“Why does the Bible describe Johns clothes and diet? It seems somewhat prescriptive and distracting.”
Great question. I believe Mark is showing that John the Baptist was displaying himself as a prophet particularly as the new Elijah.
Here are some solid scholars (with links to thier Bio’s) comment’s on the passage…
David Garland says…
John’s clothing and diet. Mark fully describes John’s wardrobe (camel’s hair and leather belt) and his diet (locusts and wild honey). Why does he fill us in on these seemingly minor details while ignoring more important background information? Is it to tell us that John is not “mainstream”—hardly a welcomed guest at the Jerusalem Hilton? These descriptions suggest two things. (a) To go out to someone like this in the desert requires a break with the institutions and culture of Jerusalem.11 The way that is prepared will not be a comfortable path; it will require forgoing pleasures long taken for granted. (b) John is an Elijah-type prophet (2 Kings 1:8; see Zech. 13:4). The clothing imagery derives from Scripture. Note how Elijah intercepted the messengers of King Ahaziah, whom the king had sent to inquire of the god of Ekron whether he would recover from a bad fall, and the prophet told them to inform the king he would die. When the messengers dutifully notified the king of the dire prediction, the king wanted to know who this provocateur was. They could only describe him as a man wearing a hairy garment and with a leather girdle about his loins. The king wailed: “Oh, it’s Elijah the Tishbite.”
The original auditors of Mark’s Gospel were schooled to recognize symbolism. In our culture, we would pick up the allusions if a character were wearing Daniel Boone’s coonskin cap or Abraham Lincoln’s stovepipe hat and beard. This description of John is reminiscent of Elijah, which may explain his huge success. The crowds presumably believed that he was Elijah reappearing for his second career, to prepare for the imminent coming of God (Mal. 4:5–6; see Mark 9:11–13). A certified prophet had appeared as they used to do with regularity in the good old days, which could only mean that the beginning of the end was about to take shape. The people came out to him to get themselves ready. A rabbi from a later time is reported to have said: “If Israel repents for one day, forthwith the son of David will come” (y. Ta‘an. 1:1, 64a). The question in Mark is, Will they truly repent? and, When the Son of David comes, will they recognize him and receive him with open arms or with clenched fists?
The description of John’s clothing and diet serves further to reinforce his prophetic image.47
… John is therefore presented (and intended to present himself?) at least as a prophet (Zc. 13:4), and most likely as the returning Elijah.49 This is the more likely in Mark’s mind in the light of 1:2, with its quotation of Mal. 3:1, since that text was regularly read in conjunction with Mal. 3:23–24 (EVV 4:5–6), the prophecy of the eschatological coming of Elijah.50 It will not be until 9:13 that Mark will get close to an explicit identification of John with Elijah (though cf. their linking in 8:28), but already there is a broad hint of this understanding of his role.
John’s diet, if simple and monotonous, was nutritious. ἀκρίδες are the only type of insect permitted as food in the Mosaic law (Lv. 11:20–23; cf CD 12:14–15 for their use as food at Qumran, roasted or boiled); they are still eaten with relish by those in whose lands they flourish.51 There is no basis in Greek usage for the traditional notion (born no doubt of Western squeamishness) that the word refers here not to locusts but to the carob or ‘locust’-bean (hence called ‘St. John’s bread’). John may have been an ascetic, but he was not a vegetarian! His diet represents the attempt to live, like Bannus in the same area some years later, on ‘food that grows by itself’ (i.e., living off the land) (Josephus, Life 11).52
The description of John’s dress, nearly as unusual in John’s day as it would be in ours, recollects the garb of a prophet (Zech 13:4), and particularly of the prophet Elijah, who wore “a garment of hair and a leather belt around his waist” (1 Kgs 1:8). The Hebrew of 1 Kgs 1:8 describes Elijah’s clothing as a shaggy, goat-haired garment, which in Mark becomes a camel’s hair robe on the Baptizer. Although offensive to some modern Western tastes, the eating of locusts fell within Jewish dietary regulations (Lev 11:22; m. Hul. 3:7) and provided a high source of protein and minerals. John’s rustic dress and diet set him apart from the refined temple cult in Jerusalem and further identify him with “the desert region” (1:4). Not only does John’s dress associate him with Elijah, but his fearless criticism of Herod Antipas (6:18) echoes Elijah’s confrontations with King Ahab (1 Kgs 18:18).24 Thus, in dress, setting, and proclamation Mark associates John with Elijah, the thundering prophet who renewed God’s covenant with Israel on Mt. Carmel (1 Kgs 18:30–45). The stream of crowds that visit John are thus making a pilgrimage to a figure who is a harbinger of the fulfillment of Israel’s destiny.
“The significance of Johns diet… may be explained in various ways. The simplicity of the food may indicate asceticism. Another possibility is that the motivating factor was the maintenance of purity, since the grasshoppers and honey would not have been handled by anyone else, and wild honey would not be subject to tithing. Wild honey, “honey from the rock” was not only pure, but evoked traditions of God’s care for Israel. In later Christian literature, the diet of John is often interpreted figuratively or as a model to be imitated.”