Mark 6:30-44 – The Feeding of the 5000

In the previous post I pointed out that Jesus’ miracles function as some kind of self-revelation. He says something about himself and his mission when he heals or casts out demons. Perhaps one of the best example of this is the miraculous feeding of a large crowd, a miracle so important that it is found in all four gospels.

Fish and bread mosaic from Tagbha

The feeding of the 5000 is a symbolic miracle in which Jesus departs to a lonely place and provides a crowd with miraculous food in the wilderness. Everyone eats until they are satisfied and there is a great quantity which remains. As early as Albert Schweitzer, this event has been seen as an anticipation of the eschatological feast. Schweitzer thought that the “messianic feast therefore played a dominant part in the conception of blessedness from Enoch to the Apocalypse of John” (Quest, [London: A & C Black, 1931], 377).

Many commentators also see this miracle is an anticipation of the messianic banquet. France, for example, says that “for those with eyes to see it, this will be a foretaste of the messianic banquet” (Mark, 260.) Similarly, James Dunn says that a shared meal in a desolate place “would probably carry strong messianic overtones to those with even half an ear” (Jesus Remembered, 646). There are a number of elements of banquet in this miraculous feeding that make it likely that Mark (and Matthew) intended this event to be seen as an anticipation of the messianic banquet. In fact, the miracle is an example of an intertextual blending of Wilderness tradition and eschatological banquet texts.

First, the miracle enacts the expectations of Isa 40-55, specifically that Israel would re-gather in the wilderness and re-experience the wilderness events. This includes the provision of food at the hand of their God. The event occurs in the wilderness or a “lonely place. The people are being fed in the wilderness, calling to mind the Wilderness tradition. Wright, for example, correctly points out that not only is the location of this even significant, but also the fact that the people are fed in the wilderness and immediately after the feeding the Lord works a great miracle at the Red Sea, just as Jesus will do a great miracle on the sea (Jesus and the Victory of God, 193).

There are other allusions to Wilderness tradition here. When Jesus sees the great crowd he is move with compassion and observes that they are “like sheep without a shepherd.” This is an allusion to Num 27:15-23. Just prior to Moses death, he asks the Lord to appoint a leader over the people, so that they will not be like sheep without a shepherd. They are seated in συμπόσιον, or “eating parties.” The groupings are in of fifty and a hundred evokes the wilderness tradition as well. In Exod 18:21, 25 Moses divides the people up into groups of “a thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens” (Num 31:14).

Second, after the crowd eats the food, they are described as satisfied (Mark 6:42). Eating bread in the wilderness naturally recalls, manna, although only the gospel of John makes this allusion explicit. The verb χορτάζω (to “be satisfied”), however, appears in the Psalms several times in clear wilderness tradition. In LXX Ps 80:17 [ET 16] the word is used to describe the food provided in the wilderness. In Ps 106:9, the psalmist describes the satisfaction of the people when the Lord fed them in the wilderness at the end of the exile. This Psalm begins with a gathering of the people after the exile from every direction. Some have passed through the wilderness yet the Lord led them on a straight path back to the Land where he “satisfies their soul.” In Ps 131:15 χορτάζω appears in the context of the restoration of Zion. Zion is personified as a woman who will have abundant provisions, her poor “will be satisfied with bread.” There are a number of places in the LXX where this word describes the abundance of the eschatological age (Isaiah 33:5).

This  miraculous feeding in the wilderness is therefore an allusion to the tradition of an eschatological banquet at the beginning of the new age. In all four Gospels Jesus reveals his messianic intentions by hosting a meal in wilderness for a “new Israel.” Jesus is not doing the miracle simply to meet the physical need of his audience, but rather to evoke whole streams of tradition from the Hebrew Bible, proclaiming that the messianic age has begun.

John 6:16-24 – What was the Point of Walking on the Water?

Taken with the feeding of the 5000, Jesus’s “walking on the water” miracle is an allusion to the Exodus. There are a number of elements found in John 6 which may be understood as using Exodus language. The fact that this miracle takes place around the time of Passover brings the events of the Exodus to the foreground. In the immediate context, the provision of food in the wilderness clearly evokes the wilderness traditions. Jesus organizes the people into groups and gives them food, just as Moses did in the wilderness. This is the main point of the lengthy discussion between Jesus and the people in John 6.

Jesus Walking on the WaterThe churning waters of the storm are an allusion to the chaos of the sea in the Exodus. Jesus walks on the water as if it is dry land and leads his disciples through the waters to the other side of the sea. In Mark 6:48, Jesus is passing by them, similar to God passing before Moses and revealing his glory (Exod 33:18-34:6). The same verb is use din Mark 6:48 and LXX Exod 33:19. When God causes his glory to pass by Moses, the Lord declares his sacred name and character (Exod 34:6). God reveals his name at Sinai, he is “I am,” here in John 6:20 Jesus says “I am” using the same words as LXX Exodus 3:14-15.

It is possible the phrase “do not be afraid” alludes to the Exodus as well, although the words are common in a theophany or when an angel appears. The aorist passive form of the verb φοβέω appears in LXX Exod 14:10, when Israel saw the army of Pharaoh the were greatly afraid, Moses tells the people to not be afraid, although the word in LXX Exod 14:20 is θαρρέω, not φοβέω. The Hebrew verb is the same (ary).

What is the point of Jesus enacting the Exodus and Wilderness events as a part of his ministry? Jesus is creating a new Israel, leading them on a New Exodus through the wilderness at the end of the Exile. If Jesus is announcing the end of the Exile in his ministry, then his disciples ought to have anticipating the coming of the new covenant as well as the coming of the Holy Spirit as a sign of the dawning of the new age.

The miracle also confirms that Jesus is in fact God. God trampling the chaotic waters of the sea is a classic element of the divine warrior metaphor in the Hebrew Bible. In Psalm 77:16-19 God is described as walking through the seas as the rage around him (cf., Job 9:8, Hab 3:15). In Psalm 77 the writer has a moment of despair, thinking that God has abandoned him. In Psalm 77:8-9, for example, the writer wonders if God has forgotten to be gracious. Someone might wonder if God has become so angry he has canceled out his compassion for Israel.

It is only when the writer begins to meditate on the might acts of God which he has already done that he realizes that God will act one again on behalf of his people. In Psalm 77:11-12 the writer says that he will “ponder on the works of God” and “meditate on his mighty deeds.”

In Psalm 77:16-19 the Lord himself treads on the waters, and it is the waters who are afraid and flee before the Lord. The Lord led his people through a path in the sea into the wilderness like a flock (verse 20). In fact, the Psalm ends enigmatically with a reference to Israel being led like flocks by Moses and Aaron. They were led into the wilderness where God provided them food and water and enacted his Covenant with them at Sinai.

By walking on the water and leading his twelve disciples through the storm to the other side, Jesus is consciously evoking the Exodus and Wilderness traditions being celebrated at Passover, but he places himself in the center of the story. Just as God led Israel in the past, now Jesus leads Israel at the end of the exile.

What are other elements of this memorable miracle which reveal something about Jesus’s relationship with the God of the Hebrew Bible?