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!

1 comment:

Pedro Sousa said...


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...