September 9, 2004

Locusts & Wild Honey

Category: Bible - NT - Mark :: Permalink

Mark 1:4 says that “John was clothed with camel’s hair and with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” The description in Matthew 3:4 is almost identical. Clearly both Matthew and Mark believe that John’s dress and diet are important.

Given that God doesn’t waste words and that ancient writers in general had limited space on their scrolls and tended to make every word count, we ought to ask ourselves why Matthew and Mark both choose to describe John in this way. Luke, after all, doesn’t.

The answer cannot be that Matthew and Mark want their readers to be able to picture John better. Unlike modern storytellers, the biblical writers aren’t interested in description in itself. When they describe someone they do so because that description tells us something about that person. And so it must be with John.

But what does this description tell us? What is the significance of John’s diet and dress?

The answers won’t be found in our own speculation about what John’s diet and dress might mean (e.g., “John is protesting against the luxuries of the rich”) but rather must be drawn from the rest of biblical revelation. In particular, Mark and Matthew expect that we already know what we call the Old Testament.

And when we go back to the Old Testament, we find one phrase that rings a bell. In 2 Kings 1, King Ahaziah recognizes a man as Elijah because he is “a hairy man” and has “a leather belt around his waist.” The wording of the last phrase is almost identical to that in Mark 1. Apparently Elijah alone would be dressed that way and that outfit was enough to make Ahaziah certain that the man was Elijah. But that suggests that John is dressing in such a way as to identify himself with Elijah. In Mark 9, Jesus confirms that John is indeed the Elijah promised in Malachi 4.

So much for the leather belt. But what about the camel’s hair? Here I draw an almost complete blank. Certainly it makes John hairy (like Elijah). But why camel’s hair in particular?

And what about John’s diet? Locusts are clean animals and a faithful Israelite was allowed to eat them. But why did John eat them in particular and not other food?

Perhaps part of the answer is that in the Old Covenant locusts are usually the ones doing the eating. Locusts are sent as God’s judgment on Israel. In Joel, locusts are parallel to Gentiles: both invade the land and leave nothing green behind.

But John is in the wilderness eating locusts. Perhaps that suggests that through his ministry God’s curse on Israel will be taken away.

In fact, given that eating in the Bible is communion and that locusts and Gentiles are parallel, perhaps John’s diet suggests that through his ministry Gentiles will be included with Israel in the blessings of Exodus and Re-entrance, the blessings John is acting out by calling people to the wilderness and washing them in the Jordan (on John’s baptism, see Joel Garver‘s very helpful essay, “Baptism in Matthew and Mark“).

For that matter, note that in the wilderness, between the Exodus and the Entrance into the land, the Israelites were all Gentiles of a sort. The whole new generation was not circumcised until after Israel entered the promised land (Josh. 5). John’ ministry involves calling Israel to the wilderness again, where he is eating locusts. Perhaps that suggests that God is taking these “Gentile” Israelites, who have been exodused out of Israel-turned-Egypt, back into fellowship and communion with him.

What about the wild honey? Wild honey shows up in a few places in the Old Testament. Jonathan eats wild honey and regains his strength (1 Sam. 14). Samson eats wild honey that he finds in the carcass of the lion he killed (Judges 14). In that case, the honey was a sign that God would restore the land flowing with milk and honey to Israel through the destruction of the Philistine lion that had taken it from Israel. Perhaps John’s eating of wild honey suggests that through his ministry God would restore the blessings of the land to His people again. (My thanks to Jim Jordan for suggesting this interpretation.)

A closer connection might be made with Deuteronomy 32:13, where Moses sings about how Yahweh rescued Israel from Egypt and led him (and even carried him) through the wilderness. There in the wilderness, He also fed Israel: “He made him draw honey from the rock….” Furthermore, the manna tasted like honey (Ex. 16:31). Perhaps John’s eating honey fits with his general Exodus ministry as a sign of God’s provision for his people in the wilderness.

I’ve said “perhaps” a lot for a reason: I’m not sure if any of these suggestions are correct. I welcome your own suggestions.

Perhaps (again) it sounds as if I’m stretching, looking for meaning where there is none. But I do believe that the details are important and that John wore what he wore and ate what he ate — and that we’re told about it — for a reason. The details in Scripture do matter, even if we can’t fully figure them out.

One more suggestion of which I am more certain: John’s dress and diet, together with his location, mark him as a man of the wilderness, not a man of the Promised Land. John is wearing clothing associated with the wilderness (camel’s hair), eating food associated with the wilderness (not steak and honey from some farmer’s beehives but locusts and wild honey) and he is standing out in the wilderness.

I pointed out that John’s outfit reminds us of Elijah. But Elijah himself reminds us of Moses. Elijah is a new Moses and John is a new Elijah, which suggests that in some ways John is also a new Moses. And like Moses and Elijah, John’s ministry ends in the wilderness (symbolically, though not literally).

Moses didn’t enter the Promised Land. He died in the wilderness, after preparing Israel to enter. Elijah left the Promised Land and ascended in the same area Moses did, in the wilderness across the Jordan opposite Jericho. And John is in the wilderness and everything about him proclaims that he’s in the wilderness, all the way up to his death.

John’s location, diet, and dress all proclaim that John hasn’t entered the new creation, the new Promised Land, that God was going to bring about. John doesn’t share in the baptism of the Holy Spirit that his stronger follower is going to bring (Mark 1:8).

In fact, it seems to me that Mark mentions John’s dress and diet at the precise spot he does (Mark 1:6) because the dress and diet go hand in hand with John’s message in proclaiming that John isn’t going to be the one to bring about the fulfilment of God’s promises but that a stronger one is coming who will.

As Moses dies and his follower Joshua leads Israel into the inheritance God promised and as Elijah dies and Elisha then enters Israel to bring healing, John stays in the wilderness and even dies, preparing people for his successor Jesus who will bring God’s people into their full inheritance, the inheritance which includes the Spirit of glory and the New Covenant.

The location of John’s ministry, the clothes John wears, the food John eats are no accident, nor are they incidental and unimportant details. All of them identify John — together with the whole Old Covenant — as the weaker, preliminary one who stays out in the wilderness while the stronger follower brings Israel into the Promised Land.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:55 pm | Discuss (0)

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