people’s needs by feeding them manna in the desert. And yes, Jesus also did this to show that he was the Messiah, and that the Kingdom was at hand. God has a plan, as he did in the Old Testament times, and Jesus was fulfilling part of his plan of establishing His Kingdom on Earth.