Mark 5

Let’s see, where were we?

Jesus has crossed the Sea of Galilee and come to “the country of the Gerasenes.” There he meets a man possessed by an unclean spirit whose name is Legion “for we are many.” Jesus casts the spirit(s?) out into a herd of 2,000 swine, which promptly stampede over the edge of a cliff and drown in the sea. The swineherds run off and tell people what has happened, and they come out to find the man who had been possessed “Clothed and in his right mind…and they were afraid.”

Mark and the other evangelists often use unbelieving observers as foils, but I must admit that in this instance I sympathize with the frightened people. It isn’t clear that these people have heard of Jesus, his ministry of healing and his mastery over evil spirits. So their first encounter with him includes, as its dramatic high point, a massive stampede that ends up with 2,000 dead hogs floating in the sea. I like to believe that were I alive in Jesus time I might have been among those who would have responded to his teaching. (But, really, who can say this for certain?) In this case, though, I think the surpassing strangeness of the events described would have set my teeth on edge.

Dead waterlogged pigs to the left of us! Dead waterlogged pigs to the right of us! And that lunatic who haunts the tombs neatly turned out and speaking good sense. I realize I am dwelling on this to the exclusion of Jesus restoring “Legion” to his right mind—and I realize the story might be metaphoric—but this seems to me one of those passages that resists domestication. You can’t easily explain why Jesus did what he did in the particular way that he did it. I understand that Jews regarded pigs as unclean and all that, but causing 2,000 of them to hurl themselves off a cliff still seems a bit gratuitous. I read this story and marvel at the cultural distance that separates us from Mark’s original audience, and the challenges we face in trying to make sense of what the evangelists are saying and what Jesus is doing.

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