What was the deal with the drowning pigs?
When Jesus healed two demon-possessed men in the region of the Gadarenes, the demons begged to be exorcised into a nearby herd of swine (Matthew 8:29-33). Jesus granted that request, so the demons inhabited those pigs. The whole herd subsequently stampeded into the Sea of Galilee and drowned.
This is such an odd turn of events, how do we make sense of it?
It appears that the first thing to note is the demons’ fear of God’s coming judgment. “Have you come to torture us before the appointed time?” they ask Christ. This strongly suggests that Jesus himself will be involved in administering punishment at the end of days. The demons obviously recognized him as their future judge, even addressing him with the title, “Son of God.” Theologian Craig Keener observes in this regard, “Apparently even the demons did not expect the Messiah to come in two stages, a first and second coming.”
It’s also important to understand that this miracle of exorcism took place in the predominately non-Jewish region of the Gadarenes, which explains the presence of swine herders and a large population of pigs. Jews regarded pigs as filthy, unclean animals worthy of nothing more than contempt. Thus when demons begged to be banished into a herd of pigs, to Jewish ears, that would have seemed a fitting punishment—a vile, disgusting habitat appropriate for evil spirits.
We’re not told what the final fate of those demons was, only that the pigs they inhabited stampeded and died. Jewish tradition held that demons could be either bound or killed, and so some speculate that when the pigs they inhabited died, the demons themselves were also destroyed. Jewish folklore also held that demons were somehow tortured by, and thus afraid of, water. In one legend, King Solomon condemns a demon to captivity by surrounding it with barrels of water, therefore preventing it from escaping. Thus, when demon-possessed pigs died by drowning in the Sea of Galilee, Jews in Jesus’ time could have viewed that as a way of imprisoning the demons by immersing them in water.
Still, we’ll never know for sure exactly what was going on here, and perhaps that’s for the best. It’s enough for us to see what Jesus’ disciples, those demons, and the residents of Gadara unexpectedly understood that day:
Jesus Christ is Lord of all.
[BBC, 69; BKB, 183, 185]
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