Why the Pigs had to die – Some Reflections on the Strange Story of the Gerasene Demoniac

Looking at the the story in Mark 5, frankly, it is a completely bizarre story to modern, western ears. (Disclaimer)1

A Man who couldn’t be chained up, with some violent form of possession, is freed from ‘what ails him’. But rather than the forces disappearing into thin air, Jesus allows them to cause a final and more socially impactful act: to enter and then kill a herd of pigs. And, not just kill them, they go off a cliff and drown in dramatic lemming-style!

As John Walton says, the scriptures are “not written to us, but they are written for us.” So, it is important to hear these stories (as much as we can) through the ears of the original hearers. There are a few aspects that become much more significant and symbolic in the 1st century context and it is important for us to pick those up in order to faithful translate any understanding today.

A short thought on Connection, Disconnection and Spiritual Powers

In the story of the Gerasene Demoniac, Jesus speaks to the ‘legion’ of forces controlling the man who has been isolated, labeled, and cast off from his community. Firstly, this is an important and concretely social reality employed by the forces of of darkness that we should not over-spiritualise.

Many of God’s commands to His people encourage our concrete relational connection to others2 as the expression of God’s action of reconciling us to Himself in Christ. So, whenever we look at places where people find themselves isolated; imprisoned, hospitalised, impoverished, and marginalised, we should expect the powers are at play either as the source of disconnection or exacerbating the circumstances of disconnection.

Looking into the original context

1) Devastating the local economy to reveal one persons worth

It was Mike Pilavachi who I first heard mention this aspect of the story. The pigs more than likely represented one the main local industries in an agricultural context. It was not just a few pigs, these were pigs that represented income or significant assets to many in this region.

But why devastate the local economy? Well, potentially it as devastating enough to create some serious ‘buzz’ around Jesus’ presence and power. It’s far reaching impact is possibly how the story has been preserved in the gospels for us. But, this doesn’t seem that convincing to me, in many places Jesus’ still seems to be keeping his activity and even identity under wraps and so parlour tricks to gain an audience doesn’t really seem his style.

One possible theory could be that while a community has chained this man up outside of their belonging, Jesus is demonstrating that the Kingdoms that are clashing can not just be pushed out to the margins. In an act of both witness and judgement (read consequence) the community loses it’s wealth for neglecting its vulnerable. Whenever I have encountered someone in the state described in this story, they are rarely only a product of their own sin, but have often been sinned against in wounding and terrorizing ways. Finally, This is two thousand pigs, a significant asset for this region, and yet Jesus is revealing the worth of this one man.

2) Revealing both a rebuke and an invitation to gentiles

Jesus is clearly ministering in a gentile area, why else farm pigs if only kosher-observant Jews were around? By ministering in this area he is already bending the Israel-centric salvation understandings that are present in the 1st century. Deliverance, power-display, not just party tricks but a deliverance fore-taste, beginning with Israel, but with the intention to spill out for all the nations of the earth. Jesus is bringing the kingdom near to those understood to be on the outside of what he was about.

Pigs were literally the unclean and untouchable animals for Jews. Essentially in a Jewish mind, Jesus is sending darkness into filth. Jesus was making the point that even though he ministers in a gentile area that he has come to ‘fulfill the law, not to abolish it’. There non-Jewish ways and the darkness they are under are connected.

3) Let my People Go – Echoes of an Egyptian Deliverance

This year3, I’ve realised how important the themes of exile and deliverance are in Jesus’ actions. Much of Jesus’ life and activity in the New Testament is presented in the gospels as a new exile in reference particularly to the story of Israel being delivered from Egyptian Slavery.

In the context of 1st century Palestine there was a striking sense that the Roman occupation of the land was another slavery and another exile. The Pharisee’s, Saducees and revolutionaries are all looking for a new age of deliverance and for a Moses to deliver them from this new Pharaoh, Rome. Jesus presented the Kingdom as a direct opposition to Rome’s occupation. ‘Lord’ and ‘Son of God’ were all terms reserved for the Caesar’s, so Jesus is not just revealing YHWH but dethroning Rome’s claim to being the incarnation of god that Jesus is enacting.

Richard Hays says;

“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.”

Only having this quote to work with, I’m not sure if Hays make the closer connection, but as soon as I had read this I thought of the ultimate act of deliverance as Israel crossed the Red Sea which then swallowed up it’s oppressors. Jesus here seems to delivering this man, while sending off a demonic legion (presented as a parable of the Roman oppressors, and an echo of the egyptian chariots) into the sea.

God’s people’s deliverance and God’s judgement on the powers that oppose Him are one act. Superb.

The story in Mark ends with the community afraid, presumably of more economic disrupt, begging Jesus to leave. The newly clothed and right-minded demoniac begs to join the travelling band of Kingdom announcers. Jesus’ instead, commissions him to go tell of what had happened, maybe as the first evangelist to the gentiles?

So, hopefully that helps you understand (at least a little more) why a bunch of pigs had to die. Happy to hear new thoughts or challenges to some of these sketches in the comments below.

  1. Much of the content here was inspired by Andrew Wilson’s post on Think Theology on this Gospel story where he quotes Richard Hays work. I’ve added a few additional observations and theories as they came to me reflecting on the passage, the article and Hay’s quote. 
  2. click here for some examples. 
  3. reading especially the work of Tom Wright and Peter Leithart 

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