Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand appears in all four Gospels (cf. Matt 14:13-21; Mk 6:30-44; Lk 9:10-17; Jn 6:1-14). This event is full of numerological symbolism, and knowing the meaning of numbers in Jewish thought can help us appreciate the full theological significance of the messianic miracle. For the ancient Israelites, “five thousand” had militaristic connotations; the number appears in biblical battle records, and regiments were subdivided into neat divisibles of 5,000. Thus, the Gospels’ reference to the quantity of eating onlookers overturns expectations: whereas “five thousand” usually denotes the loss of life through war, Jesus provides a meal that sustains the lives of those who follow him.
In Israel’s Scriptures, five thousand is a number associated with military conflict. Before David kills Goliath, the text describes the Philistine’s armor: “He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail, and the weight of the coat was five thousand (חמשׁת אלפים; chameshet alaphim) shekels of bronze” (1 Samuel 17:5). Ahead of the Israelites’ campaign against the city of Ai, Joshua “took about five thousand men (חמשׁת אלפים אישׁ; chameshet alaphim ish) and set them in ambush between Bethel and Ai” (Joshua 8:12). During the civil war between the people of Benjamin and the rest of Israel, the Benjaminites retreated and “fled toward the rock of Rimmon. Five thousand men (חמשׁת אלפים אישׁ; chameshet alaphim ish) of them were cut down along the roads” (Judges 20:45).
After Jesus performs his miracle with only five loaves and two fish, Mark states that “those who ate were five thousand men” (πεντακισχίλιοι ἄνδρες; pentakischílioi ándres; 6:44; cf. Matt 14:21). Before the people are fed, Mark also notes that “they sat down in groups, by hundreds and fifties” (6:40; cf. Lk 9:14). As with five thousand, “hundreds” and “fifties” are also military integers into which people are grouped under commanders before or during warfare (e.g., 1 Sam 8:12; 1 Kgs 18:13; 2 Kgs 1:14; cf. Exod 18:21-25; Deut 1:15). Yet in the midst of all of this embattled enumeration, Jesus’ miraculous act promotes comfort over conflict. More, whereas the five thousand Benjaminites who died during the civil war epitomized the fracturing of the nation, the leftovers of bread and fish totaled twelve baskets: the full number of Israel’s tribes (cf. Matt 14:20; Mk 6:43, 8:19; Lk 9:17; Jn 6:13). The feeding of the five thousand points to a theological reality that is even greater than the miracles itself: as the Jewish Messiah, Jesus comes to nourish his people and restore the unity of Israel.