Thursday, March 12, 2009

Preaching on Barley

A good preacher can find at least one good sermon on the significance of barley in the Bible. In point of fact, any sermon focused on the feeding of the 5,000 would be deficient if the barley angle wasn't explored.

It is clear from both Scripture and agronomy that barley bread is a lesser bread than other kinds of bread, particularly wheat bread. Barley has a lower gluten content, a low extraction rate, is less tasty and more indigestible. Barley was the grain of choice in arid regions in Bible days, because it is less sensitive to soil salinity and demands less water than wheat. Put simply, barley was the poor man's bread, because while heartier and less tasty than wheat, barley grain grew better on less desirable lands (ie: lands that the poor would work) and required fewer natural resources (ie: water) to grow. Barley was the grain used to feed the animals (1K 4.28).

2 Kings 7 makes it clear that barley meal was worth only half as much as wheat (2K 7.1,16,18), with Rev 6.6 also considering wheat to be of greater value than barley. When God is pronouncing judgment on false prophets who gave false reassurances to the people in Ezk 13, the depth of the prophets's betrayal is understood all the more when God highlights how the prophets profaned God 'for a few handfuls of barley' (13.19). This is a stinging indictment. The false prophets haven't forsaken fidelity to God in pursuit of gold or other worldly riches, but for the least valuable kind of grain. They sold out God for nothing, which makes God's impending judgment all the more righteous.

The barley motif gets especially interesting when we arrive at the Gospel of John, and its account of the feeding of the 5,000 in John 6. Of the four Gospels, only John specifies the type of bread loaves used at the feeding. You guessed it - barley (6.9). By making a point to tell his audience that barley bread was used to feed the masses, John is telling us something about the crowd. These people, by and large, were poor. Barley is what they grew, and it's what they ate.

But just as importantly, John is also telling us at least two things about Jesus. First, John's version of the feeding of the 5,000 most closely parallels Elisha's feeding of the 100 in 2K 4. In the initial Elisha miracle, barley is again the bread that is miraculously multiplied to feed the multitude (4.42). The feeding of the 5,000 is unquestionably patterned off this OT miracle. John's very deliberate barley notation would have cemented the link between this miracle and the Elisha miracle with his audience. The Gospel of John goes to great lengths to demonstrate the uniqueness of Jesus by showing that Jesus did things nobody else had done before. But what often goes unnoticed is that John also stresses the uniqueness of Jesus by showing that Jesus did things other people did as well, but is doing them on a completely different and unheard of scale. This would have made just as big an impression on his audience.

Second, when Jesus multiplies the bread, he doesn't turn barley into wheat, a la turning water into wine. He multiplies the barley. We know this because v15 indicates that the type of bread left over from the feeding was barley. What this tells us is that Jesus' miracles aren't always about rags to riches. No sermon on the feeding of the 5,000 by a Prosperity Gospel preacher will flush out the significance of the barley, because it's a black eye for the Prosperity Gospel. It is significant that one of the very few miracles recorded in all four Gospels is a miracle in which the poor man's bread is served to everyone, including those who stay loyal to Christ amidst opposition. There is no hint here of the 'special stuff for special faith' formula of Prosperity theology. Instead, the formula crashes on the hearty density of the barley.

While barley was considered an inferior grain in Bible days, it can serve as a superior preaching topic today.