Loaves, Fishes, and Understanding

There are two very similar stories of miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes in Mark’s Gospel. Here’s a rundown of some of the main elements of the first one:

Passage: Mark 6:33-44

Location: Jewish land (6:1)

Jesus has compassion because: they are sheep without a shepherd

Number of loaves: 5

Number of fishes: 2

The people sit by: ranks (100s and 50s)

Baskets of fragments (i.e., leftovers):

Word for baskets: κοφίνων

The crowd: 5000 men (males)

Immediately after: disciples, in a boat, “considered not the miracle of the loaves�

Then, just two chapters later, a very similar story:

Passage: Mark 8:1-9

Location: Gentile land (7:31)

Jesus has compassion because: they have not eaten in three days

Number of loaves: 7

Number of fishes: a few

The people sit by: not mentioned

Baskets of fragments (i.e., leftovers):

Word for baskets: σπυÏ?ίδας

The crowd: 4000 people (gender not specified)

Immediately after: disciples, in a boat, “do not understand�

Immediately after this second feeding miracle, Jesus has this conversation with his disciples:

Now the disciples had forgotten to take bread, neither had they in the ship with them more than one loaf. And he charged them, saying, Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, and of the leaven of Herod. And they reasoned among themselves, saying, It is because we have no bread. And when Jesus knew it, he saith unto them, Why reason ye, because ye have no bread? perceive ye not yet, neither understand? have ye your heart yet hardened? Having eyes, see ye not? and having ears, hear ye not? and do ye not remember? When I brake the five loaves among five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments took ye up? They say unto him, Twelve. And when the seven among four thousand, how many baskets full of fragments took ye up? And they said, Seven. And he said unto them, How is it that ye do not understand?

What I take from the conversation is this: the two feeding miracles are to be compared–with special attention given to details of their differences, particularly the numbers in them–and the disciples (and, by extension, the readers) are supposed to learn something from this comparison.

The first thing we notice in comparing the miracles is that the first takes place on Jewish turf and the second in Gentile land. This sets the pattern for the comparison: I think it makes sense to see the first as a thoroughly Jewish event and the second as a miracle for the Gentiles. In the first story, Jesus has compassion on the crowd because they are as sheep without a shepherd, which is an allusion to the well-established Old Testament motif of shepherd as symbols for Israel’s religious leadership. The people are sitting by ranks of 50s and 100s, or according to the pattern for the organization of Israel (cf. Exodus 18:21, Deuteronomy 1:15, and 1 Kings 18:4). The number twelve–which symbolizes Israel in general or its priesthood in particular–is repeated and the Hebrew word for ‘basket’ is used. In the second story, the numver seven (a symbol for universality) is repeated, the Greek word for ‘basket’ is used, and the people are not organized according to the pattern of Israel.

Note also the the number and gender of the diners is different. There is an important Old Testament background here; it comes from 1 Samuel 21–a story perhaps not exactly at the forefront of thought to a modern reader, but one not only familiar to the ancient audience but referred to specifically by Jesus only a few chapters ago (which, for Mark’s original audience[s] who would almost certainly would have been listening to the gospel read aloud in its entirety, means only a few minutes ago) in Mark 2:25-26. In this passage, David is travelling with a group and has asked the priest for some bread:

Now therefore what is under thine hand? give me five loaves of bread in mine hand, or what there is present. And the priest answered David, and said, There is no common bread under mine hand, but there is hallowed bread; if the young men have kept themselves at least from women. And David answered the priest, and said unto him, Of a truth women have been kept from us about these three days, since I came out, and the vessels of the young men are holy, and the bread is in a manner common, yea, though it were sanctified this day in the vessel. So the priest gave him hallowed bread: for there was no bread there but the shewbread, that was taken from before the LORD, to put hot bread in the day when it was taken away. (1 Samuel 21:3-6).

(Note the reference to five loaves again.) So the priest maintains that if David and his men have not had intercourse for three days (Lev 15:16 states that intercourse–even for married people–renders the male unclean), they can be considered pure enough to eat the consecrated bread that is normally restricted to the priests. Remember that in our first feeding miracle, the Jewish audience consists only of Jewish males–symbolically pure in that they have not associated with women. Hence they are worthy to partake of the miraculous bread. In the second story, the diners are of both genders. But they, too, are symbolically worthy to partake of the miraculous bread because they have been doing something else purifying for the last three days: fasting. So there is a lovely hidden feminist message in this story: when the kingdom of God spreads throughout the world, it will be gender inclusive and purity will not be measured by the absence of women.

Also note that Jesus has compassion on both groups–but for different reasons. To me, this is a reminder that although our circumstances vary, Jesus responds with compassion to all of us in whatever our need is.

Also note which story occurs in the middle of these two miracles:

For a certain woman, whose young daughter had an unclean spirit, heard of him, and came and fell at his feet: The woman was a Greek, a Syrophenician by nation; and she besought him that he would cast forth the devil out of her daughter. But Jesus said unto her, Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it unto the dogs. And she answered and said unto him, Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs. And he said unto her, For this saying go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter. Mark 7:25-29.b

I believe there is a relationship between her crumbs and the multiplied loaves. In this story, the woman expresses her belief that while, yes, the children (JST adds ‘of the kingdom’) have first right at the table, the Gentiles can claim the ‘leftovers.’ And as we know from the first feeding story, there are plenty of leftovers! This story serves as a bridge–and a theological justification–from a ministry limited to Jews to one that re-creates that same ministry in the Gentile realm. It would also be useful to consider those stories in Mark that are paired: Jesus has one trial in front of Jews (14:53–64) and one before Gentiles (15:1–14) and there is an exorcism in a synagogue (1:21-29) and one in a heavily Gentile setting (5:2-21).

To me, Mark is a consummate storyteller, shaping the stories of Jesus so that they not only convey historical truths but also, via the very relationship of one story to another, conveys symbolic truth. In this case, the symbolic truths conveyed by the story speak of the good news of Jesus Christ being extended to all people.

12 comments for “Loaves, Fishes, and Understanding

  1. Julie, why do you think the message of gender inclusiveness is hidden in the structural details of the story, rather than explicitly proclaimed? Do you think the message originates with Christ, or with Mark?

  2. Julie, though your post may be overwhelmed by reactions to Russell’s, you ought not to take any lack of response as a measure of its worth. This is an excellent post, well-written and very interesting, even exegetically brilliant. I especially like seeing the story of the Greek woman as a kind of hinge for the two feedings of thousands.

    Thank you.

  3. Thanks for the kind words, Anita, john f., and Jim F.


    First question: I think (but, of course, can’t be sure) that the gender inclusiveness wouldn’t have been hidden to the original audience; they wouldn’t have needed someone to explain to them that two different words for the gender of the diners had been used, or to explain the link to 1 Samuel 21.

    Second question: There are enough instances of gender inclusiveness across all four gospels (and across most apocryphal gospels, for that matter) that I don’t think it originated with Mark. However, I think the gender inclusiveness theme is manifest in Mark to a greater extent than to any other gospel, so perhaps it would be fair to say that Mark emphasized it.

  4. Another way to say what Julie just said: It is hidden in the structural details only for those, like ourselves, who are not accustomed to reading with attention to structure. We have a sense of what it means to explain something “clearly and distinctly,” to quote Descartes, that is very much informed by modernism. So, what is proclaimed, for us, must be given in a particular way that we understand to be plain. But for those who read differently, plainness can have a different standard, as Nephi notes. (Compare 1 Nephi 25:1 and 25:4.)

  5. Another way to say what Julie just said: It is hidden in the structural details only for those, like ourselves, who are not accustomed to reading with attention to structure. We have a sense of what it means to explain something “clearly and distinctly,” to quote Descartes, that is very much informed by modernism. So, what is proclaimed, for us, must be given in a particular way that we understand to be plain. But for those who read differently, plainness can have a different standard, as Nephi notes. (Compare 1 Nephi 25:1 and 25:4.)

  6. There is a lot of symbolism here. The first crowd more particularly represents the House of Israel, the second the gentiles. The leftovers of the first are divided into twelve baskets, representing the twelve tribes of Israel, or the twelve apostles. The leftovers of the second are divided into seven baskets, representing the seven temporal dispensations, or the seven archangels.

    The loaves and fishes represent the gospel, or the sacrament, first the gospel of Abraham, and then the gospel of Christ. The gospel of Abraham is primarily patriarchal. The gospel of Christ (in its fulness) is primarily congregational (or like the Melchizedek priesthood, quorum-oriented). When one is adopted into the house of Jacob, he is adopted into a particular tribe (family), when one is adopted into the house of the Lord, he or she is adopted into a grand congregation, the citzens of the household of God.

    So long as we (or our children) are yet children, patriarchy is the predominant order of the priesthood, but when we are all adults the order of Melchizedek predominates, which order is without father, nor mother, nor beginning of days, nor end of years. In the heavens, more like a republic or a congregation than a patriarchy, not withstanding the members of a congregation preside over their yet to be exalted posterity, according to the family order of the priesthood.

    So though the advent of the gospel of Christ be foreshadowed in the person of Abraham and in that covenant (when he was made a father to not only his own posterity but all those who obeyed the gospel), Jesus came to preach the better way, notwithstanding the vital importance of the first. A better covenant, founded upon better promises – the ideal relationship of a society of equals. Call no man your father which is upon the earth, for one is your Father which is in heaven, etc.

  7. Julie, I really liked this reading—you elucidate the relationship between the structural and thematic elements at work here in a way that enriches the spiritual significance of these events. The feedings of the thousands always remind me of the sacrament. One of the questions I’ve been thinking about lately since Adam brought it up are reasons the sacrament ordinance is split into two parts: bread and water. An answer I like is that it symbolically requires us to commit wholly to the gosepl—in other words, when we accept the gospel, we accept all of it, both the easy and hard doctrines. We partake of both the bread and the water to complete the ordinance.

    The excess bread gathered in the baskets has always puzzled me a bit though when I look at the sacramental elements of the stories. When you brought the bridge story into the context of the feeding of the thousands a possible interpretation suggested itself: just as the Greek woman realizes that there are plenty of “crumbs” left to feed both Jew and Gentile, so it seems that the sheer volume of excess bread gathered in the baskets would require those in the covenant seek out others to share it with so that it might all be consumed. So the stories could work together both to reassure us that there is more than enough to go around and also call upon us to fulfill our covevants and continue to seek to find others to share in that excess.

    Just some thoughts—thank you for bringing the topic up and for the work you put into your exegesis!

  8. Julie: I hate to be a lame-o on such a beautifully written piece. But how did you do the greek? and can you type “hebrew” also?

  9. Julie — I’m getting caught up on the bloggernacle.

    Thank you for working out and sharing this. Your reading is magnificent.

  10. MW*:

    I was cutting and pasting out of a word document–I thought I’d end up with mush, but to my amazement, it preserved the Greek font! (And the way that I type in Greek in a word document is to open the ‘insert symbol’ menu and add it in character by character–lame, I know, but I never learned how to *really* type in Greek.)

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