Can you walk on water? I would doubt it! Such skill is reserved only for deities!
Prophet Isaiah (43:16) speaks about YHWH
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters.
And similarly Psalmist (77:19) sings about YHWH:
Your way was through the sea,
your path, through the mighty waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
And for those who might be a little slow in understanding the Psalmist spells it out and drops a direct hint:
You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
Of course, those walking-on-water reports are actually references of Exodus and the Israelites escaping from Egypt across the sea. The Hebrew Bible, especially the poetical parts, seems to have plenty of these direct and indirect hints of God subduing, defeating and controlling unruly waters while at the same time liberating and protecting God’s faithful people. And, of course, that image is picked up in the New Testament when Jesus calmed the stormy sea and even walked on it. All these biblical passages are hinting, alluding and reenacting the Exodus - this formative and quintessential event of the people of faith - both Jews and Christians.
But then... then there is a problem. Actually an entire mound of problems, big problems
because such references and allusions are not limited to the Bible. There are many renditions of this image of calming, subduing or walking on an unruly sea which are predating not only the Hebrew Bible - they also predate the theoretical date of Exodus whenever you might think of placing it. These Ancient Near East examples predate anything in the bible by hundreds and even thousands of years.
In the Babylonian myth Enūma Eliš god Marduk defeats, crushes and tramples on the watery monster Tiamat and you can find similar stories throughout the Ancient Near East. Among the scholars of religion this mytheme is called Chaoskampf - struggle, fight against the powers of Chaos. And there are also many iconographic examples - cylinder seals, engravings and other depictions from all over the ancient Near and Middle East. On an attached picture is a stela of god Baal from the late bronze age city of Ugarit. You can see Baal standing, trampling and thus dominating waves of the sea. Just like we read in the Psalm or in prophet Isaiah.
These could not be allusions of Exodus because that was still in the distant future for many of these examples. And hardly any orthodox Jewish and Christian theologian would claim these instances were pagan prophesies foretelling the birth of those religions.
But strangely, in a special, unique way, these might very much be exactly something like that! Those Bronze Age Babylonian and Syrian myths can be seen as foreshadowing the future. They were preparing a building material for the future, for the birth of the biblical religion.
And the authors of the Hebrew Bible and later of the Christian New Testament took over those myths and used them, adapted them to tell their own stories about their own heroes and their victories over chaos and creation of the new world, new people. But most importantly, their re-purposed stories had the same function and purpose - reassuring audiences, listeners and readers of ultimate divine victory and thus bringing hope to the midst of chaos and uncertainty.
When Jesus walks on the billows of the sea and calms the raging waves or when we hear about Moses leading people from slavery through the sea to freedom - in these dearly beloved biblical stories – we hear that God will act the same way again. And while listening we are actually touching something very precious. We share our hopes and our stories with people at least 4,500 years ago and we are connected with the dawn of the civilization, almost as far back as the written records go. In these formative stories of our faith we encounter deep archetypal fears and also hopes. And that is something you might not know about the Bible.
There is also a YouTube video clone of this blog.
Join us this Sunday, we will rejoice in the New Testamental reworking and reshaping of this powerful ancient theme.
And here is a video from the worship.