Jesus and the sea: arguments about divine identity

There are two incidents in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus demonstrates mastery over the sea. In one he calms a storm with a word of rebuke (Mk. 4:35-41); in the other he walks on the water as the disciples struggle to cross the Sea of Galilee at night, seemingly with the intention of passing by them (Mk. 6:45-52). In recent debates over Jesus’ “divine identity” both these stories have been interpreted as evidence that Mark intended his readers to discern an identification between Jesus and the God of Israel. It is YHWH who stills the storm when scattered Israel cries out to him in distress, so that his people may reach their “desired haven” (Ps. 107:29-30). It is YHWH who “alone stretched out the sky and walks on the sea as on dry ground” (Job 9:8 LXX). If it is now Jesus who does these things, then Jesus must be God.

I argued a while back, however, in “Richard Hays and the God who walks on the sea”, that Jesus was able to calm the storm because authority had been given to him. This has been the thrust of the story so far. At his baptism Jesus is confirmed as the “beloved Son”—the obedient servant of the Lord, “in whom my soul delights”, who is chosen and endowed with the Spirit to bring about YHWH’s purposes; or the royal Son who is “begotten” and given the nations as his heritage (Mk. 1:11; Is. 42:1; Ps. 2:7-8). He is the Son of Man who is given authority on earth to forgive Israel’s sins (Mk. 2:10). Like David he overrules Sabbath regulations (Mk. 2:23-28). Demons recognise him as the “Son of God” or “Son of the Most High God”—as YHWH’s anointed servant or king (Mk. 3:11; 5:7). He has overcome the strong man—perhaps by resisting Satan in the wilderness—and on that ground is able to plunder his goods (Mk. 3:27). All this, to my mind, makes it much more likely that Jesus is thought to be acting on behalf of God when he rebukes the wind and orders the sea to be still.

I also expressed a preference for thinking that the walking on the sea is better explained by the exodus motif than by the admittedly intriguing language of Job 9:8-11 LXX:

[The Lord] alone stretched out the sky and walks on the sea as on dry ground…. If he passed over me, I would certainly not see him, and if he went by (parelthēi) me, I would not even know. (Job 9:8–11 LXX)

Today I came across an article by J.R. Daniel Kirk and Stephen Young in JBL entitled “I Will Set His Hand to the Sea: Psalm 88:26 LXX and Christology in Mark” (133.2, 2014, 333-40), and started working on this piece with great enthusiasm, thinking it would add further weight to my argument. But now I’m not so sure.

Addressing the debate about a divine identity christology in Mark, Kirk and Young argue that Psalm 88:26 LXX (= 89:25) provides evidence for the idea that Israel’s king could be said to control the seas: “And I will set his hand in a sea, and in rivers his right hand.”

They do not claim that Mark makes allusion to the text, but they note several points of contact between the Gospel and Psalm 88 LXX: the king will address God as “My Father”; God will deliver his anointed king; God will make him “a firstborn” (cf. Mk. 1:11; 9:7); David was YHWH’s servant (cf. Mk. 10:44-45); and finally the Psalm ends with a vision of a king rejected by God and scorned by his enemies (337-38).

They conclude that “Jesus’ mastery over the sea in Mark does not necessarily indicate that the author of Mark thus considers Jesus to be divine in the sense of sharing in the identity of Israel’s God”. Psalm 88:26 LXX (and traditions of Judean interpretation which they also discuss) shows that “literate Christ followers could envision a nondivine figure with authority over the sea” (340).

I would love to agree with this—not because I wish to contradict basic trinitarian belief but because I want to affirm the importance of the apocalyptic narrative about kingship, which I think theologically driven belief has badly misunderstood. But, sadly, I don’t think that Kirk and Young’s argument holds water.

The problem is that they more or less take it for granted that the verse refers to control over the sea, arguing only that it is the “most plausible reading of the passage in context” (336 n. 13). True, in verse 10 it is said of God: “It is you who rule the might of the sea, and the surge of its waves you calm.” But the language is quite different in verse 26, and more importantly there is the parallel affirmation that God will set the king’s right hand in rivers. What would that mean if the first part of the verse had to do with subduing tempests? The parallelism, in fact, points to a more likely background:

…it sent out its branches as far as the sea, and as far as the river its shoots. (Ps. 79:12 LXX = 80:11)

And he shall exercise dominion from sea to sea and from river to the world’s limits. (Ps. 71:8 LXX = 72:8; cf. Zech. 9:10)

In the first passage, Israel is seen as a vine that reaches from the Euphrates to the Mediterranean. In the second, the extent of the dominion of Israel’s king is defined in terms of river and sea. The immediate context of Psalm 88:26 LXX similarly has to do with the rule of the king: YHWH will crush his enemies; in YHWH’s name “his horn shall be exalted”; YHWH will make him “high among the kings of the earth”; and his throne will be established “as the days of heaven” (Ps. 88:24-30).

So when it is said that God will set the king’s hand in a sea and his right hand in rivers, it seems more likely that this is a reference to the geographical extent of his kingdom. The passage has no bearing, therefore, on the interpretation of the sea stories in Mark. But the narrative argument still stands: by the time we get to the story of the calming of the storm, Mark has variously presented Jesus as the obedient servant or son who has gained or been given authority to act on behalf of Israel’s God. It is outrageous that he then presumes to do what otherwise God does, according to the scriptures, but the story so far suggests that he believed himself to have been divinely authorised to do so, not that he expected people to conclude that he was God. 

The reference to the Exodus motif is interesting.  I’ve wondered what the ramifications for the aquatic-based divinity arguments were for Moses and Joshua.