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I'm currently looking into John 6, and one detail that sticks out to me is this: In both instances of feeding the masses (i.e. the Feeding of the 4000 & of the 5000), Jesus had specifically been supplied (by God) with bread and fish.

It is rather straight-forward to understand the purpose in bread being one of the foods: Jesus is the Bread of Life, after all. But why also fish? What was God's intent in making it so that bread and fish the most easily accessible food products in these instances?

I totally understand if many will read this post and dismiss it as an unnecessary detail to be hyper-fixated on...though I'm just curious. Sometimes the most important messages of scripture resonate most strongly, and become most easily apparent, upon examining seemingly trivial details.

I appreciate your time. Blessings!

4 Answers 4

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One interpretation is that the fish in the “Feeding The Multitude”:

1. It is a symbol that God has finally satisfied the cravings of the Israelites.

In Numbers 11 we see that the Israelites were complaining to God:

Now the mixed multitude who were among them yielded to intense craving; so the children of Israel also wept again and said: “Who will give us meat to eat? 5 We remember the fish which we ate freely in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; 6 but now our whole being is dried up; there is nothing at all except this manna before our eyes!”

God then promises to provide for the Israelites:

Then you shall say to the people, ‘Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, and you shall eat meat; for you have wept in the hearing of the Lord, saying, “Who will give us meat to eat? For it was well with us in Egypt.” Therefore the Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat. 19 You shall eat, not one day, nor two days, nor five days, nor ten days, nor twenty days, 20 but for a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you, because you have despised the Lord who is among you, and have wept before Him, saying, “Why did we ever come up out of Egypt?” ’ ”

It's almost as if in the miracles of feeding the multitudes, Jesus using fish to feed the crowds, symbolizes the fulfillment of God’s promise to provide for His people. Jesus did give them meat and plenty more.


2. It was a lesson for Jesus' disciples.

The first disciples Jesus calls — Peter, Andrew, James and John — are fishermen. Compared to the other disciples, scripture gives much insight into the lives of the profession, and the character of the first four. [1]

Jesus therefore comes into their profession. These rough and inelegant men. He takes something they know and makes it something that they never could have dreamed of.


3. It was practical and would impact many people.

Mark 6:32 says that they went away by boat. Assuming that both of these miracles took place near the sea, it would make sense that there would be many fishermen in the crowds. Fishing was a rather common trade, especially around the Sea of Galilee. Also, fish were the food of common people, so the demand for fish was high, and the market large.

By using fish, therefore, Jesus was likely using the "language" of the people in the crowd.

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It is significant that John records the 5,000 had crossed the sea of Galilee (Tiberias) due to having witnessed Jesus' signs (semia) in healing the sick. It is also significant that the feast of Passover was approaching. That involved unleavened bread. If the feeding with bread and fish here is significant, beyond the astounding physical matter of duplication of food, it will be due to parallels to be drawn with ancient Israel being separated to become strangers and sojourners in a barren, inhospitable land, without bread.

Who supplied them with food in the wilderness? Even he who was now present with them in the flesh upon the mountain. The disciples Philip and Andrew showed as little faith in divine providence then as the Israelites in the past. Yet consider that 12 baskets of left-over bread and fish were gathered - as if to signify that there had been enough food for all twelve tribes of the children of Israel. This lends deeper meaning to the verse immediately after the 12 baskets were filled:

"The men, then, having seen the sign that Jesus did, said - 'This is truly the Prophet, who is coming to the world'." John 6:14 YLT

They knew Moses had told them to listen to the Prophet like him, who would come (Deuteronomy 18:15), but now they wanted to force Jesus to be their king, so he hid from them (verse 15).

Is there significance in fish also being part of this sign Jesus wrought? Fish is a nourishing food, and bread is also a nourishing, staple food item. Around the Sea of Galilee, fishing was a main industry. That some fish was to hand, along with small loaves, was to be expected. In the wilderness, God provided through Moses, not fish, but manna and quail for the people of Israel. Jesus said in the ensuing debate:

"I am that bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. I am the living bread which cometh down from heaven..." John 6:48-51 A.V.

With this sign wrought by Jesus, the disciples received bread and fish, and distributed nourishment to the crowds. A deeper layer of meaning can be seen in how the fellowship of Christians in this spiritually barren wilderness of a world is how our Lord feeds us spiritual good things through his word, distributed to those who gather and wait in faith as to how he will provide.

Yet the real meaning is also tied up with Jesus then walking on the turbulent sea (think of the water being parted for the Israelites to cross over), and the imminent Passover (think of the sacrificed lamb). But the question only seeks examination of the feeding sign in John chapter 6, sticking to the significance of bread and fish. So, I will leave it here.

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Many have noticed that John's Gospel is particularly concerned with the sacraments, especially with the eucharistic meal. This passage is no exception. Jesus' provision of loaves and fish in John 6 replaces the Passover meal of unleavened bread and lamb.

In is notable that John goes out of his way to mention that "the Passover was near." (vs 4) But rather than going to Jerusalem for the festival, Jesus remains in the region of the Galilee, where he feeds the 5,000. Moreover, there is a definite connection between the Passover liturgy and this event. Vss. 10-11 reads:

Jesus said, "Have the people recline.” ...Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted.

At Passover, the telling of the story begins with the breaking of the unleavened bread and the declaration: "This is the bread of of affliction; let all who are hungry come and eat!" Moreover, one of the "Four Questions" formally asked by children during the meal is:

Why is it that on all other nights we eat either sitting or reclining, but on this night we eat in a reclining position?

The traditional answer is that Passover is a time when Jews mark their liberation from slavery. It is no longer necessary to eat the Passover meal quickly with staff in hand (Exodus 12:11); one eats while reclining in celebration of liberty. Here, in John's gospel, it is no accident that the narrator directly mentions a) Passover, b) bread to the hungry, and c) reclining. Passover commemorates liberation from slavery and death; this meal symbolizes the liberation from death and sin that Jesus' would soon provide as the Lamb of God. This interpretation works even more clearly if one presumes that John was already using the fish as a symbol to represent Christ, as other Christian certainly did within a few decades.

Putting this together, the loaves and fish represent a harbinger of sacramental meal Jesus would soon institute, in which his body would be the bread and his blood would be the "new wine" that saves the "new Israel" from death. The fish represented the Passover Lamb in a new form, just as the loaves were a new form of matzo. (Possibly John already thought of the word "fish" (ixthus) is the equivalent of Christ.) In any case, for John, Jesus is the Passover Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. The feeding of the five thousand with bread and fish thus foreshadows the sacred meal that would later form the core of the church's sacramental theology.

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It is worth noting that both the feeding of the five thousands and the four thousands took place in the lake of Galilee region, where fish is a significant local diet. Although the text doesn't explicitly specify the type of fish, it is improbable that raw fish was used, rather, salted fish would have been more practical for immediate consumption. An article from the Biblical Archaeology Society sheds light on the prominence of salted fish as a trade commodity in Magdala, the hometown of Mary Magdalene. For further insights on this subject, please refer to the link provided below.

The Fishy Secret to Ancient Magdala's Economic Growth

Although Jesus previously instructed Peter to follow Him, stating that he would be sent to "fish for people" (Matthew 4:19), aligning with Peter's occupation as a fisherman, the word 'fish' in this context did not have symbolic meaning. Jesus often employed familiar objects from the comtemporary world in His teaching, to make His message comprehensible to His audience.

Therefore both bread and (salted) fish were everyday provisions for local people traveling daily. Any symbolic significance of them depends on individual interpretation.

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