Sunday, March 01, 2020

Crazed Swine on a Gerasene Hillside

We do not have a whole lot of clear teaching in the Bible about demons and precisely how they operate. It is evident from the various accounts we have in the gospels that demons are capable of indwelling, tormenting and periodically controlling humans who become susceptible to them, but we do not know much more than this for certain.

Under what conditions do demons come and indwell a person? Where do they go when they haven’t got a human being to play with? Why do they so terribly fear the abyss, and what makes them crave human hosts while methodically working away at their destruction? None of these things are spelled out for us.

The Story of Legion

The story of Legion has always intrigued and confused me. Up to a point, the Lord’s encounter with the crazy naked man who lived among the tombs in the land of the Gerasenes and could break chains with his bare hands is a fairly standard biblical exorcism narrative. It’s the ending I find perplexing.

In the words of Luke:
“Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Legion,’ for many demons [daimonion] had entered him. And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss. Now a large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, and they begged him to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and drowned.”
Thayer’s Greek Lexicon says the word daimonion was used by ancient writers like Josephus to denote a sort of divine power or even deity. Plato uses the same word to describe spirit beings both good and bad. Unlike in Plato, with a single exception the New Testament writers do not use the word to describe benign spiritual forces. That outlier is Acts 17, where daimonion is used in the Platonic sense by Athenian philosophers, and is translated “strange gods” or “foreign divinities”, which under the circumstances makes perfect sense.

Demons, Demons Everywhere

In the first century biblical accounts, demons are common and casting them out is almost as common. The noun daimonion appears sixty times in NT scripture, all but six of them in the gospels, some accompanied with the adjective akathartos, which means unclean. Demons (or “devils”, KJV) are variously sent on their way by Jesus, his disciples, the disciples of the Pharisees and even the occasional unbeliever.

In the NT, demons afflict men, women and children either individually or occasionally in groups, and are held responsible for all sorts of physical and mental afflictions. Deafness, muteness, seizures and convulsions, a tendency to self-harm, violence and inhuman strength are all attributed to them, as well as irrationality and blasphemies. In the epistles, it is revealed that demons are the powers behind the false gods to whom Gentiles sacrificed, that they are often responsible for deceptive religious teachings, and that they know and fear the nature and power of God.

But demons in scripture are ordinarily a human problem. It is only in this story of Legion that we find they are also capable of entering and controlling animals.

Swine Flew

I must confess I have always felt a great deal of sympathy for the dead pigs (there were about 2,000 of them according to Mark), and a fair bit of confusion about why Jesus would allow what occurred in the wake of Legion’s deliverance.

The explanations of the commentators are not much help either. For example, William MacDonald writes:
“The Lord is criticized today for destruction of someone else’s property. However, if the swine keepers were Jews, they were engaged in an unclean and illegal business. And whether they were Jews or Gentiles, they should have valued one man more than two thousand pigs.”
Actually, it’s not the fact that the swine were someone’s property that is of concern to many of us. I hadn’t even thought of it until I read MacDonald’s explanation of the passage. But his point about the relative value of a man and 2,000 pigs is not well considered: Jesus and his disciples drove out demons (even multiple demons, as in the case of Mary Magdalene) on many occasions without sending them into another person or animal. The Lord could certainly have driven out even a legion of demons without permitting them to possess the hogs if he so desired. Allowing them to enter the swine was an accommodation, not a necessity.

Miracles of Destruction?

Now, clearly Jesus did not personally drown the swine. His miracles were almost never destructive in character, and there are plenty of places in scripture where we find evidence that God cares deeply about animals and is reluctant to kill or harm them unnecessarily. To imagine that the Son and the Father hold different views about the value of animal life is a theological non-starter.

I have only been able to put the event down to a matter of spiritual priorities. Demons, though fallen, bent and evil, are higher-order beings vested with authority from the former anointed guardian cherub, Satan himself. In the first century, probably very much against their wishes, they served a most useful purpose in validating the good news Jesus and his disciples preached, providing daily evidence of the power of God over the forces of evil and the authority of his Christ. The time for Christ to act in final judgment on either the world or the forces of darkness was still to come. It was not appropriate for him to judge demons in that moment on the Gerasene hills, let alone in such large numbers. The Son of God needs no defense from me for his choices; however, to the extent I need to, I can at least rationalize the Lord’s actions by positing that some higher obligation or greater spiritual interest was being served by neither consigning such a large number of demons to immediate destruction nor expelling them into the world to wreak havoc in other lives.

The Question of Demonic Motivation

What really confuses me is why the demons begged to be allowed to enter the pigs in the first place if all they intended to do was immediately destroy them. I’m not at all sure they did. We have no indication it is the ordinary practice of demons to indwell animals, nor is it likely that tormenting animals would be the least bit satisfying to beings habituated to manipulating human bodies and minds. More importantly, drowning their new hosts would leave the demons with nowhere else to go, which seems to have been the very fate they were at pains to avoid. Mark tells us, “they begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country.” Perhaps this is what ordinarily happened to demons un-bodied and banished by the Lord. For whatever reason (perhaps they were under orders), these demons did not want to leave their post and be sent elsewhere, which gives them no logical motive for destroying the pigs.

The argument is made that demons are perverse and destructive beings bent only on causing carnage, and that the destruction of the swine was a display of their sheer power and insatiable malice. But consider this: given the level of discernment Jesus possessed with respect to the true motives of others, does it seem likely to you that he would allow the demons to possess a large herd of animals only so they could use his own creations to have the last word on him, putting on a final, spectacular display of Satanic self-will for the astounded onlookers? It certainly doesn’t to me.

Perhaps, then, neither Jesus nor the demons drove the pigs into the sea. But if not, who did?

The Whole Herd Rushed

Well, what about the pigs?

None of the three gospel accounts say the demons drove the pigs into the sea. All say some form of “the [whole] herd rushed ...”

Who knows what it feels like to an animal to be possessed by a demon? My guess is that it is exceedingly unpleasant. Animals have neither the capacity for rationalization of evil nor the bottomless capacity for self-deception in which we humans regularly indulge ourselves. No self-respecting pig of my acquaintance has ever willingly listened to heavy metal music, set hoof in an occult bookstore, consulted a medium for advice, read a tarot or horoscope, or played with a Ouija board. Animals don’t invite demons into their lives. In fact, given the prodigious number of human beings voluntarily serving themselves up to demonic influence on a regular basis, I doubt demons ever stoop to bothering with animals at all.

Moreover, if you’ve ever seen the carnage a desperately itchy dog can wreak on the delicate mechanisms of his inner ear with the frantic flailings of a dirty back paw, you know that the way an animal deals with sudden and intense torment is instinctive and often immensely self-destructive.

My best guess about what happened on that hill in the Gerasenes is this: the pigs had an unexpected and highly visceral negative reaction to the sudden influx of demons, became crazed and stampeded down the hill to their deaths.

If so, nobody was more surprised than the demons.

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