I watched a program recently on the city of Petra, Syria, an ancient town in a place where there was no apparent water, except for occasional catastrophic flash floods. Somehow the people who carved it out of the native stone were not only excellent craftsmen but also great engineers. Excavations have revealed watercourses and dams that helped to both fill watercourses and aqueducts but also provide for a way of lessening the effects of flash flooding. Petra became a center for trading and respite for caravans passing through with their goods and purchasing provisions. They were known as a trading center for frankincense and myrrh
Petra was a long way from just about anywhere, hence its importance as a trading site and place of refreshment from the sun and desert heat. Traders had to carefully calculate what provisions and how many of each would be needed to get the caravan to the next oasis or trading center.
I was surprised to learn, many years ago, that not all deserts are vast sand dunes. Around Petra, as well as in Arizona, the Sahara, and other places of little moisture, the desert can also be a place with sparse vegetation, mountains, and hard-packed soil that would require a pickaxe to get through it. I used to live in the high desert of Oregon (yes, Oregon has a desert) where the desert bordered on the Columbia River. It might have been this kind of desert in which Jesus performed the miracle we know as the “Feeding of the Four Thousand.”
What would make people follow an itinerant preacher into such a countryside with no café, Starbucks, Fish’n’chips, or Subway anywhere close by? Towns would often have stalls in the marketplace where prepared food was as well as items that could be carried along for cooking on the road, but evidently, there was no town close to where they all found themselves. If they had brought food with them, it would have been eaten by the third day, and just like an army, a group of followers marched until the food ran out. Evidently, Jesus, in the minds of the people, was someone worth following.
Jesus was aware that the people were hungry, most of them having eaten the last of the supplies they had brought with them. The disciples were all in favor of sending them home, but Jesus reiterated that they were a long way from home and probably would not make it back without assistance. Then the disciples asked the question I’ve been pondering, “How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?” It certainly would have been impossible for people to bake bread made of sand and salt water, and even stone soup would not have nourished them enough to give them the strength to journey very far.
So, Jesus asked the disciples how much food they had with them. I don’t think they were particularly happy about being asked about stuff they had brought with them for their own meals but answered that they had among them seven loaves of bread and a few fish. Jesus took the food, blessed it, and then began passing it around to the crowd of about 4,000 people. Everyone ate, and at the end of the meal, the scraps gathered up came out to seven baskets of leftovers.
Seven is considered a most favored number in Judaism, a symbol for holiness and sanctity. Seven reminds us of the days of Creation, days in a week with the seventh day being the Sabbath, the number of days in many Jewish festivals, and all things in association with God, it isn’t surprising that Jesus would bless seven loaves and that the gathered-up bits and pieces would equal seven baskets.
Did the people expect a miracle? I imagine they were as surprised as anyone could be when confronted with a sudden fulfilling of a need at a time when it would be most unexpected. It would be like suddenly encountering an oasis after a long, tiring trek through sand and caliche. Were they grateful for what they received? It would be hard not to be, given the circumstances. What about the disciples? Shouldn’t they have expected something like this after having seen Jesus do unexpected things? Still, despite any reluctance to share with others, their bellies were as full as anyone’s, and if they were still hungry, bite-sized leftovers were still available.
Not everyone has had an opportunity to walk, hike, ride, or drive through a desert, but no matter how one does it, they must prepare for the trip. I can’t expect to meet a fellow traveler to bail me out of trouble if I forget extra water, bread, a map, or a compass. I could survive for a while on such a trek, but if I become lost, get too hot, dehydrated, and depleted of energy-providing things, it could be my last journey and, very possibly, I will become food for foraging carrion birds. Jesus wasn’t going to let anything like that happen to the people who followed him, and spiritually, he still does that for any of us who seek his help.
Jesus knew what it was like being in the desert with no provisions. Remember, he spent forty days there, by himself, except for the tempter who waits for all of us. I may walk through an emotional or spiritual desert, but Jesus will walk with me, showing me where to go and how to survive. I can count on that. I don’t think I’ll have to rely on sand bread or stone soup with Jesus along.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She and her three cats live in a city southwest of Phoenix, just a few miles from a lot of open high desert.