Mark 6:30-44. An army of sheep.

The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” And they said to him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” And he said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.


We looked recently at the sending out of the Twelve. In this passage, the Twelve return to Jesus. In between the sending and the return, Mark has given us an account of John’s ministry, and its gruesome end.

When the Twelve return, Jesus planned to spend some time with them, quietly. Maybe he wanted to hear a bit more about what they’d been up to. Certainly all of them felt like they needed a break from the hectic pace of the life they led with Jesus. They have gone out to exercise Jesus’ power on his behalf, as his messengers. They have preached, healed and driven out demons. They haven’t even been able to eat, so constant have been the demands of the people on them. Now they have the chance to relax a little and to spend a day- or at least half a day- unwinding, away from the crowds…

Except they don’t. The crowds recognise the band of men getting into the boat, and they race around the Sea of Galilee to head them off. When Jesus and the disciples arrive at the other side of the Sea, Jesus sees the crowds and has compassion on them, and he and the weary disciples take up the burden once again and care for the people.

After Jesus has taught the people for what seems to be most of the day, the disciples voice a thoroughly sensible concern, “There are lots of men here, we’re in the middle of nowhere, and it’s getting late. Maybe these guys can sleep under the stars, but even if they don’t need a bed for the night, they still need something to eat. If we leave it much later, they won’t be able to buy any food in nearby towns. We have got to call a break here.”

Jesus says, “Well, why don’t you find them something to eat?” The disciples are his under-shepherds. They share in his ministry. If he has the responsibility to care for the people, then by extension, so do the disciples. But this is beyond human resources. The disciples reply that it would take a man more than half a year to earn the money needed to feed this crowd. And the disciples have left everything to follow Jesus. They don’t have money to throw around.

Jesus responds by miraculously multiplying bread and fish to feed the 5000 men who have followed him across the Sea and listened to his teaching all day. As with all the miracles, this is a sign of the kingdom. We will consider at least 2 ways in which this demonstrates the character of God’s kingdom.


The shepherd of the sheep

1) Jesus sees the people as being like “sheep without a shepherd”. Israel are described as being “like sheep without a shepherd” several times in the Old Testament (Numbers 26:16-17; 1 Kings 22:17; Ezekiel 34). How do these passages link in to Mark 6?

We know what sheep are like, how they are proverbially stupid and prone to wander, how they follow other sheep and stumble into ditches. Sheep without a shepherd are leaderless, directionless, aimless. They wander around with no idea of where they’re going or what they’re doing. They have little chance of finding pasture and water.

In one sense, these people are not like shepherdless sheep. They have a clear purpose. They are not scattered. They form one flock, and they have direction and coherence. They’ve all come as one body around the Sea of Galilee, and they have done so because they want to see Jesus.

But in another sense, they are shepherdless, and their common desire to see Jesus only shows that that they are searching for a shepherd. If we look back into the Old Testament passages behind Mark’s choice of language to describe Jesus’ view of the crowd, we can see why they are accurately described as shepherdless sheep.

In Numbers 27:16-17, Moses, that great leader of God’s flock, is praying. Moses is nearing the end of his life. He knows that he won’t lead Israel much longer. He knows that he has been such a central figure in the life of the nation, that they will find it hard to get by without him. He has given them the law. He has settled their disputes. He has led them through the desert for decades and decades. We may think that Thatcher and Blair have had long premierships in recent years. But Moses led Israel for more than twice as long as both Thatcher and Blair rolled together. And he was subject to no Parliament, no Queen, and no House of Lords. Moses can see a danger that the people will be left without leadership when he is gone. If there is no figure with Moses’ stature and authority (and how could there be?), then the nation may disintegrate into tribes. Factions may form, each supporting a different candidate to fill Moses’ sandals. This is a real danger. So Moses groomed a successor- Joshua, and Moses prayed that God would not leave the people to be sheep without a shepherd. 

In I Kings 22:17 (and II Chronicles 18:16), Ahab, the wicked king of Israel, wants to go to war against Aram. He desires to make an alliance with the king of Judah, Jehoshaphat. As the two kings talk war policy, Jehoshaphat insists (against Ahab’s inclination) on asking God’s counsel. So Ahab gathers together his pet prophets- 400 men in total- to tickle his ears with the advice he wants to hear. They all say “Oh yes, go to war. God will certainly give you the victory, no question about it.” One of them does some supposedly prophetic play-acting with iron horns, saying, “This is how you will gore the Arameans”. Jehoshaphat isn’t convinced by this display, and he asks to see a real prophet. Ahab reluctantly sends for the man he says is the only real prophet in town- Micaiah, son of Imlah. As an aside, we know very well that Elijah is both alive, and a real prophet; and we may wonder why Ahab doesn’t mention him. Either Ahab thinks he’ll get an even worse prophecy from Elijah than he will from Micaiah and he doesn’t want to hear it, or Ahab is scared of Elijah and he doesn’t dare to call him, or Elijah has no permanent home, and Ahab wouldn’t know where to send a messenger to reach him.

In any case it is Micaiah who is sent for, and the messenger who is sent warns Micaiah about predicting defeat and tells him that only nice happy prophecies are allowed around Ahab. So when Micaiah arrives at court, he starts off by sarcastically predicting victory for Ahab, echoing the words of the tame prophets. When Ahab is not amused by the mockery and tells Micaiah to prophesy accurately and stop fooling around (note the incongruity), Micaiah says that he sees the armies of Israel on the battlefield, “like sheep without a shepherd”, and accuses the lying prophets of having a lying spirit putting words in their mouths. Ahab realises that Micaiah is telling him that if he goes to war, he is going to die in battle. To cut a long story short, Ahab won’t call the war off, but is scared enough to disguise himself on the day of battle in an attempt to avoid his predicted death by not making himself a target. God is not mocked by this attempt to disobey and dodge the consequences. In fact, Ahab is mocked when a stray arrow hits the apparently unimportant soldier. Ahab dies, and leaves his armies leaderless.

In Ezekiel 34:5, Israel are described as sheep who have been scattered because there was no shepherd. Taking that chapter as a whole, we see that it is an extended polemic against those who ought to have been the shepherds of Israel. The men in charge of the nation have been bad shepherds, clothing themselves with wool, and slaughtering the choice animals, but not caring for the flock. The leaders of Israel have been wicked, irresponsible, selfish and greedy. They have been bad kings, false prophets, and corrupt officials. They have lined their own pockets and led the nation to destruction. Under their charge, God’s people have abandoned God, and the promised curses have come upon them to punish them. Ezekiel prophesies to a people with no land of their own and a foreign king to rule them- a people in exile in Babylon.

Through Ezekiel, God proclaims his solution to this problem. He has one solution, but it sounds like two solutions. First, God says that he himself will shepherd his people, Israel. He will gather them out of the far countries to their own home. He will lead them to good pasture. He will strengthen the weak and bind up the injured. He will dispense justice and punish the guilty. He will hold the bad shepherds, and the greedy sheep accountable for what they have done. “For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from” (v11)

But then, God says that he will raise up another shepherd for them. I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd.” (v23).

Ezekiel is speaking some 500 years after David’s death. He is talking about great David’s greater son- the one of whom even David was merely a shadow.

By describing the crowds as sheep without a shepherd, and then showing us how Jesus took on the role of shepherd to them, Mark is telling us that Jesus is the fulfilment of Ezekiel’s prophecy. God’s kingdom is like a flock of sheep with Jesus as their shepherd-king, providing for them in every way. Jesus stands in the line of Moses and David, as the pinnacle of that line. Jesus stands over against all the bad shepherds like Ahab who abandoned the flock. Jesus is the true shepherd, the greater than David, the one who cares for God’s people and supplies their needs. He is the Lord who leads his flock to green pastures.

There is also an implicit criticism of those who ought to have been shepherding Israel. “King” Herod is too busy feeding his own lusts to feed his sheep. The Pharisees and teachers of the law are robbing widows and oppressing the poor. The priests are manoeuvring for political influence and coming to arrangements with Rome. All of them are willing to sacrifice the sheep for themselves. Jesus alone is willing to sacrifice his own wants for his sheep.


2) What is the most pressing need of these abandoned sheep?

The question is answered by Jesus’ actions. In response to their obvious need, Jesus teaches them. Here are this crowd of sheep, looking for a shepherd, and Jesus is willing to be that shepherd. He fulfils the role by filling their mouths with good things in the miracle of the multiplied food- but before that, he fills their minds with good things. Their most pressing need is to be taught.

Jesus spends a long time teaching them- he teaches them many things, and he keeps going until it begins to get dark and too late for them to find their way back around the lake and home. They don’t appear to mind this. They are obviously hungry for teaching. We begin to get fidgety if the preacher goes on for longer than 45 minutes. An hour is reckoned to be much too long for a sermon. Perhaps if we were more earnest about spiritual realities, we would want to spend hours listening to good teaching, and if we couldn’t find it in the church we usually attend, we’d look elsewhere. We need to be taught. If a man doesn’t eat, he wastes away, grows sick, and dies. If a man is not nourishing his spiritual life, the same thing happens.

3) Who else does miracles with food in the Bible? Is Mark making deliberate reference to those occasions? If so, why? Is there a parallelism between Moses/Joshua, Elijah/Elisha, and John/Jesus?

There are a few feeding miracles in the Old Testament. Moses strikes the rock and provides water for Israel. Under Moses, there is also the miraculous provision of manna and quails in the wilderness. Elijah was fed by ravens when the whole land was a wilderness around him, and he fed the Gentile widow of Zarephath in Sidon with miraculously renewing oil and flour. Elisha made the bad water of Jericho wholesome, multiplied oil for a Jewish widow, purified a poisonous stew for the prophets, and (in perhaps the closest parallel to the feeding of the 5000) multiplied the firstfruits brought to him by a man from Baal-Shalishah to feed a hundred men.

There is a parallelism between the three sets of men in the question. Moses, Elijah, and John all come to a disobedient people and call them to follow the Lord.

Before Moses, Israel are not really a nation. They are a large tribe living in Egypt. Moses calls them out of Egypt, gives them the law, and leads them to a land of their own. They are now God’s nation in a way that they weren’t before.

In Elijah’s day, that is nearly lost. The king and queen are Baalists, and Baalism is the all-but-official religion of the land. God’s people are whisker-close to breaking covenant with their God. Elijah calls the people to repent, to seek the Lord, and to destroy Baalism root and branch. And he leads the way, confronting, humiliating, and then butchering the prophets of Baal in holy violence.

Moses was the man God used to found his nation. Elijah was the man God used to preserve his nation. Both men have a show-down with idolaters, and have many of them killed (the Golden Calf, and the Mount Carmel episodes). Both die on the East side of the Jordan, symbolically ending their ministries in the wilderness outside the promised land.

Both die mysteriously. Both gave their lives to God’s promises, without ever seeing those promises fulfilled in their lifetimes. Both appear on the mount of transfiguration.

In John’s day, the people are not Baalists, but they still need to be called to repentance. They need to be pulled back from the brink of being “not God’s people” yet again. Messiah is coming, and they are not ready to receive him. They still need preparation before the Lord comes among them. John is a figure in the mould of Moses and Elijah. We looked last time at the more detailed parallels between Elijah/Ahab/Jezebel, and John/Herod/Herodias.

Joshua inherits a nation from Moses, and leads them into the land of promise. Elisha inherits a more obedient people from Elijah, and sees the destruction of the house of Ahab, and Jezebel eaten by dogs. Both men cross the Jordan into the promised land on dry ground. God promised them both that he will be with them as he was with their predecessors. Their names mean the same thing.

Jesus comes to bring blessing greater than that brought by Joshua or Elisha. He appears as the saviour to John’s disciples. He is able to baptise with the Holy Spirit, and actually work effectual change within the heart.


4) Are there other echoes of pastoral metaphor here? Why would there be?

In Hebrew minds, if you want to emphasise something, you don’t put it in italics or in bold. You don’t even underline it. You repeat it, and repeat it. Sometimes you repeat it and repeat it again. And maybe you repeat it one more time. Mark here repeats a phrase several times. Jesus asked the disciples to come away to a “desolate place” (v31). They went away to a “desolate place” (v32). The disciples came to Jesus and said, “This is a desolate place” (v35). The wilderness motif is here in these verses, and is in contrast to the “green grass” on which the people are seated.

Rest for God’s people in places of safety and plenty is a common theme of the Bible- Deuteronomy 3:20, 12:9f; 25:19; Joshua 1:13,15; 21:44; Psalm 95:7-11; Isaiah 63:14; Jeremiah 31:2; Hebrews 3:7-4:13. The literal rest sought by the wilderness generation under Moses may have become semi-typological in the preaching about a second exodus given by Isaiah and Jeremiah- but the idea is that of a haven from strife and trouble, a haven guaranteed by God for his people. There are echoes of the green pastures of Psalm 23 here.


The Lord of Hosts

4) Only men are mentioned here. Assuming that we’re not going to be so foolish as to take a “feminist reading” of Mark, why is this?

For your information, most feminist readings of Mark- and of any other male-authored book you care to mention- go along the lines of, “Mark only mentions men in this passage. There must have been lots of women there, but Mark didn’t mention them because he thought that they were unimportant. This is because Mark was an evil sexist who unthinkingly accepted the oppressive patriarchal cultural norms of his society, and he was writing to other evil sexists in the corrupt male-dominated early church. This proves that men are bad.

If you think I’m joking, or even exaggerating, just search Google books for feminist interpretations of the Bible, and you’ll find that, sadly, I’m not. I shan’t dwell on the feminist reading, for fear of being tempted to sarcastic mockery. I don’t think that sarcastic mockery would be a wrong response- Micaiah did it in I Kings 22, and it was both good and funny- but it would divert us from getting to grips with what Mark actually says.

The common evangelical interpretation – the one you’re most likely to hear coming soon to a sermon near you- is, “Well, Mark only mentions the men here. Just think of how many people there must have been if you count all the women and children as well! Jesus was really feeding tens of thousands!” That sounds very nice, and it seems to make the miracle more impressive- the food is multiplied even further. (If the version coming soon to a sermon near you is instead, “Well, of course, the real miracle here is about sharing. The crowd were all moved deeply by the example of the dear little boy, and they all got out the lunches they’d been hiding, and shared them around in a spirit of love and generosity”, then you should start looking for a different church.)

But this gloss on the passage dodges the difficult question, “Why does Mark only mention men?” The feminists might be out of their tree, but at least they give an answer to that question. If we want to assume the presence of a whole crowd of women and children, we need to give a coherent reason for their absence from Mark’s account. “Mark was a sexist” won’t cut it; Mark mentions women and children in plenty of other places. Come to that, were Matthew, Luke, and John all sexists too? This miracle is unusual in that it appears in all four Gospels- but none of the authors thought it fit to mention the presence of women, while all of them state that 5000 men were there. If women were there, surely at least Luke would mention the fact, wouldn’t he? And for all four writers, the men are “αυδρες”- the Greek word denoting “males” rather than the word denoting “mankind”.

John has and the men sat down, about five thousand of them”.

Luke has “About five thousand men were there”.

Mark we can read above.

Matthew has “The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children”

I know what you’re thinking – “Hey, wait a minute. Matthew says there were women and children there. He says he’s only counting the men”. That looks to be true- but it’s not. The Greek word which has been (poorly) translated “besides” is “χωρις”. This more frequently means “without” than it means “besides”. So though Matthew seems to be supporting the idea that there were women there after all, he’s actually the most definite witness to tell us that there were no women there. I’d read Matthew 14:21 literally as  “5000 men, without women and children”. I think the weight of evidence is strongly in favour of this being an exclusively male crowd.

That fits with the context- how many women and children are likely to keep up with their menfolk as they run halfway round a sizeable lake? How many women, with their children, would stay on a hillside in the middle of nowhere until it became too late to return home? To run round the lake to meet the boat, and then to drop everything to listen to this teacher/healer/Messiah into the night seems like a very blokeish thing to do.

How many people do you know who sit up on election night and watch the coverage until all the results are in? And what proportion of them are male?

And it fits thematically, as I hope we shall see in the next section…


5) Jesus “commands” these men to sit down in companies, so they sit in companies by 100s and 50s (see Exodus 18, Numbers 31, and Deuteronomy 1). Why does Jesus seat the crowd like this? Why can’t they sit down in groups of whatever size they fancy?

This seems odd if we take it literally. It is very easy not to take it at face value, but instead to filter it through our own preconceptions about what went on. When we imagine the feeding of the 5000, most of us probably have a picture of a kind of amorphous mass of folk sitting on the grass to eat. That’s what our church picnics are like- people sit wherever they want, with whomever they want. Families might sit together, friends might sit together, and the groups of people are of all shapes and sizes. There are 6 in a group here, 23 in a group there, an isolated couple over there… People wouldn’t count themselves off into exact groups of 50 and 100, and sit in that regimented fashion. But Mark says that this is what happened, and unless we’ve a very good reason to interpret his words “So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties” to mean “So they sat down in groups, and some of the groups were somewhere around 50, or somewhere around 100, or something like that”, we shouldn’t do so.

There is (as you might have guessed) some Old Testament background to this. But the key thing is the psychology of the men present, and why they would arrange themselves into the formations they did.

In the wilderness, when Moses divided up the people into governable units, he did so by “thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens” (Exodus 18:21;25). If you look in a concordance for “hundreds” or “fifties”, you will see that the bulk of the references are to the army of Israel. Israel’s military was organised into units, and one such division was into hundreds and fifties.

Either Jesus tells these Jewish men to sit in groups of hundreds and fifties, or they do it spontaneously, en masse. I’m not sure which I find more likely. In either case, these are men, and they are thinking of themselves as an army. Note also here that the “sheep without a shepherd” reference above to 1 Kg 22:17, refers in context to an army which has lost its general.

Imagine for a moment that you are a Roman commander, flying over Israel in a plane that won’t be invented for another 1870 years or so. That’s the beauty of imagination- you can do that sort of thing. You are looking down over your conquered country, and you happen to be flying over the Sea of Galilee, just as this miracle is taking place. What do you see? Does it worry you?

You see 5000 Jewish men. It is beginning to get dark, but they are still all out on the hills. Why? What are they doing? There is one man at the front who appears to be addressing the crowd. After a while, they all split off into evenly sized groups, and sit down. Surely, you would be worried that this was a rebellion. You’d think Israel had found a leader, and he had organised them into a rebel military force.  No wonder John tells us that at this point, the 5000 were about to try to make Jesus king by force (John 6:15).


6) Why are there 5 loaves of bread? Who else fed his men with 5 loaves of bread? Is this relevant?

Everything in Mark is relevant. He is the most economical writer I can think of. There are no extraneous details. Jesus fed the men with 5 loaves, and the numbers seem important, don’t they? Jesus will refer specifically to the numbers of men, loaves, and baskets in the boat (Mark 8:19-20).

And as ever, we go to the Old Testament to see where the significance lies. 5 loaves are mentioned in a passage to which Jesus has already directly referred earlier in the Gospel. When accused of doing what wasn’t lawful on the Sabbath, back in Mark 2, Jesus reminded the Pharisees that David had taken the bread of the presence, holy bread only to be eaten by priests, to feed his fighting men when they were on the run from Saul. In Mark 2, Jesus was in effect claiming to be the new David. David was the anointed but unrecognised king, and his men were the only faithful Israelites, and they were on a holy mission to install God’s king on the throne. They were the ones worthy of the holy bread anyway. So Jesus was the king in truth, and his followers were holy in the way that matters. The Pharisees were opposing God’s king, just like Saul. But in the passage, which is in I Samuel 21, you find that when David goes to the priests begging for food (and for a weapon), he says to them, “give me 5 loaves of bread, or whatever you have”. The food for David’s band of men- the army such as he had then- was 5 loaves.

So there is this military theme to the feeding of the 5000, Jesus not only as shepherd, but as commander of the army (like David).


7) Where does the rubber hit the road with all of this in the church?


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3 Comments on “Mark 6:30-44. An army of sheep.”

  1. C Gribben Says:

    That ref should be Numbers 27:16-17, not Numbers 26:16-17.

    • allanhim Says:

      Oops, sorry. Should now be fixed. But if you go to 26:16-17, you end up reading about Ozni and the Oznites, so it isn’t all bad.

  2. C Gribben Says:

    Go on, discuss it! Go on, Kurioser!

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