The parable of the stilled storm

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Multiple independent layers of tradition remember Jesus as an exorcist, a healer, a raiser of the dead, a multiplier of food, and a calmer of storms. These deeds of power, more than simply displays of God-given authority, conveyed in themselves the kingdom message. They too were parables of the kingdom; or as the Fourth Evangelist calls them, ‘signs’ of the kingdom. In these powerful acts the kingdom became present in the world for a brief moment.

Among these signs-of-the-coming-kingdom, Jesus’ calming of the storm is perhaps least appreciated in terms of its symbolic and eschatological import. How does this particular miracle function as a sign? And what message does it convey about the kingdom?

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm (λαῖλαψ) arose, and the waves (κῦμα) beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.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?”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. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”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?” (Mark 4:35-41)

The storm as political disaster

On more than a few occasions Old Testament writers conscript the image of a raging storm for figurative purposes. The stormy sea generally represents political calamity and chaos. In a oracle concerning the defeat of Babylon by Persia, for instance, Jeremiah announces: “The sea has risen over Babylon; she has been covered by its tumultuous waves (κῦμα)” (Jeremiah 51:42, cf 25:32).

Ezekiel uses the same language for similar purposes. He formulates an extended metaphor representing Tyre as a glorious ship sunk by a tempestuous sea: “Behold, I am against you, O Tyre, and will bring up many nations against you, as the sea brings up its waves (κῦμα)… Your rowers have brought you into the high seas. The east wind has wrecked you in the heart of the seas” (Ezekiel 26:3, 27:26). Ezekiel has military defeat in mind.

The storm as threat to Israel

The storm can also represent Israel’s sometimes delicate political situation. According to Psalm 65:7 God “silences the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the nations.” Here Israel’s existence among hostile nations is likened to a ship on rough waters. God is able to secure peace for his people, to calm the storm of political upheaval (cf. 4 Ezra 13:37).

In Psalm 107 too the storm is a symbol of political disorder threatening to engulf Israel. The writer depicts the return from exile along the pattern of the exodus: God gives food and water to those wandering in a wilderness (4-9), God liberates the enchained prisoner (10-16), and God settles his people in a prosperous land (33-38). In a scene reminiscent of Israel’s sea crossing then, God likewise delivers sailors from raging waters (23-32). All of these images serve the program of national reconstitution outlined in the poem’s closing verses:

They establish a town to live in; they sow fields, and plant vineyards, and get a fruitful yield. By his blessing they multiply greatly, and he does not let their cattle decrease.When [God’s people] are diminished and brought low through oppression, trouble, and sorrow, he pours contempt on princes and makes them wander in trackless wastes; but he raises up the needy out of distress, and makes their families like flocks (Psalm 107:36-41).

Psalm 18

As a final example of the storm’s figurative significance in Biblical literature, consider Psalm 18, a psalm of praise for salvation from danger. Conforming to our pattern, the threat to the psalmist’s life is all at once aquatic and military. His redemption is likewise all at once terrestrial and political. The two stories seamlessly intertwine—salvation from mighty waters, salvation from mighty enemies; topographical exaltation, political exaltation.

He reached down from on high, he took me; he drew me out of mighty waters (16).
He delivered me from my strong enemy, and from those who hated me; for they were too mighty for me (17).
He brought me out into a broad place; he delivered me, because he delighted in me… He made my feet like the feet of a deer, and set me secure on the heights. (19, 33).
You delivered me from strife with the people; you made me head of the nations; people whom I had not known served me (43).

Rescue at sea and the story of the church

None of these examples, metaphorical as they are, call into question the historicity of Jesus’ aquatic miracles. Rather, they illustrate the ease with which Biblical writers cast their concrete fears and experiences in the garb of stormy waters. For ancient Jews tossed to and fro by pagan nations, the raging sea was a natural image for destructive political forces. And in accordance with this long tradition, Jesus offers his own storm-parable—comparing the eschatological judgement to a tempest that strikes two houses, one built on rock, the other on sand (Matthew 7:24-27 cf. 24:37-39). As I have argued elsewhere, Jesus likely had the disastrous war with Rome in mind, a political catastrophe for Israel.

It is therefore safe to presume that the first readers of the Gospels were well-attuned to the often symbolic import of a menacing storm. So below I outline an allegorical interpretation of the sea miracles in the spirit of Psalm 18.

  1. As in Ezekiel’s oracles against Tyre, the ship on a stormy sea can represent a nation or community in danger. In the Gospels, the boat full of disciples clearly constitutes the church.
  2. The wind and the waves which beat against this ship are the eschatological tribulations of the end of the age, the birth pangs of the coming kingdom. These are manifest both in the disorder unleashed onto the world at large (Revelation 6) and in the raging of the nations against God’s anointed people (Psalm 2, Acts 4). These concrete historical-political complications are the storms that threatened to sink the church into the waters of Sheol; to remove God’s people from the land of the living.
  3. The calming of these storms and the safe arrival on shore represent the victory of the church over a writhing pagan empire. Just as Christ quieted and subdued the storm, so too did he quiet and subdue the Greco-Roman nations that opposed the church. And just as the boat reached dry land, exalted over the sea, so too was the church publicly exalted over the pagan polities.

The sea rescue narratives are thus on one level eschatological parables depicting the stormy political chaos of the first few centuries; chaos through which the churches were forced to navigate. As signs of the coming kingdom, they point to the power of the exalted Christ to save and vindicate his overwhelmed church in truly historical and political terms.

10 thoughts on “The parable of the stilled storm

  1. I wonder if this has ramifications for Paul’s shipwreck story towards the end of Acts. Already, the ship he arrives on bears the signs of Roman gods who destroy criminals at sea and preserve innocent sailors. Once again, not to deny that Paul was in an actual shipwreck, but it may be that the way in which the story is told may be telling a story about Paul’s vindication before and escape from his political enemies.

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    1. I toyed around with that. The pagans on the ship are saved by believing Paul’s prediction and becoming obedient to him. The Roman ship itself, however, is lost. And based on Acts 28:4—”This man must be a murderer; though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.”—we might think of the storm as God’s trial of Paul and his captors. In the minds of Greeks and Romans the gods (or God) have vindicated Paul and condemned those forces bringing him to Rome. There’s then an irony that the angel on the ship tells Paul he must live to stand before the emperor—God’s judgement on Paul and the empire is already being passed on the ship.

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