A couple of days ago my girlfriend and I were talking about the problem of evil. I think I had showed her a post over at Common Sense Atheism
that was simply a picture of the stereotypical god figure sitting on a couch with popcorn and soda while watching “on TV” the image of a child starving to death in (I assume) Africa. Now my girlfriend is not religious, but was brought up with nomial Catholicism, having grown up and spent most of her formative years in Italy. She mentioned how god must have horrible priorities if he decided to feed a few thousand people with fish back in 33 CE when there's an entire world of people starving and dying. “You can tell what kind of god he is” she recounted.
What she was referring to, of course, was the feeding of the multitude episode(s) in the Synoptic Gospels. While her point was correct, the example that she used was not.
Mark has two “miraculous” feeding scenes; one at 6.30-44 and the other at 8.1-9. Now it should be noted that Mark has actually set up these two scenes and a scene following it a bit. The first four disciples that Jesus calls (Simon [Peter], Andrew, James, and John) are all fishermen. Mark has Jesus say something along the lines of “You guys are fishermen eh? Well how about I make you fishers… of men! Damn that's an awesome pun.” when he first meets them. The would be disciples drop their nets immediately – abandoning their families – and follow him.
Amazing what a well timed pun can do.
Ok now let's look at the first feeding, Mk 6.30-44:
30 The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught.
31 Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”
32 So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place.
33 But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them.
34 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.
35 By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it's already very late.
36 Send the people away so they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”
37 But he answered, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “That would take eight months of a man's wages[e]! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?”
38 “How many loaves do you have?” he asked. “Go and see.” When they found out, they said, “Five—and two fish.”
39 Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass.
40 So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties.
41 Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to set before the people. He also divided the two fish among them all.
42 They all ate and were satisfied,
43 and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish.
44 The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.
And here is the second feeding, Mk 8.1-9:
1 During those days another large crowd gathered. Since they had nothing to eat, Jesus called his disciples to him and said,
2 “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat.
3 If I send them home hungry, they will collapse on the way, because some of them have come a long distance.”
4 His disciples answered, “But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them?”
5 “How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked. “Seven,” they replied.
6 He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. When he had taken the seven loaves and given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people, and they did so.
7 They had a few small fish as well; he gave thanks for them also and told the disciples to distribute them.
8 The people ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.
9 About four thousand men were present.
Right before the first feeding, the disciples had just been sent out into the world to preach about the good news and coming kingdom of god. Notice here that this is the last appearance of fish in the narrative, and I think it has a specific purpose. I'll say it in another way: The only appearance of fish in Mark is when Jesus picks his first two groups of disciples and at these two feedings.
After this feeding, we get the famous walking on water pericope where the disciples are trying to get to the “other” side of the lake (they actually make a semicircle and end up where they started, but Mark's concern isn't accurate geography…). Jesus then heals a non-Jewish woman and some dude who is mute. Then we get to the second feeding.
Now here's what I think the purpose of these two feedings are. Notice in the first one, right after Jesus' disciples have finished evangelizing, there are two fish. And then at the end the disciples pick up twelve baskets of remains. They then “travel” to “another” side of the river where Jesus heals some non-Jews. After these healings, there are a bunch of small fish; the remains are seven baskets. The most important part of all of this is what Jesus says after being confronted by the Pharisees asking for a sign:
“Beware the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.“
Jesus' disciples are like “Oh… it's because we have no bread…”. Jesus uses his super-hearing to listen in on what his disciples are saying and replies “You guys are dumb! Come on now, didn't you see the first feeding where there was twelve baskets left over? And the second feeding where there was seven? Don't tell me you don't get it. Jesus Christ – you guys are dumb as rocks!” (because we all know that Jesus yelled his own name whenever he was exasperated).
Of course, Jesus isn't talking about actual yeast when he talks about the Pharisees or Herod. The Pharisees are the ones preaching a different message from Jesus to their fellow Jews and possible non-Jewish converts. So in essense, Jesus was “feeding” the people in his feedings, but it was spiritual food. It was his own preaching.
The two fish (ιχθυας, which is actually the skin or “husk” of the fish) represent the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. They can also represent the two groups of disciples that Jesus first “caught”: Simon and Andrew, and James and John. The twelve that were left over represented the twelve tribes of I&J. In the second feeding, the little fish (ιχθυδια) represent every other kingdom. The seven baskets left over represent Rome (non-Jews), as there are seven hills that represeted the Roman empire.
But of course, as my girlfriend would more intimitely know, there are now nine hills of Rome.