Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Feeding of the Five Thousand (Matt 14:15-21)

This Sunday we read the account of the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes as we celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi--the Church's great Eucharistic celebration. Because of that I thought I'd post some comments on the feeding of the five thousand. In the Bible study I'm conducting on Matthew in San Diego and in Los Angeles it just so happened that this week we are covering Matthew's version of the story. Here are a few highlights... (Some of this is going to reappear in my ongoing series on Jesus and the Restoration of the Davidic Kingdom, but I couldn't wait!)
Matt 14:15-21: "When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a lonely place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass; and taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children."

First, Jesus' miracle reminds of 2 Kgs 4:42-44. There Elisha multiplied 20 barely loaves and fed a hundred men, even having some left over. So let me say two things about this.

Elisha was the successor of one of the greatestest Old Testament prophets, Elijah. Just before Elijah was taken up into a whirlwind, Elisha asked to receive "a double portion" of Elijah's spirit once he had been taken up (2 Kgs 2:9). The language here is of sonship--inheritance. In fact, Elisha calls Elijah his "father" (2 Kgs 2:12). We can say two things about this. First, Jesus is compared to Elisha--the spiritual successor of Elijah. Jesus is a prophet like Elijah. In fact, when Jesus asks the disciples, "Who do men say that I am?", they respond by telling him that many people think he is Elijah redivivus (Matt 16:14).

Second, since Matthew tells us that John the Baptist was a kind of "Elijah" (Matt 17:10-13), we might be able to say something else here. Jesus is to John the Baptist what Elisha was to Elijah. Indeed, the similarity between Jesus and John was not lost on the people. We might point out that in Matthew 16 another opinion being floated around was that Jesus was John the Baptist redivivus (Matt 16:14). Now saying that Jesus was the Elisha to John's Elijah might seem a little off the mark at first--wasn't Elijah the greatest prophet? In Jewish tradition that may be true, however, if you read the book of 2 Kings carefully you'll discover that Elisha actually performed an even greater number of miracles than Elijah--in fact, they were also oftentimes much more impressive. Perhaps here then we can see Elijah as a type of John the Baptist and Elisha, who came after him and performed even greater miracles, as a type of Christ.

Third, the miraculous feeding of the five thousand in the wilderness evokes the image of the manna given to Israel in the wilderness. The connection is clearly drawn out in John's Gospel, where the miracle is followed by the "Bread of Life" discourse, where Jesus describes himself as the true manna from heaven. This allusion ties nicely into a major theme in Matthew's Gospel, namely, Jesus' role as the New Moses.
• Like Moses, he was born during the reign of a ruthless king, Herod.
• This ruthless king killed the other Hebrew male children (“The slaughter of the innocents”).
• He finds safety in Egypt.
• He is called back to His birthplace after a period of exile
• He passes through waters and goes out into the wilderness where He is tested.
• He fasts for 40 days and 40 nights.
• He teaches from a mountain (The Sermon on the Mount).
• He takes three companions up a mountain where his appearance radiates God’s glory (The Transfiguration).

The imagery of Jesus as the New Moses also fits into the larger hope for the New Exodus. Jesus is coming to regather the twelve tribes―something probably alluded to in the fact that after the miracle twelve baskets were left over. In fact, note that in John’s Gospel the disciples are told to “gather” (synagomai) the pieces (John 6:12).

Fourth, as I’ve explained elsewhere, the hope for the New Exodus was often linked with the imagery of an eschatological banquet. Here I cannot go into great detail (read here for more), but this miracle may be understood within that larger context.

Fifth, Jesus’ constant practice of table-fellowship also reminds us of David, who was also known to extend covenant bonds through meals. In 2 Sam 7:9-13, David extends manifests his covenant loyalty to Jonathon by inviting Mephiboseth to his table. Likewise, David encouraged Solomon use table-fellowship as a means of extending bonds to others. In 1 Kings 2:7 David urges Solomon to show hesed [i.e., covenant fidelity] to the sons of Barzallia by letting them “be among those who eat at your table.” Is it any wonder that the Son of David linked participation in the Kingdom to sitting at table? (Cf., e.g., Matt 8:10-11).

In fact, the later prophets would associate the coming of the Davidic Messiah with the eschatological banquet imagery and feeding God’s eschatological people. Among other things, we might also point out that 1QSa 2:1-22 associates the Davidic Messiah with the Messianic banquet. Here we cannot go into too great a detail, but let’s just consider one prophecy:
Ezek 34:23-25: And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24 And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken. 25 “I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild beasts from the land, so that they may dwell securely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods.
Note that the dawning of the (new) covenant of peace is linked with the coming of a Davidic figure who would, at that time, feed God’s people. In fact, Mark’s account of this miracle is preceded by the following verse: “As he went ashore he saw a great throng, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34).

Seventh, this miracle also points us forward to the Last Supper. In fact, according to Matthew’s next chapter, Jesus repeated the miracle in another place. In both instances we see clear allusions to the Last Supper. Consider the way parallels between the accounts:

Matt 14:19: taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed [Grk: εὐλογέω; eulogeō], and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds...

Matt 15:36: he took the seven loaves and the fish, and having blessed [Grk.: εὐχαριστέω; eucharisteō][1] he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.
Matt 26:26-28: Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed [Grk: εὐλογέω; eulogeō], and broke it, and gave it to the disciples. And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks [Grk.: εὐχαριστέω; eucharisteō] he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
Looking at the broader context the parallels are even more striking. For example, both the last supper and the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves take place "when it was evening" (14:14/26:20). In fact, W. D. Davies and Dale Allison list a number of parallels between 14:13-21 and the Last Supper account in 26:20-29:
14:14 / 26:20
Ὀψίας δὲ γενομένης / Ὀψίας δὲ γενομένης
And when it was evening/ And when it was evening

14:19 / 26:20
ἀνακλιθῆναι / ἀνέκειτο
(he commanded the crowds to be) reclined / he reclined

14:19 /26:26
λαβὼν / λαβὼν
having taken / having taken

14:17 / 26:26
ἄρτους / ἄρτον
the bread / the bread

14:19 / 26:26
εὐλόγησεν / εὐλογήσας
he blessed / he blessed

14:19 / 26:26
κλάσας / ἔκλασεν
having broken / he broke

14:19 / 26:26-27
ἔδωκεν τοῖς μαθηταῖς / δοὺς τοῖς μαθηταῖς― ἔδωκεν αὐτοῖς
he gave to the disciples / having given to the disciples―he gave to them

ἔφαγον / φάγετε
they ate / eat

πάντες / πάντες
all / all

Davies and Allison write, “While these parallels can and have been dismissed as simply due to common features of Jewish meals, influence from the Eucharist on 14.13-21 is assuredly to be reckoned with. First, the parallels occur in precisely the same order in the two passages. Secondly, the parallels extend beyond typical motifs or themes associated with Jewish meals (e.g., Ὀψίας δὲ γενομένης [“and when it was evening”], ἔδωκεν τοῖς μαθηταῖς [“he gave to the disciples”], πάντες [“all”]). Thirdly, Matthew has introduced certain changes which increase the parallelism. These include (a) the addition of Ὀψίας δὲ γενομένης [“and when it was evening”] in 14:15 diff. Mk 6:35 (cf. Mt 26.20), (b) the changing of ἐδίδου [“he was giving”] (Mk 6:41) to ἔδωκεν [“he gave”] (Matt 14.19; cf. 26.27, and (c) the omission of fish from 14.19 = Mk 6:41. It seems to us evident that Matthew intended 14.13-21 to be closely related to the institution of the Eucharist.”[2]

Furthermore, in light of what we saw in Ezekiel 34 concerning the image of the coming Davidic Messiah who would feed God’s people at the time the (new) eschatological covenant would be established, the words spoken by Jesus at the Last Supper, which Matthew and Luke associate with “covenant” imagery, come into a greater focus. Jesus is the true Davidic Shepherd Messiah, who establishes a New Covenant through the Eucharistic feeding of God’s people.
[1] Of course, in John’s account of the miracle the Eucharist imagery is even more pronounced, since the word for Jesus’ “giving thanks” is εὐχαριστέω (eucharisteō) (John 6:11). Jesus uses the word also in the parallel miracle in the next chapter (cf. 15:36).
[2] W. D. Davies and Dale Allison, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (ICC; London: T&T Clark, 1991): 3:481.


Taylor Marshall said...

With respect to the Elijah/Elisha and John/Jesus "succession" of prophethood - it is worth noting that in both cases the former "transferred his power" to the latter at the Jordan River.

Elijah handed over the baton to Elisha at the Jordan. John handed over the baton to Christ at the Jordan.

In a certain sense, Moses also handed over power to Joshua before cross the latter crossed the Jordan.

Michael Barber said...

Great point!!!

Of course, Jesus is "Joshua". My mentor at Fuller, Colin Brown, makes a lot of hay out of the Jesus-Joshua parallels: "the New Moses", the re-conquest of the land, the connection with the Jordan, the twelve stones (tribes), etc.

J. Michael said...

The imagery of Jesus as the New Moses also fits into the larger hope for the New Exodus. Jesus is coming to regather the twelve tribes―something probably alluded to in the fact that after the miracle twelve baskets were left over. In fact, note that in John’s Gospel the disciples are told to “gather” (synagomai) the pieces (John 6:12)

Yes! I had forgotten this in my preparations for this Sunday's studies, but now that you mention it, I'm recalling a line from an early "Eucharistic Prayer" found in the Didache that makes this allusion even more apparent:

"Then as regards the broken bread: We give Thee thanks, O our Father, for the life and knowledge which Thou didst make known unto us through Thy Son Jesus; Thine is the glory for ever and ever. As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains and being gathered together became one, so may Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom; for Thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever and ever." (Didache 9:5-9)