Moses and Elijah (Part 1)
The figures of Moses and Elijah are central to the Gospel narrative, and to the Messianic identity of Jesus, particularly in the Galilean period of Jesus’ ministry which forms the first half of the Synoptic Narrative. Moses and Elijah were important prophetic figures in Israel’s history (and in Old Testament tradition), and, through the key Scriptures of Deut 18:15-19 and Mal 3:1ff; 4:5-6, came to be regarded as figure-types for the Messianic Prophet who was expected to appear at the end-time (prior to the great Judgment). For more on this subject, cf. Part 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.
Jesus was identified with both the Moses and Elijah figure-types, as I discuss in the aforementioned article. This can be seen at various points throughout the early Gospel tradition, associated with the Galilean ministry of Jesus as recorded (especially) in the Synoptic narrative. However, there are two episodes from this Galilean period where the Old Testament associations particularly stand out:
- The Miraculous Feeding episode, and
- The Transfiguration scene
Part 1 of this article will deal with the Miraculous Feeding episode, while Part 2 will examine the Transfiguration scene.
The Miraculous Feeding Episode (Mark 6:30-44 par)
This episode makes for a fascinating test case in New Testament criticism. Not only do we have the three Synoptic versions (Triple-Tradition), along with a parallel version in the Gospel of John, but there is the second Feeding miracle (of the 4,000), nearly identical in its basic outline (to that of the 5,000), preserved in Mark and Matthew (Mk 8:1-10) par. It is not the place here to go into the many critical questions regarding the relationship between these versions; in any case, I have discussed the matter at considerable length elsewhere (cf. especially the articles in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”). In this particular study, I will be focusing on influence of the Old Testament on the Miraculous Feeding scene as it has been recorded in the Gospels.
As it happens, there are no direct citations or quotations of Scripture in the Feeding episode (in any of the versions); instead, we find a number of subtle, but significant, allusions to Old Testament traditions that have helped to shape the narrative. Three strands of tradition may be isolated, each of which relates, in certain ways, to the figures of Moses and Elijah:
“Sheep without a shepherd” (Num 27:17; 1 Kings 22:17; Mk 6:34 par)
In the Synoptic (Markan) version of the feeding of the 5,000, we find the following narrative description:
“And coming out (of the boat), he [i.e. Jesus] saw (the) throng (of) many (people), and he was moved in (his) inner parts upon them, (in) that [i.e. because] they were as sheep not having [i.e. without] any herder, and he began to teach them many (thing)s.” (6:34)
Neither Matthew nor Luke contain the specific allusion to the people “as sheep without a shepherd”, though they include the detail of Jesus’ compassion for them, as well as the mention of his teaching and the healing miracles he performed. Conceivably, Mark has added the sheep/shepherd reference to the core Synoptic tradition, which would explain why Matthew and Luke do not have it in their version; nor is it part of the second Feeding (of the 4,000) narrative.
However it came to be included in the Markan version of the episode, its significance relates to the apparent allusion to Numbers 27:17, as descriptive of Joshua, the Spirit-endowed leader who follows Moses as guide (i.e., ‘shepherd’) for the people (vv. 12-23). Joshua stands in relation to Moses, much as Elisha does to Elijah (cf. below), with both receiving an ‘anointing’ of the same divine, prophetic Spirit that their predecessor possessed. Here is how the matter is described in Num 27:16-17:
“May YHWH, Mightiest (One) [i.e. God] of (the) spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the assembly, who will go out before them and who will come (in) before them, who will bring them out and who will bring them (in), and (then) the assembly of YHWH will not be like a flock (of sheep) which does not (have) for them (one) giving pasture [i.e. a shepherd/herdsman].”
The allusion in Mk 6:34 indicates that Jesus is to be regarded, like Joshua (the two names being essentially identical), as the Spirit-empowered successor to Moses. It is Jesus who will lead and guide the people of God. Indeed, like Moses himself, Jesus serves as God’s chosen (= anointed) representative who miraculously provides food for the multitude as they sojourn in the desolate land.
The motif from Numbers 27:17 is repeated in 1 Kings 22:17, part of the Micaiah scene in chapter 22. The sheep/shepherd idiom is used there in a negative sense: because of the wickedness of the king (Ahab) and the many ‘false prophets’, the people of Israel truly are like sheep without a proper shepherd. While the prophetic significance of this Old Testament episode cannot be disregarded, it is only loosely related to the Elijah/Elisha traditions. Almost certainly, it is Num 27:17 that is being referenced in the Markan version of the Miraculous Feeding scene.
The Elisha tradition in 2 Kings 4:42-44
As nearly every New Testament commentator recognizes, the basic action of the Miraculous Feeding episode reflects, to some extent, the scene in 2 Kings 4:42-44. The way that the two narratives relate can be traced rather simply by comparing the relevant detail:
- A man brings loaves of bread to Elisha (v. 42)
/ The disciples bring loaves to Jesus (Mk 6:37f, 41 par)
- Elisha tells him to give the bread to the people to eat (v. 42)
/ Jesus tells the disciples to give the people food to eat (Mk 6:37a par)
- The servant asks how he can give the bread to so many men (v. 43a)
/ The disciples ask how they are able to obtain food for so many people (Mk 6:37b par)
- A repeated directive to bring/obtain loaves of bread (v. 43b; Mk 6:38 par)
- All of the people eat and there is still some left over (vv. 43b-44a; Mk 6:42-43 par)
- This is done/accomplished “according to the word of YHWH”, as expressed by the prophet Elisha (v. 44)
/ The miracle takes place according to the command of Jesus, accompanied by his word of blessing/consecration (Mk 6:39, 41)
- A man brings loaves of bread to Elisha (v. 42)
These parallels make abundantly clear that Jesus is acting as an inspired Prophet, in the pattern of Elijah (and his disciple Elisha). Elijah was the great miracle-working prophet in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition, the mighty deeds and wonders taking place, by the power of God, through special prophetic Spirit that was upon him. Elisha, his disciple and appointed successor, would receive this same Spirit (2 Kings 2:9-10ff), even as Joshua inherits the Spirit-endowed mantle of leadership from Moses (cf. above, and note the more specific prophetic parallel in Num 11:16-17ff).
As I discuss in the previous article, by the 1st century B.C./A.D., the Spirit-inspired Herald of Isa 61:1ff had come to be associated with the (Messianic) figure-type of Elijah. This can be seen both in the Gospel Tradition (Lk 4:17-19ff and 7:18-22 par) and in the Qumran text 4Q521. The specific points of emphasis in the Nazareth episode of Lk 4:16-30 are again worth noting:
- Jesus specifically identifies himself with the prophet/herald who is “anointed by the Spirit”, a prophetic detail that was fulfilled at the Baptism, and with the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry (3:22; 4:1, 14-15ff)
- He again identifies himself as a prophet in the proverbial saying of 4:24 par
- The Scripture examples he cites (vv. 25-27) are from the Elijah and Elisha narratives
- Elisha was the only Old Testament prophet specifically said to have been anointed (cf. 1 Kings 19:16), in a manner that seems to have been primarily figurative, referring to the divine/prophetic Spirit that comes upon him
The Moses/Exodus Traditions
The allusion to Num 27:17 in Mk 6:34 (cf. above) suggests that Jesus is fulfilling the role of Moses, as the Spirit-empowered leader of the people, who guides them on their journey in the desolate land. The setting of the Miraculous Feeding episode fits this traditional paradigm, with: (a) the large crowd of people, (b) the desolate locale (Mk 6:35 par), and (c) the difficulty in finding food to eat. All of this naturally brings to mind Moses’ role as intermediary between God (YHWH) and the people, especially with regard to the miraculous feeding episodes recorded in the Exodus narratives. The prime narrative is in Exodus 16, where, according to Moses’ prophetic announcement, God brings down meat (quail) and bread (‘manna’) from the sky to feed the people.
There is only the faintest allusion to the manna-tradition in the Gospel narrative. However, it takes on more prominence in the Johannine version of the Miraculous Feeding (6:1-14). In at least two small details, John’s version emphasizes the association with Moses, rather than Elijah. The first is the reference to the time of the Passover festival (v. 4), a detail found only in John’s version, though the mention of green grass (Mk 6:39 par) suggests that the episode may have taken place in the Springtime.
The second significant detail comes at the conclusion of the narrative (v. 14), where people respond to the miracle by declaring that “this is truly the Prophet, the (one) coming into the world!” This demonstrates the popular expectation of a Messianic Prophet, which, most commonly, was conceived according to one of two prophetic figure-types: Moses and Elijah, respectively (cf. again Part 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). The title “the Prophet” is more likely to be a reference to the Moses figure-type (Deut 18:15-19), while the descriptive title “the (one who is) coming” (Grk o( e)rxo/meno$) better fits the Elijah type (cf. Mal 3:1ff, 4:5-6, and my earlier note on the subject). Given the Moses/Passover theme that runs through John 6, it seems probable that “the Prophet” is the “Prophet like Moses”.
In the great “Bread of Life” discourse that follows the Miraculous Feeding episode in the Gospel of John (6:22-59ff), the miraculous division of the bread-loaves is expounded in terms of the Moses/Exodus tradition of the manna—as “bread coming down from heaven”. This line of interpretation by Jesus is introduced in the discourse at verse 31:
“Our fathers ate the manna in the desolate (land), even as it has been written: ‘Bread out of heaven He gave them to eat’.”
The Scripture citation corresponds most directly to Psalm 78:24, but certainly refers to the main historical tradition in Exodus 16:4, 15 (cf. also Wisdom 16:20). As Jesus continues with this line of exposition, he brings up the (comparative) parallel with the figure of Moses:
“Amen, amen, I say to you: (it was) not Moses (who) has given you the bread out of heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread out of heaven.” (v. 32)
Two different points of contrast are at work in this statement:
- It was not Moses who gave the bread, but God (YHWH) Himself
- The manna was not the true “bread out of heaven”
Then Jesus goes a step further, identifying this “true bread” as a person who comes down from heaven:
“For the bread of God is the (one) stepping down out of heaven and giving life to the world.” (v. 33)
“I am the Bread of Life…” (v. 35)
Jesus is himself the true “bread from heaven”, which God gives to His people (believers) in the world. The Moses/Manna theme is reiterated at several points throughout the discourse (cf. especially vv. 46, 49ff), but is very much central to the overall “Bread of Life” image. The allusions to Jesus’ death (vv. 33, 38, 50-51, and the eucharistic language in vv. 52-58) tie the imagery back to the Passover setting of the miracle (v. 4), since the death of Jesus took place at Passover, fulfilling the figure-type of the Passover sacrifice (cf. 1:29, 36; 2:18-23; 12:1; 13:1; 18:28, 39; 19:14, , 31-33, 36).
Conclusion: The Context of the Synoptic Narrative
To gain a full appreciation of the significance of the Miraculous Feeding episode as an expression of the Messianic identity of Jesus, we must consider carefully the place of this episode within the Synoptic narrative framework. In particular, the two Feeding miracles (in Mark and Matthew) are key to the shaping of this framework. I have outlined the Markan structure in earlier notes and articles, but it is worth presenting again here:
- Reaction to Jesus, and his identity: the declaration by Herod—6:14-16 [inclusion of an associated tradition, 6:17-29]
- Feeding Miracle (5,000): the disciples/12 baskets—6:30-44 Miracle on the water: Jesus with the disciples in the boat—6:44-52 (they did not understand about the miraculous loaves)
- Healing Miracles—6:53-56
- Conflict/debate with religious authorities over tradition and ritual—7:1-23 including a Parable and explanation by Jesus (vv. 14-16, 17-23)
- Healing Miracles: 2 episodes—7:24-30, 31-37
- Feeding Miracle (4,000): the disciples/7 baskets—8:1-10 Teaching on the water: Jesus with the disciples in the boat—8:11-21 (they did not understand, re. the miraculous loaves)
- Healing miracle—8:22-26
- Reaction to Jesus, and his identity: the confession by Peter—8:27-30
In my view there is a definite (chiastic) symmetry to this section in Mark. Consider first—the framing episodes (6:14-16; 8:27-30) involving the question of Jesus’ identity, in which the general reaction by people to Jesus is noted (i.e. identifying him as “Elijah” or one of the Prophets). At the same time, Herod and Peter each make a declaration regarding Jesus’ identity:
The second pair of (parallel) episodes are the two Feeding Miracles:
The parallelism is reinforced by the inclusion, after the miracle, of an episode where Jesus and his disciples are together on the water (6:44-52; 8:11-21), and reference is made to the bread-loaves of the miraculous feeding (6:52; 8:19ff). The first episode involves a miracle (Jesus’ walking on the water), the second, teaching. A third parallel can be found in the healing miracles of 6:53-56 and 7:24-37:
Finally, at the center of the section, we find the debate between Jesus and the religious authorities (Scribes and Pharisees) regarding religious tradition and the interpretation of the Law (7:1-23). This theme carries through the remainder of the section, especially the instruction of Jesus to his disciples in 8:11-21, in which he warns them of “the leaven of the Pharisees [7:1ff] and Herod [6:14-16ff]” (v. 15). It is part of the reaction to Jesus’ ministry that is illustrated in this section. While the people may react to Jesus at one level—viewing him as a miracle working prophet like Elijah (cf. above), or otherwise—his true disciples ultimately will recognize him as “the Anointed One” (and Son of God).
Thus we can see that the two Feeding Miracle episodes play a pivotal role in the Markan narrative, and are important in demonstrating Jesus’ identity—the primary theme of 6:14-8:30.
Luke’s Gospel has a somewhat different structure, due to the fact that the author omits (or otherwise does not include) all of the Synoptic material in Mk 6:45-8:26 par. The single Miraculous Feeding (of the 5,000) thus is more clearly rooted in the concluding portion of the Galilean narrative:
Peter’s confession essentially brings the first half of the Synoptic narrative (the Galilean ministry period) to a close. The Transfiguration scene (Mk 9:2-8 par) may be viewed as transitional, or as the beginning episode in the second half of the Gospel (the Judean period), preceding as it does Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem (chap. 10). The journey section is framed by the three Passion predictions by Jesus, and so it is perhaps best to view the second half of the Synoptic narrative as starting with the first Passion prediction (Mk 8:31 par).
In any event, the Transfiguration scene is transitional in the sense that it completes the identification of Jesus as the prophetic Messiah, and prepares the way for his identification as the royal Messiah (from the line of David), which is the Messianic figure-type that comes to dominate the second half of the Gospel. In order to see how the associations with Moses and Elijah truly function within the Synoptic narrative, it is necessary for us to turn to this key episode of the Transfiguration, in Part 2.