What About the Pigs?
The reference, of course, is to Mark 5:1-20. What are we to make of a story in which demons ask to be released into a herd of pigs, Jesus acquiesces, and the herd of pigs instantly charge off a hillside and drown in the sea? I have heard (and given) all sorts of explanations. Jesus wanted to show people that one man is worth much more than two thousand pigs (which, in an agrarian economy, is an awful lot). Mark wanted to show us that Jesus was ministering in Gentile areas; why else would people be farming swine? Jesus wanted to show the Gentiles the demonic influence they were under, by connecting their non-Jewish ways with evil spirits. And so on.
But for all that some combination of these may be true, from now on I will be following the explanation of Richard Hays, in his outstanding Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels. I cannot believe I had never noticed this:
Just in case we readers might begin to forget the conflict between the kingdom ruled by Rome and the kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus, Mark includes a sly reference to Roman military power in his account of Jesus’ exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac. When Jesus demands to know the name of the unclean spirit that is possessing and destroying his human host, the spirit replies, “My name is Legion, because we are many” (Mark 5:9). No first-century reader would need to be reminded that the Legions stationed throughout the Mediterranean world and ready to respond to rebellion and revolt belonged to Rome. When Jesus then powerfully dispatches the demons into a herd of unclean pigs who plunge to their death in the sea, Mark hardly needs to explain the joke. It is a kind of political cartoon, in which the Roman army is driven out by Israel’s true king, sent back into the sea from which their invading ships had come.