- Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 & Psalm 105: 1-6, 16-22, 45b [or, 1 Kings 19:9-18 & Psalm 85:8-13]
- Romans 10:5-15
- Matthew 14:22-33
Jesus and the stormy sea
The story of Jesus exercising divine powers over the sea – whether by claiming a storm brewing over its waves, or by walking across the surface of the water – is especially problematic for modern readers. Unlike a healing miracle – or even an exorcism – such a “nature miracle” seems to lack any moral purpose as no one’s suffering is alleviated. Rather, the point of the story seems to be a demonstration of Jesus’ divine powers over an aspect of nature that the ancient story-teller found especially frightening.
Ancient near eastern traditions
The ancient peoples from the biblical lands and nearby regions had a deep fear of the sea. Their stories of creation often involved a conflict between the gods that resulted in the slaying of the sea-monster as a prerequisite for human existence. This example comes from the Babylonian Creation myths
In the beginning, neither heaven nor earth had names. Apsu, the god of fresh waters, and Tiamat, the goddess of the salt oceans, and Mummu, the god of the mist that rises from both of them, were still mingled as one. There were no mountains, there was no pasture land, and not even a reed-marsh could be found to break the surface of the waters.
It was then that Apsu and Tiamat parented two gods, and then two more who outgrew the first pair. These further parented gods, until Ea, who was the god of rivers and was Tiamat and Apsu’s great-grandson, was born. Ea was the cleverest of the gods, and with his magic Ea became the most powerful of the gods, ruling even his forebears.
Apsu and Tiamat’s descendents became an unruly crowd. Eventually Apsu, in his frustration and inability to sleep with the clamor, went to Tiamat, and he proposed to her that he slay their noisy offspring. Tiamat was furious at his suggestion to kill their clan, but after leaving her Apsu resolved to proceed with his murderous plan. When the young gods heard of his plot against them, they were silent and fearful, but soon Ea was hatching a scheme. He cast a spell on Apsu, pulled Apsu’s crown from his head, and slew him. Ea then built his palace on Apsu’s waters, and it was there that, with the goddess Damkina, he fathered Marduk, the four-eared, four-eyed giant who was god of the rains and storms.
The other gods, however, went to Tiamat and complained of how Ea had slain her husband. Aroused, she collected an army of dragons and monsters, and at its head she placed the god Kingu, whom she gave magical powers as well. Even Ea was at a loss how to combat such a host, until he finally called on his son Marduk. Marduk gladly agreed to take on his father’s battle, on the condition that he, Marduk, would rule the gods after achieving this victory. The other gods agreed, and at a banquet they gave him his royal robes and scepter.
Marduk armed himself with a bow and arrows, a club, and lightning, and he went in search of Tiamat’s monstrous army. Rolling his thunder and storms in front him, he attacked, and Kingu’s battle plan soon disintegrated. Tiamat was left alone to fight Marduk, and she howled as they closed for battle. They struggled as Marduk caught her in his nets. When she opened her mouth to devour him, he filled it with the evil wind that served him. She could not close her mouth with his gale blasting in it, and he shot an arrow down her throat. It split her heart, and she was slain. After subduing the rest of her host, he took his club and split Tiamat’s water-laden body in half like a clam shell. Half he put in the sky and made the heavens, and he posted guards there to make sure that Tiamat’s salt waters could not escape. Across the heavens he made stations in the stars for the gods, and he made the moon and set it forth on its schedule across the heavens. From the other half of Tiamat’s body he made the land, which he placed over Apsu’s fresh waters, which now arise in wells and springs. From her eyes he made flow the Tigris and Euphrates. Across this land he made the grains and herbs, the pastures and fields, the rains and the seeds, the cows and ewes, and the forests and the orchards.
Marduk set the vanquished gods who had supported Tiamat to a variety of tasks, including work in the fields and canals. Soon they complained of their work, however, and they rebeled by burning their spades and baskets. Marduk saw a solution to their labors, though, and proposed it to Ea. He had Kingu, Timat’s general, brought forward from the ranks of the defeated gods, and Kingu was slain. With Kingu’s blood, with clay from the earth, and with spittle from the other gods, Ea and the birth-goddess Nintu created humans. On them Ea imposed the labor previously assigned to the gods. Thus the humans were set to maintain the canals and boundary ditches, to hoe and to carry, to irrigate the land and to raise crops, to raise animals and fill the granaries, and to worship the gods at their regular festivals.
The cosmic waters in the Bible
There are echoes of this in the Bible, both in the creation hymn of Genesis 1 and in the scattered references to Leviathan, the Serpent and the Dragon.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
6 And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7 So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. 8 God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
9 And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. 11 Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
Let those curse it who curse the Sea,
those who are skilled to rouse up Leviathan.
Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook,
or press down its tongue with a cord?
You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.
There go the ships,
and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.
On that day the Lord
with his cruel and great and strong sword
will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent,
Leviathan the twisting serpent,
and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.
Even the classic account of the crossing of the Red Sea (Sea of Reeds?) can be understood as a variant of the ancient myth of the slaying of the sea-monster. Moses divides (slays) the Sea and the people walk across on dry land.
6Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power–
your right hand, O Lord, shattered the enemy.
7In the greatness of your majesty you overthrew your adversaries;
you sent out your fury, it consumed them like stubble.
8At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up,
the floods stood up in a heap;
the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea.
9The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake,
I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them.
I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them.’
10You blew with your wind, the sea covered them;
they sank like lead in the mighty waters.
In some Jewish traditions these monsters will be served up as food for the faithful in the great messianic banquet at the end of time:
2 Esdras 6:49, 51
Then you kept in existence two living creatures; the one you called Behemoth and the name of the other Leviathan.
…but to Leviathan you gave the seventh part, the watery part; and you have kept them to be eaten by whom you wish, and when you wish.
The many variants of this ancient mythic theme include the legend of St George (who slays the dragon) and the archetypal Antichrist Myth in which a victorious Christ figure rides upon a white horse to slay the ancient dragon:
Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war.12 His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself.13 He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God.14 And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses.15 From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.16 On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, “King of kings and Lord of lords.”
This image is of a modern reproduction of an ancient Byzantine icon, and shows St George mounted on his white horse as he slays the dragon. This image is found in churches and monasteries throughout the Middle East, and sometimes in the exterior decoration of Christian homes.
Power over the Sea
We find that the theme of special powers over the sea occurs in diverse religious traditions beyond the biblical texts:
Homer describes Hermes’ ability to move across the surface of the sea:
Right away he strapped onto his feet
his beautiful sandals, immortal and golden,
which were able to bear him quickly
over the waters of the sea
and over the limitless land
like the blasts of the wind.
Thus did Hermes ride on the myriad waves.
The Buddha and his disciples
Miracles stories involving the capacity to walk across water are also found in Buddhism:
The Buddha told this story at Jetavana Monastery about a pious lay follower. One evening, when this faithful disciple came to the bank of the Aciravati River on his way to Jetavana to hear the Buddha, there was no boat at the landing stage. The ferrymen had pulled their boats onto the far shore and had gone themselves to hear the Buddha. The disciple’s mind was so full of delightful thoughts of the Buddha, however, that even though he walked into the river, his feet did not sink below the surface and he walked across the water as if he were on dry land. When, however, he noticed the waves on reaching the middle of the river, his ecstasy subsided and his feet began to sink. But as soon as he again focused his mind on the qualities of the Buddha, his feet rose and he was able to continue walking joyously over the water. When he arrived at Jetavana, he paid his respects to the Master and took a seat on one side.
“Good layman,” the Buddha said, addressing the disciple, “I hope you had no mishap on your way.”
“Venerable sir,” the disciple replied, “while coming here, I was so absorbed in thoughts of the Buddha that, when I came to the river, I was able to walk across it as though it were solid.” “My friend,” the Blessed One said, “you’re not the only one who has been protected in this way. In olden days pious laymen were shipwrecked in mid-ocean and saved themselves by remembering the virtues of the Buddha.”
SOURCE: Jataka Tales of the Buddha
This 3C pagan writer derides the Gospel accounts of Jesus possessing such powers:
Experts in the truth about those places [in Galilee] report that there is no sea there, except they do refer to a small river-fed lake at the foot of the mountain in Galilee near the city Tiberius, a lake easily traversed in small canoes in no more than two hours and insufficiently capricious for waves or storms. So Mark greatly exaggerates the truth when he ludicrously composes the fiction of a nine-hour journey and Jesus striding upon the water in the tenth to find his disciples sailing on the pond [Gk: lakko]. Then he calls it thalassa, not merely a sea but one beset by storms, dreadfully wild, and terrifyingly agitated by the heaving of the waves, so that from these details he could represent Christ as performing a great sign, naming calming a mighty and violent storm and rescuing his scarcely endangered disciples from the deep and open sea.
[Porphyry, Contra christianos frag. 55. Tr. by MacDonald and cited in The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, 2000:57)
Crossan [Historical Jesus. 406] notes the following passage in the Christian section of the Sibylline Oracles:
With a word he makes the winds to cease, and calm the sea
While it rages walking on it with feet of peace and in faith.
And from five loaves and fish of the sea
He shall feed five thousand men in the desert,
And then taking all the fragments left over
He will fill twelve baskets for a hope of the people.
[SibOr 8:273-78 (OTP 1.424)]
Jesus walks on the sea
Given this cultural context, it is no surprise to find that the early Christians had stories about Jesus in which he demonstrated divine powers over the chaotic elements of the sea. What is perhaps surprising is that these stories are so restrained in their descriptions.
The Gospel of John has a fairly simple account of Jesus walking on the sea:
6:16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 6:17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 6:18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 6:19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 6:20 But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 6:21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.
Mark 6:45-52 (followed by Matthew) seems to know a more developed form of this tradition:
6:45 Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 6:46 After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray. 6:47 When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. 6:48 When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. 6:49 But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; 6:50 for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 6:51 Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, 6:52 for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.
= Matt 14:22-27
14:22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 14:23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 14:24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 14:25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 14:26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 14:27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Jesus calms the storm
A related story tells of Jesus claming a sudden storm that had burst over the disciples’ boat as they were on the sea:
4:35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 4:36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 4:37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 4:38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 4:39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 4:40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 4:41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
= Matt 8:18,23-27
8:18 Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. … 8:23 And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 8:24 A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. 8:25 And they went and woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” 8:26 And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. 8:27 They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?”
= Luke 8:22-25
8:22 One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” So they put out, 8:23 and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A windstorm swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. 8:24 They went to him and woke him up, shouting, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. 8:25 He said to them, “Where is your faith?” They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?”
Matthew alone has the story of Peter sinking when he sought to walk to Jesus across the surface of the sea:
Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 14:29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 14:30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 14:31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 14:32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 14:33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” [Matt 14:28-33]
This may be related in some way to the tradition found in 190 Fishing for Humans:
- (1a) Mark 1:16-20 = Matt 4:18-22
- (1b) GEbi. 1b
- (2) Luke 5:4-11
- (3) John 21:1-8
Whatever we make of those possible links, it seems that Matthew has used the story as part of his treatment of Peter as a leader among the disciples.
- 128 Walking on Water – (1) John 6:16-21; (2a) Mark 6:45-52 = Matt 14:22-27; (2b) Mark 4:35-41 = Matt 8:18,23-27 = Luke 8:22-25
- 413 Peter Sinks – (1) Matt 14:28-33
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre: