Thursday, October 02, 2014

Part XXVIII Matthew: The Parable of the Loaves and the Fish

By John Shelby Spong

Sukkoth is complete. There will be six to eight Sabbaths to engage the synagogue before the next celebration, the festival called Dedication, arrives. In Aramaic the word for “Dedication” is “Hanukkah,” and thus this festival acquired its popular nickname.

If Matthew is following the liturgical calendar of the synagogue, as I have maintained, he must fill those intervening Sabbaths with Jesus stories before he can tell the story of the crucifixion in terms of the Passover, which comes in the first month of the new Jewish year, but which Matthew makes the climax of his gospel. So we search Matthew’s text to see how he does it. It is a revelatory and rewarding search.

His first choice of a subject to fill those Sabbaths was a narrative that has two distinct parts, separated by almost a chapter of other material. It is impossible to look at just one part of this story without engaging the other. I am referring to the two versions that Matthew gives us of Jesus feeding a multitude with a finite number of loaves and fishes. Most people are not aware that there are two such stories in Matthew, as there are in Mark. Nor do they realize that both Luke and John cut these narratives down to one. So into Matthew’s two account of Jesus feeding multitudes in the wilderness we now plunge. The first version is located in Matthew 14:13-21, the second in Matthew 15:32-38. We note first that if Sukkoth is observed in Matthew 13, as I have sought to demonstrate, and that if Dedication is observed in chapter 17, as I shall maintain, then these stories fit perfectly into the intervening Sabbaths.

The two feeding stories are similar and yet it is their differences that give us the clue to their meaning, so I begin by focusing on these differences. In Matthew’s first narrative it is 5000 men, plus “women and children,” (Matt. 14:27) who are fed, while in the second story, it is 4000 men, plus “women and children,” who are fed (Matt. 15:32). In the first story, the provisions provided to accomplish this feat are “five loaves and two fish” (Matt. 14:37), while in the second story, they are “seven loaves and a few small fish (Matt. 15:34). In the first story, after all have eaten and are “satisfied,” they took up “twelve baskets full of broken pieces left over” (Matt. 14:20), while in the second story, “after they had all eaten they took up some seven baskets full of leftovers” (Matt. 15:37).

Perhaps the most telling difference between the two stories is, however, that the feeding of the 5000 with five loaves occurred in “a lonely place,” reached only by boat on the Sea of Galilee, but still within the boundaries of the Jewish nation (Matt. 14:13). Matthew locates it specifically on the outer edges of Galilee in the land of the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. According to the book of Genesis, Zebulun was the son of Jacob by Leah (Gen 30:20) and Naphtali was the son of Jacob by Rachel’s handmaid, Bilhah (Gen. 30:8). Because “handmaids” were usually “foreign” women, Naphtali was a land where the boundaries between Jew and non-Jew had begun to fade. This region was called “Galilee of the Gentiles,” but it was still on Jewish soil. In Matthew’s second story, however, Jesus actually is in Gentile territory. Those two locations, one Jewish and one Gentile, are crucial to the stories’ meanings.

In both stories we are told that Jesus is moved by compassion (Matt. 14:14, 15:32). In neither story is the source of the loaves and fishes identified; that will come much later in the Fourth Gospel. In both stories Jesus uses the familiar four verbs drawn from the observance of the Christian Eucharist: He “took” the bread, “blessed” the bread, “broke” the bread and “gave” the bread (Matt.14:19, Matt. 15:36). In both stories the people are told not to depart in search of food, but to sit down (Matt. 14:10, Matt. 15:30, 35).

When these differences are pulled out of the two narratives, the first thing that becomes obvious is that the language being used is filled with symbols. No one should be tempted to treat these narratives literally. These episodes are clearly not remembered events that actually happened! Jewish listeners, steeped as they were in the traditions of the Jews, would have immediately recognized that they were not hearing an account of a miracle story associated with Jesus, but an interpretive story based on the Jewish scriptures. Gentile readers, however, unfamiliar with the Jewish sources and yet dominant in the Christian movement by the middle of the second century, would think that this was a remembered story that actually happened and so they would assume that it was a miracle story, which they were supposed to believe.

Matthew was clearly making the claim that Jesus, like Moses (Exodus 16), could provide bread for hungry people in the wilderness. When one turns to that Exodus account, however, one discovers that it also has many strange and magical elements associated with it. First, that heavenly bread, called manna, was said to have fallen on only six days of each week, so that neither God, in sending the bread, nor the people in gathering it, had to do work on the Sabbath. Second, no matter how much or how little manna people gathered each day, they always had enough to satisfy their needs. No one was hungry and nothing was left over. With these things in mind, let me now look into the details of the two stories in search for their symbolic meaning.

On the Jewish side of the lake 5000 men and five loaves with twelve baskets of fragments gathered are the numbers in the story. On the Gentile side 4000 men and seven loaves with seven baskets of fragments gathered are the numbers. We examine these numbers for clues.

The number five was a sacred number to the Jews. The Torah consisted of five books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). These five books were their scriptural “Holy of Holies.” The content of the Torah was regarded as so sacred that every word of it had to be read in the synagogues of the land on the Sabbaths of a single year. This meant that the Sabbath Torah lesson would frequently last between thirty and forty-five minutes. In this pre-literate age, no one owned a personal copy of the Hebrew Scriptures, so this was the only time that the people would hear its words being read. Books had to be hand copied so they were very expensive. There was no Gideon Society to place a Bible in one’s hotel or motel room. Books like the Torah were owned by the community, in this case the synagogue. So the number five was a defining Jewish number.

So indeed was the number twelve. Twelve was the number of the sons of Jacob and hence the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. On the Jewish side of the lake, five loaves fed 5000 and twelve baskets of fragments were gathered up after all had eaten. Remember that the church, which some called “the New Israel,” also had to have twelve tribes, so Jesus was said to have had twelve disciples. Twelve was significant to the Jews.

Then on the Gentile side of the lake, an almost identical story sees the numbers shifted rather dramatically. Clearly those numbers carried meaning. There 4000 are served with seven loaves and seven baskets of fragments are gathered up. Is the “4” in the 4000 significant? When the Jews spoke of the entire earth the phrase they used was “The four corners of the earth” (Isaiah 12, Rev. 7:1). This phrase obviously included both Jews and Gentiles. So perhaps 4000 was a more Gentile number than 5000, although that, at best, is a thin argument. The number seven, however, was a significant number for the Gentiles and so we look for the meaning to be found in the seven loaves and seven baskets of fragments.

In their national history, the Jewish people had lived under the domination of seven great Gentile Empires. They were born as a nation out of captivity in Egypt around 1200 BCE. The Northern Kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrian Empire in the 8th century BCE. The Southern Kingdom was destroyed by the Babylonians in the early sixth century BCE. Their captivity in Babylon was ended by the rise of the Persian Empire in the late sixth century BCE. The Persians in turn were conquered by the Macedonians under Philip and Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE. Following Alexander’s death in 323 BCE, the Macedonian Empire was divided among Alexander’s generals and the Jews fell under the rule, first of the Egyptians, but soon thereafter of the Seleucid dynasty of Syria. The Syrians in turn were conquered by the Romans in the first century BCE. When Matthew’s gospel was written, Rome was the seventh different Gentile Empire under which the Jews had been forced to live. Perhaps the number seven represented for the Jews the entirety of the Gentile nations of the world.

These two feeding stories in Matthew, based on Moses giving manna in the wilderness, are early Christian parables designed to interpret Jesus as the “New Moses” and to proclaim the sufficiency of this Christ to satisfy the spiritual hunger for God present in all people, including both the Jews and the Gentiles. They are about the bread of eternal life that has no limit. This is what Matthew was communicating to the Jewish audience, for whom he wrote his gospel. That was also how that audience understood these stories. I cannot imagine any other possibility.

So we conclude that the feeding of the multitude stories in Matthew are not miracle stories at all. They are parables designed to bear witness to the experience that the God present in the life of Jesus, can feed all of the Jews present and still have enough left over to satisfy the twelve tribes of Israel and that this same God presence can also feed all of the Gentiles present and still have enough left over to satisfy the hunger of all the Gentiles of the world.

We do not have to suspend our intellectual faculties to read the Bible. It is not filled with supernatural tales that defy human rationality. The Bible is a Jewish book composed in the Jewish story-telling style that invites us to step into its meaning. Matthew’s original audience would have understood that. We will too when we begin to read this book with Jewish eyes.


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