April 13, 2008

Jesus and the Sea

My last post demonstrated the importance of understanding the symbolic background of sea imagery for interpreting Revelation. In Jewish literature, the sea was symbolically associated with evil, oppression, and antagonistic forces. This background is helpful in studying some of the events in the gospels as well. Mark 4:35-41 recounts how Jesus and his disciples encountered a great storm while crossing the Sea of Galilee. Sudden and violent storms are not uncommon on this sea, and this particular storm was so powerful that waves quickly began to swamp the boat. Jesus was sleeping in the stern of the boat, but he awoke to the frantic cries of his disciples. Having awakened, he said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" The wind ceased. The sea became calm. The disciples were astounded. Now at this point the modern reader is generally amazed that Jesus is able to do miracles like calming stormy seas. Many preachers have undoubtedly used this to reassure their flocks that Jesus is also able to calm the storms in their lives as well or to point out that Jesus is lord over nature. Those things are nice and true, but they are not the point of this story. Knowing that in the Jewish symbolic world the sea was associated with evil, it is easily realized that the disciples were not merely responding to the miraculous display of power over nature. They were responding to Jesus' display of power over the world of chaotic evil. Mark tells us that the awe filled disciples asked one another, "Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?" Their symbolic world indicates that they mean, "Who is this, that even the forces of evil obey him?"

If the audience doesn't understand this first demonstration, Mark makes it all the more explicit when Jesus gets off the boat and encounters a bruised, howling, shackle-breaking demon possessed man (Mark 5:1-13). Jesus commands the spirits to come out of the man and permits their request to enter into a herd of pigs grazing nearby. When the unclean spirits enter the pigs, they run down the embankment and drown in the sea. Various interpretations have been proposed regarding this event; however, if the sea is associated with evil and is the home of evil spirits, then it is easy to see that Mark is portraying the spirits as going home where they belong. The man in whom they had dwelt was set free from their influence. Mark is making the same point as in the story about the storm at sea. Jesus has power to free humanity from the forces of evil which seek to oppress.

This must be a point that Mark wanted drive home because in chapter six Jesus walks on the water to reach the disciples who are struggling at the oars of the boat against an adverse wind (45-52). We should not be surprised that they think he is a ghost. After all, the sea is a place where spirits loom. But Jesus identified himself and got into the boat. When he did, the wind ceased. Once again the disciples were astounded. Not only does Jesus have the power to command the forces of chaotic evil and free human beings from oppressive forces, he is able to trample those forces underfoot as well.

2 comments:

Luke said...

Good points, Matt. Also note that Matthew's account of this story seems to pick up the Exodus/New Moses typology that runs throughout his gospel. Also, the Christological point cannot be missed: it is Yahweh alone who "lays the beams of his chambers on the waters" and "rides on the wings of the wind" (Ps. 104:3). Good work.
Luke Stamps

Matt O'Reilly said...

Luke, its good to hear from you. Thanks for your kind words as well as your insight. Take care, Matt