The Feeding of the 5000 mis-reported?: The significance of numbers in God’s Word

During this week’s bible study in which we prepare for the upcoming week’s worship by praying and discussing Sunday’s lections, (this Sunday, The Feast of the Transfiguration though our parish will hear Proper 13 instead)a parishioner was taken aback at my comment that the gospel story from Matthew  (14:13-21) has been mis-named as ‘The Feeding of the 5000.’  I was making the point that the number, in actuality, was probably closer to 10,000 or even above, because 5000 referred only to the men.

21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

The feeding was far more than 5000.

But the parishioner was taken aback because she considered the number 5000 simply symbolic of ‘a large crowd’ stating, who cares?  Why does it matter? Surely there weren’t even 5000 present – probably closer to a few hundred.  Do you really believe that numbers in scripture are anything other than symbolic?  

The discussion brought to mind the recent Inauguration and the story put forward by the incoming administration regarding crowd size – the largest ever, they claimed – citing numbers that were later invalidated.  It was a typically large crowd so what was the point of a head-count and drawing comparisons with previous Inaugural events?  It seemed to me the administration’s attempt was revisionist history in the making, believing that the largest crowd ever story line if recorded would somehow legitimize the new President’s purported popularity in a way that the general election hadn’t – at least in his mind’s eye. The storyline put out by the Administration worked at cross purposes and rather than elevating and instilling confidence in him as our country’s leader, his fragile ego now exposed introduced a tone of insecurity and suspicion that would shade all future stories coming from the Oval Office regarding leadership.

Numbers and head counts work differently in scripture.  Accuracy and symbolism are powerfully connected.  Yes, I replied to the parishioner – yes I believe that the crowd was enormous and may have even topped 5000. By calling the miracle the Feeding of the 5000 I suggested we miss the opportunity to talk about the significance of the number beyond the impression that a large crowd was fed.  Matthew was breaking with convention by reporting not only an actual number – instead of a phrase ‘a large crowd’ but also reporting that number didn’t include everyone present. The accepted practice of head counting a crowd by men only was not adequate to report the number of people who followed Jesus. Jesus broke all records so that even the record keeping methods had to be changed when the gospels were written.  And, the number had a deeper significance related to history and the Hebrew Scriptures[1].  I am not going to go down that bunny trail right now but suffice to say that all numbers found in the Bible have a deeper significance than we often pay attention to or acknowledge.

Both and.  Numbers are symbolic and they are literal, too.  Which brings me – finally – to today’s readings and the spot where the Holy Spirit paused me to wonder.  It was in the Hebrew Scriptures and the passage from 2 Samuel that recounts David’s anointing and kingship over Israel. My first thought was how the passage was populated with numbers – numbers that felt familiar even though I do not know David’s story in a familiar way. I know the outlines of his story, but the duration of his kingship, his age, the time he spent fighting the Philistines, I haven’t studied him enough to know these details.  Details which felt familiar but associated with Jesus, not David.

That was the pause.  The story line found in 2 Samuel about David’s anointing and Kingship over Israel align perfectly, number-wise, with Jesus’.  David was 30 years old – as Jesus was the start of his public ministry and served for 40 years (7 in one place, 7 a holy number, and 33 in another, 33 the age Jesus was at his crucifixion).  A total of 40 years. We all know the significance of ’40’  – those years in exile, those nights Jesus spent in the desert.  Here is the passage:

5Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, ‘Look, we are your bone and flesh. 2For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led out Israel and brought it in. The Lord said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.’ 3So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel. 4David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned for forty years5At Hebron he reigned over Judah for seven years and six months; and at Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah for thirty-three years.

So.  Personal application?  Simply to appreciate the depth of God’s Word.   To pause and mine the depths and appreciate that each word, each number is given to us for a reason, as my favorite cartoonist (and I believe, theologian) Dan Piraro illustrates here.

Numbers are significant in scripture not simply to symbolize, but to connect and legitimize and have us take seriously, even literally at times, the truth of Jesus Christ.

The evangelists weren’t weaving some story together to make their guy look good, look like a leader. They were reporting actual events, actual numbers, and connecting the story of Jesus to the Hebrew Scriptures and to history.

Praise God from whom all blessings – and crowd sizes – flow.

Friday Daily Office Readings: AM Psalm 69:1-23(24-30)31-38; PM Psalm 73 
2 Samuel 5:1-12
Acts 17:1-15Mark 7:24-37

[1] 5000: The officers of the Levites gave 5000 from the flock (2 Chr. 35:9); 5000 men sent into ambush on the west of Ai (Josh. 8:12); 5000 men of Benjamin were overtaken (Judg. 20:45); 5000 fed (Matt. 14:21; Matt. 16:9; Mark 6:44; Mark 8:19); 5000 men (Luke 9:14; John 6:10); about 5000 men believing (Acts 4:4); 5400 articles of gold and silver (Ezra 1:11).


This entry was posted in Whispers and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s