Mark 5:11-13 Now a great herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, and they begged him, saying, “Send us to the pigs; let us enter them.” So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the pigs; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the sea. (ESV)
After Jesus identified the demon as Legion, he then permitted him to enter a herd of swine. How Legion ended up within the herd (and what the swine did in response) is one of the most intriguing parts of the story.
How he got into the herd was by begging. It seems the herd was a better option for the demon horde than the alternative. What was the alternative? Mark tells us Legion did not want to be forced “out of the country” (5:10). The Greek word translated “country” can mean a region or area.
Luke sheds more light on exactly where Legion feared Christ would send him: “They begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss” (Luke 8:31). The abyss seems to refer to the place of torment and torture which Legion knew to be his final and everlasting home. Combining Mark and Luke, to be sent out of the region was to be sent into the abyss, and this band of demons was not ready to go there yet. Being cast into the pigs was a much better option.
This part of the story raises a number of questions that need thoughtful answers: (1) Why would a holy God create pigs if they are unclean animals? (2) Why did the demons desire to be cast into the pigs? (3) What happened to the demons after the pigs drowned? (4) Why would Jesus agree to allow the demons to enter the pigs?
In this chapter, we will tackle the first three questions, and the fourth will be answered in the next chapter.
(1) Why Would a Holy God Create Pigs If They Are Unclean Animals?
This is a critically important background question, but one that few probably think much about. If pigs are unclean animals, why did God bring them into existence at all? Why not just avoid creating swine? Then neither God nor people would have to worry about dealing with such filthy creatures.
And why did Christ participate with the Father in creating them? Jesus is not only the Son of God, but he is God (John 1:1, for example). This means Jesus and the Father are, in a sense, co-creators of all things.
Hebrews 1:2 In these last days [God] has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. (ESV)
So Jesus himself created the very animal which would eventually become (via centuries of reproduction) the disgusting, unclean swine where Legion would land. Surely this was no accident! He must have had a purpose for bringing them into existence. But what was it?
First Clean, Then Unclean
The answer: God (through Christ) did create pigs, yes, but he did not create them as unclean animals. When he made them initially, they were clean, but they were pronounced unclean at a later time.
The Genesis account of creation informs us that originally “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). No doubt, pigs were there, and they were labeled “very good” along with all the rest of creation.
However, soon after this, we read about the fall of mankind into sin (Genesis 3). Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and they brought the entire creation under a curse, even the animal kingdom. We find several passages throughout Scripture that show how even animals were negatively impacted by man’s rebellion against God.
First, Genesis 3:21 states, “And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.” These garments were made from skins. Where did they come from? It is logical to assume they came from a dead animal. Why did that animal have to die? Because of the curse Adam and Eve had brought upon the whole earth. So there was at least one animal that was directly affected in a major way by the fall of humankind.
But, secondly, we know that wasn’t the only animal who died because of man’s failure. Throughout the history of Israel, millions upon millions of animals were slaughtered in the sacrificial system God had enacted for his people (Leviticus 1:1-17). Why did these animals die such brutal deaths in such large numbers? Because mankind, under the influence of Satan, brought a curse upon the world and everything in it. God commanded the sacrifice of these animals as way of demonstrating that there can be no forgiveness of sins apart from the shedding of blood (Hebrews 9:22).
Thirdly, in the account of the great flood, we are told that the vast majority of the animal kingdom was destroyed by God’s wrath poured out in the form of floodwaters. Only those few that were summoned to the ark were saved. Again, the animal kingdom was dramatically affected by the curse. If man had not fallen into sin, these myriads of animals would not have all drowned.
Also, once Noah and his family departed the ark, we read this about the animal kingdom:
Genesis 9:2 The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. (ESV)
The animal kingdom as a whole remains in a state of enmity with humankind as a direct result of the curse. Rather than living in a state of peace with people, animals dread their presence and typically run for their lives from them. There are some exceptions to this, like a family dog or other domesticated critters, but by in large most animals fear any contact with people, and at the first hint of man, they scurry or flutter away as quickly as possible. Conversely, as we are often reminded in the news, animals don’t always flee, but sometimes they attack and even kill people. Because of man’s fall into sin, animals and humans have had an extremely shaky history with one another to say the least.
Furthermore, when God made his covenant with Noah to preserve the earth from future destruction by flood, he included the animal kingdom as a recipient of his covenantal blessing:
Genesis 9:8-11 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” (ESV, italics mine)
So God’s covenant wasn’t only with Noah and his family, but was with the whole world, including “every beast of the earth.” There would, of course, be no need for God to make a covenant like that with the animal kingdom had the animal kingdom not been adversely impacted by the fall and the curse.
Fourth, and now in the New Testament, the apostle Paul informs us in a more direct way that all of creation suffers under the curse and that Christ is redeeming not only man, but “the whole creation.”
Romans 8:19-23 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (ESV, italics mine)
“The whole creation” groans together under the weight of the curse. Obviously, animals are included as those that suffer under the weight of God’s wrath.
Other passages could be mentioned, but the point should be clear. Animals are subjected to the curse that people brought upon the world in our disobedience against God.
This means pigs were created clean, but then along with all of creation, they were placed under the curse as a direct result of the fall. Because of this, it wasn’t long after the fall of Genesis 3 that certain animals were declared by God to be unclean.
The first mention of a distinction between them occurs, appropriately, in the account of Noah (Genesis 7:1-9). Then later in the levitical account, the definitive list is given that thoroughly delineates different types of unclean animals, pigs being a major part of that list:
Leviticus 11:7-8 And the pig, because it parts the hoof and is cloven-footed but does not chew the cud, is unclean to you. You shall not eat any of their flesh, and you shall not touch their carcasses; they are unclean to you. (ESV)
Only Some Animals Unclean
But why would God declare only certain animals unclean while others remained clean? On what basis did God make the choice?
In the Leviticus 11 list, the answer is that animals were declared unclean because of certain features of their appearance or dietary patterns. If an animal did not “chew the cud” or if it did not have completely split hooves, then it was considered unclean. It had to have both features to be counted clean. For example, the hare chews the cud (in its own weird way – Google it if you’re interested), but it does not have split hooves, and so it was deemed unclean. The Israelites were not permitted to eat or even touch them. Pigs were counted unclean because even though they have split hooves, they don’t chew the cud.
Modern people not living in that culture usually find it hard to understand why eating habits and hoof variety determined whether an animal was clean or unclean. But people of those earlier cultures would have likely understood it much better than we can. It certainly seems related to the hygiene of the animal and the resulting health consequences to people who eat them.
But there does seem to be a deeper, more important reason why God wanted a definite distinction between clean and unclean animals. It wasn’t just about maintaining physical health by avoiding harmful meat. There is a spiritual lesson to learn from the clean and unclean.
One Major Purpose for the Animals
Throughout redemptive history God has often used, and continues to use, various animals and their unique behaviors to teach human beings about what he is doing in the world, particularly in his work to save people from their sins. We find examples of this throughout the Scriptures. A few references should make the point.
Christ himself is metaphorically referred to as both a lion and a lamb (Revelation 5:5-6). So when we think of Christ, we are to learn something about his qualities by carefully observing lions and lambs. Lions are powerful kings, while lambs are meek and used for sacrifice.
Likewise, followers of Christ are often referred to as sheep (John 10:1-27; Hebrews 13:20). When we are trying to learn how followers of Christ should act, we should watch a flock of sheep and see how they respond to their shepherd. Lions, lambs, and flocks of sheep, then, have the purpose of teaching us things about Christ and about ourselves. They have a didactic function, illustrating various truths for us to learn.
John 10:11; 27-28 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. . . My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. (ESV)
Similarly, Jesus called those who would harm the church wolves (John 10:12; Matthew 7:15). False prophets and religious hucksters often attack the sheepfold of Christ with the viciousness of a wolf. The imagery of an attacking predator is meant to teach us to beware of these people.
In another use of animal imagery, Jesus spoke of dove and serpent behavior to illustrate how a Christian should respond to the world around him: “Shrewd as a snake, gentle as a dove” (Matthew 10:16).
These examples and many others demonstrate that one reason God made animals was to illustrate various features about himself and people in the world. That is not their only purpose (they also beautify the world and are good for food), but it is one of their major purposes.
It seems that this was also what God had in mind with pigs and other unclean animals. This particular set of creatures has come to represent the condition of fallen man as sinful, unclean people. We are in rebellion against God, soiled in his sight. When we think of an unclean pig wallowing in the mud, we should think of ourselves. We are the swine.
People Are Unclean Swine Who Can Be Saved
This idea, that God deemed certain animals unclean in order to show people that they are unclean, might raise a few eyebrows. But it is a thoroughly biblical idea. Acts 10:9-45 is a key passage where it is most clearly explained. The story begins with a giant sheet-like object descending from the sky:
Acts 10:9-16 The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven. (ESV)
What an extraordinary vision! The apostle Peter witnessed this strange object fluttering down out of heaven, which, oddly enough, was covered with animals that God had previously, in no uncertain terms, declared unclean. Nevertheless, the authoritative voice of God told Peter to rise, kill, and eat.
Being a good Jewish man, Peter refused to obey God (what an irony!). Indeed, he was greatly confused by this command to eat. In his mind, God was being inconsistent, since Leviticus 11 clearly forbade him from eating the unclean animals. But God surprised him, stating that these animals once declared unclean have now been declared clean. But why? What could this mean? What brought about the change?
Earlier in verses 1-8, God had come to a man named Cornelius, also in a vision. God commanded Cornelius to make contact with Peter and to invite him to come to his home in Caesarea for a visit.
Cornelius was a Roman Centurion, a Gentile. Don’t miss that – he was a Gentile! To the Jewish mind, Gentiles were deemed to be unclean right along with the pigs. In distinction from the ceremonially clean Israelites, who symbolized a right relationship with God and purity before him, the Gentile nations symbolized wickedness, impurity, and unclean ways of life (Ephesians 4:17, for example). In Peter’s mind, Cornelius was unclean just like a muddy pig. However, through the two visions, God was arranging a meeting of the clean Israelite and the unclean Gentile.
After seeing the sheet full of unclean animals, and hearing the voice to rise and eat, Peter sat and pondered what this might mean. Acts 10:17 says he was perplexed about it. It was at this time that he was brought to Cornelius (10:17-33). Here is what Peter said to him and the crowd of Gentiles who had gathered there:
Acts 10:34-35 Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. (ESV)
It was his vision of the sheet that gave Peter this understanding. After making this declaration, Peter then preached the gospel to them, heralding that Jesus was the Messiah who was crucified and resurrected from the dead. Finally, he challenged these Gentiles to trust Christ for salvation: “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43).
Once they trusted Christ and the Holy Spirit fell upon them, we read this summary of what had taken place:
Acts 10:45 And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. (ESV)
“The circumcised” were the clean Jews who had become Christians. At this point they were astounded that the Holy Spirit had been “poured out even on the Gentiles,” that is, even on unclean people.
Do you see the connection? Peter had a vision of unclean animals, including pigs. God said rise and eat, declaring these animals clean. Immediately, Peter was sent to an unclean Gentile to preach the gospel. Through the saving grace of God, the unclean Gentiles were declared to be clean through Christ and were given the Holy Spirit as evidence.
This passage helps us clearly see the purpose God had in mind in declaring certain animals unclean. It was to show us that what is unclean can be made clean! God can take nasty swine and turn them into clean and pure creatures.
Modern people can be quite confused about why God forbade the eating and touching of swine. But seen in the context of his ultimate plan to save guilty sinners, his intentions become clear. As it turns out, muddy pigs are a major part of his plan. They teach us about our sinful, wicked condition, and they show us we need to be saved. We need to be declared clean:
Hebrews 10:22 Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (ESV)
1 John 1:7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (ESV)
As difficult as it might be, we have to identify ourselves with the pigs in the story. We have to see ourselves in our natural, sinful state as nasty, unclean people who are dangerously susceptible to demonic possession. Our only hope is a righteous cleansing. Indeed, our wickedness needs to be drowned (a fact beautifully pictured in baptism). Only when we see ourselves this way will we see our need for a Savior.
The next two questions are not as important as the first and fourth, and so can be answered briefly.
(2) Why Did the Demons Desire to Be Cast into the Pigs?
Unlike the first question, this one is hard to answer with certainty. We know for sure the demons didn’t want to be cast into the abyss, so perhaps they saw the pigs merely as an opportunity to escape early judgement. But maybe they had more in mind than this.
Based on the context, it seems the demons saw a chance to distract the people of this land from Jesus. Maybe they knew if they could enter the swine and force them to their death, it would rouse the rage of the swine farmers and all the locals, since their economy was based in part on the swine farms (the topic of the next chapter).
Killing the swine, in fact, led to the people asking Jesus to leave. In their anger they wouldn’t give Jesus the time of day. So perhaps Legion used the pigs as a distraction technique to ruin Jesus’ ministry in the area. We do not know this for sure, but it does make sense within the contextual flow of the passage.
(3) What Happened to the Demons after the Pigs Drowned?
Even more difficult to answer than the previous question, this one is a bit perplexing. We are simply not told what happened to the unclean spirits after the swine fell to their deaths. However, we can imagine two possible options.
First, the demons might have died right along with the swine. However, this does not seem biblically feasible. Since these demons had the capability of entering into and exiting various hosts, it doesn’t seem likely they would just stay inside the swine as they died. But also, the context is clear that Christ has reserved a day of torturous judgment for these very demons, and they are aware of that coming day. If they were suddenly annihilated within the swine, then what about that day?
The other option is that once the pigs were drowned, the demons left them and moved on elsewhere. If this happened, we have no way of knowing where they went, which is fine, since their destination doesn’t impact the point of the story at all.
This seems to be the answer that makes the most sense, but it raises another difficult question: Why did Jesus cast them into the swine to begin with? If he knew they could just enter the swine, kill them, and leave for some other place, why would he cast them there? Why not just cast them out of the man and simply command them to leave and go somewhere else, skipping the pigs altogether?
The rub this question creates leads to the subject of the next chapter. It seems that Christ himself had a purpose for sending the demons specifically into the swine. When he complied with their request, he wasn’t merely playing nice with them. He had his own plan in mind.
This post is Chapter 10 of the book Drowning Swine.
Read Drowning Swine Online
Click the chapter links to read now
- Jesus the Missionary
- Here Be Demons (and Pigs)
- Darkness Is Dark
- Among the Tombs Crying Out
- Darkness Kills Itself
- Who’s the Boss?
- Team Affiliation
- Naming Your Demons
- Fighting Fire with Consuming Fire
- Why God Made Pigs
- The Idolatry of Economy
- Holiness, Sanity, and Missions
Appendix: Synoptic Harmony