In seminary, I learned that the calming of the sea narrative was one of many that was meant to one-up a story about the Greco-Roman gods and and goddesses. Specifically, in Aeneid, the god Neptune calms the waters that had been raised in a wind storm. I thought that was really interesting. I also thought it was sort of irrelevant to faith.
As the years have gone on, I’ve revised my opinion. I still think a competition of “my God is better than your god” is silly, but I have come to suspect that significantly more is going on. There were a whole lot of Greco-Roman gods and goddess, and they were said to do a lot of things. Thus, I suspect there was intentionality in the choices of which stories of Greco-Roman gods and goddesses were one-upped. It is similar to when stories in the Hebrew Bible are adaptations of stories told by their Ancient Near East neighbors. Both the choice of the which stories to adapt AND the adaptions made tell a lot about how our ancestors in faith understood God!
In Aeneid, as the protagonists ships sail from Troy to Italy, the goddess queen tells the god of wind to send a storm to capsize their ships and prevent them from their task. The god Neptune feels infringed upon, as he is the god of the sea, and decides to calm the storm. The story in Aeneid sounds like this:
[Neptune] spoke, and swiftlier than his word subdued the swelling of the floods; dispersed afar th’ assembled clouds, and brought back light to heaven. Cymothoe then and Triton, with huge toil, thrust down the vessels from the sharp-edged reef; while, with the trident, the great god’s own hand assists the task; then, from the sand-strewn shore out-ebbing far, he calms the whole wide sea, and glides light-wheeled along the crested foam. As when, with not unwonted tumult, roars in some vast city a rebellious mob, and base-born passions in its bosom burn, till rocks and blazing torches fill the air (rage never lacks for arms)—if haply then some wise man comes, whose reverend looks attest a life to duty given, swift silence falls; all ears are turned attentive; and he sways with clear and soothing speech the people’s will. So ceased the sea’s uproar, when its grave Sire looked o’er th’ expanse, and, riding on in light, flung free rein to his winged obedient car.
– Aeneid book 1:142-156
So what does it mean that the early Christian community chose to adapt stories about gods calming storms into a story about Jesus calming the storm? And what else does our particular story seem to be communicating to us?
There are some similarities – Neptune spoke and the result was immediate. The wind started the storm. There were multiple boats involved. Overall, it is a similar enough story to be clear that there is a connection. There are some differences too, there are helpers for Neptune, and Neptune’s own life wasn’t threatened by the storm. I find it potentially notable that Neptune’s actions were motivated by a sense of being infringed upon. The ancient Greek and Roman gods and goddesses had their own spheres of influence. Perhaps part of the point is that YHWH, and thus Jesus, had no need for such jealousy about spheres of influence because there is no competition and there is no end to their spheres.
This also fits with the many ways that stories are adaptations of the stories of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses- the point is not that Jesus was better than ONE of them, but rather that he was better than ALL of them. In the Gospel narrative, the storm was simply a part of nature (not the work of another deity). Furthermore, in this story Jesus is leaving Galilee and thus leaving the lands of the people who knew YHWH, and yet his influence remains. Jesus is not just powerful in one small region of the world – his sphere of influence is not limited. Thus, in adapting this story the Gospel writer is able to claim that Jesus is more powerful than the forces of nature itself. Thus, a theological turn on an older and well known story.
It turns out this story is especially interesting because it seems to both adapt and retell Hebrew Bible stories and Greco-Roman ones. We remember the story of Moses leading the people out of Egypt, and controlling the waters. One scholar explains the similarities:
Paralleling Mark 4:35-41, with darkness looming on the horizon Jesus and his disciples set sail. Later that night, they encounter a furious storm on the Sea of Galilee. At this critical moment Jesus is found sleeping on a cushion and his disciples are in a state of terror as the waves begin to break over their boats. They awaken Jesus and cry out, “Teacher, don’t you care if we perish?” (Mk 4:36). There is harmony here in all the Synoptic narratives, but the next detail sets Mark apart from the others when he tells us specifically what Jesus said to the wind and waves, “Peace! Be still!” (Mk 4:39).
Returning to Exodus 14, Moses is pressed for answers as the tension mounts and the future of the children of Israel hangs in the balance. With the crowds pressing him, he exclaims, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still” (Ex 14:13-14).
With both Jesus calming the storm and Moses calming the Israelites, we have two nearly identical moments involving imminent doom that is tranquilized by the words “Quiet, be still” or “Peace be still.”1
We start in this story on the seashore, and the crowds have gathered to hear Jesus teach. Crowds were a little bit dangerous to Jesus. They put a target on his back in the Roman Empire, and yet they seemed to emerge anywhere he went. Jesus was always trying to satisfy the people AND get away from the crowds. So, in characteristic style, he decided to leave the crowd that had gathered. To me it sounds a bit desperate, especially when getting in the boats and going to the other side meant leaving Galilee and thus leaving the Jewish homeland. Perhaps that’s part of the metaphor. Maybe the disciples were stormy about where they were headed, but Jesus was calm. Perhaps they were all stormy, because of Jesus being worried about the crowds.
Now, I’m not sure what to make of the idea that Jesus can sleep through a ranging windstorm, of the sort that would sink boats with crashing waves, but then again he had taught all day, and after just once worship service I take a nap I call the pastor’s-coma. So maybe it was just that? Or maybe it is just that Jesus can keep calm and focused when no one else can? Or perhaps their panic was not his, as he trusted all would be well? I’m not sure.
They wake him up saying, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Do you hear how human this is? It doesn’t sound like Neptune, it doesn’t even sound like Moses. Jesus, the human, was sleeping, and had to be roused. His followers were terrified and he hadn’t even noticed! They were horrified he wasn’t helping – I suspect they might have expected him to participate in bailing!
Now, when you hear this story, do you imagine it like a movie in your mind? If so, how does it sound when Jesus “rebukes the wind”? Does he actually yell at the wind? Does he just motion? Is he annoyed? Or parental? Is the wind touching him until he rebukes it, or is he excluded from it the whole time? Is he standing, sitting, or still reclined on that cushion? Are the words “Peace! Be still!” repeated for the wind and the sea, or just the sea, or are his words for the wind not recorded?
I don’t know what it means to rebuke the wind. But the wind and the sea are said to go from roiling and threatening death to a “dead calm.” Similarly though, both the storm and the people are settled by the action! The storm isn’t just raging on the waters, the storm has entered the hearts of the people and they are terrified.
The people are not calmed as easily as the storm though. While the fear of death from drowning has passed, their shock at what had happened seemed to replace it. In this story at least, calming the sea with words is not considered normal, and the supernatural isn’t considered the way of the world. They were awed, which has a tinge of “scared” to it. They were attentive to him and terrified by him. Jesus, meanwhile seems not to understand why they were scared in the first place, nor afterward. It is not the most empathetic story told about Jesus.
So why did they choose to tell a story about Jesus calming the storm? One option is because he did so, but even if he did it raises the question of why this story made the cut to be in the gospels while others did not. As always with the Bible, my suspicion is that the stories that kept being told and retold were the ones with great metaphorical value and insight. In this case, the story tells us that the storms of life will come, but God is more powerful than they are. It is a story that encourages us to trust God, and trust in Jesus’s power as well. Since human life comes with a lot of metaphorical storms, there is a lot of value in a narrative that tells us they won’t overcome us.
This explanation also makes sense of the story of David and Goliath that is presented to us in the Hebrew Bible lesson offered us today. In many ways, it is a very similar story. Death, which was the reasonably assumed outcome from facing a gigantic and successful warrior, was avoided and even overcome with God on David’s side. Both stories are told to remind us that God can overcome adversity, and what looks doomed to humans may not be to God.
With Jesus, with God, calm seas are possible. We aren’t doomed to live in fear. We can even be freed from fear, to live in trust. Its pretty good news, this adaption of an ancient story. Thanks be to God. Amen
1 Exodus Muses: Jesus as a Type of Moses Calming Storms & Drowning Legions First Published JCF Newsletter April 2012 By Jon “Yoni” Gerrish http://www.jerusalemcornerstone.org/resources/articles_main-page/calming-storms-drowning-legions