Perhaps the most bizarre story in the entire Bible is the story where Jesus visits a very “dark” domain and speaks to the evil spirits, and they enter some pigs and run off a cliff into the water. It is bizarre for many reasons and most people don’t know what to do with it. It comes off incredibly weird to our culture; and makes people uncomfortable. Unfortunately, the details of the story induce a lot of “wrong” theological thinking within our modern cultural mindset; the average evangelical reader has no filter or hermeneutic plan for something so bizarre within their western Christian clothing. As a result, it leaves most people walking away with a negative Biblical experience. I think this is the result of kindergarten Christianity. The pre-eminent call of Jesus is to transition from a fan to follower, and to eventually be a completely devoted disciple checking everything on the beach and entering the journey to know Jesus and completely give yourself to him in heart, mind, and action. Most within the church won’t become a disciple (possibly until after death) and therefore can’t shepherd others into discipleship while on this earthly journey of sanctification. But this is a story geared at those who have made the decision to become intimate disciples fully given to their pursuit for the kingdom of Jesus (here and now) and they are clearly in training under the tutelage of The Great Shepherd. However, not eve all of them seem to fulfill the calling.
Mk 5:1-10, Mt 8:28-34 and Lk 8:26-39 tell what seems to be the same story yet there are several differences or variances. One mentions two demoniacs and the other text simply says one. As a theologian or simply a faithful disciple, it leaves us asking the question, “what are the viable solutions within the harmony of scripture?” Are they different episodes? No, they seem to be the same. Why the discrepancy? My friend Michael Sandberg (A previous pastor at our church) gave a brief explanation that the texts are NOT necessarily in disagreement. One text might refer to one man and another two, but both can be correct and likely are. I am good with that explanation that took Michael less than a minute and usually feel that is a great way to preach to the masses from the pulpit. Don’t major on the minors, pose the problems, present a good hermeneutical approach, and present harmonized solutions within the complete lens of scripture. If there are multiple views briefly present them and create a positive Biblical challenge for people to dive in deeper. Create a culture of discipleship and invite the Spirit to move past you.
Well, that might take care of the first and most obvious issue at hand (and be enough for the casual Christian); there are other problems with the text that a deeper disciple is going to want to work through. As we challenge people to dive in deeper someone needs to offer a better shepherded experience. My life calling has been to master the depth of the Scriptures and shepherd others to a similar understanding. That is also one of the core values of Covenant Theological Seminary (CTS) where I am involved.
To continue with the passage, the less scholarly will have a problem with the slight variation in location. Mark 5:1 states the country of the Ger’asenes (Luke 8:26 is identical) but Matthew 8:28 reads the country of the Gadarenes. I won’t expound much here. A simple internet search will show you they are logically rendered as the same place.
The next place I want to visit is the interpretation of the narrative story. The first thing we should do in any study is think Biblically and logically. According to scripture what makes the most sense? What is happening in this bizarre story?
Most mainstream preachers will take a traditional perspective that the demons shriek at Jesus’ mere image; and Jesus threatens to torment them all the way to the lake of fire (abyss) where they will be tortured forever. It is usually followed up with some kind of judgment day inuendo with a “watch out or maybe you will end up there too” mindset, pressuring people to make a decision so they won’t be forever tormented by Jesus placing their faith in the 7 steps of salvation or something similar. Framework like this gets its roots from the Penal Substitutionary view of Atonement and overflows towards an Eternal Torment Conscious view of hell. As they are likely both common traditional views, in my opinion they lean very reformed and are likely the least biblically based of all the theological views on atonement and hell. My main issue with both of them is that they present Jesus in a near opposite fashion of who He was and what He represented to the church and lost world. If this conversation is new to you, I would recommend you start with my book “This is the way.”
Greg Boyd on ReKnew.org makes an excellent point that “Some find it morally objectionable that this mass suicide was the result of Jesus allowing the multitude of demons that possessed this man to enter into them. Does this story present Jesus as someone who evidenced a callous disregard for the welfare of these animals?” Personally, I think animals are delicious. I am not going to have a lot of personal issues killing pigs, but I still am with Boyd on this theologically. I am not sure Jesus would simply slaughter pigs. I don’t think it’s a great take on the text. (Boyd ends up landing here as perhaps being the best option of the alternative variables essentially – which I continue to struggle with, but think is a good or acceptable theological view.)
If you have watched our x44 atonement series you will see that I typically fall somewhere around a Christus Victor view of atonement, but as Scot McKnight in “A Community Called Atonement” alludes, I carry a few other (golf) clubs. But your atonement thoughts are going to affect this pig story and mine tie into (at least somewhat) the cosmic battle at the cross that I think is worth exploring. I would suggest that the main emphasis of this story is over the cosmic battle of the cross which Matt and I discuss in our X44 church series PART 9 episode on Philadelphia, you can watch it here.
This brings me to the main thrust of this article. I have a hat that says, “into the storm” and people ask me what it means all the time. It was made by Froning Farms, a bison jerky company, and I don’t think they are Christians, but I have “reclaimed” the slogan and I love to wear the hat. (And have since made x44 versions of the hat.) In these texts Jesus and His disciples come through a life-threatening storm and Jesus commands the storm to be calm. This is an allusion to God sometimes asking His disciples to step into the storm in total trust that God can heal and control everything that is in His domain.. That is what my hat means to me regardless of what it meant to the farm that made it. (Thank God my hermeneutics don’t have to line up with my clothing choices all the time! -or do they?)
In the ancient world water and storms represented chaos in the Bible. They are not necessarily good or evil they just simply happen. But sometimes the gods were wondered to be able to control them, and because of this, sometimes the water itself can take on an “evil” personification. In this way the water might represent the “home” of the evil. That is the story of the exodus and the Red Sea. The war of the gods. Yahweh vs the fallen spiritual beings, who will rise or immerse as the Lord of Lords? This occurrence is going to go back to that Deuteronomy 32 power struggle of the gods in many ways. If you aren’t familiar with this idea, you can watch our x44 video on it here. In this way God can even control the water which was said to be partially home to the “evil.” But water simply represents an agent (or literally house) that can be for good or bad. I will come back to this thought towards the end because I think we need to develop the core narrative first. Let’s first focus our attention to the storm itself.
Jesus silences the storm to be still by the word translated from phimoo. What is interesting about this is it is the same word that he uses to quiet the demons in at least two other places (Mk 4:39; cf. 1:25; Lk 4:35). This leads me away from the average chaos monster (water) of the ancient near East world and perhaps more towards a Christus Victor version of spiritual warfare within the water, especially because this is pre-cross and the spirits are unbound. There are multiple Greek negatives at work worth considering. Ouketi, oudeis, and oude build the emphatic triple negative in Greek. There becomes a word play on the description of him originally as “out of his mind” contrasted to in a “right mind” after he is healed. There is a strong sense of “pneuma” spirit language here both in and out of the water.
In the ancient world people were always wondering if the gods sent things or tampered with nature to react or rule over the people. Were the people in favor with the gods? Nearly every person, (and likely even the disciples) in this story may have expected a storm of this magnitude to have been the result of upset gods. (As the x44 video on Philadelphia points out, even by the letter (book) of revelation the culture was still thinking that way.) How do we appease the gods? Perhaps throw the bad guy out of the boat? That was the way they thought. Today we think this way about Karma, even though we don’t blame it on the gods we no longer believe in, most people still attribute power to some kind of known spiritual over-arching higher power or force.
Was the storm the result of an angry god or simply a product of the uncontrollable chaos of God’s world. Were they monsters that couldn’t be harnessed by anyone but God? Job might imply that only God can harness them which could also adjust your view here. In the exodus story, there seem to similar powers represented by the actual gods against Yahweh such as the Egyptian sorcerers. I will admit that the majority of the time we read of chaos in the scripture it seems more naturally not good or evil and just a description of what is (as I alluded to earlier). But this particular instance is strange and may give merit to handle it differently, more in the way that we interpret the Exodus story or the tower of Babel. The water seems to be full of spiritual warfare, and only Christ can calm it.
Perhaps this is the central message to this story of Jesus acting over the fallen spiritual powers (that we commonly refer to as demons in New Testament). From a Christus victor or Deuteronomy 32 perspective there is a lot going on here that is likely setting the stage for what happens at the cross. This is the manner to which Jesus enters into the “STORM” of darkness. It is the oppressed area of the gentiles. The text alludes to a naked man. In Hebraic thinking this is defilement language. This is the far other side of the tracks. This isn’t a place for the “body” of the Lord’s disciples in Hebraic thinking. They were told to not congregate in these areas of sin, not to be surrounded or let sin “cling” to them. We have to keep in mind though, that this is Jesus, and he is “changing” the trajectory from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant with every step. It still doesn’t necessarily give grounds for a “Christian” to go there, but at the same time it may be an invitation to “get to that place” as you are now called to live like Jesus and harness the power that will be transferred to you through the cross and resurrection and falling (or indwelling) of the Spirit. Jesus is about to obtain a feat that no one else has ever done and no one else will ever do. It is a game changer for the devout.
In Revelation 1:18 we read that Jesus holds the keys to Hades. This is something that happens during the three days before the resurrection. This hasn’t taken place during these texts yet. David Aune, has a book called Apocalypticism, Prophecy and Magic in Early Christianity. It isn’t for most evangelicals, but I do recommend it if you make it through this entire article and haven’t thrown in the towel. His work is a lot of things, one of which I appreciate is an exercise to understand and connect cosmic sovereignty language. Luckily some evangelicals have been very well introduced to this world of late through the writings of Dr. Michael Heiser and Dr. John Walton amongst others. Essentially what is happening here in Revelation, is that despite the fact that Christ was slain, He now holds the keys to life and death and emerges as the victor who will now forever have this power. (Which is still described with a backward kingdom “power under” rather than “power over” genre which is quite interesting to those trying to figure out Jesus in the early New Testament. Many things point this way such as the seven eyes to be understood as “the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth” which is another symbolic way of emphasizing the sovereignty Jesus Christ who is the Lamb. Isaiah 22 and Hosea 13 are also going to tie into this conversation as they support the same view.
Without getting too sidetracked, but giving you enough to support my over all premise of the pig story, let me slightly elaborate. There is a greek “thing” going on here. When we read the “KEYS TO DEATH AND HADES” we are reading the Greek “Genitive” of two nouns piled up. In this case the genitives tou thanatou and tou hadou which can be objective or possessive. In other words you could read it as “the keys to Death and Hades” or “the keys belonging to Death and Hades.” There becomes a question of whether the term is spatial or personification? I would make an argument they both happen in the book of revelation. So, then we hermeneutically say, “Do we have these grounds one way or another?” Are death and hades ever personified these ways in the OT? Well yea, all over the place. In Hebrew the term for “death” is mot. That is the same word in Ugaritic (mot) and in Ugaritic, Mot is a deity (part of a pantheon).
I am sure this sounds like we are getting way off track (as interesting as the conversation might be) but let me get to the really important part that affects this story. Enoch and Elijah are the only people who can be found to have gone to “Heaven” or the cosmos of Yahweh and remain there. There seems to be waiting places of those that pass in the OT until Jesus returns to possibly preach or offer a last chance to them. (This has a lot of spiritual implications from universal reconciliation to theories on judgement that we don’t have time in this post to explore.) This is going to get into a Yahoel conversation and discussions on OT binitarian thinking, but for the New Testament, (specifically in Revelation), the author John (and I) will argue all of the texts at hand in this discussion are going to be wondering who holds the power over death. Who really holds the keys? My point in all of this is that the book of Revelation and connecting OT texts tell us clearly that it’s ONLY Jesus (who controls the keys of life and death). There are also several 2nd Temple texts such as the “The Apocalypse of Zephaniah” that at the least would tip us to continue to think this way. This is where we benefit by having the complete lens of the Bible at our fingertips and can apply what we have been given to the weird pig’s story in the synoptics. To be clear, it would seem that when the pig’s story was penned, before Jesus rose from the dead, he didn’t have the keys to Death and Hades, somebody else did. He went to Hades for three days, He conquered Death and Hades (personified as supernatural enemies), and He took (or somehow attained) the keys from their domain, and they are now bound. (This seems to be spiritual battle language.) When he comes back triumphantly, He holds the power of life and death forever. Something in the cosmos changed at the cross and resurrection in terms of eternal life and the complete process of sanctification.
So now let’s return to our bizarre story. When the pigs are mentioned any Jew would have understood them to be the “icon” of uncleanness (or the archetype of uncleanliness). (This ties into the don’t go there or be part of this defilement code directed towards observant Jews). The pigs were a picture (think visionary) of the worst of the world. At this point the law was a stop Gap directing people to stay away from these things of the world. To not have any part in them, and this is one of the problems of the text to be clear. The law would say don’t go there but Jesus is leading His disciples there. The stop gap of the law is met with Jesus and the trajectory is changing with every step Jesus leads us in. From the fall to the birth of Jesus humankind is on a downward spiral, at the resurrection and ascension with the falling of the spirit the trajectory will now turn upward. Things will be reclaimed and be made new again. The veil will be torn signifying the once and for all sacrifice has taken place and the law will be perfected in, by, and through Jesus.
Remember the prodigal son story, they pigs represented the farthest place from the father. Most people today still associate Jewish Kosher (right living) meals as avoiding pork as the main example of uncleanliness that nearly any person identifies regardless of their shallow knowledge of Jewish kosher foods. But the reference here is almost too generic, and that is likely intentional, I’ll come back to this. The possessed man, (and actually I am going to say there were likely many), (this could have been the “place of the damned”) were unusually strong with a subtle context tied to the world (reference to breaking chains – the world can’t even harness their own problems in him.) This is similar to a chaos monster that has gone really bad by the gods mingling -the water has become tainted by and for the world. It has the same feeling as Genesis 6. It is also interesting that tombs are mentioned. Right about now I am wondering, “why are Jesus and the disciples even here?” This sounds like hell, like Gehena. But that is actually one of the main themes I am arguing for – all of these points are also Hebraic references to sacred/temple uncleanliness spiritual domains that are often personified.
Let me be more blunt, are they on a disciple’s mission trip to convert the lost? Maybe. But here is where I start to even scratch my head more. The number of demons is counted as a legion. That is a Roman Battalion of 6000 men. There are a lot of adequate ways to count, why a legion? Alot of people would consider this war language (especially if Paul wrote it!) It is also exodus motif language of releasing the captives and likely the narrative we are reading is setting the tone for the REAL EXODUS of the foreshadowed OT red Sea victory story… The exodus of the world into eternal life by Jesus.
THIS STORY IS SETTING THE STAGE FOR THE RELEASE OF THE COSMIC CAPTIVES.
This is also where I start or continue to question the literal story. That is an immense number of pigs even by today’s western standards. There are a couple ways to go with the legion. One is that it simply represents military language of a strong army. Some viewed Rome as the enemy and it could be interpreted as enemy territory and a lot of scholars go this way, but this view is also problematic because Jesus didn’t view Rome that way. Jesus viewed Rome as the brother that would eventually be won back over in humility and love; not by an enemy takeover of the sword wielding Jesus’ revolution (as much as the very disciples with him desired that!) It wasn’t in Jesus’ character to talk about Rome as the enemy or using words entangled with destroying them. That wasn’t what Jesus did, it was opposite of what Jesus preached and lived. (It could very well be the authors influence in the texts though -that’s how they thought and what they likely wanted) How do we reconcile what is going on to the better character and mission of Jesus? It may have been a small implication of the text that Jesus’ power under “authority” even has the power to eventually reconcile Rome, but I am not convinced we can take that away (hermeneutically) merely from the text we are given. I would file that theory under possible theological implications of the text but not “given” by the text.
But there is still another problem with taking this story at face value as an actual “physical” story. It would be the ONLY singular instance in the Bible when Jesus commands a demon to leave and they don’t immediately. The demons seemingly begin to plead. This again leaves me scratching my head. Are we listening to Jesus have a court proceeding with the demons? Is this like Jesus bargaining for hostages? Jesus has limited himself by humanity but it doesn’t seem fitting that Jesus would be “bargaining with the Devil.”
As we continue, the story takes an even stranger turn. This is also when the various accounts tend to get muddy. One author represents one view, another emphasizes something else. They don’t disagree but each seem to emphasize different things that are perhaps just subtly strange. Why do the Demons want to stay in this area in Luke? Why isn’t it the appointed time of the abyss in Matthew? It also seems that Jesus is not able to do some things, were His powers stifled? Was there kryptonite in the nearby rocks? Why would the demons almost ask to go play with the pigs? There is also a rather strange, shackled sense of authority on both sides. The whole story comes off as a bizarre abstract painting at best.
Finally, we see the demons go into the pigs and jump into the sea. Interesting we started with the sea and Jesus could easily calm the seas. (I will still come back to the water – I promise!) When we read that earlier in the text we are clearly still in the physical world. In the physical world Jesus easily brings order to chaos and never has a problem casting out demons before this. These points would continue to build on the view that at some point we step from the physical realm into the spiritual visionary cosmos where things become “dim”.
Don’t pigs swim? Can’t demons swim? Can you drown a demon? I know pigs don’t fly but I am pretty sure they swim, and I sure wouldn’t think a spirit being would be killed by a swim. These actions seem to be figurative. I would argue that the story fades from a real physical story into more of a visionary perspective to show the disciples what they are being asked to partner in doing through Christ after he physically leaves them.
Also, as a side note to be clear, the text doesn’t say Jesus sent or ordered the pigs into the sea. Some want to point this to or at an action of which Jesus performed or commanded and often go as far as to identify mental illness as an uncontrolled chaos monster. I don’t see the validity for that in the text. Others are going to try to come to a spiritual doctrine of suicide out of this text and I will also concur that doesn’t work within the theology or hermeneutic of this text, especially when viewed as a vision. In this way, theologically, it is an indicator to take it more figuratively. If we leave the story as purely literal (which doesn’t really work at all) we also have war problems coming from a pacifistic Jesus to discuss, such as…
Were the pig’s casualties of a Jesus war? If pigs could be, then could you and I also be?
Wow, read that one slowly, that might be a whole other series of videos! But the simple answer is no; that is simply another reason to read/interpret the latter part of this story as a vision. Don’t read too much into what the authors thought they saw. Don’t build a doctrine on a murky interpretation of something seen or not seen. There is too much about this story that doesn’t literally make logical sense to go with a completely literal non visionary interpretation.
What’s the other options then you ask? Can we just sever it from the Canon? That would seem like the easiest thing. Just throw it away. If we don’t like something in scripture just throw it out or don’t read it. Write it off to a bad scribe or later tampering of the text. Maybe make it political. Ok, that doesn’t work even though most churches preach and interpret the Bible to say whatever they want politically, using it for their own worldly gain. Let’s stick to what the text allows exegetically. Do we just go with the old, reformed view of just trust a sovereign God; you in your humanity can’t possibly understand this one? Don’t even try. Its above your paygrade. No, I never buy into that. God gives truth. Let’s pray for the spirit to reveal the truth within the text.
Finding a better view in the lens of scripture
Like many in the church, I grew up touting the words LITERAL within scripture as a sense of strength and pride. I used to think a literal interpretation was a better or perhaps more valid interpretation. I usually go the other way now. Nothing is really literal. The word “literal” is problematic because it connotes different things to different people. The meaning of words depends on context. How someone in one culture uses a phrase or metaphor may not correspond to the way people in another time and place use that same language. If you can’t understand what the message meant to the intended audience you can’t accurately apply it to your own context. When we overlook this, we will inevitably misinterpret the Bible. This is beautifully illustrated in Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes. My friend John Walton (who would likely view this text/topic a bit differently, but I still love, honor, and respect him as one of my primary mentors in life) would also say that:
We therefore recognize that although the Bible is written for us (indeed, for everyone), it is not written to us. In this way, if we assume our worldview is equivalent to that of the Biblical writers, we will inevitably misinterpret Scripture. This article has partly served as a model to most readers to encourage better interpretation.
In the last few years, I lean toward believing that this bizarre PIG STORY is something that actually happened somewhat physically (at least at the beginning parts, the calming the seas etc…) but that much of it is part of a retold story by Jesus. In other words, the story is an actual account of Jesus and His disciples but some of it, the latter parts are told in a figurative visionary fashion. My personal take is that it was a field trip for some of the disciples into the spiritual world of the war that ensued. That is why it takes on a visionary perspective. Jesus was always taking them on workshops for the kingdom and this one was more of the spiritual realm than physical. It was teaching them that things of the kingdom were about to change forever under a new Kingdom Authority in Him.
I think the text presents a more visionary perspective to look into a different cosmic domain “figuratively” because hermeneutically it just seems to be a better interpretation of the text within the complete lens of scripture.
Taking a visionary figurative view of this story is the best interpretation based on the complete lens of Jesus and what He was accomplishing in the context of the varied stories through the cross, resurrection, ascension and giving of the Spirit.
We don’t need to settle the vagueness of visions. We never have had that need in visions, but we would if we were trying to establish a need to interpret purely physically or literally. For instance, something as simple as, if Jews detested pigs, why were there thousands of pigs in the area? There likely wouldn’t have been any kind of market for pigs this close to where the Jews lived. If they were caught in the spiritual cosmos it settles some difficulties. There seem to be plenty of animal like creatures in the spiritual domains.
But theologically some will struggle here. The problem is we don’t have the merit within the text to go indefinitely one way or the other; and typically, if that is the ticket we are looking for we want to interpret literally not figuratively. Nothing about this story starts by saying, “there once was a man,” or a long long time ago in a galaxy far far away.” I think you get my point, we don’t have a clear direction that this is figurative or when it transitions from physical to visionary, so then we usually want to lean literal. But I want to be careful to say that a better interpretation is probably a figurative approach. We don’t “have to” have those words to consider a more figurative or visionary interpretation.
There are laws of hermeneutics. Some of these laws will suggest when to interpret parts of the Bible literally or figuratively and there are a lot of parts of the Bible that we still aren’t sure on. Maybe this should be one of them. There are all kinds of different standards or textures of interpretation. Perhaps you are familiar with one or the other, I am going to give you the simplest basic 4 because it is the your likely familiar with them.
- Words must be interpreted literally unless the sense implies an impossibility.
- Words must be interpreted literally unless the sense implies a contradiction.
- Words must be interpreted literally unless the sense implies an absurdity.
- The nature of a biblical book may provide a clue, suggesting that the student is to watch for an abundance of figures of speech.
I am going to argue that we have all of these within the story.
The best interpretation is to interpret this story figuratively. It is a “better” interpretation than wanting to go literal with it. Let me explain why (as if I haven’t been already). First, we don’t typically draw doctrinal conclusions from parables or figurative stories. I am going to argue that some have allowed their doctrine to be clouded by stories that aren’t given to us to teach science, geology, physics or DOCTRINE. We have those texts but hermeneutically these shouldn’t be overly read into doctrine. That said, I don’t really avoid anything here either. I don’t think the text teaches ECT or anything else and I am not bending, messaging, or performing any theological gymnastics to make something fit my doctrine or politics. I am merely searching for the best interpretation or exegesis of the text and have nothing to lose.
At this point in the article, I feel like most readers can already understand my need to want to go visionary or figurative with the text but let me continue to build the case for a few moments in case you’re on the fence.
First, Its written with a similar feel to Jewish apocalypse language.
“Apocalyptic literature is a genre of prophetical writing that developed in post-Exilic Jewish culture that involved an unveiling or unfolding of things not previously known and which could not be known apart from the unveiling”.
Teachers including Jesus, would regularly speak and teach in ways that could be construed by different audiences without speaking plainly. The intended audience would have understood this story at least to be partially aimed against hypocrisy of the religious systems. As I have previously alluded, I don’t necessarily “put” that on Jesus as much as on the authors. Pigs are a Jewish symbol of hypocrisy.
The Midrash draws a comparison between the Roman empire and the pig: Just as the pig sticks out its hooves when it is resting, as if to say, “I am kosher,” so did the Romans put on a show of justice to mask their avarice and corruption. There is a bit of a word play or even joke going on in comparison of Romans, demons and pigs as well as the fact that many Jews and early Christians hoped that the Roman legions would do just what the pigs did and take a long walk off a short cliff. I am sure some reading the text later were hoping that Jesus may have been speaking in a prophetic picture of what would come of Rome, but we know that doesn’t happen. Matt and I in the Philadelphia Part 9 series also bring out this point in other ways. In fact, the opposite happens, the Jews are decimated by the Romans. I think there is a subtle message from Jesus (or perhaps the authors) imploring a better Jesus kingdom narrative and to be free from the systems of the world, but I also don’t want to make out the entire story to go that way. There is so much more going on. I am far more comfortable putting these thoughts on the authors rather than Jesus, but some are going to struggle with this sentence, and I can understand that partially.
Juvenal, the first century poet and satirist wrote that among the Jews, ‘‘a long- established clemency suffers pigs to attain old age.” Another satirist commented regarding Herod, who killed several of his own children, that he would “rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.” Petronius referred to the Jews as worshipers of a ‘‘pig-god.” The Jews’ refusal to eat pork was twisted into evidence of a Jewish fondness for pigs.
Jesus speaks within His cosmos or spiritual world and a lot of the strange references would have had more significance to those that found them interesting. We don’t always get this part. Why Luke would have found something significant that Mark didn’t. On the other hand, we don’t need to “get everything” to “get the text” or the main message of the text particularly as a takeaway to us 2000 years later.
Secondly, this has traits of an ancient chassidic story that would have been understood to be largely idiomatic that pre-date the synoptics. 2 It is a similar story or narrative that was regularly entertained by the Jews and people would have been familiar with. As bizarre as the account sounds it was actually pretty normal for the day. We think it is weird 2000 years removed but they didn’t, they were quite used to apocalyptic writing.
Thirdly, it fits the context of Jesus’ bigger picture teaching to the disciples. It was a missional field trip teaching day to the cosmos that they were in transition between. Jesus regularly went to great lengths to teach His disciples. Jesus walked his disciples around 30 miles to Caesarea Philippi (Banias) to the pan of grotto for a similar trip to the spiritual realm (which in some part also may have been visionary.) Jesus was teaching spiritual warfare and in order to experience and understand it, a visionary trip to a different domain was likely needed. This isn’t uncommon in scripture. We regularly entertain these “visions” within the OT and NT so this understanding of the text really shouldn’t be difficult to take on. The difference is it isn’t clearly presented that way. Or is it?
I also promised I would come back to “the water.” This is another slight detour from the main message and likely disserves its own article so I am not going to cover everything here that could connect. I think I will just paint a picture. In the Bible water can be a contronym symbolizing a method to “carry” or “contain” you to or away from something, namely the Lord. It wasn’t necessarily good or bad but was feared for its power. God creates the water TOV (good) but then the world gets a hold of it. some water it couldn’t be consumed without refining (boiling) it or might bring sickness perhaps even to death, but at the same time other water may be “pure” and consumed without harm. You often didn’t know in ancient times whether the water was “good” or not. The water also housed the Leviathon and other creatures that could take life. It was often wondered whether these creatures were tied to the gods. I would encourage you to return to a Deuteronomy 32 perspective here again. I am going out on a limb here because I don’t have the space in this already long article to expound much. The leviathan is a monster that is referenced in the Bible and which has roots in the pre-biblical mythologies of ancient cultures. Described as a giant sea serpent, dragon, or other sea monster, the leviathan symbolizes chaos, fearsome power, dark forces, authoritarianism, massive challenges, addiction, and more. Ancient people wondered if the Leviathon where like any other creature, not necessarily bad or good, or whether the gods controlled them such as the simple story of the angel and Balaam’s Donkey. Some even wondered if the Leviathon where actually fallen gods. There is a bit of consideration to this point as the authors of the Old and New Testaments describe the leviathan as a massive sea monster that has serpentine and dragon-like qualities. In Job 41:26 – 30, the leviathan is described as having scales that are like armor or shields, which a javelin cannot pierce. Not only does it have sharp teeth, when it breathes, smoke comes out of its nostrils and fire comes out of its mouth. (Job 41:19 – 20, Psalm 18:8.) Furthermore, in the Book of Revelation, the leviathan is described as being red in color with seven heads and 10 horns which doesn’t necessarily match the description in the rest of the Bible but is fitting in view of the apocalyptic genre of the revelation text (Revelation 12:1-17.) From this consideration some viewed these dragon-like creatures to be “the devil himself” and is why the seas were feared. There is even an ancient allusion that if you met death at sea, you might be carried away to the middle earth (or hell) where the dragon lived and kept as a captive. This thinking goes all the way to first and second century writings and also has a place in Christ “freeing the captives” during the three-day grave cycle to which Jesus emerges victorious with the keys of life and death.
Perhaps some creatures where like the water and remained neutral, and others were fallen spiritual beings or agents of the world or evil. But the point is for this reason and others, the water represented an agent that could be evil. This is why people greatly feared it. This is why when the crowds were rushing Jesus, He get on a boat to escape them. Normal people wouldn’t follow Him into the water especially if it looked like a storm may be coming. This is why when He calmed the seas it meant He was the Lord of Lords. As Job says who can tame the Leviathan? Only God. This is also why Jesus makes a point to offer living (or good-TOV) water. Because not all water was good. It is a sign of the reclaiming of everything that the world contaminated. All things will be made good in Jesus, even the most uncertain or powerful things of the world. This is also why Jesus likely chose fisherman, they were willing to take a life chance on the water to feed their families. This was the mindset that Jesus needed for His Kingdom. Faith that conquers fear. When Jesus calms the storm, He establishes His rightful place of Lord over everything on the earth.
There is a lot going on in the text. It is quite dynamic. It is likely serving to train disciples and introduce future disciples to the realm of the spiritual that isn’t often seen. It also might give cause or merit to regaining those immersed into the total darkness of the world (but as a vision I am not sure we actually have that take away – I am open to that view though!) Jesus is starting to regain what was lost to the powers and principalities and wants to use us as agents to accomplish this. There is also, in my opinion, an angle to which we might understand what takes place at the cross, to come to an understanding of atonement and how we fit into the cosmic kingdom that we are grafted into. I also have a place for the traditional theme that goes something like, Jesus is greater than anything the world has to offer, choose Jesus and choose life.
Sometimes the message is as simple as showing the love of Jesus through a smile, other times, it may feel a lot more complicated and might even ask us to give those things we hold most dear, even to death itself. Jesus simply says trust me. Into the storm, through the waters, out of the mist, and into the holy places. What he was asking for was total devotion and and complete allegiance. He wasn’t asking for fans or followers; He was calling wholly devoted disciples. He wants to take us on a journey of sanctification, and it might get weird to the world. It might be the strangest expedition you have ever been a part of. Jesus is missionally calling us to be disciples and completely given to Him as his representatives in the devout body of Christ. The calling is wayyyyyyy out of our American comfort zone. It likely isn’t skinny jeans and smoke machines; it is much deeper into covenant culture of an “all in” kingdom. Can you take steps with Jesus that will take you on a journey you can’t begin to make sense of? Perhaps you will only get a mere vision of where you can go when you place all of yourself at the feet of Jesus and ask him to double your portion within His kingdom. Are you ready to prioritize your mission and life for Jesus? Discipleship involves total sacrifice (you are no longer yours); providing water to the thirsty, food for the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for sick, comforting the brokenhearted, being an agent of good news to the imprisoned. Can you love their enemies or do good to those who threatened them? Can you learn to completely trust the Lord with every facet of your life. Can you check your weapons at the door or beach? You are the agent to bring peace to chaos and calm the storms by the power of Jesus. Jesus invites you into the storm. Will you follow as a fervent disciple to be a living sacrifice?
JESUS IS CALLING YOU | INTO THE STORM
- Bereishit Rabbah 65:1. Roman legion (X Fretensis) used the boar as one of its ensigns. Additionally, one of the prominent Roman families was that of the Porcii (“pigs”), whose male and female members bore the respective names of Porcius and Porcia.
- This idea appears in various Talmudic commentaries. See Likkutei Sichot 29:128, where several versions of this adage are cited.