In my latest reading of John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened, Lee Harmon makes an interesting point about the story of Jesus multiplying the loaves and the fishes in John 6. According to Lee, Jesus and the people were eating loaves that were illegal for them to eat!
On what basis does Lee argue this? In Leviticus 23:10-22, we see the law of the firstfruits. On the day after some Sabbath that was soon after the Passover (Second Temple Jews debated which Sabbath it was), Israelites were to bring a sheaf of their harvest-firstfruits to the central sanctuary, and the priest would then wave that sheaf before the LORD. Leviticus 23:14 states (in the King James Version): “And ye shall eat neither bread, nor parched corn, nor green ears, until the selfsame day that ye have brought an offering unto your God: it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations in all your dwellings.” The wavesheaf ritual was associated with the barley harvest. Before the wavesheaf ritual that took place soon after the Passover, the Israelites could eat neither corn nor bread from the barley that they had just harvested.
In John 6, there is the Johannine story of Jesus multiplying the loaves. There are two things in John 6 that are noteworthy, in light of the law in Leviticus 23:10-22. First, John 6:13 says that the loaves were barley loaves. And second, John 6:4 says that the Passover was near, which means that John 6 is set soon before the Passover, not soon after it. Jesus and the Jews in John 6 are arguably eating bread that’s made of barley from the recent harvest, before the possessor of that barley has presented the firstfruits to God. That, according to Leviticus 23:14, is a no-no.
According to Lee, how could Jesus justify doing something that was against the Torah? Lee offers two answers, as far as I can see. First, on page 117, Lee says that Jesus was teaching about a new age. The idea here is probably that the old law does not entirely apply now that Jesus has come and inaugurated something new.
Second, on page 118, Lee presents Jesus appealing to the story in II Kings 4:42-44, in which the prophet Elisha multiplies loaves for a hundred people. II Kings 4:42 states (again, in the KJV): “And there came a man from Baalshalisha, and brought the man of God bread of the firstfruits, twenty loaves of barley, and full ears of corn in the husk thereof.” Lee’s idea appears to be this: Rather than taking the firstfruits to God, as he was supposed to do, the man was using them as food for himself, Elisha, and a multitude. And Elisha did not condemn the man for failing to present his firstfruits before God, but rather he proceeded to multiply the food.
I heard a similar idea in an adult ed class that I took on the Book of Esther. In Esther 3:12, we read that the King of Persia’s scribes on the thirteenth day of the first month (which is identified as Nisan in v 7) write the decree about the extermination of the Jews. In Esther 4, Esther proclaims a fast for three days for the Jews in Shushan. Remember that the Passover is on the fourteenth day of the first month, Nisan (Exodus 12). On the Passover, the Israelites are to eat unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Was Esther telling Jews to fast on a day on which the Torah commanded them to eat? Was she disregarding the Torah?
I suppose that one can ask a lot of questions about these scenarios. How do we know that the barley loaves in John 6 were from freshly harvested barley, rather than from barley from the previous year? Was the man in I Kings 4:42-44 required to offer all of his firstfruits to God, when Exodus 23:19 commands the Israelites to bring the first of their firstfruits? Can we really say for sure that the Jews in Shoshan fasted during the Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread, since perhaps it took quite some time for the decree to be promulgated after it was written down on the thirteenth of Nisan? But, come to think of it, Esther would probably hear about the decree pretty fast, since, as queen, she lived in the capitol city.
Was Jesus consciously disobeying the Torah when he multiplied the barley loaves? I vaguely recall reading in John Meier’s The Marginal Jew that Jesus was not violating laws out of a conscious need to proclaim their nullification, but rather certain laws did not enter into his mind. (I’m open to correction on this, as it has been a while since I read Meier.) At the same time, there were occasions when Jesus put well being above ritual, even in John’s Gospel. Could that be going on in John 6? After all, perhaps there is some reason that John 6 specifies that the Passover was near, which means that the firstfruits had not been offered yet.