let’s keep in mind that in the Matthean Jesus community of Jesus followers, most of the early Jesus followers would have been Jewish.
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(Read this series from its beginning here.)
Describing the Divine, the book of Job reads,
“[God] alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea.” (Job 9:8)
Compare this to Job 38:16: “Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep?”
Next consider Psalms 77:16-19:
The waters saw you, God,
the waters saw you and writhed;
the very depths were convulsed.
The clouds poured down water,
the heavens resounded with thunder;
your arrows flashed back and forth.
Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind,
your lightning lit up the world;
the earth trembled and quaked.
Your path led through the sea,
your way through the mighty waters,
though your footprints were not seen.
In this ancient story, the waters were parted so the people could follow God’s “way” through the sea, whereas in Matthew, Peter attempts to walk on the sea like Jesus.
Before Jesus, Second Maccabees describes the oppressor of the Jewish people, Antiochus:
“Not content with this, Antiochus dared to enter the most holy temple in all the world, guided by Menelaus, who had become a traitor both to the laws and to his country. He took the holy vessels with his polluted hands, and swept away with profane hands the votive offerings that other kings had made to enhance the glory and honor of the place. Antiochus was elated in spirit . . . Antiochus carried off eighteen hundred talents from the temple, and hurried away to Antioch, thinking in his arrogance that he could sail on the land and walk on the sea.” (2 Maccabees 5:15-21)
Let’s add to this background a Hellenist legend in the culture surrounding Matthew’s Jesus and the community in which he lived. In many Hellenistic stories, characters cross the seas rapidly by various magical means. One story is the story of Orion, son of the god Poseidon. Orion could walk on water.
“Hesiod says that [Orion] was the son of Eurayle, the daughter of Minos, and of Poseidon, and that there was given him as a gift the power of walking on the waves as though upon the land.” (Eratosthenes, fragment 182, quoted in Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, James D.G. Dunn and John W. Rogerson, editors)
As strange as this story may be to us today, it would not have been strange at all for those who originally heard it. The story would instead have signaled to the hearers of Matthew’s gospel just what claims the Matthean community was making about Jesus. This story ends with the disciples explicitly proclaiming that Jesus, like the Hellenists’ Orion was “truly the Son of God.”
Again, there is another difference in Matthew’s story: Peter’s attempt to follow Jesus in walking on water. And this is the part of the story that I believe can still speak to us, today.
In the previous chapter of Matthew’s Jesus story, Jesus has just explained how his gospel of love for one another manifested in inclusion, justice, and shaping a community (“the kingdom”) safe for everyone (see our article from two weeks ago, “Kingdom” Parables for Social Change), was considered by the elites, the powerful, propertied, and privileged of his society. They considered it and him to be a weed that must be quickly weeded out before it took over the hearts of the masses, or like a corrupting leaven that if not dealt with would transform the entire dough of their society.
For us today, the story of Jesus walking on water and Peter’s attempt to follow him on those rough seas can be a very powerful metaphor. We’ll unpack this metaphor and it’s relationship to us today, next.
(Read Part 3)