After the death of John the Baptist, Jesus goes into the wilderness. Why does Jesus retreat to a “desolate place” (ESV)?
The verb in verse 13 (ἀναχωρέω) does in fact have the nuance of a retreat from danger, an army retreating, and sometimes to “withdraw from public affairs” (BrillDAG). Jesus has retreated in response to danger before in Matthew. In Matthew 2:22 Jesus leaves Bethlehem because Herod the Great threatened to kill the infant Jesus. In Matthew 4:12 Jesus withdrew to Galilee because Herod Antipas arrested John. Luke 9:9 indicates Antipas “sought to see Jesus” and in Luke 13:31 the Pharisees warn Jesus to “get away from here because Herod wants to kill you.”
It is not as though Jesus is afraid of Antipas. He does not want to provoke a confrontation with the authorities yet. His intention is to go to the cross, but at the time of the Passover to make the imagery of the “lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” more clear.
Even though Jesus goes to a desolate place, the crowds follow him (14:13). He went by boat, they followed on shore. Remember the Sea of Galilee is not that large!
The word translate “desolate place” in the ESV (ἔρημος) is traditionally “the wilderness.” John the Baptist was active in the wilderness and Jesus was tempted in the wilderness of Judea. Most Bible readers hear the word wilderness and think of Israel’s forty years of wandering in the deserts of the Negev. But Jesus is in Galilee, so wilderness here does not refer to a desert location, but rather an unpopulated area. In the context of Galilee, they are in an area where people do not live, between villages and farms.
The traditional location is Tabgha, only about two miles west of Capernaum. The place was known as Heptapegon because it had seven springs, Tabgha is a corruption of this ancient name. According to Todd Bolen, the spring water is warmer than the Sea of Galilee so there are algae in the water, attracting fish. There is a Byzantine church on the site with a traditional rock on which the fish and bread were blessed, along with a famous mosaic which appears in every gift shop in Israel. This location is on most tourist itineraries. The Church of Peter’s Primacy near Tabgha is also worth visiting for its lovely garden on the short of the Sea of Galilee.
The location does evoke scriptural connections. The wilderness is associated with Israel after they were rescued from Egypt. Jesus as a new Moses leading his people into the wilderness where he will care for them like sheep in the wilderness, caring for their sickness and providing them food. One of the reasons Jesus goes into the wilderness is to evoke the images from the Hebrew Bible.
Jesus has compassion on the crowd and healed their sick (14:14). This is the second time Jesus has had compassion on a great crowd (9:36) and in 20:34 he has compassion on a blind man. The verb σπλαγχνίζομαι appears only in the Gospels with Jesus as the subject, With the except of the good Samaritan and father of the prodigal (Luke 10:33; 15:20). In Mark 6:34, Jesus teaches the crowd, here in Matthew he heals.
This also may allude to the wilderness tradition. In Numbers 27:15-23 Moses realizes he is near death He prays for God to appoint a new leader so that the people will not be “like sheep without a shepherd.” The sick (ἄρρωστος) is a rare word in the New Testament that can refer to the sick, weak, or “powerless.” In 1 Cor 11:30, those who were abusing the Lord’s Supper are “sick and weak” and the verb is used sickness associated with sin in Sirach 18:21.
This gathering of a large crowd in the wilderness set up one of the most important miracles in the Gospels the feeding of the 5000.