For Part 1, click here
Last time we looked at this story in the Gospel of Mark together, we examined how Mark uses the word ischuo with a special significance throughout his Gospel.1
In the very beginning, John the Baptist claims Jesus is the “stronger” one by virtue of the Holy Spirit that empowers him.
Later, in ch. 3, Jesus claims that he is the one who has bound the strong one Beelzebul, implying that Jesus is stronger.Furthermore, Jesus is plundering his house. He goes on to connect this with the Holy Spirit just as John did before: it is not the power of Satan that allows him to do this, but the Holy Spirit of God that he wields and that wields him.
Mark hints in the story of Legion that Jesus is again facing the “strength” of the strong man, Beelzebul. However, Mark dramatically reveals partway through the story that the battle is not like before. Instead of just facing off with one unclean spirit, Jesus is now set against thousands of them. After establishing this, Jesus dispatches them with almost no effort. The power of Beelzebul is so far no match at all for Jesus.
There were two more components of the story that I wanted to look at. In this post we will be looking at one of them, which is the significance of Jesus’ allowing the unclean spirits to enter the herd of pigs and their subsequent drowning in the sea.
The Spirits and the Sea
After Jesus proves his power over the legion of unclean spirits, they beg Jesus to let them enter a large herd of swine. This seems to be a somewhat odd request, but if we look to the ancient understanding of how evil spirits operated, then there is a clear logic to what is happening.
First, it is important to understand that unclean spirits were associated with a specific place. As Vincent Taylor points out, “Daemons, it was held, were especially associated with a particular locality from which they were loth to be removed.”2 Therefore, the demons desire to stay around the tombs and mountain-region (5:5) in which Jesus found the man they were demonizing. Is there still a further logic to this, however?
As I pointed out last time, Gundry suggests that pagan sacrifices to the dead were made among the tombs in this area, which also explains why there was a large herd of pigs around, as they would have been utilized for sacrifices to the dead.3 To follow this logic, it seems likely that the demons found this location particularly to their liking because the prevalence of pagans making their sacrifices to the dead afforded them a large source of hosts especially open to demonization.
Further, it seems possible that the demons’ desire to be cast into the pigs is substantiated by the fact that it would allow them close contact with new human hosts. People would be using the pigs to make sacrifices, and therefore the demons see the pigs as a stepping stone. If they are cast out of the area, they may have to wander a long time before finding someone new to demonize. Therefore, entering the pigs is to their advantage, and likely they are hoping that Jesus is none the wiser to their plan.
Jesus acquiesces to their request. For a moment it seems that the unclean spirits have duped him. As soon as he leaves, they’ll be back at the demonizing game.
But no! It becomes immediately apparent that Jesus has the upper hand. The pigs they have entered rush headlong off a cliff and drown in the sea.
Besides being a rather morbid end for the pigs, there is a further depth of meaning to this action. To see it we need to turn to look at what connotations the sea carried in the ancient Jewish world.
The ancient Hebrews perceived the sea as the realm of primordial chaos and disorder. Conceptually, it was where the anti-creational powers that opposed God and threatened to undo the order of his creation were to be found. This is why John claims in his Revelation that the new heavens and new earth will not have a sea (Rev 21:1-4). It is also why the lack of the sea is immediately associated with the lack of pain, suffering, and death in the same passage. It is not that John had something against sailing or pleasant walks along the beach. Rather, it’s that within John’s Hebrew cultural milieu the sea carried the connotation of being the source of chaos, suffering, pain, and death.
This wasn’t just a peculiar development of the Hebrew imagination, although they did develop it in unique ways. This was part of the cultural imagination of the ancient Mediterranean world. For example, in the Enuma Elish, Babylon’s creation story, the god Marduk engages in conflict with Tiamat, the primordial goddess of the sea.4 Marduk slays her (the sea), cuts her dead body in half, and uses the halves to create the heavens and the earth. Humans were formed from the blood of slain Qingu, Tiamat’s son and lover. To put it abstractly, the created world is seen as emerging from the conquering of primordial chaos, which is symbolized by the sea/Tiamat. Even humanity is “genetically” related to this chaos in a kind of inbred manner.
This theme, broadly conceived, is also manifest in the Old Testament. To cite two examples: in Isaiah 51:9-10, Yhwh is described as cutting Rahab the sea dragon into pieces, and this is associated with Yhwh’s drying up the sea (i.e. Reed Sea) so that his redeemed people could pass through. The echoes of the Exodus should be evident. Moreover, in Ezekiel 29, Pharaoh is depicted as a large crocodile that sits in the Nile and hubristically claims that he is its creator. Yhwh, the true Creator, scorns Pharaoh’s solipsistic pride, and promises to fish Pharaoh out of the water to die on dry land, serving as a warning and testament to all.
Both stories show us that Israel developed its own take on the God who defeats chaos to create order. In both places this Israel historicizes this mythos, meaning that rather than serving as just a creation story in the primordial past, it is used to describe God’s action in the here and now. God defeats the monsters of chaos, manifest both as Pharaoh and as the sea through which the Hebrews are led to freedom. The prideful power of Pharaoh is drowned in the bottom of the ocean, and he is returned to the realm of uncreation. Chaos consumes her own children.
Thus far, we can see how this can apply to the story the pigs drowning in the sea. Just as Pharaoh was buried under the waters, the unclean spirits, infusing our world with chaos and death, are destroyed and returned to the realm of uncreation, buried under the waters.
To take the point even further, Watts points to scholarship that would connect the pigs’ and the Egyptians’ being drowned.5 For one, there is an echo of military terminology permeating the story. Most obviously is the word “legion,” which serves as the demons’ collective name. This is straightforwardly and undoubtedly militaristic. “To send,” apostello, in verse 12 can have also have a military connotation, the word for “herd,” agele, more keenly describes a military unit than a herd of pigs, and the verb “to rush,” hormo (verse 13), can be used for “troops rushing into battle.”6 Military echoes in a story about pigs and demons seem misplaced unless they are meant to conjure up an image of Pharaoh’s army.
Furthermore, Watts points to how Isaiah uses the story of Pharaoh’s army being drowned in order talk about God’s new act of deliverance for exiled Israel.7 We’ve already mentioned Isaiah 51, but suffice it to say that this theme is recurrent for Isaiah. We should also remember that Mark has already let it be known that Isaiah is important for him, claiming that the story he is telling about Jesus is what Isaiah had prophesied (Mark 1:1-3). If Isaiah uses the imagery, then it is possible that Mark picked up on that and is using the same imagery to tell his story about Jesus.
If this is not all misguided, then it doesn’t seem a stretch to say Mark is suggesting that Jesus is performing an Exodus-like deliverance from and destruction of idolatrous, demonic power. This time, however, rather than defeating a human army, Jesus is confronting and destroying a powerful army of Beelzebul’s forces that have taken possession of the possessed man.8 Jesus isn’t here to just let the status quo remain relatively unchanged. He’s here to destroy and bury the forces of sin and death themselves that inhabit this place.
Next time we’ll look at how this story, and the stories it’s connected to, are a foreshadowing of Jesus’ ultimate battle with the powers of death.
1. After writing the last post, I noticed that besides Gundry, Watts also pointed to the significance of the word for the Gergasene demoniac story in Rikki Watts, Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000), 159.
2. Vincent Taylor, The Gospel According to St Mark, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: St Martin’s Press Inc., 1966), 282.
3. Robert Gundry, Robert Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993), 252.
4. On this, see J. Richard Middleton The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2005), 160ff.. The seminal work analyzing these themes in the Bible is Herman Gunkel, Schöpfung und Chaos in Urzeit und Endzeit: Eine Religionsgeschichtliche Untersuchung Über Gen 1 und Ap Joh 12 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1895).
5. Watts, New Exodus, 159. He is recapitulating the work of J. D. M. Derrett.
7. Ibid.,160 .
8. Ibid., 163f.