Two Feasts

We met T.J. Snodgrass at the Wild Goose Festival.  He was one of the presenters in our food and faith discussion.

I recently finished his self-published book Turning the Tables:  Farming and Feeding in the Gospels. His analysis and description of the society and social customs of the day helps with understanding the context and meaning of the many references to food and farming found in the gospels, especially as they would be informed by an understanding of the social and economic injustices of that time. The book reflects the same brilliance and wit that was evident in his presentation and our later conversations with him.  I recommend it.

There are a lot of fascinating and illuminating facts and observations related to food and farming in his book that would merit a post. Maybe another day.  Today I want to draw attention to his contrast of the two feasts described in Chapter 6 of Mark’s gospel.

As the author of Mark is describing the early ministry of Jesus, he interrupts the narrative with the story of the execution of John the Baptizer (a literary device called intercalation, of which the author was fond).  It is one of the most salacious stories in the Bible.

Herod Antipas was the ruler of Galilee at the time.  According to the text, he gave himself a birthday party, inviting “his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee.”  At some point during what was no doubt a drunken bash, he had his stepdaughter/niece dance for him and his guests (Antipas had married his brother’s ex-wife, thereby violating Jewish law and drawing severe criticism from folks like John the Baptizer). Snodgrass notes that a married noblewoman obviously wouldn’t dance for guests, and that girls were normally married in that culture at around age 13, so what is being described here is likely a pre-teen striptease before the king and his drunken friends. Bad Uncle Herod.

Herod is so taken by his wife’s dancing daughter that he promises her anything she desires.  Her mother prompts the girl to ask for John’s head (Antipas had imprisoned John for criticizing his marriage). Being unwilling to lose face before his cronies, Antipas has John beheaded and the head is delivered to the girl on a platter, as she requested.

Once this story is told, the author returns to telling the story of Jesus, where a much different feast is described.  Jesus is wandering the countryside with his disciples, teaching and healing the sick.  A large crowd has followed him to a “deserted place.” They’re hungry and there isn’t enough food for all of them.  So Jesus instructs his bewildered disciples to feed them. And, seemingly miraculously, the crowd is fed.  Jesus didn’t require anyone to first kiss his toe, recite a creed, pledge allegiance or otherwise earn his favor.  They were hungry, so he fed them.  No dancing girl and no prophet’s head on a platter.

Both, I suppose, are feasts fit for a king.

But for two very different kinds of kings.