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The Man in the Boat

The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) record an event in which Jesus and his disciples got into a boat to sail “to the other side of the lake” (Luke 8:22; see Matt. 8:23-27; Mark 4:35-41; Luke 8:22-25). The “other side of the lake” refers to the eastern side of the lake of Galilee. As they are sailing across, “a storm of wind” (Luke 8:23; Mark 4:37) descended on the lake and threatened to swamp the boat. Jesus, however, was asleep in the boat. His fearful disciples roused him pleading for their lives: “Master, Master, we are perishing!” Jesus rose from his sleep and rebukes the storm, which immediately calmed. He questioned his disciples asking, “Where is your faith?” (Luke 8:25). In Matthew, he refers to them as being of “little faith” (Matt. 8:26). Fearful and amazed the disciples discuss who is this that the wind and water obey him.

Storms on the Lake of Galilee are no joke, especially the wind storms that blow in from the east off the Golan Heights down onto the lake. The Lake of Galilee sits at approximately 600 feet below sea level. It is surrounded by high hills on its western, northern, and eastern sides. Canyons cut through these hills. The easterly wind storms that hit the land of Israel are quite severe, and even in the present day, can cause damage to property and agriculture, even the loss of life. These easterly winds are known as sharkia, from the Arabic “shark” (east). They are most prevalent from October-May. On a recent trip to Israel with a group that I was guiding (November 2017), like Jesus and his disciples, we sailed across the lake from the western shore to “the other side of the lake” (the eastern shore). As we sailed across, a sharkia blew in from the east. In a much larger boat than what Jesus and the disciples would have used, with a gas engine, our boat struggled against the waves, and the ride became rough. We then listened to the howling winds all night long as they blew from the east across the lake. It was a great moment of experiential learning.

Rembrandt's Storm on the Sea of Galilee

Quite often, interpreters of the New Testament look at this episode in the Gospels and view it as reflecting Jesus’ deity, his power over nature: the divine superman. Didn’t his disciples recognize that God was in the boat with them? Yet in the Gospels, Jesus’ miracles do not serve to show himself as a divine superman dressed in human garb. Jesus’ miracles serve two purposes in the Synoptic Gospels: 1) to punctuate a teaching (see the healing of the paralytic; Matt. 9:1-8; and the man with the withered hand; Luke 6:6-11), or 2) to underscore the breaking forth of God’s reign through his ministry (this is particularly true of his exorcisms; Matt. 11:4-6; Luke 10:18-20; 11:20). His miracles are not an attempt to show out or for Clark Kent to take off his glasses for a moment so everyone can see that he is really Superman. So, what’s the message of Jesus’ miracle?

In Jesus’ question to his disciples lies his message. But it’s not that they failed to recognize that they had God (Jesus) in the boat with them. Nor is it that they got their eyes off God in the boat and onto the storm. He questioned their faith, and in Matthew’s account, refers to them as “men of little faith.” This language betrays Jesus’ point: relax because you trust in God.

Jesus embraced an emerging stream of thought within ancient Judaism that emphasized the holiness of the present day.[1] Each day contains its own sanctity; therefore, we should praise God for the present time and not worry about the future (see Matt. 6:25-34). This view grew from a profound confidence in the character and nature of God, who is intimately a part of human history and the source for all sustenance and life. Ancient Jewish interpreters saw the intimacy of his provision in the manna in the wilderness (Ex. 16:4-10).

Not everyone within Judaism, however, accepted this conviction as made clear by a debate between two first century BCE sages, Shammai and Hillel.

"It was told of Shammai the Elder: Whenever he found a fine portion he said, 'This will be for the Sabbath.' If later he found a finer one, he put aside the second for the Sabbath, and ate the first; thus, whatever he ate was meant for the honor of the Sabbath. But Hillel the Elder had a different way, for all his works were for the sake of Heaven; he used to say: 'Blessed be the Lord day by day (Psalm 68:19)'" (b. Betzah 16a).

Hillel represents those who embraced the sanctity of each day; therefore, we should praise God for the day and not worry about the future. In his citation of Psalm 68:19, Hillel behaved like a Jewish sage citing part of the verse but assuming that his listeners would know the uncited part of the verse. Jesus, Peter, and Paul frequently do this throughout the New Testament. The psalm continues, “He (God) will bear our burdens; God will save us.” His citation of the psalm expresses his firm belief and unrelenting trust in God for daily bearing our burdens and saving us.

Hillel instructing a Gentile in the Torah while he stands on one foot.

On another occasion, Hillel expressed his belief of the sanctity of the present day by citing another psalm: "Hillel the Elder used to say: ‘Bad news shall have no terror for him (i.e., the righteous man), because his heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord’ (Psalm 112:7). He who is trusting in the Lord, bad news shall have no terror for him” (y. Berachot 14b). Because the righteous one’s “heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord,” bad news, whether true or not, “will have no terror” for him. According to Hillel, the one who trusts in God becomes immune to bad news because such a person cannot be “anxious about tomorrow” (Matt. 6:34).[2]

Those who embraced this view of the sanctity of the day and God’s provision identified those who worried about tomorrow as lacking faith. Rabbi Eleazar the Great said, “He who has bread in his basket and says, ‘What shall I eat tomorrow?’ belongs to those of little faith” (b. Sotah 48b). Another Rabbi Eleazar from Modiin, commenting on the phrase “a day’s portion every day” (Ex. 16:4; referring to the manna provided in the wilderness), said, “This means that a man may not gather on one day the portion for the next day…He who created the day has also created its sustenance…He who has enough to eat for today and says, ‘What will I eat tomorrow?’ Behold he is of little faith” (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael on Ex. 16:4).

The first century Jewish historian-philosopher Philo of Alexandria interpreted the episode of the manna as an expression of faith: “He that would fain have all at once earns for himself lack of hope and trust, as well as a great lack of sense. He lacks hope if he expects that now only, but not in the future also, will God shower on him good things; he lacks faith, if he has no belief that both in the present and always the good gifts of God are lavishly bestowed on those worthy of them (Leg. All. 3.164). The book of Deuteronomy likewise ties the provision of manna as a test of faith:

"Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna…in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (8:2-4; see also Luke 4:4).

Having faith, then, for Jesus and his contemporaries meant having an unrelenting trust in God for today, for he is the giver and sustainer of life, letting “the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day” (Matt. 6:34). Philo articulated the essence of this conviction: “We have gladly received and are storing the boons of nature, yet we do not ascribe our preservation to any corruptible thing, but to God the Parent and Father and Savior of the world and all that is therein, who has the power and right to nourish and sustain us by means of these or without these” (Spec. leg. 2.198).

Jesus enjoined his followers to daily pray asking for “our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11), seek today and do not worry about tomorrow. In this way, he went beyond many of his Jewish contemporaries; not only should one not worry about tomorrow, but one should not pray for tomorrow’s livelihood. Jesus identified those worried about the needs of the day—food and clothing—as those “of little faith” (Matt. 6:30) comparing them even to pagan gentiles (Matt. 6:32). His radical conclusion rested upon his deep conviction that God, our heavenly Father, provides daily everything we need for the day: “Blessed be the Lord, who daily carries our burdens, the God, who saves us” (Psalm 68:19).

Spring flowers in Israel

Let’s return to Jesus and the disciples on the boat in the middle of the lake of Galilee faced by the violent and damaging easterly wind. Jesus asked his followers, “Where is your faith?” He identified his disciples as “men of little faith” (Matt. 8:26). We have seen that the phrase “those of little faith” appears in the sayings of the two Rabbi Eleazars referring to those who worry about tomorrow while they have the provision of today. Jesus used it to describe those who worry about food and clothes failing to see God, our Father, as the source for our livelihood. The disciples’ statement: “Master, we are perishing,” forgot “Blessed be the Lord, who daily carries our burdens, the God, who saves us.”

He replied to their statement in the fashion of a good Jewish sage, with a question. His teaching lies within his question. And it’s not chastising them for not recognizing him, but rather, it reminded them what he had taught them calling upon them to look at the birds of the heaven and the flowers of the field (Matt. 6:25-34). It challenged them to remember the source of their daily sustenance and life. It confronted them to remember his charge to them that their concern was to simply daily submit to God’s rule and reign in their lives, and everything else God provides (Luke 12:31). It comforted them reminding them that bad news, whether true or not (remember the storm was real!), will have no terror for the one whose heart is steadfast trusting in the Lord. It reminded them to relax because the God of the universe was their Father and Savior.

How could he sleep in the boat during the storm? Not because he was a divine superman immune to the cares of life (Luke 8:14). No, Jesus embraced his own message throughout his life. He possessed a deep faith and conviction of God’s provision for the day, and called upon his followers to do so as well. He slept in the boat because he trusted in God as the source, provision, and sustainer of his daily existence. He expressed such a deep conviction in God’s provision that the last words on his lips were “Into Your hands I entrust my spirit; You redeem me, O Lord, faithful God” (Psalm 31:5).

Too often the story of Jesus’ stilling the winds and waters of the lake of Galilee is interpreted as the act of a divine superman to be venerated, and his message has been lost. To understand his message, however, we must place his words and thought within the world of his contemporary Judaism. When we do that, his message becomes clear and gains depth: Relax! Trust God for the day and don’t worry about tomorrow. Let us not forget the message of the man in the boat.

[1] See Marc Turnage, Windows Into the Bible: Cultural and Historical Insights from the Bible for Modern Readers (Springfield, MO: Logion Press, 2016), 359-367.

[2] David Flusser, “Hillel and Jesus: Two Ways of Self-Awareness,” in Hillel and Jesus: Comparative Studies of Two Major Religious Leaders (ed. J. H. Charlesworth and L. L. Johns; Minneapolis: Fortress, Press, 1997), 72-74.

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