The festival of the Yehudim, Passover was at hand
To set the stage for this miracle—the only miracle that is recorded in all four gospels—we must look at where it falls in relation to the surrounding text of each account.
Matthew’s version is preceded by the unbelief of Yeshua’s home town synagogue and the description of the beheading of John the Baptist—cousin to Yeshua—the miracle of the loaves and fishes is followed by Peter’s attempt to walk on water. It seems that Matthews account would indicate that Yeshua first withdrew by Himself while the following accounts describe a separate return of the twelve at which time they withdrew together.
Mark’s account is preceded by the unbelief of Yeshua’s home town synagogue and the sending out of the twelve, two by two, after which the beheading of John is described, then the twelve return; the miracle of the loaves and fishes is followed by the walking on water miracle.
Luke’s narrative has the sending out of the twelve, the description of John’s beheading, and the return of the twelve: then the loaves and fishes followed by the “Who do you say I am,” statement of Yeshua and later the transfiguration.
John’s version is unique in that it is preceded by Yeshua attending a feast in Jerusalem and being rejected by those who opposed him there, then the Father’s testimony of Messiah is mentioned and Yeshua explains that Moses will judge the people for their rejection of Him. John then alerts the reader to the fact that Passover is at hand. The loaves and fishes event is still followed by the crossing to Capernaum and the walking on water, but is then proceeded by an extensive discussion concerning Moses and the manna from heaven which is to be understood as a metaphor in reference to Messiah Yeshua, “the bread of life.”
While we don’t know the exact time frames associated to the ordering of these events we can still deduce the writers’ intended theological and chronological, contextual meanings in relation to the account of the miracle of the loaves and fishes. All the surrounding events and meanings give insight as to the reason for this important—even pivotal—event in Yeshua’s ministry.
Rather than examine this miracle from a single account, verse by verse, I prefer to look at it chronologically and thematically using the main themes from each account as a combined whole. This of course presumes that this was a singularly unique event recorded by each of the gospel writers.
Both Matthew and Mark record a second event that took place in the region of the Decapolis, a predominantly Gentile location. The feeding of the five thousand, the miracle of the loaves and fishes took place near the city of Bethsaida (House of the hunt or House of fishing), a predominantly Jewish area, and close to Yeshua’s home in the Galilee. The fact that the four Jewish writers of the Gospels—I am not alone in seeing Luke as a proselyte—all saw fit to include this miracle, indicates it’s importance; symbolically, historically, religiously, prophetically, nationally, spiritually and metaphorically.
The united themes of this event read chronologically as follows:
· Yeshua in Jerusalem for a Jewish feast (Johns account probably intends the reader to understand a large gap in time between this feast—most likely an Aliyah feast: Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot—and the miracle of the loaves and fishes—at the beginning of Passover almost one year later.)
· The testimony of the Father—G-d—on behalf of the Son--Yeshua (a firstborn)
· Yeshua warns that Moses will judge the peoples disbelief
· Rejection of Yeshua by the people of his home town
· Yeshua sends out the twelve disciples, two by two
· Yeshua grieves over the loss of John the Baptist His cousin (a firstborn)
· The disciples return from their travels throughout Israel
· The time of Passover was at hand
· The miracle of the loaves and fishes
· The miracle of walking on water
· The discussion concerning manna, “the bread of life,” back in Capernaum (Links Yeshua to Moses)
· The transfiguration (Links Yeshua to Moses)
Yeshua in Jerusalem for a feast:
A number of scholars suggest that this was the Passover feast of the previous year, meaning that what follows took place at the beginning of the Passover of the following year.
Yeshua was affirmed by the Father’s testimony:
G-d the Father has testified throughout Scripture concerning His Son Yeshua. He had also poured out the Holy Spirit in a public show of glory over His Son and had testified saying, “this is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Yeshua need not explain Himself to the people on the basis of the required--Torah instruction—two human witnesses. His witnesses were G-d the Father and the Ruach ha-Kodesh—Holy Spirit. G-d the Father had given comprehensive testimony to the validity of Yeshua’s ministry, authority and kingship over Israel and all the earth. Following the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Yeshua’s command over the raging waters was proof yet again to His disciples, of G-d’s testimony of Him.
Yeshua warns that Moses will be Israel’s judge regarding their disbelief in Him:
The centrality of the Jewish reliance on the Torah of Moses is key to understanding the miracle of the loaves and fishes. The Jewish people of Yeshua’s time expected a prophet, a miracle worker and a Messiah who presented in accordance their understanding of the words of Moses as taught to them by their rabbis. The man they were looking for would perform miracles similar to those of Elijah and Elisha, he would show signs like those of Moses and He would reign in power as the son of David, over all the nations of the earth according to the prophecies of Isaiah. Many of these expectations were about to be manifested before their eyes. Therefore Moses would be their judge, for he had written clearly the prophetic words that would prove Yeshua’s rightful position as the one who would be like Moses.
“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him. 16 This is according to all that you asked of the Lord your God in Horeb on the day of the assembly, saying, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, let me not see this great fire anymore, or I will die.’ 17 The Lord said to me, ‘they have spoken well. 18 I will raise up a prophet from among their countrymen like you, and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.19 It shall come about that whoever will not listen to My words which he shall speak in My name, I Myself will require it of him.”
D’varim/Deuteronomy 18:15-19 (NASB)
Rejection of Yeshua in His home town:
His own friends and wider family/community rejected Him because they believed Him to be of common birth, they were jealous of Him. This is not an uncommon response to the prophets of Israel as testified to by the lives of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and so on. This is in fact would be a clear indication to others that Yeshua just might be the prophet/Messiah they were awaiting.
Yeshua sends out His disciples, two by two:
This was a ministering of the twelve to Israel, hence twelve disciples. Later in the Gospel narrative a new Sanhedrin of sorts is sent out to minister to the wider towns and spread the good news to other nationalities, thus seventy, the Hebrew number representing the nations. However the events surrounding the miracle of the loaves and fishes pertain specifically to Israel and not to the Decapolis and other surrounding areas.
Two by two may be a correlation with the Ark: used as a metaphor here for the repopulating of the earth with baptized (the flood) spiritual children. The news of G-d’s kingdom as taught by Messiah Yeshua was to be made known to the tribes of Israel prior to the miracle of the loaves and fishes. When Israel was in slavery in Egypt, word of Moses actions needed time to spread to them prior to their coming out of Egypt into the wilderness.
Yeshua grieves over the loss of John the Baptist:
When Yeshua heard of the death of John the Baptist we are told that He retreated to a deserted place by Himself. He was clearly greatly grieved by the death of His cousin and perhaps reminded of His own destiny. He shows us an example of how to turn to the only one who can truly comfort us in times of great sorrow. The Father is often beheld in deserted places of solitude. The disciples must have returned to the vicinity with Him because Marks version of events has them retreat with Him after the death of John. It is interesting to note that John’s disciples came and took his body away for burial, while Yeshua’s disciples fled after His death.
Passover is at Hand:
Barley is the first grain harvested in Israel at this time of the year. Leaven/yeast is removed from homes, and food without leaven is eaten. Leaven/yeast symbolizes sin in Judaism. Jews from all over the known world would head up to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, which is one of the three Aliyah Moadim—going up festivals/Sabbaths.
The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes:
The Passover was near, Jews from the known world were on their way to Jerusalem and had heard of this mysterious prophet of G-d. Perhaps some detoured to find Him? What is certain is that all had cleaned their homes and traveling gear of yeast—the Jewish symbol of sin—and were preparing their hearts to celebrate deliverance from slavery. They were also hoping for deliverance from Roman rule.
Luke tells us that the day was drawing to a close, so that it was toward the late afternoon, perhaps a Sabbath eve.
Upon seeing the crowd Yeshua says to Philip (the obvious person to ask because he came from Bethsaida—John 1:44), “Where can we buy bread for all these people?” He said this to prove Philip. Does that mean Yeshua wasn’t sure of Philip’s loyalty and so had to find out? No, of course not. When G-d/Yeshua seeks to prove someone it is for that persons benefit. We could say, “Yeshua sought to make Philip aware of the extent of his own faith in Yeshua/G-d.” Philip’s response sets up the miracle, by his reasoning that the request is humanly impossible. Andrew adds to the confusion by saying, “Hey, there’s a young man here with five (unleavened, because Passover is at hand) loaves and a couple of fish (probably the local sardines), but that’s not going to feed all these people.” Two loaves may well have been for erev Shabbat, representing the double portion of manna given to Israel every Friday. This is consistent with the theme of this portion of scripture and the discussion that follows.
Yeshua doesn’t miss a beat, “Have the people recline (Passover terminology) together in groups.” There was a large grass area there, probably at the base of the hill/mountain where the disciples had been with Yeshua—thus creating a natural amphitheater for what would come next.
Yeshua took the loaves and said the brakhot for bread—the ha-motzi—and began to distribute them to the crowd. He then did the same with the fish. The text seems to indicate that both Yeshua and the disciples were involved in distributing the food directly to the people, this would dispel the foolish conjecture that suggests the people simple brought out their lunches and shared them. Most Jews attending an Aliyah festival like Passover would travel lite, expecting to buy food on the way, hence Yeshua’s question to Philip prior to the miracle. In addition, the fact that Yeshua suggested that the crowd go and buy food infers that they did not already have food.
This miraculous feeding of such a large group of Jewish men, women and children (approx. 19-28,000) is reminiscent of Moses (G-d’s) feeding of Israel with manna and quail in the desert. Manna being the miraculous bread of heaven and quail being the common bird of that area. Here the manna will be later explained as Messiah Yeshua Himself. The fish—probably sardines—is the common meat of the area.
Three types of fish were primarily sought by fishermen in antiquity in these waters. Sardines are the most likely candidates for the, “two small fish" that the young man brought to the feeding of the five thousand. Sardines and bread were the staple product of the locals. The second type of fish, Barbels receive their name from the barbs at the corners of their mouths. The third type is called Musht but is more popularly known today as "St. Peter's Fish." This fish has a long dorsal fin which looks like a comb and can be up to 45cm long and 1.5 kgs in weight.
The barley bread—eaten predominantly by the poorer classes—brought by the young man was most likely unleavened, given that Passover was at hand—the leaven is always cleaned from Jewish homes and meals prior to Passover—and that the miracle is followed by a discussion that relates manna—unleavened heavenly bread—to the body of Messiah Yeshua—who is without sin, remembering that in first century Judaism yeast is seen as a symbol of sin.
After the meal Yeshua says, “Gather up the fragments that are left over so that none of them may be lost.” Why is the gathering of the left overs so important to Yeshua? Perhaps the number of baskets is a clue, there are twelve, the number of disciples, but more importantly, the number of the tribes of Israel. It is possible that this was meant as a symbol or metaphor for the reconciliation of Israel to G-d at the end of time. Shaul/Paul the apostle tells us that when the allotted number of the members of the nations have come to faith, that the entire remnant of Israel will be saved. (Romans 11:25-26)
The Miracle of Walking on Water:
This shows Messiah’s authority over creation—as the second Adam. This sign affirms Him again as the prophesied one. Elisha, in a somewhat lesser sense also exhibited the authority of G-d over creation when he made the ax head float. (2 Kings 6:4-7) Similarities to the great prophets in the ministry of Yeshua were proofs of His authenticity.
The Discussion (back in Capernaum) Concerning Moses, Manna, and the Bread of Life:
The link between the miracle of the manna in the desert and the feeding of the five thousand is unmistakable. The “Bread of life,” discourse was intended to be strengthened by the recently performed sign of the loaves and fishes. Yeshua was revealing Himself as the manna from heaven, the bread of life. The crowd asks for a sign, seemingly immune to the obvious sign that has just been performed. Yeshua points them away from Moses and toward the Father G-d saying, “It was not Moses that gave you the manna, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.” They respond, “Give us this bread from heaven.” Yeshua answers, “I am the bread of life!”
Yeshua reminds his people that their fathers ate manna and died—the death unto judgment. Yeshua was now offering Himself, the bread of life. Those who eat the life of Messiah will never die. Why did the forefathers die? Through disobedience. Therefore Yeshua is warning that failure to accept His manna will result in eternal death. This He had already pretexted prior to the miracle when He was in Jerusalem warning the people that Moses would be their judge. It was Moses who stood as a mediator regarding the manna in the desert. Now Messiah Yeshua is claiming to be the manifest manna and mediator of G-d, all wrapped up in one.
It is interesting to note that toward the end of the 3rd century B.C. that Rabbi Isaac wrote, “as the former redeemer caused manna to descend (referring to Moses)… so will the later Redeemer cause manna to descend.” Ecclesiastes Rabbah on Ec. 1:9
The bread of life discourse does not refer to pagan magic practice regarding the consummation of power through blood drinking as some have supposed. Yeshua is talking to Jews who despise their Roman rulers and abhor the pagan Roman worship practices however this discourse is offensive to them, not because of pagan links, but because of its seeming direct contradiction to the Torah. Yeshua, did not act outside of rabbinical practice when he used the metaphor of his flesh and blood as a teaching tool. What is clear is that Yeshua was miss understood, not only by the crowd but also by His own disciples.
This event links Yeshua again to both Elijah and Moses, affirming the theme of the narrative surrounding the miracle of the loaves and fishes. This event may well have taken place months later, perhaps even during the feast of Sukkot—booths—given the offer of Peter to build shelters/Sukkors.
© Alastair Brown 2013