Crumbs in my chiasmus


In the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 14 and 15 portray two miraculous feedings. The first feeding of 5,000 takes place in the wilderness somewhere in the vicinity of Nazareth. The second feeding of 4,000 takes place in pagan territory to the north of the Sea of Galilee, a region to which Jesus travelled soon after he heard of the death of John the Baptist. The fact that there are two miracles as well as the differences between them are very interesting.

Scholars have puzzled over the differences between the two feedings and come to various conclusions about their meaning. Some have hypothesized that the miracles are actually based on one event and perhaps there is some historical truth to this. But I want to suggest that Matthew places these two miracles at the center of his gospel and highlights their differences not out of concern for historical sequence but in order to focus attention on an event in Jesus’ ministry that turns his attention from ministry within Israel to a ministry with universal implications.

In this post, I’ll talk a bit about the way that Matthew has structured his gospel overall as well as the structure and placement of these two miracles stories. In later posts, I’ll talk a bit about Matthew’s use of numbers which carry symbolic meaning for a Jewish audience and then about how he weaves certain motifs through these chapters in order to embed theological meaning in the narrative itself.

Matthew’s use of chiasmus: a miraculous bread and fish sandwich 

In the account of these two miracles (chapters 14 and 15), Matthew employs a common Hebrew literary device called a chiasmus or ‘envelope structure’. A chiasmus works by repeating narrative motifs such that the first motif is repeated at the end of the chiasmus, the second is repeated second to last an so on until a central, pivotal event or realization is revealed. The following notation is used to show how narrative motifs might form this structure.

A ..... Kevin woke up at 10:00 am just as he'd always done
B ........ He stretched, cleaned up and went downstairs to eat
C ........... At 4:00 pm, the letter arrived which would change his life
B' ....... After dinner, he climbed the stairs, cleaned up, and stretched
A' .... Kevin went to sleep at 10:00 pm a new man

Throughout the Old Testament, chiasmus is used as a way of highlighting the significance of events or organizing stanzas in poetry. (See an example of chiasm in the Noah story)

This of course poses a challenge to our modern understanding of storytelling which requires that the events be recounted ‘accurately’ in the sequence in which they happened. If there is meaning to be found in events, we lay out the evidence in a sequential fashion and then conclude with a meaningful analysis. Not so with chiasmus. Chiasmus draws us into narrative meaning like a treasure hidden within the depths of a dark cave. We mark our path with observations on the way in, but the point of the journey lies at the center of the telling rather than the end.

Clearly this requires a different kind of reading than we are used to. If we are expecting a more modern sequence (event-event-event-explanation) then we may not pick up on the motifs being repeated and so lose out on the author’s intended focus. Chiasmus requires that we listen carefully so that we can trace back the repetitions in order to locate the center. It requires active listening and reflection.

Matthew’s Jewish readers would have been well practiced at this kind of attentive listening. For me, it’s a new way of reading. Here’s the chiasm I see in Matthew’s feeding accounts. Take a look and see if you agree that there’s something here. If so, what would you identify as the center of the chiasmus?

Chapters 1-13: Announcing the Kingdom in and around Galilee

  • Chapters 14-15: Two miraculous feedings in Israel and beyond

# Event Reference

Feeding the 5000 (in the wilderness)

  • 5 loaves, 2 fish
  • 12 baskets left over

Disciples by boat to Gennesaret

  • Jesus walks out to the disciples
  • Peter walks on water
  • proclamation: “You are the Son of God”
Mt 14:13-33
B Healings in Gennesaret Mt 14:34-36
C Pharisees on eating with unclean hands Mt 15:1-21
D ??? ???
C’ Canaanite woman begs for “crumbs” Mt 15:22-28
B’ Healings in pagan territory

“they glorified the God of Israel”

Mt 15:29-31

Feeding the 4000 (in the wilderness)

  • 7 loaves, some fish
  • 7 baskets left over

Across the sea to Decapolis

Mt 15:32-29

Chapters 16-28: The road to Jerusalem and the cross

Take a look at these chapters yourself and let me know what you think in the comment section. I haven’t done any background research on the text so any and all contributions are welcome!