The Gospels (11) ‘Walking on Water’

Continuing to look at the Gospels as literature, in my view, hyperbole is used once again to heighten the impact of this 5th ‘sign’ in John 6. We’re told about a boat big enough to accommodate all of Jesus’ 12 disciples, which would be quite a size. As it happens, in 1986, a typical 1st century boat was discovered on the Lake Galilee coast. It carried 4 rowers, and was 27 feet long, and 7.5 feet wide. It’s hard to imagine a need for a boat 3 times bigger, unless there was a company offering ‘Lake Galilee Cruises’.

Similarly, we’re told the disciples had rowed “about 3 or 4 miles” before Jesus walked to where they were – a considerable walk, never mind that “the sea was getting rough”. Mark’s Gospel adds to the hyperbole, telling us that Jesus, as if out for a relaxing stroll, “Intended to pass them by”. To round things off, John says that when Jesus came on board, “immediately the boat came to the land where they had been heading”. If this wasn’t a story, we might have to imagine that, like Star Trek ‘ships’, this one had a ‘warp drive’.

To grasp what’s going on here, we have to understand the mythic significance of ‘the Sea’. The writers of the Hebrew Bible alluded to, and made their own use of, the mythologies of contemporary surrounding nations. In these, particularly at its stormiest and deadliest, the sea was the domain of a fearsome sea monster, and was a symbol of the chaos that existed before the gods brought order to the world. Chaos ever threatened to return, unless they kept it underfoot. 

In Genesis 1, God divides, contains, and controls the flow of the wind-tossed waters of the primeval sea. In the magnificent poem in Exodus 15, God divides the sea to let the Israelites pass, and then lets its full fury fall on the pursuing Egyptians. In Isaiah 27, when the final chaotic, apocalyptic ‘Day of the Lord’ comes, “the Lord .. with his destructive, great and powerful sword .. will kill the sea monster.” If we recall that variations of this story, in other Gospels, have Jesus bringing the stormy sea to a sudden halt, most telling of all is Psalm 77 – “When the waters saw you, O God, they were afraid. and the depths of the sea trembled .. you walked through the waves; you crossed the deep sea.” I have the idea that the Gospel writers, in fashioning their stories, were not unmindful of that Psalm.

I find it interesting that although, among Jesus’ disciples, there were seasoned fishermen, well used to what Lake Galilee could throw at them, this particular storm was terrifying. No surprise then, that when it was instantaneously calmed, (the waves as well as the wind ! ), they asked, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and sea obey him?” This chaos threatening storm, the implication is, required the power of God, in the person of Jesus, to trample it underfoot. 

The Sea of Myth is a continuing threat that finally must be defeated, which is why, in the last book of the Bible, we’re told that there will be, “a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and earth had ceased to exist, and the sea existed no more.” At long last, God can finally take off his ‘trampling down’ boots, and put away that “destructive, great and powerful sword”.

Seeing this, not as hi-story, but simply as story, and a dramatic and compelling one, suggests to me, a practical message for how to live our lives. There are times when any of us, no matter how ‘seasoned’ we think ourselves to be, can feel the fear of unwelcome life events, piling up one after another, and threatening us with ‘being submerged’. If someone you know, or encounter, is feeling that they’re about to ‘go under’, they don’t necessarily need you to talk to them, and they certainly don’t need you to ‘tactfully’ avoid them, but simply being with them, and putting a supporting arm around their shoulder, (like Jesus does for Peter in one version of the story), might be a ‘god send’, pending the coming of better, calmer and brighter times. Who knows, if and when, you and I might need the same for ourselves.

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