Proper 11 · Mark 6:30-44 · July 19, 2009
By James Voelz
The Feeding of the 5000
I. Introduction: This pericope occurs within the critical events of chapter 6 of Mark. The chapter begins with Jesus’ rejection in his hometown (vv. 1ff) and continues with the twelve being sent out as “apostles” to carry forth his mission of preaching and healing (vv. 7ff). This is followed by the tragic end of John the Baptist (vv. 14ff) and then the return of the twelve (v. 30)—which causes the death of the Baptist to be part of an inclusio in which death for faithfulness is folded within and illuminates mission and witness. Verse 30 is, in fact, included in our pericopal arrangement. Our text is followed by the drama of the second water incident—this time walking on the water (6:45ff [cf. 4:35-41]) and then further healings (6:53ff), once again merely by touching the hem of his garments (cf. 5:28).
II. Textual Criticism: A variant in v. 31 adds color to the story and is worth considering. It is not recorded in the normal Nestle-Aland text but is visible in the Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum. Instead of the aorist middle imperative αναπαυσασθε, a number of manuscripts that give preferred readings in the Gospel of Mark (e.g., א, L, 565 [also D]) read the present middle imperative αναπαυεσθε. This would make Jesus’ command either emphatic (appropriate given their arduous mission), or of some enduring force.
A. Note the historical present main verbs at the beginning of vv. 30, 31, again in the middle of v. 37, and at the beginning and in the middle of v. 38. Consider carefully w. 37-38 in this regard. The tension of the conversation between Jesus and the twelve is palpable here. What little they have is really highlighted in this exchange.
B. Verse 32 contains the interesting phrase “in the boat” (note the article). Perhaps there was a particular boat that was regularly at Jesus’ disposal.
C. In v. 34, when it says that Jesus had compassion on the crowds, it uses σπλαγχνίζομαι, which is a strong word denoting gut-wrenching anguish on someone’s part.
D. The subjunctive in v. 36 has, standing behind it, as it were, a question of deliberation, viz., “What shall we eat?” You might translate this: “.. .in order that.. .they might buy for themselves something to eat/what they should eat.”
E. The authority of Jesus may be seen in the asyndeton (lack of connecting words) in v. 38, as he says, “How many loaves of bread do you have? Go and see.” Neither sentence has a δε, or an ουν or some such connector near its beginning. Note the asyndeton also in v. 37 in the interchange there.
F. Verse 37 contains a genitive of price (δηναρίων διακοσίων).
G. In v. 39, ανακλιναι denotes reclining for a meal, not simply sitting on the ground. This is appropriate, in view of the noun συμποσιον, which, in a Greco-Roman context, normally indicates a banquet with conversation, usually enhanced by wine [for a wide-ranging discussion of this and other concepts in this pericope, see Peter J. Scaer, “The Lord’s Supper as Symposium in the Gospel of Mark,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 72 (2008) 119-133]. The word for “green,” χλωρος, generally denotes fresh and young new growth.
H. Note the “distributive doubling” (BDF 493) in w. 39 and 40, with συμπόσια and πρασιαί, respectively. The first could be rendered “by eating/banqueting groups” and the second “group by group, like garden beds” (a πρασια is a garden plot).
I. Verse 41 contains several grammatical points worth noting. First, the stringing of nominative participles (predicate position) is typical of Mark, but this feature can be found in classical authors. Second, note that the main verb ευλογησαν has the five loaves and two fish as its object. Frequently a sentence beginning with a predicate position participle whose object is also the object of the main verb will make the object expressed do “double duty,” as it were, and not repeat it. Third, note the move to present stem forms later in the sentence, after the breaking of the bread. He “proceeded to give them” (the loaves [also doing double object duty]) to his disciples, in order that they might “keep on placing them before them.” One gets the picture of a repetitive process.
J. εχορτασθησαν in v. 42 denotes eating to the full. It is often used of cattle being fattened. Along with άνακλίναι and συμπόσια in v. 37, what is pictured here is something much more akin to dining than to having a snack.
K. Verse 43 is a bit difficult syntactically, but it seems to mean some thing like: “and they took up broken pieces, “fulnesses” of (= the fill of) twelve baskets….” The word κοφινος denotes a basket that was used, especially in later times, by Jews.
IV. The Narrative and Theological Content:
A. Jesus is described as having deep-seated compassion for the people, because he saw them as sheep without a shepherd (v. 34). By this one must be reminded of Psalm 23, which declares that the Lord/Yahweh is the shepherd of his people, especially with the reference to pastures of “green,” which, as in v. 39, denotes fresh, green growth. But more, Ezekiel 34 comes to mind, especially vv. 11-17, where Yahweh says that he himself will be the shepherd of his sheep, seek them out, and that they will lie down in rich pasture. The eschatological vision of the presence of Yahweh at the end of time with his people, to shepherd them, comes to fruition in this text. Jesus is Yahweh, himself, come to be with his people.
B. The very image of people dining with Yahweh should also bring to mind Exodus 24:9-11, one of the most amazing passages in the entire Bible. It speaks of Moses and the seventy elders going up the mountain and actually “seeing” the God of Israel (the LXX changed the text here!). 34:11 ends by saying that they beheld God, and “they ate and drank” (presumably, with him). Rikki Watts has argued strongly that Mark is filled with “New Exodus” motifs (see chapter 1, where Jesus experiences first water and then temptation in the wilderness). Dining with the Lord in the wilderness, as it were, would bring further confirmation of this accent of the New Exodus.
C. Perhaps most important is the fact that several features of this pericope provide a foretaste of the powerful reign and rule of God (= Kingdom of God) that will be implemented fully at the end of time, but which also receives an initial instantiation in the person and ministry of our Lord, as the time/καιρος “stands fulfilled” and the Kingdom “stares the people in the face”/ηγγικεν (Mark 1:15—see the healing of the paralytic in 2:lff, of the deaf/dumb man in 7:31ff, and of blind Bartimeus in 10:46ff, against the background of Isaiah 35:4—6, which depicts the eschatological reign and rule of God). In other words, this text exhibits proleptic eschatology (cf. Addendum 11-B in What Does This Mean?: Principles of Biblical Interpretation in the Post-Modern World).
1. The people are told to sit down on fresh green grass—in a desert place! The desert has begun to bloom with the restoration of creation in the presence of Yahweh himself (cf. Isaiah 35:7— see also our Lord’s dwelling with the wild beasts during the temptation [1:13] and being unharmed by them [cf. Ezekiel 34:25, 28]). This accent is “confirmed,” as it were, by the phrase πρασιαι πρασιαι, which normally denotes garden plots— perhaps reminders of the Garden of Eden.
2. The entire banqueting theme (note ανακλιναι and συμποσια in v. 37 and εχορτασθησαν in v. 42) is eschatological (in addition to being revelatory of Jesus as Yahweh himself [see b, above]). See especially Isaiah 25:6, which speaks of a feast of rich food hosted by Yahweh, the Lord of Hosts, at the end of time (when he will swallow up death forever [v. 8]). (It is interesting to connect the reference to wine in 25:6 to the normal connotations of συμποσια, though there is no indication of wine in this text.) Here the people feast with their God, just as they will do even more fully at the consummation of the age.
3. In both cases the end of all things breaks into this fallen world with the very Lord of creation standing within his people’s midst.
D. Finally, it is worth asking whether the feeding of the 5000 should be seen as “eucharistic.” After all, a number of themes are similar, and some of the descriptions of the blessing (Ευλογησαν) and the breaking (κατεκλασεν) of the loaves of bread (6:41) are very similar. We may see this connection, but only in a very complex way. The feeding of the 5000 is a foretaste of the consummation of the age to come and points to the final feast with Yahweh in the fully implemented Kingdom of God. When the disciples participated in the first holy communion with their Lord (Mk 14:22-25), they also received a foretaste of that final feast (see 14:25), indeed, even more fully than did the followers in Galilee. Both “foretastes” find their fulfillment in the full instantiation of the Age to Come, the Parousia. As a result, both may remind us of each other, but each is a quite distinct event, so a line can never be drawn directly between the two but must always be drawn through, as it were, the Parousia/ consummation of all things at the end of time. Note also that the feeding of the 4000 in chapter 8 of Mark (vv. 1ff), which takes place in Gentile lands (and which entails pieces of bread being placed into σπυρίδας, which are Gentile baskets [cf. κοφινος in v. 43 of this text]), reminds us that the consummation will be inclusive, so that the feast of Yahweh “for all peoples” (Is. 25:6) will comprise both Jew and Gentile alike.