God’s Ordering of the Waters

Jesus' calming of the Sea of Galilee was a window into the first day of creation

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Bible Faith

Last Sunday’s readings had a lot to say about the waters. The primary focus was on the Gospel, in which Jesus calms the storm on the Sea of Galilee. Many Biblical commentators note that Jesus’ miracles can be grouped into two primary categories: miracles concerning nature (like this one) and those concerning healing. But let’s dig deeper.

To dig deeper, let’s go to the First Reading, from Job. The verses from Job 38 are part of a longer passage in which God answers Job about the reason for his suffering. In ancient Israel, a somewhat simplistic, one-on-one correspondence was drawn between sin and suffering. (That’s why, when the disciples encounter the man born blind, they ask Jesus, “who sinned, him or his parents?”) By the time we get to Job (and Sirach), that one-on-one approach is under stress. Job is a just man who is suffering. His “comforters” (save me from friends like this) are reduced to silence, so he turns to God.

But God does not give him an answer everybody would find satisfying. In this passage in which God speaks about creation and setting boundaries between land and sea, a passage that as noted is part of a larger discourse, God’s point is essentially: “Job, were you there when I created? Did you lay out the world? If not, why do you expect me to justify my ways to you? Have faith that my ways are right.”

The theology of suffering will be developed, especially in the New Testament, but there is something to be said about this midpoint development in that theology, because it’s actually the same point the Gospel makes: your faith should suffice! You should believe that God has plans and “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jer 29:11).

But that’s not what I want to discuss. I want to go back to the waters.

In the reading from Job, God says “Who shut within doors the sea when it burst forth from the womb? … I set limits for the sea and fastened the bar of its door; and said: ‘Thus far shall you come but no father, and here shall your proud waves be stilled!’” The reading may be Job but the sacred writer has in mind Genesis (1:1-2, 6-10). The account of creation in Genesis is qualitatively different from comparable “origins” accounts in the ancient world. For one thing, God is presented as the cause of everything that is: God creates from nothing. In all the mythologies of antiquity, there is a cosmos whose origins are never explained. At some point, the “gods” come into it, but the gods are not responsible for it. They appear and disappear, but the backdrop of the universe remains, its origins unexplained. (Some “gods”!)

God is clearly separate from, independent of, and the cause of what exists. And, as Genesis puts it, that world starts out watery: “the earth was formless and empty, darkness was on the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God hovered above the waters.” For Israel, the world as it is first created is “tohu wa-bohu” (Gen 1:2, “formless and void”). It was chaos, utter, disorganized chaos, like a smashing sea.

Tohu wa-bohu — utter chaos — is a purely Biblical Jewish idea. That the sea is symbol of chaos is found across many cultures. I remember in high school trying to read some Chinese philosophy. I remember a passage, though not whether it was Confucian or Taoist, in which the sage compares mountains to the sea. Mountains come out on top (not just literally) because they are serene and stable, whereas the sea is constantly in turmoil, constantly beset by waves, constantly changing. As a Jersey boy whose state is very proud of its Shore, I found — at least back then — Chinese philosophy a turnoff. But the point remains: the sea is chaotic.

But God brings order to that chaos, first by the separation of the basic elements — bounding the sea from the sky and from the land. God not only is First Cause, He is Orderer, providing design to creation.

Now, extrapolate that Ordering and Design to the level of the tohu wa-bohu of the “Big Bang.” That is what God is pointing out in Job. Water is essential to life and creation. It’s not just that the waters of creation are tohu wa-bohu. They are also compared to the waters that break forth in birth, that “burst forth from the womb.” Without water, there is no life. Water gives life, but water also deals death. The Creator, by ordering the waters, brings forth the life of the first creation.

So, when Jesus calms the storm on the sea, it’s not just a feat to save the fearful disciples or demonstrate His power. Just as creation came to be “through the Word,” so the Word once more orders creation in the form of the chaotic waters on a certain day on the Sea of Galilee. What happened in that boat on that day was just a little window into the first day of creation.

And because Jesus is not just the Word through which all things were created (John 1:3; Col 1:16) but also the New Adam who brings a new creation, it is not to be forgotten that His first “sign” — the one by which “His disciples came to believe in Him” — also involved water: six water jugs full at the wedding in Cana in Galilee. It is the first installment in a new creation whereby water is transubstantiated into wine, which later will be transubstantiated into blood, His Blood, to which His adopted sons and daughters are admitted through a water bath that incorporates them into His Death and Resurrection.

And all that is apparent on Calvary where, as the Preface for the Sacred Heart reminds us, “from His side flowed blood and water, the fountain of sacramental life in the Church.”

 

(On the water-wine-Blood progression, I acknowledge my debt to the thought of Roman Brandstaetter.)

 

John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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