Where the Wild Animals Are

On a recent episode of “Word Matters,” a podcast by Brandon Smith and Trevin Wax, the discussion was focused on the temptation scene in Mark’s Gospel. In comparison to the other Synoptic Gospels, the brevity of Mark’s temptation scene is almost breathtaking, especially when one considers both Matthew and Luke stretch their versions to include the dialogue between Jesus and Satan and are nearly five times longer. What Mark might lack in detail, he provides a seemingly obscure reference to wild animals being with Jesus in the wilderness.

I listened closely to what both Smith and Wax had to say about this verse because I am currently preaching through Mark on Sunday mornings and I had trouble determining what I thought was correct. There have been various interpretations to this, and Smith helpfully provides more of the popular ones. I was encouraged to hear Smith voice my understanding of this reference, especially when the commentaries I was able to reference suggested otherwise. I believe the reason Mark included the “wild animals” in his temptation scene was to point to a renewed creation in which the Christ would inaugurate at the end of the days.

I think it is important to remember that 1:1–15 comprises the first overall section of Mark’s Gospel. The description of John the Baptist baptizing people and the baptism of Jesus are meant to be compared to one another. John baptizes with water, the one after him will baptize with fire (v 8). The people from Judea and Jerusalem are coming to Mark to be baptized (5), Jesus comes for baptism as the perfect son of God who is obedient to his father (9).

In the baptism of Christ Mark says that immediately (εὐθὺς) when Jesus rose up from the water the heavens were split (σχιζομένους), the Holy Spirit descends as a dove, and the Father pronounces his approval of his Son. It has long been attested that σχίζω is used in Mark 15:38, and the other three Gospels, to describe the tearing of the temple veil in two. I’m not convinced that Isa 64:1 is to be read here as a possible reference; rather, I think the descent of the Holy Spirit as a dove finds its more appropriate reference in Gen 1:2 where the Spirit is said to hover (מרחפﬨ) over the face of the waters. HALOT notes that later Jewish interpretation of this verb is like that of a bird “that moves its wings back and forth.” If Mark intends for his reader to be reminded of the Spirit hovering over the waters in connection with the Spirit descending upon the Son as a dove, then a new creation can be read in to the temptation scene.

Jesus is driven out (ἐκβάλλει) into the wilderness by the Spirit in order to face the temptation from Satan, and it is implied that he is victorious since the previous section recounts God’s voice as saying he is well pleased in his beloved Son. Next, the reader is introduced to the wild animals (τῶν θηρίων), of whom some interpret with the wilderness theme and conclude they are meant to be interpreted together. In other words, just as the wilderness is bad so are these wild animals that are found in the wilderness. However, I suggest that, perhaps, a typological interpretation is needed here.

Jesus is in the wilderness forty days (τεσσεράκοντα), and there is great warrant to see him fulfill what Israel failed to do after the exodus from Egypt. Simply put, where Israel failed and were forced to wander for forty years in the wilderness, Christ, the new and better Israel, succeeded. Could this, then, be a clue as to why Mark included the wild animals, that his point is this is the one who will prepare our way (1:2) by making all things new, such as God did in the very beginning? I believe so.

It seems the connection between the Spirit descending as a dove upon Jesus is meant to remind us of God’s creating work in 1:2. As the Spirit hovered over the waters in the beginning, so the Spirit as a dove descends upon the one who would inaugurate the New Creation through his death, resurrection, and triumphant return.