An interpretation of Mark 6:31-44 and Mark 8:1-10: The Loaves and the Fishes
In the first loaves-and-fishes story, the disciples start with five loaves and two fishes. As Christian Bible-readers know, this amount miraculously multiplies so that there is enough for 5,000 people. In the second story, the disciples start with seven loaves and “a few fish” and again, this amount turns out to be enough for everyone to be satisfied (in this case 4,000 people).
In both stories, however, we are told that there are leftovers, twelve baskets full in one story, seven in the other.
I’m less concerned with the meaning of these numbers–which are in any case quite perplexing–than with why there are leftovers at all. To stress God’s bounty, one might say. But wouldn’t it have been enough that everyone ate their fill? I believe the explanation for the extra food lies in the Hebrew Bible.
These two stories have an obvious connection to the stories of miraculous feedings in Exodos 16 and Numbers 11. (Maybe the reason there are two stories in Mark is because there are two stories in the Torah; I imagine some commentator somewhere has already thought of that and in any case it is “food” for another blog)
But one of the issues that turns up in Exodus and Numbers is that God provides just enough food for the people, exactly what they need, no more, no less. There are no leftovers in the wilderness. In Exodus, the people go out looking for food on the Sabbath, even though God provided them with two days worth on the sixth day, and this is explicitly named as a violation of God’s command.
In the Numbers story, the narrative begins with the assumption that the people have already been provisioned with manna, but they complain that manna isn’t enough. They are craving meat. So they start whining to Moses who in turn whines to God. God’s response is to give them meat, specifically quail, only God rains down so many quails that the people are practically buried.
Now then, back to Mark. The Markan stories are obviously predicated on the Exodus and Numbers stories. The people are in the wilderness because Jesus (standing in for God) has led them there. They become hungry and there are no provisions–precisely because they’re in the middle of nowhere. God/Jesus responds by miraculously providing food. To be sure, the details are different, but the structure is the same–except for one thing: there are leftovers in the Markan stories. Why?
I believe the key lies in the stories that follow each of the feeding stories in the gospel. Let me just stick with the one that follows in Mark 8. Although it looks like 8:11 is the beginning of a different story, it is also a story about feeding. Although God has just performed a miracle by feeding the four thousand, the Pharisees appear, clueless that Jesus has just performed this great miracle, and ask for a sign–they don’t get one. Then Jesus and the disciples leave. Later the disciples complain that they have no bread (8:14). Jesus chastises them for their whining and faithlessness and ultimately reminds them that they, in fact, have twelve baskets of leftovers.
At the end of the story about manna in Exodus 16, God tells Moses and Aaron to preserve one jar of manna as a sign for future generations that they may remember what God did for the Israelites in the wilderness. In other words, it turns out there is something leftover, and it’s function is to be a memorial.
The leftovers in Mark are meant as a sign of remembrance. The Pharisees missed the sign (8:11-13), and the disciples forgot the sign, even though they were carrying it with them (8:14-21)! But, just as with the jar of manna that Moses and Aaron preserved, the leftovers in Mark function symbolically as a sign for readers to remember this miraculous event, even if we sometimes forget.