Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Stormy Seas

The middle of chapter 8 of Matthew offers that great story of Jesus asleep in the boat during a great storm (Mt 8:18-27) Obviously it's a story about trust. Jesus' ability to sleep during the storm shows the depth of his trust in God, and challenges us to do the same in the midst of the storms of our lives.

But there's a lot more to it than that.  A good note in reading the Bible: any time you hear a story about seas, pay attention. "The sea" in scripture almost always represents the forces of chaos and disorder against which God is matched.  The Genesis 1 story of creation in fact, repeatedly describes the chaos out of which God creates everything as "the waters".

Now, an aside that is not an aside: In most ancient Near Eastern creation stories, creation occurs through a battle between two opposing gods or forces.

Marduk fights Tiamat in the ancient Babylonian story of creation. 

And the same is true in Genesis, it's just not much of a battle -- God is so much more powerful than the chaotic pre-creation seas, he doesn't even need to fight to vanquish it.  He just molds it to his will.

God creates the world. (Actual size of God much larger.)

And that complete control that God has over the seas shows him to be not only powerful, but more powerful than all the other gods of the  Near East.  Unlike them, he didn't even need to fight to create the universe!  (It's actually an amazingly bold claim, this tiny, tiny country in the world, proclaiming its God is way more powerful than all the mighty nations of the earth -- some of whom have invaded it!)

When seas are referred to later in scripture, they are almost always hearkening back to that creation claim, and showing yet again how entirely powerful God is.  So for instance in the Old Testament the parting of the Red Sea.  And here, the calming of the storm. But here, it's not God the Father doing the calming, it's Jesus.  Which is yet another way, and a very very bold way, of saying to Jews that Jesus is God.

I'm the king of the world! No, seriously!

An interesting further question about the seas...if they do represent the forces of chaos and evil in the universe, why doesn't God completely wipe them out right from the beginning? Why does he allow them to continue?

On the level of our human experience, that's a mystery, isn't it?  One of the speakers I heard at the Religious Ed Congress gave a talk called Where the Hell is God?, all about this issue. In the tough times that is so clearly our question.

On the level of the person who wrote Genesis 1, though, the answer is a little bit different (and maybe unsatisfying).  Genesis 1 is written during a time of terrible tragedy in Israel, Israel invaded, the people scattered in exile, all their beliefs seemingly dashed.  And so the writer keeps chaos around post-creation, because to do otherwise would be to ignore the pain of his (or her) people's current experience. We're living with the chaos, you scripture writer, you, so don't you dare tell us that it doesn't exist!

But by showing God as so entirely powerful over the chaos, the writer spits in the eye of the pain his people are enduring.  Come at us all you want, bad times, because in the end our God wins.

It's a funny thing to say, but the writer looks back to creation to encourage his or her present-day people to believe, this is not the way our story ends.

In the midst of our own world's tsunamis and other tragedies, that message of hope speaks even to us today. 

1 comment:

sara said...

I love that the actual size of God is larger!