The fierce storms that are affecting both the United Kingdom and parts of continental Europe this week provide an intriguing backdrop to this week’s lectionary Gospel, Luke 8.22-25 which recounts Jesus stilling the storm. The other lectionary passages selected for this week (Genesis 2.4b-9,15-25; Psalm 65; Revelation 4) also ‘comment’ implicitly on the relationships between humanity, divinity and creation. The painting of the stilling of the storm by Eularia Clarke, stunningly conveys the terror of the people in the boat with Jesus. The boat itself is almost being swamped. Clarke’s painting forms part of the Methodist Church in Britain’s collection of modern art which can be accessed here Browse the Collection (methodist.org.uk) and it is reproduced in accordance with the generous rules offered by the Methodist Church.
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe
Most of the time I enjoy thunder storms and find them exhilarating. I can remember however a terrifying experience once when Alan (my husband) and I were with friends in the Syrian desert north-east of Damascus exploring the then deserted site of Mar Mousa al-Habashi. A storm blew up quickly (as it can do in those parts) while we were out in the open walking across flat rocky ground with no bolt holes for cover. Fierce shards of lightning began to strike the ground. As the highest objects in the vicinity (even if we crouched down) we were the obvious targets at which the lightning would direct itself. It was a fearful few minutes before we reached the safety of our car.
In such contexts it is easy to see how the mythology of the Canaanites developed, in which the god Baal Haddad (‘Haddad’ means ‘blacksmith’) was venerated and feared, and how thunder was understood as the clang of Baal’s blacksmith irons and lightning the sparks as he worked the metal. Indeed where we were that late afternoon in Syria was exactly part of the heart-land of the Canaanite world. In the Canaanite religious tradition Baal showed his power by his ability to control both such storms and the unruly waters, whether seas whipped up by the winds, or waters bucketed down from the clouds into wadis that could turn into torrents in minutes. Since the 1930s we know considerably more about the religion of the Canaanites, Israel’s precursor and continuing neighbour. Discoveries of texts at Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit) – which is only about 150 miles from where I was that day in Syria – have provided us with a detailed description of the story of Baal’s conflict with the stormy waters, which ends, of course, in Baal’s eventual victory.
It is fascinating to see how vestiges of this mythology have survived, though been transformed, in the Old Testament. The big difference of course is that it is ‘God’ (the deity the Bible names as YHWH) rather than ‘Baal’ who is the victor over the winds and the waters. But also what in the Canaanite myths is a real and fearsome battle, that it is far from certain Baal will eventually win, becomes in the Old Testament a literal ‘no contest’ in which God’s victory is absolutely assured. One of my favourite examples of how this transformation has been worked out comes in Psalm 104.26, ‘There go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.’ In the Canaanite myths Leviathan (Lotan) is a mighty monster who really gives Baal a run for his money, and at one point seems to be the likely victor of their fight. In the Old Testament Leviathan has been domesticated into God’s giant bath-toy!
The creation narrative of Genesis 1 contains just hints of some of these ancient ideas. Once again there is no battle – but there is the vestige of an understanding that for creation to flourish the deep waters need to be controlled and boundaried.
To understand the sea miracles of the Gospels, one of which, Luke 8.22-25, is offered as our lectionary Gospel for this week, we need to be aware of this ancient symbolic background. The sea was the great unknown, the great hostile uncontrollable (at least by mortals). Divinity demonstrated its power by its ability to control the waters – and of course in Old Testament history such a demonstration had been made by God at the time of the Exodus and the crossing of the Red Sea. It is telling that the verb used to describe how Jesus spoke to the wind and the waves is ‘rebuke’ – a word used elsewhere in the Gospel to describe Jesus’ speech to demonic spirits (and significantly on one occasion to Peter as well, Mark 8.33). It was entirely reasonable for the disciples with Jesus in the boat to express their bewilderment with the question, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’ (Luke 8.25), for the Old Testament had indeed taught them that it was God alone who could control the sea. The implication about Jesus is clear – even though it is not spelled out explicitly by the Gospel writer. That is, on the whole, how the Synoptic Gospels offer us their ‘Christology’, their understanding of who Jesus was and what he did. Not by spelling it out directly (as the Gospel of John does) but by leaving it up to us to draw our own conclusions from what Jesus did and said.
I have explored the ‘nature miracles’ of the Gospels in this way over many years, but it is only much more recently that I have also come to see that these fascinating episodes can also be a resource for looking at the relationship between humanity and creation. The question ‘Who is this, that wind and sea obey him?’ can also constitute an implicit rebuke to human beings who think that the glories and the wildness of creation should be subservient to human needs and control.
So it is interesting that this Gospel story is paired in the lectionary this week with what I refer to as the ‘second creation story’ of the Book of Genesis, Genesis 2.4b-9,15-25. This is the account in which humanity is created ‘from the dust of the ground’ (Genesis 2.7) like a potter moulds shapes out of clay, even though God’s special care for this creature that has been formed then becomes apparent. The association between human beings (adam), with the earth (adamah) is made clear by the vocabulary used to tell the story. The comment that before the human beings was fashioned ‘there was no one to till the ground’ (Genesis 2.5) carries with it the implication that that will be the primary task of this soon-to-be-made creature. But it is interesting that the word that the NSRV translates as ‘till’ could equally mean to ‘serve’ or even to ‘worship’ the ground. The choice of the word that we use in our translation says quite a lot about our understanding of the relationship between human beings and the earth.
At any rate there is a rather different ‘feel’ to this passage compared with the description offered by Genesis 1.26-28, in which human beings are created as ‘the image of God’ and with ‘dominion’ over other elements of creation. I believe that it is no accident that Genesis includes both accounts with their different ‘feel’ within its pages in close proximity. The glory and tragedy of human beings is that we are both ‘image of God’ and ‘dust of the earth’, and it is our vocation to work this reality out in fear and trembling, both in our relationship with God, and our relationship with the rest of creation. The wellbeing of our world may well depend upon this.