[XTalk] The Cure of the Gerasene Demoniac
- I can still vividly remember the first time that it occurred to me that
great symbolism is contained within the exorcism stories in Mark's gospel.
In most of these stories the symbolism is very subtle. One first notices
the curious fact that Mark repeatedly refers to demoniacs not simply as
demoniacs, but as possessed with "unclean" spirits. This is not entirely
surprising, as demoniacs would surely have been considered "unclean" in
Jewish Palestine. An even more curious fact emerges, however, in the irony
that seemingly the only "people" who confess that Jesus is the son of God
are these unclean spirits!
But the symbolic use of these unclean spirits becomes entirely manifest
when one reads the story of the healing of the Gerasene demoniac (Mk
5:1-20). In this story, the demoniac is not only possessed by an "unclean"
spirit, but the spirit actually has the name of "Legion"! And the unclean
spirit not only confesses that Jesus is the son of God, he also pleads with
him "not to drive them away from this territory," thus confirming the
symbolic intent of the name "Legion." As if this were not symbolism
enough, Mark goes on, saying that Jesus sends the unclean spirits into some
unclean animals, namely, swine. The story ends bizarrely with "Legion"
going into the swine and causing them to drown.
This is where I get confused. It is obvious that this story is rich in
symbolism. It is equally obvious that this symbolism is closely related to
the notions of Jewish purity. What is not obvious (to me at least) is what
all this means.
I think that it is probably safe to say that the symbolism is intended in
such a way as to paint Gentiles who do not follow the Law in a positive
light. I say this for two reasons:
1. Legion confesses that Jesus is the son of God. This evokes the irony
that I spoke of above.
2. Jesus allows Legion to go into the unclean swine.
I think that what Mark is commenting on the the "shackle" of the Law, and
Jesus' supposed mission to free people from this "shackle." I guess that
Jesus is letting the Roman army eat swine when he allows "Legion" to enter
the herd of swine. The ending of the story, however, I find baffling. Why
does Legion drown the swine? I suppose that one must kill a pig before one
eats it, but why by drowning?
Franklin and Marshall College