“Lions and tigers and bears, oh my.”
OK, Jesus may not have dwelt with tigers, but lions and bears lived in the Judean wilderness where he fasted for 40 days. Asian lions existed in Judea for over a millennium after Jesus walked there and the Syrian brown bear just recently disappeared from Israel.
While the cycle of Sunday readings this year does not use Mark’s Gospel, each First Sunday of Lent does speak of Jesus in the desert. We heard Matthew’s version last week. Mark’s version is much shorter — just two verses — and refers to animals and angels. “At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for 40 days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him” (1:12-13).
Since Mark writes so briefly, many wonder why he mentions animals at all. Interpretations vary.
Adding color to story
One view is that Mark mentioned wild animals to add a color to the story, giving a sense of the wilderness — a desert theme which continues in the readings throughout Lent. However, Mark is very precise about whatever else he mentions — the role of the Spirit in Jesus’ life; the parallel of the 40 days to Israel’s 40 years in the desert; the temptations paralleling the testing of Israel in the desert — that “wild animals” can’t be just for color.
While it’s true “wild animals” are what you’d expect in the desert, Mark was probably trying to convey something more. Richard Bauckham, an Anglican theological scholar at Cambridge University, recently summed up what most Protestant Bible scholars teach about these two verses, in “Jesus and the Wild Animals (Mark 1:13): A Christological Image for an Ecological Age.”
Bauckham notes Mark’s account “is charged with theological significance” and that Mark’s animals serve to show Jesus as the new Adam. This is the common Protestant view. Animals were in Genesis and with Adam in the garden. Adam failed God and was driven out of Eden. Jesus, God’s son, did not fail and reestablished the peace of the garden, starting in the wilderness. Hence the animals.
While Bauckham himself takes this view, which also argues that Jesus is the Messiah who restores creation, he notes a second theological argument. This puts Mark’s wild animals in league with Satan.
The Catholic approach is similar to this: Jesus lived out what Israel — God’s servant — lived. Trials and tribulations. The wilderness anywhere is a dangerous place. In the midst of these hardships, through salvation history, God provided for Israel. In the same way, God’s angels provide for Jesus in Mark. Following this reasoning, we can see Mark as wanting us to see wild animals as dangerous to Jesus, just as scorpions and snakes were dangerous for the Children of Israel in the Old Testament.
Fr. John Paul Heil, with the School of Theology and Religious Studies at Catholic University of America, agrees with Mark presenting this parallel between Jesus and the Hebrews in the desert. He cites Deut 8:15: “God led Israel ‘though the great and terrible wilderness with its biting serpents and scorpions.” Wild animals, Fr. Heil argues, are “part of the menacing wilderness testing by Satan of Jesus …”
Jesuit Fr. Dries van den Akker offers a blend of these two interpretations. He argues that the wild animals could mean either that Jesus succeeded where Adam failed, or that he was tested like the Hebrews. However, Fr. van den Akker points out something more: “Unlike Matthew and Luke,” he said, “Mark does not explain the temptations with which Satan confronted him.”
There are no stones for bread or towers of power in Mark. So does that mean the animals were a test? Were they part of Satan’s plan? And how did Jesus deal with them?
Mark doesn’t say. He does tell us though that, for Jesus, the tests continued beyond the desert. From the Pharisees and scribes, to his own family saying he was “out of his mind” (Mk 3:21), to the final test of his Passion, Jesus in Mark is continually being tested. Mark’s wild animals may well serve to remind us that dangers surrounded Jesus all through his life.
And yes, Mark did mean “dangerous” animals. While we have paintings of gentle animals like deer and birds with Jesus in the desert, Mark used the Greek word “therion.” This comes from “thera” meaning “a dangerous animal.” There were other words Mark could have used like ktenos (beast of burden) or probaton (for a gentle animal — most often a sheep.) But Mark used a word meaning dangerous. Yes, just like those serpents and scorpions in Deuteronomy were dangerous.
However, while the animals were dangerous, Mark also placed angels in the desert, “ministering to him.” Most Bible scholars agree that these angels point to the promise of Psalm 91: “For he commands his angels with regard to you, to guard you wherever you go. With their hands they shall support you, lest you strike your foot against a stone” (11-12).
The dangerous animals show up there in Psalm 91 too: “You can tread upon the asp and the viper, trample the lion and the dragon” (v. 13).
Nowhere else in Mark’s Gospel does Jesus encounter wild animals. There are birds of sacrifice at the Temple, a donkey to ride into Jerusalem, demons driven into a herd of swine and a rooster crowing at Peter’s denial. But none of these are wild, dangerous animals.
Mark may well have wanted to use wild animals to signify the dangers Jesus often faced. And to remind us that, because God was with him — as God is with us — Jesus was able to overcome these dangers.
Sources: The New American Bible; Catholic Biblical Quarterly; “Forty Days, tested by Satan” at pathwaystogod.org; Strong’s Greek Concordance; “Mark’s Provocative Use of Scripture in Narration” at jstor.org; “Mark 1:13 and Allusions to the Old Testament” at septuagintstudies.wordpress.com and The New Jerome Biblical Commentary.