Jesus and the Stormy Sea

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Marduk's victory over the sea

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.

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.

SOURCE: Creation Stories from Around the World - Babylon [1]

Defeat of the Sea-Monster

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.

Genesis 1:1-13

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.

Job 3:8

Let those curse it who curse the Sea
those who are skilled to rouse up Leviathan.

Job 41:12

Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook,
or press down its tongue with a cord?

Psalm 74:14

You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.

Psalm 104:26

There go the ships,
and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.

Isaiah 27:1

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.

Yahweh's vistory over the Sea

Even the classic account of the crossing of the Red Sea (= Sea of Reeds?) in Exodus 15 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.


Divine Wisdom subdues the Sea

John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: II. Mentor, Message, and Miracles (1994:914-19) identifies several biblical texts that provide "OT background" to the epiphany miracle of Jesus walking on the water as they depict God - or God's personified Wisdom - walk on or through water in a display of majesty and power.


(1) Job 9:8

Then Job answered:
"Indeed I know that this is so;
but how can a mortal be just before God?
If one wished to contend with him,
one could not answer him once in a thousand.
He is wise in heart, and mighty in strength
—who has resisted him, and succeeded?—
he who removes mountains, and they do not know it,
when he overturns them in his anger;
who shakes the earth out of its place,
and its pillars tremble;
who commands the sun, and it does not rise;
who seals up the stars;
who alone stretched out the heavens
and trampled the waves of the Sea;
who made the Bear and Orion,
the Pleiades and the chambers of the south;
who does great things beyond understanding,
and marvelous things without number.
Look, he passes by me, and I do not see him;
he moves on, but I do not perceive him.
He snatches away; who can stop him?
Who will say to him, ‘What are you doing?’
(Job 9:1-12 NRSV)

Meier (p. 914) notes that the LXX version for Job 9:8 reads: peripaton ... epi thalasses ("walking on [the] sea") which is almost identical to the Greek phrase used in Mark 6:48: peripaton ... epi tes thalasses ("walking on the sea").

Note also the reference to "he passes by, and I do not see him" - a classic epiphany phrase that also occurs in Mark 6.


(2) The theophany in Job 38 is also relevant:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

Or who shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb?—
when I made the clouds its garment,
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed bounds for it,
and set bars and doors,
and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?

Have you commanded the morning since your days began,
and caused the dawn to know its place,
so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth,
and the wicked be shaken out of it?
It is changed like clay under the seal,
and it is dyed like a garment.
Light is withheld from the wicked,
and their uplifted arm is broken.

Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
Declare, if you know all this.
(Job 38:4-18 NRSV)


(3) Habakkuk 3 provides another example of this type:

O LORD, I have heard of your renown,
and I stand in awe, O LORD, of your work.
In our own time revive it;
in our own time make it known;
in wrath may you remember mercy.
God came from Teman,
the Holy One from Mount Paran. Selah
His glory covered the heavens,
and the earth was full of his praise.
The brightness was like the sun;
rays came forth from his hand,
where his power lay hidden.
Before him went pestilence,
and plague followed close behind.
He stopped and shook the earth;
he looked and made the nations tremble.
The eternal mountains were shattered;
along his ancient pathways
the everlasting hills sank low.
I saw the tents of Cushan under affliction;
the tent-curtains of the land of Midian trembled.
Was your wrath against the rivers, O LORD?
Or your anger against the rivers,
or your rage against the sea,
when you drove your horses,
your chariots to victory?
You brandished your naked bow,
sated were the arrows at your command. Selah
You split the earth with rivers.
The mountains saw you, and writhed;
a torrent of water swept by;
the deep gave forth its voice.
The sun raised high its hands;
the moon stood still in its exalted place,
at the light of your arrows speeding by,
at the gleam of your flashing spear.
In fury you trod the earth,
in anger you trampled nations.
You came forth to save your people,
to save your anointed.
You crushed the head of the wicked house,
laying it bare from foundation to roof. Selah
You pierced with his own arrows the head of his warriors,
who came like a whirlwind to scatter us,
gloating as if ready to devour the poor who were in hiding.
You trampled the sea with your horses,
churning the mighty waters.
(Hab 3:2-15 NRSV)


(4) A further example is to be found in Psalm 77, referring to the Exodus miracle:

When the waters saw you, O God,
when the waters saw you, they were afraid;
the very deep trembled.
The clouds poured out water;
the skies thundered;
your arrows flashed on every side.
The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
your lightnings lit up the world;
the earth trembled and shook.
Your way was through the sea,
your path, through the mighty waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
(Psa 77:16-20 NRSV)


(5) Isaiah 51:9-10 provides a "starkly mythological" picture of Yahweh defeating the chaos monster of the sea at the time of the exodus from Egypt:

Awake, awake, put on strength,
O arm of the LORD!
Awake, as in days of old,
the generations of long ago!
Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces,
who pierced the dragon?
Was it not you who dried up the sea,
the waters of the great deep;
who made the depths of the sea a way
for the redeemed to cross over?
So the ransomed of the LORD shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
(Is 51:9-11 NRSV)


(6) Wisdom is represented as God's assistant, or even agent, in defeating the primeval oceans:

Proverbs 8

When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race
(Prov 8:27-31 NRSV)


Ben Sira 24

Wisdom praises herself,
and tells of her glory in the midst of her people.
In the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth,
and in the presence of his hosts she tells of her glory:
"I came forth from the mouth of the Most High,
and covered the earth like a mist.
I dwelt in the highest heavens,
and my throne was in a pillar of cloud.
Alone I compassed the vault of heaven
and traversed the depths of the abyss.
Over waves of the sea, over all the earth,
and over every people and nation I have held sway.
(Sir 24:1-6 NRSV)


Wisdom of Solomon 10

She gave to holy people the reward of their labors;
she guided them along a marvelous way,
and became a shelter to them by day,
and a starry flame through the night.
She brought them over the Red Sea,
and led them through deep waters;
but she drowned their enemies,
and cast them up from the depth of the sea.
(Wis 10:17-19 NRSV)


(7) Isaiah 43 is especially rich with ideas and precise phrases found in the epiphany of Jesus walking on the water:

But now thus says the LORD,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the LORD your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, "Give them up,"
and to the south, "Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth—
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.

Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes,
who are deaf, yet have ears!
Let all the nations gather together,
and let the peoples assemble.
Who among them declared this,
and foretold to us the former things?
Let them bring their witnesses to justify them,
and let them hear and say, "It is true."
You are my witnesses, says the LORD,
and my servant whom I have chosen,
so that you may know and believe me
and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
nor shall there be any after me.
I, I am the LORD,
and besides me there is no savior.
I declared and saved and proclaimed,
when there was no strange god among you;
and you are my witnesses, says the LORD.
I am God, and also henceforth I am He;
there is no one who can deliver from my hand;
I work and who can hinder it?
(Is 42:25-43:13 NRSV)

Eschatological victory over the dragon

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:

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.[Esdras 6:49, 51]

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." [Revelation 19:11-16]

Jesus subdues the Sea

It is therefore 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.


Jesus Walks on the Sea 128 Walking on Water

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."

Interestingly, Luke makes no use of this tradition although he does use the related story of Jesus calming the storm. Perhaps Luke considered such a story portrayed Jesus as a phantom or magician, and could not be used in his account which presents Jesus as a respectable heroic figure.


Jesus Calms the Storm 128 Walking on Water

A related story tells of Jesus calming a sudden storm that had burst over the disciples' boat as they were on the sea:

Mark 4:35-41

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?"


Peter Sinks 413 Peter Sinks

Matthew alone has the story of Peter sinking when he sought to walk to Jesus across the surface of the sea:

14:28 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