It’s always awesome when things in the Bible suddenly fit together and you realise something bigger going on that makes a whole bunch of pieces fit together. Most of the time I don’t have that experience though and, to some extent, I chase it. So my exegesis is in some ways always contingent (and that’s probably reasonably healthy). Every now and then I find something that I think is awesome but it’s because I was a bit too creative and there’s really nothing there. This may be one of those times but lets do some exegesis in community.
For a while Mark 6:51-52 has really puzzled me, “he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves but their hearts were hardened.” Jesus wanders across water – it’s a bit choppy: the wind is against them – but Jesus steps into the boat and BAM the wind ceases. I don’t know about you but that happens while I’m in the boat and my response is astonishment. I completely sympathise with the disciples’ reaction. So how come Mark explains their reaction as though it is totally wrong: they’re astonished because “they did not understand about the loaves but their hearts were hardened”. Jeepers, that means I don’t understand about the fish and the loaves… What about the feeding of the five thousand (which directly precedes this narrative) am I supposed to understand?
So I have to ask what the feeding of the five thousand is about. It turns out that when you start looking at this narrative it stretches into a bunch of other pericopae. Of course, it comes up in 6:52 but there is also the Feeding of the Four Thousand (8:1-10) which makes reference to the first feeding (directly and indirectly) and then there’s also the Leaven of the Pharisees and Herod (8:14-21) where again there is some kind of misunderstanding going on because the disciples haven’t correctly understood the meaning of the feeding episodes.
As I worked on this account, the Feeding of the Five Thousand, I realised that there were a bunch of allusions going on. The conclusion about the controlling allusion that I came to was first Numbers 27:17 where “sheep without a shepherd” comes up in looking for a successor to Moses, and second Psalm 23 / Ezekiel 34 pastoral imagery. Mark’s message in the Feeding of the Five Thousand is then that Jesus is the true successor of Moses: the true Shepherd of Israel. This shepherd does not feed on the sheep but protects them (in contrast to the Herod/John the Baptist episode which precedes this account) and makes them “sit down in green pasture” (verse 39).
As I have been playing with the ideas in Ezekiel 34 and Psalm 23 suddenly Psalm 23 had bearing on the account that follows the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Yes, the shepherd makes his sheep, “lie down in green pastures,” but he also, “leads them beside still waters.” That realisation brought 6:51 to the forefront of my thinking. They don’t understand that Jesus is the shepherd (i.e. the lesson of the loaves) and so of course they are surprised when waters are calmed around them (a bit of a fudge?).
The Leaven of the Pharisees and Herod I would then read in light of Ezekiel 34. The expectation that the disciples understand something of the fish and the loaves is an expectation that they recognise the bad shepherds of Israel. This interpretation may fall down though in that Jesus is talking about “leaven” which is quite a loafy thing to be talking about if he’s really thinking about a pastoral image (unless it’s the leaven that destroys the bread that the bad shepherds feed to Israel).
I don’t know. That’s why you got a bunch of stream of consciousness. I would like some feedback from all you faithful readers out there (all 4 of you. Hi mom!) cause that’s how we sharpen each other. So what do you think?