And they took up seven large baskets of leftover fragments. Now those who had eaten were about four thousand. And He sent them away, immediately got into the boat with His disciples, and came to the region of Dalmanutha.
What’s the significance of the seven leftover baskets? Studying the symbology of the number seven takes us way beyond the scope of a devotion. It has all sorts of meanings. It’s the number of completeness, being the number of days God created the heavens and the earth. It’s the number of rest, the Sabbath being the seventh day of the week. For our purposes in this Gospel, there were seven nations around Israel, so it represented the gentiles.
So, simply speaking, it could just be a way of Christ closing the loop on His encounter with the Canaanite woman. She said that, as a gentile dog, she had a right to the crumbs that fell off of Israel’s table. If the twelve disciples represent Israel – and remember how they were the ones snootily being dismissive of the woman – their “crumbs” or leftovers, remaining after the feeding of the 4,000 were the abundance to be given to the gentiles.
But let’s go with another interpretation that might be richer and more true to the images introduced by both the feeding miracles. What, after all, is the big image invoked? Of course it’s Israel wandering in the wilderness, being fed by manna, the “bread from heaven.” Jesus explicitly states this in the John account of the feeding.
Was there a background to their being “leftovers” in that feeding? Yes! Actually a pretty big point is going on with leftovers in that Old Testament daily feeding. Israel was NOT to save leftovers, but only take what they needed for the day. If they did, that bread would rot the next day. However, on the Sabbath Day, they were to do no work, so on Friday they could collect extra – leftovers – and save it for the next day. So God sent extra on Friday, enough for leftovers, for the one day of the week on which they would have rest.
Hmmm. If God sent enough bread only for the Sabbath Day, because on that day they had rest, why oh why would Jesus give enough bread for seven extra baskets, as if He were providing enough bread for seven days of rest? Could it be because with Him, Him being the one greater than Moses from whom comes grace and truth, every day is a day of rest? This interpretation works insofar as Jesus said, “Come to Me you who are weak and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Jesus is a seven day Savior, making each day a day of rest. Also, He finished His work on Friday for ever. Rest is all we have now. So, we don’t have to work for any bread anymore. The Lord provides for it all. Grace and truth truly.
Or, a final interpretation. Maybe it’s the one staring us in the face every day as we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Seven days of the week; seven baskets providing for each day.
One thing is for sure, Jesus emphasized the number of baskets left over a few verses later when in the boat, so it matters. But matters how? To understand what’s going on we have to start with the end and back up.
Jesus recounted both His feedings to His disciples and asked them specifically how many baskets were left over after each feeding. “Twelve” and “seven,” answered the disciples. Clearly the number of baskets left over was significant and was an action parable, signifying something.
Jesus asked them this question after the disciples wondered if Jesus was commenting on their lack of bread when He warned them of the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod. “It’s because we have no bread.” When talking about the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod, it was right after the Pharisees had asked Jesus for a sign, and Jesus sighed deeply and said no sign would be given it.
Why did Jesus sigh deeply? Clearly there was something hugely important everyone was missing. To summarize, the “leaven” of the Pharisees was to test Jesus and ask for a sign, and Jesus’ two feeding miracles – specifically the number of baskets left over – answered that text, so to speak. And the disciples seemed to be completely clueless, worrying about food.
Recall the Sabbath Day was a “sign”: “It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.”
Forever means forever, meaning still now. The Sabbath Day is the seventh day on which the Lord rested and was refreshed. Israel too was refreshed, not having to work for their bread. Jesus didn’t come to end the law, but to fulfill it.
He’s fulfilling it in the feeding of the 4,000. He’s turning each day into a Sabbath Day to be remembered.
So, the Pharisees asked for a sign, and Jesus sighs deeply because they missed the biggest and most obvious sign anyone should have been able to see: Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath causing each day to be a refreshment; He fulfills the sign God gave to Israel in the Sabbath Day. The Pharisees should have recognized this sign. Meanwhile, the disciples should have recognized the significance of the statement as well, and not worried about not having bread in the boat.
All this happened, after Jesus was with His people for three days. “After three days” a new Sabbath was instituted, the refreshing feast of daily bread.