The Quaking of the Sea

I am fascinated by the way accounts of people lost and alone at sea tap into a unique complex of deep human fears of abandonment and isolation, the unknown future and unseen dangers, and the prospect of slow, painful death. Reflecting on them has prompted the question more than once: What of all those biblical images of natural or environmental chaos as a context or even instrument of judgment? While I plod away at a fuller treatment of the question, here are a few observations along the way.

While the images, especially in the prophets, are "metaphorical" they are not only that: they have a historical and even natural core, which is why biblical metaphor is not a matter of unreality but of reality under a figurative form. The difference is monumental for thinking and living from within the biblical thought world, yet it runs directly against the grain of modern popular reading practices. Consider the three quakes in Matthew: twice the earth quakes – at the cross and at the resurrection (27:51; 28:2); but the other quake is a quaking of the sea in 8:24.

How should we think of this triplet? Each time there is a quaking, someone emerges from a tomb. The quake of the sea in ch. 8 foreshadows the resurrection. There is Jesus, in a boat, on the sea, sleeping. Later, he will sleep the sleep of death having been tossed into the Gentile waters, tried, and executed. Jesus “rises” from his sleep in ch. 8:25-26 just as he will “rise” from the dead in 28:6-7. Jesus demonstrates his authority over wind and sea by rebuking it, just as he will proclaim his authority in heaven and on earth after rising from the tomb. When the boat in Matt. 8 reaches land, they are in Gentile territory, and Jesus casts out a legion of demons from two demoniacs who live in a cemetery in the country of the Gadarenes. These demoniacs are evidently coming out of the tombs (so the Greek), suggesting a picture of zombies or mummies rising from graves to confront Jesus. After Jesus dies on the cross, the earthquake cracks open other tombs and saints “come out of the tombs” (same Greek construction), and after Jesus rises from his tomb he will send out his disciples to make disciples of the nations of the (to speak thematically) "demon-infested" Gentiles. According to Matthew, the Gospel is about the shaking earth and the shaking waters of death, the shaking of the realm of death itself, shaken until she gives up her dead and the righteous are vindicated, which, we remember, as Paul tells us, is what the earth groans for. First, then, in Matthew the ground gives up demoniacs, then the saints, then finally Jesus, in which the world is finally to be turned back (and forward) from chaos to glorious order.

The role of the waters in all this is extraordinarily rich. On the cross we witness God’s darkness descending, and Christ’s darkness at the cross is the deep, dank darkness which blanketed fearful Abraham in the covenant ratification ceremony in Genesis, that swallowed Egypt as a plague, that filled – ironically by its emptiness – the cavity of Jonah’s fish in which God’s prophet was entombed in the deathly waters.

What we fear about drowning, about abandonment as a speck on the swelling waves of the vast, endless ocean, connects us not only to our own mortality but to the shape of divine judgment. The darkness of the cross was not only the hiddenness of the sun but also the darkness of the deep. The deeper one descends in the watery abyss, the fainter the light of the sun becomes, until there is no light at all, no sense anymore of what is up and down, of direction and movement. Order is absent, chaos rules. It is hellish; it is the taste of hell on the tongue. In the abyss, where there is no sense of one’s relation to the world, or to God himself, there is – it would seem – no hope. The “waters” slowly swallow up the soul and not just the body.

To redeem the soul from such a pit as that, to reach as far down as the worst of such horrors and put the world right, Christ himself descended to the deepest depths, descended into hell, and swallowed the waters as the waters swallowed him so that we might emerge from them, with the blessing of the Spirit hovering over us, as new creation. This is the sense in which Rev. 21:1 speaks of the new creation as a state in which “the waters are no more.” It is these waters, not what the waters are by creation but what they became as a result of the Fall: the potential instrument of disorder, of bloody judgment, a place of threat and of danger with devouring monsters hidden underneath. “The waters are no more” because the waters have been calmed not only by the voice but by the death of Jesus. He who was swallowed by them in death has walked on them by resurrection, and so reversed disorder into glorious order and life.