Why five and two?
Fish, loaves and talents
It only just struck me that the number of talents in the well-known parable matches the number of fish and loaves that Jesus miraculously multiplied to feed the five thousand, as related in Matthew 14. The parable of the talents speaks of servants entrusted respectively with five, two and one talents; the feeding made use of five loaves and two fish. Given the symbolic importance of the number five and seven (as the sum of 5+2) in the Bible, this seems more than just a coincidence or matter of historic detail. Might there be a connection?
Five is the number of books of the Torah, the Pentateuch, traditionally ascribed to Moses. It represents the Law and, by extension, the Jewish people.
Two implies pairing, beginning right with the pairs of opposites created in Genesis 1: day and night, land and waters, and so on, culminating in man and woman, with the reproductive and infinitely creative potential implied by their union. It appears again in the pairs of animals aboard Noah’s Ark, and indeed on the pair of tablets of the Decalogue bequeathed to Moses, each bearing five laws.
Seven is the number of perfection, the sum of the days of creation in Genesis 1, and the sabbath day of peace in which God rested over the ordered whole of the heavens and earth, declaring them good.
In the feeding of the five thousand, the bread and fish are distributed. By bread, of course, Our Lord represents His own body, as was foreshadowed in His place of birth, Beth-Lechem, the “House of Bread.” We know from St Paul, many of whose letters were in circulation before the Gospels in their complete form, that bread further represented the binding of disparate grains into that one Body. Twelve loaves, representing the twelves tribes of Israel, were also reserved as signs of God’s presence in the Temple in Jerusalem, and we might remember that Our Lord referred to His own body the Temple, and that St Paul called our bodies - that is, the bodies of those who make up the one Body - “Temples of the Holy Spirit.” The image of bread, therefore, already represents the chosen people of God, who, the fivefold number of loaves demonstrates, are defined by their obedience to the Torah.
What makes this parable particularly interesting for gentiles is that there is a “remainder” of bread after the feeding, which is then gathered into the twelves baskets representing the tribes of Israel. This, rather than the sheer fact of a miracle, is what makes Jesus the “prophet” the people proclaim Him after the event. He is showing in miracle what Isaiah did in prophecies: that those outside the twelve tribes of Israel, the “remainder,” will also be gathered into the one Body defined by their obedience to the Torah. As He makes clear later on, the import of the miraculous bread is that it feeds not the belly, but the soul.
What of the two fish? We might note again the resonance of pairing and reproduction. Fish, unlike bread, are living creatures. They also hold a eucharistic significance. In the story of the miraculous haul, after the disciples fail to catch anything by their own efforts, the fish fling themselves into the nets at Jesus’ behest, echoing His self-offering on the Cross by giving their lives to nourish others. Indeed, ancient artworks suggest that fish was offered with bread and wine as part of the Eucharistic celebration in some parts of the Early Church. Fish are also things which can live in the water, a biblical symbol for chaos: those who receive their life, therefore, are enabled to live even amid the sufferings of this world and the trials of the Enemy. Both the nature and the number of the fish can therefore be taken to represent survival and fecundity, a fecundity brought to pass in the miracle itself, as many are fed by so little. The Church Fathers also refer to the two natures of Christ, as both human and divine. So, the life He gives to those nourished by His self-gift is the very life of God.
So, to conclude the parable of the feeding of the five thousand: those left outside the twelves tribes (elsewhere, the “lost sheep”) are gathered in (elsewhere, “grafted onto”) the people of the five-book Law, by the gift of Him who, by His twofold nature as God-man, yields to humans by His self-gift the gift of divine and eternal life, something which exceeds even the seventh-day rest of the Sabbath.
Let’s see whether we can apply any of this to the number of the talents. The servant given five talents might represent the people of Israel, the Jews, who have the greatest treasure: the gift of God’s Torah. Properly “invested” on Jesus’ terms, the Torah can yield the greatest interest. Jesus is speaking to a predominantly Jewish audience, and perhaps here He is indicating that it is not only those who believe they have exclusive ownership of the Law who will reap its fruits. If they do not invest it properly, it does not matter whether they have five talents or just the one, and elsewhere, Jesus makes it clear what He thinks the real heart of the Law to be.
And yet, even those who have not inherited the Law, but receive Christ in His twofold divine-human nature possess a gift that is the perfection of the Law, for Christ is the living embodiment of the Torah, the Word made flesh. He is enough and more. Their reward is no less than that of even the most loyal follower of the Torah. It is a fecundity that brings forth eternal life.
The single talent, however, is incapable of growth: it takes two to multiply! Indeed, the talent gets buried, a symbol of death, just the opposite of fecundity. It is dug up, recovered from the earth, but what little benefit it has is given to another.
All of the above could be taken as a mildly distracting but ultimately pretty useless game of Bible Sudoku. It can become more than that if the symbols so interpreted enrich our reading of other parts of Scripture and, indeed, the wider world. Without doubt, the intellect alone is not sufficient for salvation, but it can by God’s grace become a vehicle for the broadening of the heart’s vision. Were that not so, it is hard to see why Jesus would have preached in parables and performed such miracles at all. He is inviting us via our minds to something that exceeds the capacity of our minds, namely oneness with God, whose ways are above our ways. I therefore aim not to dissect the Bible so much as to meditate upon it and break open the hidden depths of the Word: but this in only of value insofar as it inspires us to receive the Word made flesh broken by His own hands in the Eucharist, and to move beyond divine words into the divine action. If it serves that purpose, then I trust that my two meagre talents are being passably well invested.
This is as far as my thinking goes on these correspondences so far, I’m afraid, and I could be wrong. I’m most confident about the five talents and the Law; somewhat less so about the two and one talents. So, I am open to clarification and correction. The Word, like bread, is best broken in company (an etymological apt word). If you have any other ideas - or think I am taking this all too far! - please do leave a comment.
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