Wednesday, November 25, 2009

I Am Not Elijah, Part 5 (John 6:9-13, 2 Kings 4:42-44)

The following is part 5 of a paper I presented at the Evangelical Theological Society in Nov 2009. For all sections of the paper, see here.

5. “What are these for so many?”

2 Kings 4:42-44 (LXX)
A man came from Baal-shalisha[1] and brought twenty barley loaves (ἄρτους κριθίνους) and dried fruit cakes from his first-fruits to the man of God. [Elisha] said, “Give to the people and have them eat.” His servant said, “What, shall I give this before a hundred men?” (Τί δῶ τοῦτο ἐνώπιον ἑκατὸν ἀνδρῶν) [Elisha] said, “Give it to the people and have them eat, for thus says the Lord: ‘They will eat and there will be some left over (καταλείψουσιν).’” And they ate and there was some left over according to the word of the Lord.
John 6:9-13
“There is a little boy here who has five barley loaves (ἄρτους κριθίνους) and two fish; but what are these for so many?” (ταῦτα τί ἐστιν εἰς τοσούτους). Jesus said, “Make the people sit down for the meal...” Then they sat down for the meal, the men about 5000 (ἄνδρες... ὡς πεντακισχίλιοι ) in number… When they were filled, Jesus said to his disciples, “Gather the leftover pieces…” (τὰ περισσεύσαντα κλάσματα). Then they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with pieces from the five barley loaves that were left over from what had been eaten.

Elisha’s miracle is often noted as an important background text to Jesus’ feeding miracle in all four gospels.[2] However, John includes two unique phrases that connect his story even more firmly back to Elisha’s. John alone tells us that Jesus’ disciple commented on how little the food is by saying “What is this for…?”, just like Elisha’s servant (Τί τοῦτο / ταῦτα τί ). Second, John alone tells us that these are barley loaves (ἄρτους κριθίνους), like Elisha’s. Other details strengthen the allusion: in both accounts the man of God gives a command to feed the people; both accounts mention the amount of males (ἄνδρες) fed; and both emphasize that there was food left over. Although the two passages use different words for “left over,” both καταλείπω and περισσεύω (or cognates) are used to translate the Hebrew ytr (2 Ki 25:11, 1 Sam 30:9). John often updates septuagintal language in his quotes and allusions; καταλείπω no longer had the meaning of “left over” by the first century; other NT passages describing leftovers use περισσεύω or πλήρωμα.

John likely has two reasons for mentioning the barley loaves. First, it will remind his readers of Elisha’s miracle. Second, barley loaves connect both accounts to Passover. The barley harvest began at Passover,[3] and the offering to the prophets at Gilgal was likely a Passover offering. John wants us to know that the feeding miracle occurred near Passover (6:4), since the Bread of Life discourse plays on Passover themes.

It is interesting to note that both stories include the same types of characters who say the same sort of things. A generous outsider[4] brings a small but generous gift of food; the man of God unreasonably suggests to his servant that he should feed a large crowd with it; the servant questions whether the food will be adequate. Both stories have a similar goal: to reveal the power of the miracle worker. Both reveal the miracle worker as one moved by the needs of those around him.[5]

[1] LXX has Beth-sarisa.
[2] T.R. Hobbs, 2 Kings, 55; Burge, John, 193; Brown, John 1:110.
[3] ISBE 3:676, s.v. “Passover” by M.R. Wilson.
[4] T.R. Hobbs sees generosity as one of the key themes of the three miracle stories in 2 Kings 4. T.R. Hobbs, 2 Kings, 49.
[5] The Elisha stories in ch. 4 have “… generally no point beyond demonstrating the miraculous power and authority of Elisha.” Gray, 466, quoted in T.R. Hobbs, 2 Kings, WBC, p. 45.

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