Landscape from Young, NSW 2011

Getting nourishment from the bread

Gospel: John 6:1-21

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.*  2A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ 6He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ 8One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ 10Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they* sat down, about five thousand in all.11Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’

15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, 17got into a boat, and started across the lake to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18The lake became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19When they had rowed about three or four miles,* they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20But he said to them, ‘It is I;* do not be afraid.’21Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going.

Stargate was mandated TV viewing by the teenagers in our house. In one dire situation, one of the team cried out to Col. Jack ONeil, "How will we get out of this, Sir?" To which he replied something like, "How do I know; it's not like I can fix it with a pocket knife!" I asked why my son was so amused by this,  and was told with that eye roll known to all parents of enlightened teenagers: "It's Richard Dean Anderson." Such replies seem designed to show up parental ignorance— don't answer Bible Study questions in this way— so I buried my pride and asked, "So?"

Sigh— "He's the same actor who played MacGyver."

Well, even I knew MacGyver can escape from any situation with a box of matches and a pocket knife, so I finally got the joke. We know that literature is written for a purpose. If we were given Animal Farm in High School, we will have learned how the surface story of the animals is, at least, an extended allegory about Russia from the time of the Revolution through to Stalin. But somehow we seem to forget that the biblical writers might have their own literary style. It does not seem to occur to us that the stories are not simply facts, but are interpretations. They might even have the equivalent of MacGyver jokes!

The "whole style of biblical literature is that the numbers and details are not simply a description, but a hook on which to hang meaning,"  (see below) yet we too often fail to look for the meanings dangled before us or, worse, get into arguments about the literal truth beyond which we may not go.

We need "to go beyond the literal,"

 we need to go beyond reading the story like children who correctly hear that something marvellous happens— and begin, also, to read the symbols[; for example, Jesus ] asks them to start feeding with what they have— What have they got? Five loaves. Five... is the number of the books of the Law. They have the words of God to feed the crowd. (What will you see?)

And we need to give the text time to work on us!

When I first come to the text, I begin to ask the sort of questions I have listed below. It is not the case that I will have the answers, or be able to find answers by looking them up, but the discipline of asking means the eye becomes used to looking for meaning, and spotting patterns. This has been an incredibly fruitful discipline which has brought scripture alive for me.  And it keeps me in front of the text for enough time to see things, for 'pennies to drop.'

Under this list, I give an example of my process, using this week's text. You can see how I break the text down into segments and apply these questions. I first go through the text for myself, and only then begin to read the commentaries available to me. It gives me a second pass over the text, which can itself bring things to my notice.

The detailed breaking down of the text, and the re-reading, means I begin to learn the story. I begin to see detail that I have not seen before. It is a lengthy process, and often challenging. I think these words capture something of what is going on:

The problem with our thinking ... is not a problem of overcoming our biases, as some critics would have it, but of overcoming our discomfort. Thinking deeply exhausts us, and we instinctively avoid considering ideas that might complicate our lives and our relationships. “The person who wants to think,” Jacobs claims, “will have to practice patience and master fear.” "To Think of Not to Think, " Mike St. Thomas

The process I use below is a bare beginning. It brings us to the question, which we will inevitably still ask with considerable ignorance, millennia distant, "How might Jesus' listeners, and his early church, have heard this story?" And that is a still only a partial beginning. For if the text is to be more than an historical artefact, we also need to ask, "What does the story say to me in my situation?"

Some of the questions I ask

  • What is my immediate emotional response to the text?
  • What is it that I have learned about this text from before? What does it "mean," and from where did I learn this?

These two questions may alert me to my own personal issues and fears and prejudices with the text.

Then I begin.

  • What are the numbers? Where else in the tradition do these numbers show up? Are they repeated in this particular gospel?
  • What are the place names? What significance do these have for Israel?
  • What do the names of places and people mean?
  • Where are the repetitions? Repetitions are like highlighters; they say, "Look! Pay attention. Get it?"
  • What are the explanatory notes or asides in the text telling us?
  • Is this story told in one of the other Gospels? How is it changed?
  • Is this story a midrash / adaptation / retelling of an Old Testament story or Proverbial tale?
  • Does the story allude to other stories? I'm astonished at how often Old Testament quotations or allusions provide so much more insight if I read on beyond the direct quotation. It's almost as though an Old Testament quotation is a way of saying, "To understand, start reading Isaiah— or whoever— at this point."
  • What do the descriptors— adjectives, adverbs etc tell us? Why is the incidental detail there?
  • Are their sandwiches? (Chiasms)
  • What is the context of this story (pericope) in the ones surrounding it? Are there connectors from one story to another? What comes before and after this story?
  • What are the prejudices we bring to this story from our history?
  • What do the Rabbis say about this story/these stories

The Text This Week: John 6:1-21

6:1After this — So, I will read Chapter 5!

Jesus — Jeshua, God saves...

went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, — went... in Mark he goes in the boat with the disciples. What is implied in going to the other side? Why is the sea made central to the story?

also called the Sea of Tiberias. — lit τῆς θαλάσσης τῆς Γαλιλαίας τῆς Τιβεριάδος Tiberias is the Roman Emperor of the time. Does the literal Greek, the Sea of Galilee of Tiberias, imply a Roman claim to ownership / lordship. Is there a political comment here?

  2A large crowdcrowd... occasion for desire, violence, a place of lostness, an indicator that Jesus is affecting the situation and that people are noticing.

kept following him, — there is something here about persistence and need. Following is what disciples do: is that what is being referenced here?

because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. — Not curing the sick, but signs for the sick. And note that the signs are for the sick. In a gospel with layers of meaning, what does it mean to be sick. Why do the sick need signs? What is a sign?

3Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. — What happens on Mountains? Theophany: Transfiguration, the Giving of the Law, Elijah on Carmel, Elijah on Horeb, High Places of idolatry... There adds emphasis.

What does it mean to sit down?  This is the mode of teaching by the Rabbis. We have something like it when the Pope speaks ex cathedrafrom the chair. It is about authority and speaking words of God.

We might notice that this feeding is on a mountain, not in a place with green grass (Mark 6) But then, see 6:10, John gets the grass in anyway.

4Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.Passover ie read this story with reference to Passover. Understand Passover and you will understand something about this.

the festival of the Jews... details like this (of Tiberias, mentioned above, is a similar detail) are not simply clarifications for Gentile readers, as though there were two seas of Galilee needing distinction, or they might not know the Passover was Jewish. This is "insiders" or "in house" literature, where people likely knew this stuff, so the festival of the Jews will most likely have some other purpose.  Perhaps it is another way of highlighting the Passover. It certainly points the the current 'owners' of the feast; that is, the orthodox view of Passover, which Jesus challenges.

The first Passover, in Exodus is about fleeing to freedom across the sea, and coming to the mountain of God and receiving the law... In my beginning to read the commentaries (the second pass) I find that Stephen S Kim says:

In this context reminiscent of Israel's first generation, the crossing of the sea (6:1) and the coming of the crowd out to a lonely arid mountain region (6:3) formed a picture-perfect setting for considering how Jesus could be related to the stories of the exodus. Therefore it should be no surprise that the stories of Jesus in this chapter deal with a miraculous feeding and the control of the sea. Moses had been mentioned as a witness in the concluding arguments of the last chapter (5:45-46). Now the evangelist introduces the New Moses in the wilderness. . . . Passover epitomizes God's claiming and releasing of his people as well as his preservation of the people by supplying them with food and rescuing them from the threatening sea. Passover is a multifaceted identifying celebration, and the evangelist knew it well.

Thus the Evangelist's references to the Passover Feast are more than just time indicators. The two sign-miracles in chapter 6—Jesus feeding the five thousand and His walking on the water—contribute significantly to John's aim to present Jesus as the promised Messiah and the Son of God.  “The Christological and eschatological significance of Jesus' Passover signs in John 6” by Stephen S. Kim (Bibliotheca Sacra 164 no 655 Jl-S 2007, p 307-322.)  Quoted by Mark D Davis

Who are Ἰουδαίων, the Jews?  The Jews are not the same people as the Jews we think of after two millennia of persecution... This is a loaded term which may reveal more about our prejudice than it does about what John is saying, if we are not careful.

James Alison speaks of "the return of the “Judahites” from Babylon ."

It is these “Judahites” – that is an observant religious party, that gives its name to the subsection of the Hebrew people known as the “Ιουδαιοι” to whom St John refers, and which we typically translate as “The Jews”. We thus confuse a modern ethnic term with an ancient term closer to a partisan ideological grouping, one that was originally a subsection of the ethnic group of the “Εβραιοι”. 3 Cf John 10, 36. (What sorts of difference does René Girard make to how we read the Bible? I remembered reading this a couple of days ago.)

In that article, Alison makes the point that the iudiaioi read Exodus differently to Jesus. 

5When he looked up — our conversational story telling would use a phrase like this as a connector of scenes. Jesus is teaching the disciples and just happens to look up, we imagine. As readers we forget that story is a mnemonic on which the author hangs meaning. So, unless we are careful, we read After this, in verse 1, as a kind of stylistic connector to make the story flow neatly, or even worse, as a simple chronological detail— fundamentalism's insistence on literal truth is the most blind of readings. After this tells us to look back at what has just come before, in order to understand (what we call) Chapter 6. So, in verse 5, I ask questions such as: Where else does Jesus look? Where/when else does he look up. What might that mean?  The Greek is lift up the eyes, and in the two other places where this happens in John, he lifts up his eyes to heaven. (John 11:41, John 17:1)

and saw a large crowd coming towards him, a large crowd is repeated from verse 1. It comes toward him. It is not fleeing him, or disinterested. But we know crowds are volatile, and seek scapegoats, so this crowd is, as always with crowds, ambiguous.

Jesus said to Philip, In Mark, it is the disciples who raise the question of bread and feeding.

Why does he ask Philip? I would explore this by looking where else Philip appears in John. (Use a concordance.) John twice tells us he was from Bethsaida in Galilee. He is the one who brings Nathanial to Jesus and relays the message of Greek people who want to see Jesus....  And, My colleague David Ingleton points out: Philip in Jn 1:45; "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Moses is lurking, and quoting Jesus in 5:46-47; " If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?”

‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ 6He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. If nothing else here, Jesus is shown as the one in control. Second Pass: Raymond Brown's commentary on John (pp 233) points us to Numbers 11:13: "13Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, “Give us meat to eat!” 14I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me."

Why does Jesus ask the question in this way? Why does he not say, How will we feed them all? It seems to me that at the very beginning, he puts the emphasis on bread rather than feeding. Which makes sense if we read on, for the rest of the chapter has a major emphasis on bread and it's significance.

7Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’   Bible translations strive for getting meaning across, but for consistentcy, as well. So how come διακοσίων δηναρίων (200 denarii) in John 6 is six months wages, but  δηναρίων διακοσίων (denarii 200) in Mark 6:37 is simply translate as 200 denarii? Does the inconsistency in English reflect a difference in the contexts, or were they just sloppy? I'm thinking sloppy is the less likely answer.

Philip is failing the test; he considers they have no chance of feeding this, but Andrew at least looks at what they have, although he comes to pretty much the same conclusion.

8One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves (Greek: breads) and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ 

Immediately, I wonder about

five loaves— there are five books of Torah. Also in  1 Sam 21, the five loaves are holy loaves.
two fish— "There was a tradition that when the Messiah had come, the great and terrible monsters of the deep would be reduced and humbled and simply become food for people; they would be eaten like mere fish. Indeed, Psalm 74 says, "You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the people of the wilderness."" (One Man's Web)
barley loaves— 2 Kings 4:42-44

42 A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, ‘Give it to the people and let them eat.’ 43But his servant said, ‘How can I set this before a hundred people?’ So he repeated, ‘Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, “They shall eat and have some left.” ’ 44He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord.

a boy— a symbol of insignificance? God speaking through a Samuel? Well, on my second reading, I discover, courtesy of Raymond Brown that Elisha's servant Gehazi is called a παιδάριον (2 Kings 4:12) in the Greek translation, which is the same word used in John 6.

10Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place — He makes me to lie down in green pastures... prepares a table in the presence of my enemies... Jewish people reclined to eat? Is there a reference to Psalm 23 and Jesus as the Good Shepherd? He will call himself this later in John 10:11

so they* sat down, — repetition from earlier in the sentence. And notice the * in some English texts. The NRSV notes that the Greek of they is men. (What they are hinting at is that the people is a translation of οὺς ἀνθρώπους. Anthropos is human; male and female. Bu the they is οἱ ἄνδρες  which is the men (We get the word android from men.) Why the change? Is it because men were considered more reliable witnesses before the law?

about five thousand in all. — The number five of the Torah is repeated. A thousand may imply a certain completeness.  Interestingly, there are five thousand men featured in Joshua 8, but I see no connection between the stories. Just because we see a match between numbers or names does not mean the author meant to connect them. That does not mean we will not see a connection which did not occur to the author! but we should always test in our minds if the author would say, "Yes! That too!" or would say, "Of course, not— you've missed the point."

11Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. — It sounds like communion! The word for give thanks is εὐχαριστήσας from which we get eucharist. It was given to those who were seated; is there something about belonging here, or sitting "under?" And there is as much as people want; this is an image of plenty; my cup runneth over (Ps 23).

12When they were satisfied, — again, plenty... as much as people want... and satisfaction.

he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments — so that nothing may be lost brings to mind John 3:17. Brown says the word used for gather is also used in the Greek of the gathering of the manna in Exodus 16:6ff (pp 234)

of the five barley loaves, — repetition.

left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. — the baskets are the κοφίνους  which Mark 6 and 8 take care to identify as Jewish baskets. left by those who had eaten... has something of the tone of who were seated.  Again, it is not a necessary phrase, so I read it as a hint on which to hang meaning. My first thought has to do with belonging and participation.

twelve is the number of tribes, and possible something to do with the completeness of Israel:

And at the end, from this small amount of food, there is more left over than they had in the beginning! There are twelve Jewish baskets full of pieces. Twelve is the number of tribes of Israel— except that by the time of Jesus, only two tribes were left! The twelve baskets are a symbol of a renewed, and restored, and re-nourished, Israel; a people of God made whole. (Andrew Prior)

14When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’ — Put sign into a concordance, and you will wade through close to 300 references to the word before arriving at the instances in John. John has Jesus begin doing signs in Chapter 2: "the first of his signs..." There are seven or eight signs in John, depending upon interpretation, so this is an indicator that this story is one of the organising features of the gospel. And a sign... points to something else... Deut 18:15 ff The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.

15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. — taking by force. ἁρπάζειν means to sieze or snatch. It is also present in John 10:29 "What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand."

16 When evening came, — why evening?

his disciples went down to the lake, 17got into a boat, and started across the lake to Capernaum. — unlike Mark 6, where Jesus made them get into the boat.

It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. — καὶ σκοτία ἤδη, and dark already/now. John 3:2 has Nicodemus come πρὸς αὐτὸν νυκτὸς, to him night (nuktos)... John 13:30 ἦν δὲ νύξ, it was and night (nux) Mary comes to the tomb while it is still σκοτίαs / dark. (John 20:1) There is a constant contrast between light and dark in John: The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it... John 1:5 καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει, καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν.

A simple reading might be that it is dark because Jesus is not in the boat. Indeed, without Jesus in the boat,

18The lake became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19When they had rowed about three or four miles [σταδίους εἴκοσι πέντε ἢ τριάκοντα: about 25 or thirty stadia] JB Lightfoots commentary on the Gospel of John, pp311, suggested that such detail meant John had been in the boat. It was a witness to the truth of the story.  And yes, as the psychologists say, "sometimes a banana is just a banana," but the whole style of this literature is that the numbers are not simple a description but a hook on which to hang meaning. But I'm not seeing what these numbers might mean...

a strong wind is ἀνέμου μεγάλου. The Greek root is the wind from which we get the wind flower, the anemone. It is not the pneuma wind of the Spirit of John 3. This is something against life rather than being something life giving. In verse 20 we see the roughness and the mega wind are immediately overcome. And see Exodus 14:21 —  The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided.

they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. — There is a symbol of absolute power here. I find in Brown, pp254, reference to Psalm 77:19

Your way was through the sea,
   your path, through the mighty waters;
   yet your footprints were unseen. 
20 You led your people like a flock
   by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

which Brown says is "a poetic description of the Exodus crossing."

20But he said to them, ‘It is I;* do not be afraid.’ – and we see the * in the NRSV which alerts us to something much more obvious in the Greek: Ἐγώ εἰμι, μὴ φοβεῖσθε. I, I am, do not fear. John has a habit of Jesus saying I am, which is the name for God given to Moses in Exodus 3. (cf John 12:15)

21Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going. — With Jesus in the boat, things are different. The boat may symbolise the church?

:::::

Where next?
At this point on a Monday, I have several choices.

  1. Actually, this is not a choice , but must be done to responsibly exegete the text: I will read John 5, and at least the end of John 6. Otherwise I am blind to the context of John 6:1-21. And in this I remain alert to the fact that "John" did not put in the chapters and verses, let alone the paragraph headings.

  2. I can look at some of the excellent textual commentaries which Jenee Woodard lists on The Text This Week, if I have not already visited them. I value Mark D Davis for his work with the Greek. I often find Bill Loader, John Petty or Brian Stoffregen helpful. I seek to read at least a couple of non white, non male authors o,r at least, authors outside "the mainstream west." Karoline Lewis, Alyce McKenzie, Sharon Blezzard, and Susanne Guthrie are frequently listed at Text Week. I read James Alison partly because of his extensive time in South America, and his perspective as a gay man.

  3. If I'm lucky, I may even have a printed commentary, or an eBook, which covers the text.

  4. Increasingly, I look for the perspective of the theological world view in which have been immersing myself. We can be eclectic— choosing bits of insight from here and there, but increasingly I am finding value in a deep immersion in a particular way of reading. This is analogous to the connoisseur of any food or sport; a deeper immersion allows us to see and taste more. In my case this equates to Girardian and nonviolent theology, so I will search for comments by Girard, Hamerton-Kelly, Alison, and so on. The Girardian Lectionary is a place to start.

  5. And then, at last, I may have words to write and say which apply to my situation and congregation.

Today, writing as I search, I have already spent 6 hours on this post. I am rarely ready to begin wider reading inside four hours; actually writing something will require at least 8 hours work. Each week, I take that post  to our Bible Study which will go for up to 2 hours, and then I can begin on a sermon.  I outline this sort of time scale to make a point: As a parish minister we are frequently encouraged to work too hard. It is always a temptation to skimp on sermon preparation, to preach from a book, to make easy sermons...  to get on with being a leader. But we are Ministers of the Word. How can we serve the Word (John 1:1) if we are not immersed in the words about the Word?

Monica Furlong wrote

I am clear about what I want from the clergy.  I want them to be people who can, by their own happiness and contentment challenge my ideas about status, success and money and so teach me how to live more independently of such drugs.

I want them to be people who can dare, as I do not dare, and as few of my contemporaries dare to refuse to work flat out and to refuse to work more strenuously than me.

I want them to be people who dare because they are secure enough in the value of what they are doing to have time to read, to sit and think, and who face the emptiness and possible depression which often attacks people when they do not keep the surface of their mind occupied.  I want them to be people who have faced this kind of loneliness and discovered how fruitful it is, as I want them to be people who have faced the problem of prayer.

I want them to be people who can sit still without feeling guilty and from who I can learn some kind of tranquillity in a society which has almost lost the art.  (Ourselves your servants: the Church's ministry. Sydney Evans; Monica Furlong; Basil Stanley Moss Published for ACCM  Church Information Office 1967)      (Quoted in The Emptying Desert)       

You see that I am still reflecting on the text last week: "He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’" (Mark 6:31)

Andrew Prior (2018)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Also on One Man's Web

John 6:1-21 - Signs for the Sick (2015)
John 6:1-21 - An inconvenient truth (2015)
John 6:1-21 -Beyond Bread and Kingdom (2012)
John 6:1-21 - Which Bread do You Seek? (2009)


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