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.       

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38 COMMENTS

  1. Wow! I've never seen it explained like this before, I like it a lot. The comparison between war/loss of life and saving the lives of the hungry people who followed Jesus is awesome. Thanks for the article.
    • Indeed, Chris. The New Testament is always referring to and building on Israel's Scriptures; it's what scholars call "narrative patterning," and it makes for very rich reading.
  2. That is a very deep interpretation it made me understand that everything that the Lord Jesus Christ have done also has a precise meaning and purpose to fullfil The Law of Moses, The Prophet and the psalms.
  3. Love reading the bible stories, l have grown up reading the bible & appreciating the gospel stories for what they were, but to have these stories brought to an even deeper light is beyond wonderful its inspirational, with the hebrew alphabet being pictural & numbered to, theres so much more.
  4. Thank you for your insight! It opens an entirely new opportunity to understand more deeply what the actions of Messiah meant.
  5. Thanks for the explanation. Very informative and interesting When reading the Bible, I often feel like I am missing pieces of truth and meaning. I appreciate the length and concise writing.
  6. I could tell that there was some kind of code or meaning behind the words in this story, I just could not figure it out. Thanks for these insights!
    • Thanks for reading, Donald. There's similar theological meaning in all of Jesus' miracles insofar as they each point to something much bigger than the miracle itself. We will offer some more interpretations along these lines soon.
    • We are very happy that you’ve joined our discussion forum. Would you believe that these articles are only a taste of what Israel Bible Center has to offer? We also provide comprehensive teaching on a variety of biblical, historical, and cultural topics. You might begin with The Jewish Gospel of Matthew or The Hebrew Psalms: How To Worship God. You’ll be amazed at the Jewish world that awaits you. Don’t delay another minute: enroll now!
  7. So beautiful !!! I absolutly love these snippets of wisdom. One day I will be able to enroll. Thank you for these until I get to. Be Blessed !
    • We would be happy to have you as a student, Cindy. Until then, we are grateful for your reading and interacting with our materials.
  8. Thanks! Love the military connection in these numbers as the kingdom was to be of shalom, not might. Maybe the two feeding stories also connected - 5000, 5,2,12 = books/tablets of Moses enough for all Israel, "nations" =4000, 7,7 = enough for all. Yahweh's Kingdom for Everyone is here!
    • Thanks for commenting, Brian. Yes, the 4,000 has "nations" imagery going on. We will write an article on it soon.
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