(This post is about a 5 minute read)
For our next series of blog posts and podcasts, I would like to explore the text of Luke 8:22–9:20 with you. I have chosen this passage partly by a happy accident, as I was debating how best to tackle the topic of Jesus’ “value set.”
As I was debating inwardly: “What passage(s) best encapsulates what Jesus was about while on Earth, and succinctly yet powerfully demonstrates what he valued and taught?” I ran across my commentary on Luke, authored by John Nolland (Trinity College, Bristol UK). Nolland identifies Luke 8 and 9 as a vehicle through which Luke addresses this very question.
(Though that’s a bit of a paraphrase of my inner dialogue; I almost never use the words “succinctly” or “encapsulate” when I’m talking to myself.)
Anyhow. Let’s launch in. Please enjoy, think deep, and ask.
Now on one of those days, Jesus and His disciples got into a boat, and He said to them, “Let’s go over to the other side of the lake.” So they launched out. 23 But as they were sailing along He fell asleep; and a fierce gale of wind descended on the lake, and they began to be swamped and to be in danger. 24 They came to Jesus and woke Him up, saying, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And He got up and rebuked the wind and the surging waves, and they stopped, and it became calm. 25 And He said to them, “Where is your faith?” They were fearful and amazed, saying to one another, “Who then is this, that He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey Him?”
I think it’s safe to say that I recall this story was usually held up as an example of having faith in God. Not doubting. Living a life of brave faith in the face of adversity. It’s interesting that in Matthew’s and Mark’s version of the same story (Mk 4:35–41; Matt 8:23–27) Jesus labels his disciples as “afraid.” I often feel that this story is used as an object lesson – don’t be these clueless guys who were with Jesus all that time, saw crazy miracles, heard teaching straight from Jesus’ own mouth, yet doubted as soon as they were in trouble. Be careful not to be afraid – God is with you! Have faith!
How could those disciples be so faithless? They’re with Jesus! But in this story, they’re cowering kittens in the face of the alley cat’s rage.
And why is Jesus being a jerk here? The boat is taking on water! (Matt 8:24) The disciples themselves accuse Jesus of being flippant in the face of certain death (“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?!” Mk 4:38). Surely there’s room in Jesus’ heart for twelve terrified grown men afraid of drowning?
Well, I’m going to propose (hopefully you saw this coming) that we’re missing the subtext. We’re missing most of the Ancient Near Eastern context, too.
The actual lesson of this passage may be substantially more profound and useful to us as 21st century Christians. Perhaps we can get inside these disciples’ heads a bit by knowing something of their life view, and in doing so, come to understand something profound about what Jesus was really trying to tell them. Then, perhaps we’ll understand something profound about what Jesus is really trying to tell us.
So in the interest of illuminating this story’s meaning, let’s take a quick digression. Long before Jesus and the disciples’ time of the 1st century CE, there were Canaanite religious stories/myths circulating in this part of the world. One of the more important stories revolved around a Canaanite god named Baal. Baal was believed to live at the top of a high mountain, and in different parts of Palestine different mountains would be identified as Baal’s home. Here in Galilee (where Luke 8 takes place), Mount Hermon is the largest mountain, able to be seen from miles away. It lies across the border from Israel in modern-day Syria, near Damascus.
Baal, in the Canaanite religious mythology, was the god of storms. Lightning, rain, and wind were each thought to come from Baal’s mighty power.
(Now, re-read that last paragraph. Are you starting to see some relevance to our passage in Luke? If not, no worries – let’s add some more details…)
We know from recovered tablets dating back to the 1600s BCE that Baal (the storm and wind god) was thought to enter into combat with another Canaanite deity named Yamm. Yamm is the god of the sea, of oceans and lakes. The sea had a special significance in Ancient Near Eastern thought – it often represented churning chaos, disorder, and death.
[This is why Genesis 1 begins with the taming of chaos and disorder, as Yahweh moves “over the surface of the waters.” Yahweh is bringing order and life from chaos and death.]
The stories of Baal and Yamm are thought by some to represent an ancient understanding of the seasons and of natural phenomena. The wind versus the sea. The power at the top of the mountain (rain, wind, storms) in battle against the mysterious, unseen terrors in the depths of the lake.
For mere mortals, to be caught in open water during a storm meant to be caught as a bystander between two awesome deities battling for supremacy.
Now, I’d encourage you to take 30 seconds or so, with this (perhaps newfound) repository of knowledge, and re-read the passage from Luke 8:22–25.
What do you think the disciples are really afraid of?
What do you think Jesus is really trying to teach his disciples through this encounter?
Next post, I’ll take stab at those questions…