Trees Like People Walking Around: King-making in Judges and Mark

One of the most puzzling stories in Mark’s Gospel is the two-stage healing of a blind man at Bethsaida in 8:22-26. Jesus first tries to heal man with his saliva, but when asked if he can now see, the man replies, ‘I see people; they look like trees walking around’ (βλέπω τοὺς ἀνθρώπους ὅτι ὡς δένδρα ὁρῶ περιπατοῦντας). Jesus tries again, and this time the man can see clearly. The story, with the apparent misfire of Jesus’s healing mechanism, clearly puzzled early interpreters, and neither Matthew or Luke included the partial healing in their otherwise substantial appropriation of Mark.

Exegetes have long since noted the way in which this text forms a so-called Markan sandwich with 10:46-52, an episode in which Jesus heals blind Bartimaeus in one stroke.  So Mark places these healings as an inclusio around the teaching of discipleship in 8:27-10:45, and apparently intends to suggest that the partial sight that the disciples presently have of Jesus will be corrected through the teaching that follows. This interpretation, in turn, makes most sense of the following scene, widely seen to be pivotal to Mark’s presentation of Jesus. In 8.27-30, Jesus poses to his disciples a question that has been building, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ The answers given are insufficient, and he asks them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answers him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ At last, the reader thinks, Peter has grasped, after perpetual misunderstanding, something that the audience has known since 1.1: Jesus is the Messiah. But immediately following this, Jesus offers the first of three so-called ‘passion predictions’ in 8.31 (the others follow in 9.31 and 10.33-34): ‘Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again’.  But as Mark portrays it, Jesus here, speaking to his disciples, says all this ‘quite openly’ – i.e., not in parables as so often. But in response to this clarity, Peter thinks Jesus mistaken and began to rebuke him. But Jesus turns and famously accuses Peter: ‘Get behind me, Satan!’, with the further clarification that Peter is thinking of things humanly instead of divinely. Given the prominence that the title, ‘Messiah’ has in Mark – it is sufficient to point to its presence in 1.1 – it is unlikely that Mark intends Jesus’ rebuke of Peter to indicate that ‘Messiah’ is an incorrect title. Rather, it is an objection to Peter’s apparently unreflective view that Messiahship should exclude a life of suffering. Which is to say: Peter and the other disciples are seeing things partially, their vision yet uncorrected. This coheres with the way in which Mark plays on Isaianic sense-perception malfunction language throughout his gospel (eyes that don’t see, ears that don’t hear, etc.).

All this is more or less uncontroversial, even if it would be impossible to say all exegetes agree on these points. But why does Mark use the language of ‘people like trees walking around’ to describe the blind man’s partial sight? Is this simply the metaphor that sprang unprompted to mind? Quite possibly. But in reading the LXX of Judges the other day, I was struck with the parable in 9:8-20, in which trees go out to anoint a king for themselves (πορευόμενα ἐπορεύθησαν τὰ ξύλα τοῦ χρῖσαι ἑαυτοῖς βασιλέα). Is it possible that this image suggested itself to Mark? The verbal parallels are not precise (πορευόμενα ἐπορεύθησαν vs. περιπατοῦντας; ξύλα vs. δένδρα), but these are precisely the kinds of substitutions one would expect in a reference mediated through the phenomena of secondary orality and memory recall. What is particularly striking is the fact that the trees in Judges are attempting to ‘anoint’ (χρῖσαι) a king for themselves, while immediately following this episode in Mark, Peter declares that Jesus is the χριστός. Arguably the content bracketed by Mark’s blindness inclusio functions to preclude a traditional, royal understanding of the Jesus’s messianic identity, and so can appropriately be described as offering a form of corrective Christology (without invoking the spectre of Weeden and his overblown corrective theories).

But if the Judges text is in view, then does the blind man actually see better than commentators have often thought? Has he, in his partial vision, had a true apprehension of what the disciples were concerned about? And does Mark subtly signal that this attempt at king-making must be exchanged for clearer sight through the prism of suffering?

The case is difficult to ‘prove’ but seems at least worthy of consideration.

UPDATE: Jim Aitken kindly points out that this insight was previously observed, and I’ve now tracked down the reference: R. S. Sugirtharajah, ‘Men, Trees and Walking: A Conjectural Solution to Mk 8:24,’ Expository Times 103 (1992): 172-74. It’s always nice to claim the testimony of two or three witnesses!

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  1. #1 by Jim Aitken on August 16, 2013 - 3:27 pm

    There was an article in ExpTim some years ago making the same connection with Judges (if my memory is working).

    • #2 by David Lincicum on August 18, 2013 - 12:24 pm

      Thanks, Jim – that’s impressive recall. I’ve now updated the post accordingly.

  2. #3 by Kunigunde Kreuzerin on September 15, 2014 - 1:32 pm

    Hi David, thanks for your post. I agree with your explanation. It seems possible, that Mark used δένδρα instead of ξύλα, because often δένδρα are fruit-trees and ξύλα are forest-trees. So the use of δένδρα could lead to other markan themes like the fig-tree and the fruit of the vineyard. Greets, Kunigunde

    • #4 by David Lincicum on September 15, 2014 - 1:33 pm

      A very useful suggestion – for which many thanks!

      • #5 by Kunigunde Kreuzerin on September 25, 2014 - 11:56 am

        Hello Prof, I have long thought about it 😉 I think that Mark alludes to two texts.

        Judges 9 – the blindness of the crowds
        Daniel 4 – the blindness of the rulers

        All the words of the answer of the blind man in Mark 8:24 are included in Daniel 4.

  1. Saliva and Walking Trees | Euangelion Kata Markon

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