Killing the pigs.

by K.W. Leslie, 07 May

Mark 5.11-20, Matthew 8.30-34, Luke 8.32-39.

Picking up where I left off: Jesus and his students traveled to the Dekapolis, a province (well, more like 10 provinces) in northern Israel inhabited by Syrian Greeks, located on the far side of the lake. They encountered a man (Matthew says two of ’em) infested with the sort of evil spirits which pagan Greeks worshiped as minor gods, a.k.a. demons. The spirits were making the poor demoniac’s life hell. They realized Jesus wouldn’t tolerate what they were doing to the man, and would order them out of there. But they had an idea, which maybe they could get Jesus to go along with.

Mark 5.11-13 KWL
11 There was a great herd of pigs grazing near the hill.
12 The demons begged Jesus, saying, “Send us to the pigs, so we can enter them!”
13 Jesus allowed them, and coming out, the unclean spirits entered the pigs.
The herd stampeded to the cliff over the lake—like 2,000!—and drowned in the lake.
Matthew 8.30-32 KWL
30 Far off from them was a herd of many pigs, grazing.
31 The demons begged Jesus, saying, “If you throw us out, send us to the herd of pigs.”
32 Jesus told them, “Get out.” Coming out, they went off into the pigs.
Look, the whole herd rushed off the seacliff and died in the waters.
Luke 8.32-33 KWL
32 There was a great herd of pigs grazing on the hill.
The demons begged Jesus so he’d send them to enter the pigs
Jesus allowed them, 33 and coming out of the person, the demons entered the pigs.
The herd rushed off the cliff into the marsh, and drowned.

You might remember devout Jews don’t eat pork. It’s because the LORD identified any animals which aren’t ruminant, which do have split hooves, as ritually unclean. And God specifically singled out pigs, Lv 11.7 because nearly every other culture raises and eats them, and the Hebrews might get the idea a popular food animal might be an exception.

No, ritual uncleanliness does not mean pigs are sinful, nor that eating them is a sin. The only consequence in the scripture for eating an unclean animal is you couldn’t worship. You’d first have to baptize yourselves and wait till sundown. Realistically, if your only worship consisted of going to temple three times a year, Ex 23.14 technically you could eat pork all year long, abstain during the temple festivals, and you were good. Well, not that good. But good enough for worship, which is why certain Jews eat treyf (unclean things) all year round, and only abstain for the holidays.

But Pharisees strived to stay in a constant state of ritual cleanliness. Their custom dictated that you had to be ritually clean to go to synagogue, and they wanted to be prepared to enter the synagogue at any given time. (Lessons went on all week long, y’know.) So this meant a constant state of ritual cleanliness, which means no pork ever. In fact the idea of a herd of pigs, raised on land that was historically part of Israel’s covenant, would’ve bugged Pharisees greatly.

Anyway some commentators figure this fact puts a new spin on the story: Here are some animals which shouldn’t even have been in Israel anyway. So Jesus likely had no qualms about the demons destroying them, and even permitted them because he wanted the pigs dead. Go ahead demons; purge Israel of its swine.

Okay, now back up a few yards and let’s think about how contrary to Jesus’s character this interpretation is.

Jesus doesn’t endorse devilish behavior.

Much of the reason for the idea Jesus wanted the pigs killed, comes from determinism, the idea everything in the universe happens because God wills it so.

People like determinism because they love the idea God controls absolutely everything. It appeals to us because humans covet power, and we’d kinda like to control absolutely everything, so we like imagining God works like that. It also appeals to us because it feels like a guarantee we’re going to heaven: If God wants us, God absolutely, unstoppably gets us. He controls all, remember?

But its one cosmic flaw is it turns God evil. See, the universe has an awful lot of evil in it. If God controls absolutely everything, it’d mean he controls the evil too. The evil’s there because God wants evil there. He set it up so people would be horrible to one another, reject him, go to hell, and perish forever. He put every sin, every woe, every illness, every evildoer, every devil in our lives… all so he can appear to be a hero when he stops it or gets rid of it, all so he can appear righteous for judging sinners… who only did all the evil he made them do.

Determinism turns Jesus into a moral monster too; a chessmaster who’s happy to let his pawns suffer so he can play the victor and save the day. Remember how Jesus would regularly speak out against evil? Be compassionate? Call people to repent? Tell us we had a choice, so choose to do the right thing? Determinism means these are all lies—we never really had a choice, ’cause we’re locked into following God’s script, and if we resist it… well, that resistance was also part of the script. Thanks for playing, but you were never gonna win anyway: We’ve been entirely manipulated, and free will’s an illusion.

It’d also mean this moshpit of demons were also following the script. God arranged to put them in the man, all so Jesus could look good taking ’em out. With the added bonus of smiting pigs… even though God created these pigs. Guess he only created them so he could have the demons destroy them for fun, like a kid who likes to build sandcastles near the shore then watch the waves melt ’em. Guess he only created sinners for much the same reason.

If the idea God is secretly evil really bothers you, and you’re wondering, “Determinists believe that?”—they say they actually don’t. All they want to believe is God micromanages the universe. They never, ever wanna take it to its logical conclusion. They insist there’s some magic mechanism hidden in their system, one which disconnects God from all the evil he’s decreed, one which makes it so God isn’t evil deep down, because the bible says he’s not evil deep down. 1Jn 1.5 They haven’t found the mechanism, but they believe really hard it exists. And pretend all the more to be rational and logical to cover up all the dark matter in their reasoning.

Now compare this with what we actually do know about Jesus: He’s loving and compassionate. He came to this world to save it, not smite it. Jn 3.17 Save it from sin and death, not from scenarios he himself manufactured.

Smiting the pigs wouldn’t have been a fair judgment. First of all, the Syrian Greeks weren’t under the Law. Ro 2.14 And even if they were, pigs were only unclean; they weren’t sinful.

But for gentiles then, same as gentiles now, pork isn’t an issue. And God doesn’t judge people on non-issues. It’s odd how these same commentators who figure Jesus wanted these pigs to die, themselves have no qualms about eating pork chops and bacon.

Also bear in mind how the loss of 2,000 pigs was a serious blow to the local economy. Y’know how much a pig went for back then? Different Greek sources say adult pigs sold for 40 drachmas; young pigs for 20. Laborers back then might only earn a drachma a day, so a pig was worth more than a month’s wages. A dozen pigs was worth more than a year’s wages. And the demons just wiped out 2,000-some pigs: That’s 22 years’ wages.

But hey, gentiles shouldn’t’ve been raising pigs anyway. Right?

The reality is Jesus let ’em go into the pigs, because better they infested pigs than humans. He wasn’t gonna send them to the abyss yet; I don’t know why. (I don’t know what rules God’s handed down for demonic behavior. Probably not wise to speculate either. But it’s possible they hadn’t pushed God too far just yet, so Jesus decided not to judge ’em yet.) But he definitely wasn’t gonna turn them loose… to head to the nearby town. ’Cause that’s precisely where they’d go. The pigs were the better choice.

But the pigs running off the cliff to drown? Not Jesus’s idea. Some folks figure it was the pigs, choosing to die rather than be demonized. Others figure it was the demons, who (they speculate) weren’t allowed to kill humans, but could (they still speculate) kill all the pigs they pleased.

My guess? The evil spirits were hoping to bollix the gospel by destroying the locals’ property. So of course Jesus didn’t endorse this behavior: They were working against him, not secretly for him. As usual.

Mammonism and the gospel.

Y’see, many people are Mammonists. Just about everything they do is based on whether they can gain financially. If God’s kingdom can return them a profit, they’re all for it; if it doesn’t… well, they’ll find some way to make it do so. Get on a church governing board, get ’em to stop throwing money away at people who are never gonna be profitable, and make ’em practice “good stewardship.” But I digress.

In the case of the Syrian Greeks, their introduction to God’s kingdom had just got their pigs killed off. So they weren’t all that receptive to anything Jesus was gonna do thereafter. No doubt they were outraged by him, and if some nut had simply released their herd of pigs and drove ’em off the cliff, they’d have crucified him right there.

But these were pagans who believed demons were lesser gods. And Jesus had just thrown thousands of them out of a man. Without an exorcism ritual, without a magic spell; with a command. So, as all three gospels report, they were scared to death of our Lord. They didn’t want him around, but they weren’t gonna mess with him.

Mark 5.14-17 KWL
14 The swineherds fled, and reported what happened to the city and countryside.
People came to see what had happened.
15 They came to Jesus and saw the former demoniac seated, clothed, and sane
the man who had the legion! They feared him.
16 The witnesses described what had happened to the former demoniac, and to the pigs.
17 The people began to encourage Jesus to go away from their province.
Matthew 8.30-32 KWL
33 The swineherds fled, and while going to the city they reported everything,
including what happened to the demoniacs.
34 Look, the whole city came out to meet Jesus,
and seeing him, they encouraged him so he’d leave their province.
Luke 8.34-37 KWL
34 The swineherds, seeing what happened, fled and reported what happened to the city and countryside.
35 People came to see what had happened.
They came to Jesus, and found the person from whom the demons came out,
seated, clothed, sane, and by Jesus’s feet. They feared him.
36 The witnesses reported to them how the former demoniac was cured.
37 All the crowd of the Gerasa region asked Jesus to go away from them, for great fear surrounded them.
He entered the boat and returned.

So the reason I bring up the economics of the situation is for two reasons: First to point out it wasn’t Jesus’s intent to damage their economy, nor judgment on the Syrian Greeks for liking pork. That was all on the demons.

And second, to point out the demons’ evil little scheme to bollix the gospel kinda worked. Jesus had good news for the Dekapolis, but now they didn’t wanna hear it. They couldn’t get beyond the idea Jesus had got their pigs destroyed. They just wanted the whole thing to be over with, and for Jesus to go back to the Galilee province and leave them alone. And Jesus didn’t fight ’em, because Jesus doesn’t force his grace upon people. They wanted him gone; he left.

Well… with one sleeper agent left behind.

Mark 5.18-20 KWL
18 As Jesus got himself into the boat, the former demoniac encouraged Jesus so he could be with him.
19 Jesus didn’t permit him, but told him, “Go to your home, to your people.
Report to them everything the Lord did to you, and showed mercy to you.”
20 So he went away and began to preach in the Dekapolis everything Jesus did for him.
Everyone was astounded.
Luke 8.38-39 KWL
38 The man from whom the demons came out, begged Jesus to be with him.
Jesus turned him loose, saying, 39 “Go to your home.
Give them the details of what God did for you.”
So he went away and preached in all the cities what Jesus did for him.

Later in the gospels, Jesus came back to the Dekapolis, and now they were ready to listen to him. (And he fed 3,000 of them. Yep, it’s part of that story.) Because this guy had been sent around with a rather simple tale: Give your testimony of what God did for you.

Had the pigs not been destroyed, Jesus might’ve fed the 3,000 a lot sooner. Unfortunately things didn’t happen that way. But he did gain an advance man, so there’s that.

I’ll just wrap up with this little reminder: Any interpretation of the New Testament which doesn’t take into consideration Jesus’s compassion for people—which doesn’t make it front and center of his motivation for what he’s doing—is seriously flawed. Don’t be like that.