Monday, February 15, 2021

Walking on water (Notes on John 6:15-25)

Yongsung Kim, Walking on Water

He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

 -- William Cowper, "Light Shining out of Darkness"

I mentioned in my last post that the feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle to show up in all four gospels. However, Jesus' most iconic miracle is perhaps the one that follows: walking on water. (Luke is the only gospel to omit this one.) Even today, if we want to express the idea that someone is saintly and can do the impossible, we don't say he can raise the dead or turn water to wine, but that he can walk on water. The lizard Basiliscus basiliscus is commonly known as the Jesus Christ lizard -- because it can run across water, and because walking on water is one of the most salient connotations of the name Jesus Christ.

The Fourth Gospel often contrasts Jesus with his greatest predecessor, Moses of Egypt. Moses turned water to blood; Jesus turned water to wine. Moses brought plagues; Jesus healed. Moses produced water from a stone and manna from heaven; Jesus offered living water and the bread of life. And what is Moses' most iconic miracle? Parting the Red Sea.

Chosen as instantly recognizable examples of miracles
(Two of them really happened!)

This parallel and contrast -- that Moses and Jesus both miraculously crossed the sea on foot, but in strikingly different ways -- has to be part of the meaning of this episode in the Gospel and must be borne in mind as we attempt an interpretation.

And here we go.


[15] When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take him by force, to make him a king, he departed again into a mountain himself alone.

Ironically, they wanted to make him a king because they recognized him as the Prophet like unto Moses (considered by many to be the same person as the Messiah) -- and so Jesus went and made the Moses parallels even stronger by going up into a mountain by himself! They must have expected him to return carrying two stone tables.

Can you force someone to be a king? Well, yes, I suppose you can. If everyone's following you, then you're their leader whether you like it or not.

What would "making him a king" have entailed? Assuming the Jews would have done things by the book, it would mean taking him to Jerusalem to be anointed (the equivalent of being crowned) by the high priest. They were apparently confident that the high priest would be willing to do this, so they must have thought they had rock-solid proof that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. Of course, openly declaring a King of the Jews would invite immediate and merciless reprisal from the Romans, so they must have been confident that Jesus could defeat them. This is further evidence that the feeding of the five thousand was not the "miracle" of everyone sharing their food but rather a miracle in the strict sense of an apparent violation of the laws of nature. After seeing it, they believed that Jesus could do anything -- including calling down fire from heaven on the Roman forces or whatever should turn out to be necessary. They thought he was unstoppable.


[16] And when even was now come, his disciples went down unto the sea, [17] And entered into a ship, and went over the sea toward Capernaum. And it was now dark, and Jesus was not come to them.

Apparently they waited for several hours for Jesus to come down the mountain -- and when he didn't, they just left without him! Why did no one go up into the mountain to look for him? Superstitious dread, I would assume. When Moses -- or a second Moses, which amounts to the same thing -- goes up a mountain and tells you not to follow him, you don't follow him. Just leaving seems strange, too, but what else could they do? Sleep there in the open air, with no food and no magical loaf-multiplier? And for all they knew, Jesus was going to be up on that mountain for 40 days and 40 nights. So they went home.


[18] And the sea arose by reason of a great wind that blew.

[19] So when they had rowed about five and twenty or thirty furlongs, they see Jesus walking on the sea, and drawing nigh unto the ship: and they were afraid.

The distance they had rowed from the shore was about three or four miles. The Sea of Galilee is 13 miles long and 8 miles wide -- so, depending on the direction they were going, they may have been near the center of the sea, as far from shore as possible.

The "great wind" mentioned in v. 18 must be kept in mind. Jesus was not walking across a calm sea as across a frozen lake but was negotiating an ever-changing landscape of churning waves. Even with a magical ability to walk on water without breaking the surface, this would have been extremely difficult. Think of covering three or four miles that way!

The question is why Jesus chose to travel in this extraordinary way. Why not fly? Why not teleport? For that matter, why not just take a boat like a normal person? Why work a miracle at all? It seems out of character for Jesus to work a miracle for his own convenience, one that seemingly helps no one but himself. Therefore, it wasn't for his own convenience and was for the benefit of others. This is confirmed by the fact that he didn't just walk across the sea to Capernaum but to the ship where his disciples were. The whole point was for them to see him walking on water. This wasn't just Jesus using his super powers to devise a more efficient means of transportation; this was "prophetic theater" in the tradition of his great Hebrew predecessors. Walking on water was symbolic. It meant something. And, as I have said, what it meant surely had some reference to Moses and the parting of the Red Sea.

So what did the parting of the Red Sea mean? It must have symbolized the Creation, as told by Moses himself.

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. . . . And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. . . . And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so (Genesis 1:2, 6, 9).

Moses' Creation story drew on -- and radically reinterpreted -- the Mesopotamian creation myth, in which Marduk fought and triumphed over the salt sea, personified as the monster Tiamat (cognate with Hebrew tehom, "the deep," and cousin to the biblical monsters Rahab and Leviathan). After defeating Tiamat, he "split her in two like a dried fish" (Enuma Elish IV.137) and divided the waters from the waters, creating a space between them where men and cattle and creeping things could live.

The salt sea, for the Mesopotamians as for all ancient peoples, represented pure chaos. Marduk created a space in the midst of this chaos where order could be established. This triumph of order over chaos is taken to its logical conclusion in Revelation 21, where John of Patmos sees the New Jerusalem descend from heaven in the form of a crystalline cube, spotless and geometrically perfect, to a purified earth where "there was no more sea" (21:1).

"The earth is full of thy riches," sings the Psalmist. "So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts. There go the ships: there is that leviathan, whom thou hast made to play therein" (Ps. 104:24-26). For Jesus' other great forerunner, King David, the great sea-monster of chaos was not necessarily something to be killed and filleted.

"Man," says Jesus as Luke (12:14) tells it, "who made me . . . a divider?"

I've read a fair bit of kooky channeled material in my day, and one of these books -- I believe it was, ahem, Pleiadian Perspectives on Human Evolution by the late Amorah Quan Yin -- featured the arresting image of Jesus and Mary, during their sojourn in Egypt, crossing the Nile by walking across the backs of swimming crocodiles. Moses never did that! Neither, of course, did Jesus, but the image captures some of the inner meaning of walking on the sea.

Jesus was at home on the sea, had no quarrel with Tiamat. He walked, sure-footed, across the living flux of Creation. He embodied "the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart" (2 Cor. 3:3). Doesn't this image of him walking calmly across the raging waves capture succinctly the difference between him and Moses, and how incomparably greater than Moses he was and is?


[20] But he saith unto them, "It is I; be not afraid."

[21] Then they willingly received him into the ship: and immediately the ship was at the land whither they went.

They had been between four and ten miles from their destination, but after Jesus entered the ship, they were there immediately.

Is this just a hyperbolic way of saying that the remainder of the voyage went quickly and smoothly, that they reached their destination "in no time"?

Did Jesus magically make the ship move with preternatural speed, or even teleport? If so, it underscores my point that walking on water was prophetic theater, not Jesus' most efficient way of getting from Point A to Point B.

Or was this something more along the lines of the "missing time" phenomenon reported by those who have had close encounters? They let Jesus into the ship, and the next thing they knew, there they were at their destination, with no conscious memory of what had occurred in the intervening time. How like a dream it had been! And yet there they were, on the other side, and Jesus was with them.


[22] The day following, when the people which stood on the other side of the sea saw that there was none other boat there, save that one whereinto his disciples were entered, and that Jesus went not with his disciples into the boat, but that his disciples were gone away alone; [23] (Howbeit there came other boats from Tiberias nigh unto the place where they did eat bread, after that the Lord had given thanks:)

[24] When the people therefore saw that Jesus was not there, neither his disciples, they also took shipping, and came to Capernaum, seeking for Jesus.

[25] And when they had found him on the other side of the sea, they said unto him, "Rabbi, when camest thou hither?"

Tiberias was in Galilee, on the west side of the sea, but some distance to the south of Capernaum.

Verse 23 may also be translated, "Then some boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks" (NRSV, emphasis mine). The people saw the disciples leave in the only boat (or ship; the author seems not to distinguish very clearly between the two), without Jesus, and yet they couldn't find Jesus, either. So later, when some ships from Tiberias arrived, they took those ships to Capernaum.

It's interesting that the site of the feeding of the five thousand is referred to as "The place where they did eat bread, after that the Lord had given thanks" -- as if his giving thanks were the most salient aspect of the whole story!

Sunday, February 7, 2021

The feeding of the five thousand (Notes on John 6:1-14)

The feeding of the five thousand is, with the exception of the resurrection itself, the only miracle that is recorded in all four gospels. Apparently there was general agreement that the story illustrates something essential about Jesus, that no account of his life could omit it. I admit to being somewhat puzzled as to its significance, but perhaps the process of writing these notes will clear things up for me a bit.

[1] After these things Jesus went over the sea of Galilee, which is the sea of Tiberias.

The last we have been told (John 5:1), Jesus was in Jerusalem, nowhere near the Sea of Galilee. Later, in v. 17, the disciples get in a ship and go back "over the sea toward Capernaum." Since Capernaum was on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, we might assume that where he went in v. 1 was to the opposite shore. That would have put him most likely somewhere in the Tetrarchy of Philip -- at any rate, no longer in Galilee.

[2] And a great multitude followed him, because they saw his miracles which he did on them that were diseased.

All of the healing miracles recorded up to this point in the Gospel have been in and around Jerusalem, which is also the last place the Gospel mentions Jesus being before this episode. Had the multitude followed him from there? Is it possible that Jesus crossed over the Sea of Galilee for the express purpose of shaking off some of these camp followers, but to no avail?

[3] And Jesus went up into a mountain, and there he sat with his disciples.

This would perhaps have been in what is now called the Golan Heights. Going up into the mountain was perhaps another attempt to escape the crowd.


[4] And the passover, a feast of the Jews, was nigh.

Why is this mentioned here? No further mention of the Passover is made, and the feast plays no explicit role in the story that follows. Is the purpose just to tell us approximately what time of year this episode took place? Elsewhere in this Gospel, feasts of the Jews are mentioned to explain why Jesus is visiting Jerusalem, and certainly it would have been normal to go to Jerusalem for the Passover. In John 7:1, we are told, "After these things Jesus walked in Galilee: for he would not walk in Jewry, because the Jews sought to kill him" -- but that is after the events described in John 6 and seems to be explaining why he hesitated to go to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles, six months after Passover.

Just how nigh is "nigh"? Are we to understand that the events recorded in John 6 took place during Passover, and that Jesus and a multitude of Jews neglected to observe that feast, staying instead in the mountains of the Golan region? Or did the events of John 6 all take place before Passover, and is John 7:1 explaining why Jesus could not very well go to Jerusalem for Passover after that?


[5] When Jesus then lifted up his eyes, and saw a great company come unto him, he saith unto Philip, "Whence shall we buy bread, that these may eat?"

[6] And this he said to prove him: for he himself knew what he would do.

[7] Philip answered him, "Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may take a little."

Mark (8:2-3) and Matthew (15:32) both say that the multitude had been with Jesus for three days, eating nothing during that time, and that his motive for working a miracle was that he would "not send them away fasting, lest they faint in the way" (Matt. 15:32). Here, in contrast, it appears that the multitude has just recently arrived -- he "lifted up his eyes, and saw a great company come unto him." But perhaps there is no inconsistency. Jesus already knew that this multitude had followed him from Judaea to Galilee, and then followed him across the sea. He sees now that, surprise, surprise, they have followed him up the mountain as well. He wants to send them away but, knowing they have been following him around for some time now, feels he ought to give them a square meal first.

A "penny," or denarius, was apparently a day's wages for a farm laborer (see Matt. 20:2), not that the exact figure is important. Philip just meant that it would cost much more money than they had at hand.

Did Jesus really say this to test Philip? If so, what was the test? When Philip replied that it would cost a great deal of money to buy bread for everyone in the crowd, did he pass or fail? I guess we should assume he failed, since his response is pretty much what any normal person would have said in the same situation; if that counts as passing, it's not much of a test. What would have been a "passing" answer? To suggest that Jesus work some miracle? To say, "Man shall not live by bread alone?" Jesus says nothing to Philip in reply, either to commend him for his solid grasp of economics or to ye-of-little-faith him, so this supposed testing of Philip doesn't seem to play any important role in the story as we have it. I suspect that v. 6 is either guesswork by the author or a gloss by a later hand, its purpose being to explain why Jesus would ask such a seemingly foolish question.

Another possibility is that Jesus' original plan was to send Philip to buy whatever amount of bread they could afford, even though it would plainly be insufficient, and that Philip's willingness to go and do so anyway would constitute "passing the test." Jesus would then magically multiply the loaves and show that Philip's faith had been justified -- but this plan changed when Andrew informed him that they already had a few loaves and fishes, making the shopping trip superfluous.


[8] One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, saith unto him, [9] "There is a lad here, which hath five barley loaves, and two small fishes: but what are they among so many?"

[10] And Jesus said, "Make the men sit down."

 Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand.

The Golan Heights are still grassy today -- not what one typically thinks of as a Middle Eastern landscape.


Five thousand is about the size of a full Roman legion -- a lot of people, especially for that time and place. (In the time of Jesus, Jerusalem -- "the great city" -- had a population of perhaps 75,000, and Nazareth almost certainly fewer than 2,000.) And this is the number of people who were with him after he had crossed the Sea of Galilee and climbed a mountain -- that is, deliberately made it difficult for people to follow him. If, as seems likely, most of them had followed him all the way from Jerusalem, the number is even more impressive.


[11] And Jesus took the loaves; and when he had given thanks, he distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to them that were set down; and likewise of the fishes as much as they would.

[12] When they were filled, he said unto his disciples, Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost.

[13] Therefore they gathered them together, and filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves, which remained over and above unto them that had eaten.

It's really hard to imagine how this was experienced. As is typical, no account is given of the working of the miracle itself, only the result. Somehow, in the end, everyone was full, and they had gathered up 12 baskets of crumbs.

Was everyone's hunger magically satisfied after eating only a tiny amount of bread? But the 12 baskets of fragments make it clear that it was not that simple, that the bread itself had been multiplied. Did the disciples keep tearing pieces off their loaves, only to find that the loaves were no smaller than before? Did the pieces that were torn off grow? Perhaps each time a piece of bread was torn in half, each of the two halves was magically enlarged just a bit in a way that was not readily perceptible, but the bread was torn so many times -- each loaf was torn into 1,000 pieces -- that the cumulative effect of all these slight enlargements was something that was, after the fact, obviously a miracle.

A "naturalistic" explanation I have seen proposed is that the lad's generosity in sharing his small stash of food inspired the others in the crowd to do the same -- something along the lines of the Stone Soup folktale -- and that no actual magic was involved. However, the crowd certainly reacted as if something literally miraculous had occurred.


Whatever the mechanics of the miracle, I think the significant thing is that Jesus (in some way) multiplied food provided by one of the members of the crowd -- rather than, say, turning stones into bread (as, according to Matthew, the devil had once tempted him to do) or causing manna to rain down from the sky. The miracle was not a pure deus ex machina, but was an amplification of human effort.

Seeing a crowd of 5,000 hungry people, the lad offered to share his obviously inadequate loaves and fishes, and Philip passed this offer on to Jesus -- and Jesus said, Okay, let's do it. He accepted the paltry offering, gave thanks for it, had the disciples distribute it to the multitude -- and somehow or other (we are not told how, probably because it's not the point), it was enough, enough and to spare.

I think the moral here is that we are to do what we can, offer what we can -- even if it seems laughably inadequate, even if it seems as if it could not possibly have any real effect or "change the world" -- and leave the results to the Lord.

Now ye may suppose that this is foolishness in me; but behold I say unto you, that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass; and small means in many instances doth confound the wise.

And the Lord God doth work by means to bring about his great and eternal purposes; and by very small means the Lord doth confound the wise and bringeth about the salvation of many souls (Alma 37:6-7).

After all, if I didn't believe something like that, why would I even be writing this? Why bother with these notes of mine that are read by a few hundred of the billions of people in the world and probably taken to heart by far fewer than that? Why bother doing anything at all, we who are not destined to be movers and shakers? Trying to guess the probable (and probably insignificant) consequences of our actions is a trap. Just do good things and leave the rest to God. That is the moral of the story of the feeding of the five thousand.


[14] Then those men, when they had seen the miracle that Jesus did, said, This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world.

Modern readers will probably take this in a general sense -- he worked a miracle, he must be the Messiah -- but the Jews and Samaritans of Jesus' time had a very specific set of expectations.

"That prophet" refers to the Prophet like unto Moses, called by the Samaritans the Taheb, whose coming is prophesied in Deuteronomy 18. If the beliefs of early 20th-century Samaritans are any indication, this Prophet was to prove his identity by means of three signs, the greatest of which was to be that he would "produce the omer of manna which our fathers ate, while in the wilderness, for forty years." This is perhaps what the people had in mind when they concluded Jesus was the Prophet after seeing him miraculously provide food in the wilderness -- not manna exactly, but perhaps they considered it close enough. This connection is strengthened by the references to manna in the "Bread of Life" discourse that follows.

The feeding of the five thousand echoes one of Elisha's miracles

I just listened to this story in 2 Kings (4:38, 42-44). And Elisha came again to Gilgal: and there was a dearth in the land; . . .  And ther...