The Wedding at Cana story, located early in the Gospel of John (chapter 2), is one of the most famous stories about Jesus in the Bible. In brief, the well-known narrative is that Jesus and his disciples go to a wedding, the wine runs out (but why is the wine gone???), Jesus miraculously turns water into really good wine, everyone is amazed, and the party continues.
Something caught my eye (thanks to a helpful note in The HarperCollins Study Bible) as I was reading this story recently in the exchange between Jesus and his mother. She tells him about the wine running out, and Jesus responds,
Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? (John 2:4). Now, aside from Jesus calling his mother “woman” (which I’m sure some scholar has or will suggest is the only evidence we have about Jesus’ adolescent temperament), what’s remarkable about this exchange is that Jesus words echo the words used by Elisha in Second Kings 3:13. At first that might seem inconsequential. The phrase itself is not an unusual expression. Just a coincidence or accident that the two statements are so alike.
Except that the similarities between the two texts don’t end there.
Second Kings 3
In Second Kings chapter three, Israel, Judah, and Edom are marching together to war against Moab. After seven days in the wilderness, they run out of water and despair that they are going to be handed over to their enemy. Then the King of Judah asks
Is there no prophet of YHWH here? (2 Kings 3:11) to which the answer is
Elisha son of Shaphat, who used to pour water on the hands of Elijah, is here (3:11). So the three kings go to seek the word of the Lord from Elisha. It is after these three appear to Elisha, seeking advice about their situation (on the road in the desert with no water), that Elisha says,
What have I to do with you? Seemingly, Elisha will not answer their request for aid. But King Jehoshapaht of Judah presses him, and since Elisha
has regard for him, he prophesies (with the aid of a musician) that God, without the intervention of either wind or rain, will nevertheless fill the wadi with water for the three armies and hand over their enemies to them in battle. And sure enough, bountiful supplies of water appear the next morning about the time of the morning offering.
Lets note some similarities between the two stories:
- The army has been marching for seven days, wedding feasts were often seven days long.
- Both the army encampment and the wedding banquet run out of an essential (liquid) resource, water and wine respectively.
- Both seek out aide from someone with “prophetic” powers who happens to be present (John has, of course, already argued pretty explicitly that Jesus isn’t just a prophet, but that is a bit of narrative irony because the guests at the wedding don’t know this yet).
- Both are initially rebuffed but on further appeal help is given.
- Before the miracle is performed in both cases there is some reference to ritual purification (Elisha used to pour the water over Elijah’s hands, there are jars used for ritual purification present in John).
- In both cases the help involves large quantities of water (John goes out of his way to explain the enormous amount of water each jar holds).
- In both cases the appearance of the water is in some way connected to religious ritual (the morning offering in Kings, a wedding feast and jars meant for ritual purification in John).
Kings was very likely written in the aftermath of the exile, recounting the story of Israel and Judah’s decline. Though the story in Second Kings chapter three is one of military victory and divine blessing, it is also a reminder that many of the people and their leaders had forsaken God, that the nation was divided, and that they were living in a time of frequent and often disastrous warfare.
John, on the other hand, likely composed his gospel sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem and the effective splitting apart of the early Christian community from its Jewish heritage. The best evidence we have is that this was a time of intense conflict between Christian and Jewish communities. Similarly to the context of Second Kings, this was a time of division and hostility, and in the mind of John and many of his readers most of the Jewish people had forsaken God.
John is in many ways drawing on the context and the themes of Second Kings when he tells the story of Jesus at Cana, and those themes fit the historical context of John’s audience. But John changes the story in a couple of significant ways that I think have a powerful impact on the meaning of the Cana story for John’s narrative.
First, there’s a difference in setting: John has Jesus at a wedding feast, in Kings the setting is three armies marching to war.
Second, in John the water changes into wine.
Both of these changes transform the story from one of conflict and hostility into a story of rejoicing and celebration. Jesus’ first
sign in the Gospel of John sets a tone that is worth keeping in mind as we read the rest of this gospel narrative. Even though much of John’s gospel is marked by hostility and tension between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders (echoing the tension between the Jews and the Church at the time of its composition), here at the beginning of John’s gospel there is a transformation of this tension into rejoicing, a miracle infused with memories of God’s divine blessing on the people in the past and his deliverance of the people even in the midst of division and seeming disaster, memories now duplicated in the scene of a feast that is in its essence a celebration of unity.