Musings on Mark: John the Locust Eater

καὶ ἦν ὁ Ἰωάννης ἐνδεδυμένος τρίχας καμήλου καὶ ζώνην δερματίνην περὶ τὴν ὀσφὺν αὐτοῦ καὶ ἐσθίων ἀκρίδας καὶ μέλι ἄγριον.
Mark 1:6

I have a memory of ten-year old me riding on my bike in my neighborhood and accidentally inhaling a fly. For some reason, I remember that it tasted like lemonade as it went down. Did I drink lemonade before going on that bike ride? I cannot recall. But the memory is there, stuck in my mind.

Now, I don’t normally ingest bugs either accidentally or on purpose. Occasionally I’ll eat mud bugs (Southerners should know what those are) but even then it is only on very rare occasions. But in Mark 1:6 we read about someone who made it a habit of eating bugs: John the Baptist.

An Old Testament Prophet in the New

The description Mark gives us of John the Baptist should be a relatively familiar one. He is described as being “clothed with camel hair” and wearing “a leather belt around his waist” and his diet consisted of “locusts and wild honey.” John looks like other prophets in Hebrew literature. For example, the prophet Elijah is described in the Hebrew Bible as one who “wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather around his waist.” (2 King 1:8) In fact, the imagery Mark uses is deliberately supposed to remind the reader of Elijah as the prophecy of verse 2 comes from Malachi 3:1, and Malachi 3:1 was regularly read in conjunction with Malachi 4:5-6.

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction. (ESV)

Later in Mark’s gospel, the disciples ask Jesus, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come [before the rising from the dead]?” Jesus responds,

Elijah does come first to restore all things. And how is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.” (9:11-13)

By this time, John had been killed by Herod (Mark 6:14-29).

So Mark’s description of John is meant to evoke images of Elijah the prophet. But what about John’s diet? Elijah is not described as eating either locusts or wild honey. The simplest answer may be that this is the kind of food you eat in the wilderness. It also speaks to the simplicity with which John lives. He is dressed in the garb of a prophet and does not eat the lavish meals of royalty. He is a simple man. He is God’s prophet.

John’s role in Mark’s Gospel is one of prophecy. He is a preacher, first and foremost, delivering a message of repentance to the people. He also prepares the way for the Messiah, Jesus the Son of God. And, as in Malachi, his calling is to draw people back together and to restore peace before the dreadful day of the LORD comes.

 

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