April 3, 2014

Strange Cuisine II: Poor Man's Banquet

Matthew 3:4 ~ “Now John wore a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 

So here we see John the Baptist and his eclectic diet of bugs and honey. At once we are struck with the oddity of not only his sustenance in this passage but also his wardrobe too. He eats bugs and honey which comes from bugs (bees) and he dresses in robe or cloak made of camel hair and girded by a leather belt. Inquisitive minds will want to know…why the peculiarity and unconventional nature of his not-so-normal existence? It should be noted immediately that John wears the garb of the Old Testament prophet when it tells us he wears a camel’s hair garment and leather belt. Even Jesus tells us that John is indeed a prophet in the mold of the Old Testament. He will be the last, and he will be the greatest. Jesus speaking to the disciples says as much….

Matthew 11:9-11 ~ “What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, “‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you. ’Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

What’s more is it stating this Jesus is recalling or quoting the prophet Malachi and the prophecy of the Messenger of the Covenant. Which is also a herald mentioned in Isaiah 40:3

Malachi 3:1 ~ “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty.

Isaiah 40:3 ~ “A voice cries:“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

The Old Testament prophets not only told of the coming of the Messiah but they also foretold of the coming of the last of their kind in John, and Jesus confirms this (Luke 16:16). If we refer to the original Hebrew of Malachi 3, the Hebrew tells us the messenger is [mal’ak] “messenger-of-me/Me” or literally “a messenger; specifically, of God. Whomever this is that is coming …the one the messenger foretells of will be directly from God himself. This first messenger will also prepare the way for God or in this context/case Jesus Christ and as suddenly as this messenger will come, the Lord they are seeking will come to His temple. This verse is the Old Testament counterpart to Matthew 11:10, Mark 1:2 and Luke 7:27. It is also the Old Testament companion to Isaiah 40:3: “A voice of one calling: "In the desert prepare the way for the LORD make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.

The Messenger is clearly John the Baptist.

Knowing this makes the identity of the One that will usher in the New Covenant and the One who will abrogate the Old Covenant obvious in hindsight. It is Jesus Christ or the One who will prove He is God by purifying His people like a “refiners fire” (v.2-3) and punishing sinners. So we have clearly connected John to the prophets of old here both through prophecy and Jesus’ own words.

So why the bugs and ascetic and frugal lifestyle?

Well, first we should note that John came preaching (v.1). Preaching what? The same things the prophets of Old had alluded to: A Gospel of repentance and an exhortation to turn back to God. This is what prophets do…they exhort people to return to God that have gone astray. Repentance or μετάνοια / metanoia literally means to turn one’s mind. Why? Because the Kingdom of God was at hand…literally Jesus was at hand and near. Kingdom is where the King is and Jesus was here! How could anyone turn their back on the Son of God? Well, easy…sin blinded them. The quintessential message of a prophet. A prophet like Elijah. Why is this important? The Gospel of Matthew is intent on showing that Jesus is the Messiah foretold of in the Old Testament and John plays directly into those foretelling being the predecessor of Jesus. What is even more important is that John, being a type of Old Testament prophet breaks a 450 year prophetic silence over the land of Israel. A silence that started at the time or Malachi…the exact prophet that foretold of John!

If we look closely at the emphatic pronoun αὐτὸς or “himself” in verse 4 we see Matthew as writer draws our attention to John and that fact that John’s manner of living in this verse was in accord with prophecy of the forerunner of the Messiah. John is literally depicted as a type of Elijah who wore the same wardrobe in 2 Kings 1:8.

2 Kings 1:8 ~ “They answered him, “He wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist.” And he said, “It is Elijah the Tishbite.”

John’s personality and method of preaching is indeed exactly the same as his predecessor’s. No holds barred and in your face regardless of who you were. Elijah confronted and went head-to-head with Ahab and his disgusting wife and John went toe-to-toe with Herod and his disgusting wife. What is further ironic is that the evil women behind the kings in these stories did more to steer the bad behavior of the kings than the kings themselves. What we see here is God’s chosen going against those that apostatized from God. Jesus even makes the direct correlation between Elijah and John by name.

Matthew 11:13-14 ~ For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 

Matthew 17:12-13 ~ “But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.”

The eating of the bugs though leave us puzzled. Couldn’t John have just killed a bird or some other animal and eaten somewhat normally? Well, we should probably without judging what John ate. Why? Because locusts are still eaten to this day in the Middle East. Although his diet sounds meager, it was actually nutritious and healthy considering how little he ate. I believe the term is nutrient dense. It was also the diet associated to the very poor. We see shades of the “last being first and the first being last here.” He is dressed in poor man’s clothes and eats poor man’s food but in terms of spiritual importance, there would be none greater than him other than Jesus Himself. Like Jesus we see a man that seemed to have, “no place to rest his head.” He lived in the wilderness and was essentially a wild-eyed prophet living at the fringes of society. A man that dresses ruggedly and eats even more harshly, like he lives in the desert wilderness somewhere between God and man but not firmly in either camp. Prophets…men ostracized by their calling and God’s will for them. Ostracized by the tone of their message and a world that rejects them because they don’t want to hear the message of the God behind it. They would rather dwell in their sins.

We should probably also mention that John’s diet eating of locusts is not only permitted in the Old Testament law, it is actually encouraged by God in Leviticus. Locusts and similar insects almost seem to be singled out as acceptable clean animals in the dietary laws.

Leviticus 11:20-23 ~ “All winged insects that go on all fours are detestable to you. Yet among the winged insects that go on all fours you may eat those that have jointed legs above their feet, with which to hop on the ground. Of them you may eat: the locust of any kind, the bald locust of any kind, the cricket of any kind, and the grasshopper of any kind. But all other winged insects that have four feet are detestable to you.

Also, just because the Bible says John ate locusts and honey does not mean that these are the only foods he ate. Again, these two culinary items are mentioned by Matthew to draw the parallel to Elijah which we have already alluded to earlier in this post.

So what we see in the end is not necessarily the physical human significance of John in this passage so much as the spiritual aspect that is being drawn out by Matthew. Yes, John is probably a wild-eyed man in the wilderness drawing people to him and pointing them towards the One he foretells of by his enigmatic behaviors and words…but it is what is at the heart of these words and actions that is the telling sign for Matthew. John is preaching a baptism of repentance and the parallels of wardrobe and diet are to align him spiritually to His predecessor Elijah and these dietary parallels are drawn to show the spiritual significance more than the physical. Matthew isn’t telling us John eats bugs to gross us out, he is doing it to show that the Old Testament spoke of him first and this is how you would know. That means the One whom John had spoken of…had come too!

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