Down from heaven: challenge

Bread-of-Life-John-6The Challenge.30 So they said to him, “What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you? What can you do? 31 Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

Throughout vv. 27–31, Jesus and the crowd use the same words but with very different meanings, another instance of the Johannine literary technique of misunderstanding. The crowd’s questions in v. 30 repeat key words from vv. 26–29: “sign” (sēmeion, v. 26), “do” (poieō, v. 28), “see” (eidete, v. 26, idōmen, v. 30), “believe” (pisteuō, v. 29), “work” (ergazomai, vv. 27–28). They shift the burden of who is to work from themselves (vv. 27–29) to Jesus (v. 30). The crowd’s questions imply a contingency: They will do God’s work only if Jesus does God’s work first and performs a sign.

Jesus has already performed signs and it the most public of ways. The cleansing of the Temple was a startling act (2:18). It had its implications not only for the condemnation of the Temple traders, but also for the Person of Jesus. It was a messianic action. The Jews demanded that Jesus authenticate his implied claim by producing a “sign.” Interestingly they did not dispute the rightness of his action. They were not so much defending the Temple traffic as questioning Jesus’ implied status. Their demand arose from the facts that the Jews were a very practical race and that they expected God to perform mighty miracles when the messianic age dawned

This section of the discourse is to be understood against the background of a Jewish expectation that, when the Messiah came, he would renew the miracle of the manna from the Exodus experience (see Note on v.31). What better sign could there be than a permanent supply of bread? Nonetheless, the crowd’s request for a sign from Jesus is jarring. How can they make such a request immediately after the feeding miracle in which they shared (6:14, 26)? Jesus’ words in v.26 are confirmed: The crowd does not recognize the sign that has already been enacted before them. The crowd fleshes out its demands in v.31 by appealing to their ancestors’ experience in the wilderness. Their appeal is couched in the language of Scripture, although it is not an exact citation of any one text (cf. Ps 78:24; Exod 16:4, 15). The fact that the crowd, like their ancestors, has already been fed with miraculous bread underscores the irony of their demand.

Notes

6:31 manna. Ex 16:14 describes manna as “fine flakes like hoarfrost on the ground.” The etymology of the word is from the folk Hebrew man hû’ or “what is it?”

as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” There is no exact OT quotation which matches the words. However, it seems the St John has taken a loose, by-memory combination of several possible Old Testament quotations:

  • Exod 16:4: “I will now rain down bread from heaven for you”;
  • Neh 9:15: “Food from heaven you gave them in their hunger”;
  • Ps 78:24: “He rained manna upon them for food and gave them heavenly bread”;
  • Ps 105:40: “ … and with bread from heaven he satisfied them.”
  • Wisdom 16:20: “you nourished your people with food of angels and furnished them bread from heaven, ready to hand, untoiled-for”

All or some of these associated texts have been combined by into the one amalgam of verse 31

[Messianic expectations: In the text it is asserted that the people expected the Messiah to again bring heavenly bread. This is seen in non-scriptural texts and in rabbinic commentary. “It shall come to pass … that the treasury of manna shall again descend from on high, and they will eat of it in those years” (2 Bar. 29:8). Similarly in the Sibylline Oracles we read of those who inherit life in the new age “feasting on sweet bread from the starry heaven” (Frag. 3:49). A midrash expresses the idea in terms of Moses: “As the former redeemer (i.e. Moses) caused manna to descend, as it is stated, Behold, I will cause to rain bread from heaven for you (Ex. XVI,4), so will the latter Redeemer cause manna to descend, as it is stated, May he be as a rich cornfield in the land (Ps. LXXII,16)” ]

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