Jesus Punishes the Swine with Demons (Mark 5:10-20)

Analysis and Commentary

Jesus Exorcises Legion
Jesus Exorcises Legion.
  • 10 And he besought him much that he would not send them away out of the country. 11 Now there was there nigh unto the mountains a great herd of swine feeding. 12 And all the devils besought him, saying, Send us into the swine, that we may enter into them. 13 And forthwith Jesus gave them leave. And the unclean spirits went out, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the sea, (they were about two thousand;) and were choked in the sea.
  • 14 And they that fed the swine fled, and told it in the city, and in the country. And they went out to see what it was that was done. 15 And they come to Jesus, and see him that was possessed with the devil, and had the legion, sitting, and clothed, and in his right mind: and they were afraid. 16 And they that saw it told them how it befell to him that was possessed with the devil, and also concerning the swine. 17 And they began to pray him to depart out of their coasts.
  • 18 And when he was come into the ship, he that had been possessed with the devil prayed him that he might be with him. 19 Howbeit Jesus suffered him not, but saith unto him, Go home to thy friends, and tell them how great things the Lord hath done for thee, and hath had compassion on thee. 20 And he departed, and began to publish in Decapolis how great things Jesus had done for him: and all men did marvel.
  • Compare: Matthew 8:28-34; Luke 8:26-39

Jesus, Demons, and Swine

Because this event occurs in “country of the Gadarenes,” which means near the city of Gadara, we are probably dealing with a herd of domestic swine owned by Gentiles because Gadara was a part of the Hellenized, Gentile cities of the Decapolis. Thus, Jesus caused the death of a large number of pigs that were someone else’s property.

The “Decapolis” was a federation of ten Hellenized cities in Galilee and eastern Samaria, located primarily along the eastern edge of the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan river. Today this region is within the Kingdom of Jordan and the Golan Heights. According to Pliny the Elder, the cities of the Decapolis included Canatha, Gerasa, Gadara, Hippos, Dion, Pella, Raphaana, Scythopolis, and Damascus.

Because the spirits were “unclean,” it would have been regarded as poetic justice for them to be sent off into “unclean” animals. That, however, doesn’t justify causing a Gentile such a loss — it’s no different from theft. Perhaps Jesus didn’t consider the property of a Gentile to be worthy of consideration and perhaps he didn’t think that the eighth commandment, “thou shalt not steal,” applied. However, even the sixth provision of the Noachide Code (the laws that applied to non-Jews) included a prohibition of theft.

I wonder, though, why the spirits asked to go into the swine. Was this supposed to emphasize just how awful they were — so awful that they would be content to possess swine? And why did they force the swine into the sea to die — didn’t they have anything better to do?

Traditionally Christians have read this passage as representing the beginning of the purification of Gentile lands because both unclean animals and unclean spirits were banished to the sea which Jesus had already demonstrated his power and authority over. It’s arguable, though, that Mark’s audience saw this as a bit of humor: Jesus cheated the demons by giving them what they wanted but destroying them in the process.

What Does It Mean?

Perhaps one clue to the meaning of the passage can be found in the fact that the spirits feared being sent out of the country. This would be in keeping with a point raised regarding the first part of this story: this possession and exorcism may traditionally be read as a parable about breaking the bonds of sin, but at the time it may have been more properly read as a parable about the unwanted presence of the Roman Legions. They, of course, would not have wanted to be sent out of the country, but many Jews would have wanted to see them driven into the sea. I wonder if there was an earlier version of this story in which the theme of driving out the Romans was stronger.

Once the swine and unclean spirits are gone, we find that the reactions of the crowd aren't quite as positive as they have been in the past. That’s only natural — some strange Jew just came along with some friends and destroyed a herd of pigs. Jesus is quite lucky that he wasn’t thrown in jail — or thrown off the cliff to join the swine.

One curious aspect of the story about freeing the demon-possessed man is the way it ends. Usually, Jesus admonishes people to keep silent about who he is and what he has done — it’s almost as if he prefers to work in secret. In this instance, though, that is ignored and Jesus not only doesn’t tell the saved man to be quiet but actually commands him to go forth and tell everyone about what happened, despite the fact that the man really wants to stay with Jesus and work with him.

People admonished to be quiet never really heeded Jesus’ words, so it’s not a surprise that in this case Jesus is obeyed. The man doesn’t simply tell his friends locally, he travels to Decapolis to talk and write about the things Jesus had done. If anything was really published, however, none of it survived to the present.

Publication in these cities should have reached quite a large and educated audience of Hellenized Jews and Gentiles, but mostly Gentiles who, according to some, weren’t on good terms with the Jews. Could Jesus desire that the man not keep quiet have anything to do with the fact that he is in a Gentile rather than Jewish area?

Christian Interpretation

Traditionally, Christians have interpreted the man as a prototype for the community of Jesus’ Gentile followers after his resurrection. Freed from the bonds of sin, they are exhorted to go out into the world and share the “good news” about what they have experienced so that others may join them. Every convert is thus also supposed to be a missionary — a stark contrast to Jewish traditions which don’t encourage evangelization and conversion.

The message the man spread would appear to be one that was probably appealing: so long as you have faith in God, God will have compassion for you and deliver you from your troubles. For Jews at the time, those troubles were known as the Romans. For Christians in later eras, those troubles were often identified as sins. Indeed, many Christians might have identified with the man who was possessed, wanting to be with Jesus but commanded instead to go into the world and spread his message.