Wild beasts

18 February 2018
First Sunday in Lent
Lent 1B (RCL)

Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 251-9
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark a:9-15

The wild beasts in the wilderness as they show up in Mark’s Gospel here pose an interesting puzzle. Why this detail. Most commentators that I can find suggest one of two things – either to intensify the terror of the wilderness, or to suggest the presence of the first human being with the beasts in Eden (or the peaceable kingdom which would recreate that first Edenic state). The word being translated “wild beast” (therion), does indeed occur in the Genesis account of creation. Interestingly, it also occurs in the story of Noah. I think the connection of time-period (forty days) makes this association more likely than the others.

Jesus’ baptism, then, serves in some sense as Noah’s flood – wiping the slate clean to start over. Then when Jesus shows up in the synagogue and casts out a demon, we get a feel for how Mark imagines this starting over. On the up side, as the Epistle of Peter suggests, the wild animals will be saved along with Jesus. This is a re-creation, and the Christian at his or her baptism undergoes the same re-creation which Jesus initiates at his own baptism. The Spirit descends, and the image of God is restored.

Mark probably also has the wilderness sojourn of Israel in view. The forty days remind the reader of the forty years in the wilderness. Likewise, Israel was tested again and again in the wilderness to prove whether they would be faithful to God – and failed the tests. Jesus renews Israel by surviving the tests. There was, at the time, a myth that the law had been delivered by angels (Acts 7:38 & 53, Galatians 3:19, Hebrews 2:2, Jubilees 1:27-29). Jesus is receiving the new covenant. And apparently, it was the covenant of baptism. He begins his ministry of announcing the kingdom after crossing the water (baptism) into the wilderness and passing the test.

The passage from 1 Peter explicitly draws the connection between baptism and Noah, and hence to the Nohanic covenant. We are the remnant to be saved. But if we take the parallel seriously, then we are also to save the wild beasts with us in the ark, in order that God may make a new covenant.

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