37-39 – And there was a great storm of wind, and the waves were beating against the boat, so that the boat was already filling. And he was in the stern, sleeping upon the pillow; and they were rousing him and saying to him, “Teacher! Does it not matter to you that we are being destroyed?” And having awakened, he commanded the wind and said to the sea, “Calm down! Be silent!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.
After Jesus’ words and in light of his ministry of miracles and exorcisms so far, it’s not surprising that a small flotilla might accompany them to see if more fireworks were in the offing. If that’s what they hoped, they got far more than they bargained for. One of the periodic squalls for which the Sea of Galilee is famous blew up, and it was only the words of Jesus that kept them all from finding their way to the bottom of the sea.
Jim Bailey notes that, “For Markan hearers, Jesus’ authority over the wind and waters relates him directly to God, who alone possesses such power” (page 25). He notes several instances in the Hebrew psalms where God speaks to the raging seas and the storm is stilled. I was especially taken by his reminder of the words in Psalm 107:28-29 (NRSV) – “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.”
Bailey notes that the “they” in the passage refers to sailors on the sea. I detect in Mark’s account of the Stilling of the Storm an echo of events in the Book of Jonah. A fierce storm arises. The sailors exercise all their efforts, including religious ones, to keep the ship safely afloat. The one responsible for the storm is asleep in the hold, oblivious to what is happening above decks. The sailors implore the prophet to do something. The solution, Jonah says, is to sacrifice him by throwing him overboard to appease the angry God.
In the Jonah story, the pious pagans do everything else before they toss Jonah overboard. And when the sea is calmed, they exercise faith by offering prayers of thanksgiving to the Lord. A storm, a sleeper, and pious pagans from the “other side” – it’s a delicious intertextual conversation happening here.
The pagan sailors in Jonah’s tale seem to have more faith than the disciples who have Jesus with them just as he was. “The story is told in such a way,” suggests Bailey, “to contrast the sleeping Jesus with his panicky disciples” (page 26). This is similar to the Jonah narrative, although Jesus’ calm is not the same as Jonah’s carelessness. With Mark’s emphasis on the faith of the outsider in the gospel account, the connection to Jonah’s tale seems quite strong and informative.
Oh, if only I were the first one to notice this intertextual conversation, but, alas, it was not to be. This is one of multiple examples of broad allusions to Hebrew scripture that we can find throughout the gospel accounts, and nowhere more so than in Mark’s gospel. In the case of Jonah, it is clear, according to Alistair Wilson, that based on these allusions, the story of Jonah was familiar to Christians when the author of Mark was composing the work.
Scholars differ on the type of relationship between our text and the story of Jonah. Is this a reworking of the Jonah story in a Christian key (which leads some commentators to question its historicity)? That’s probably saying too much. Is it a kind of typological story, one of several such stories that take Jonah as the template? That’s not particularly convincing. Is it an assertion, based on firsthand witness, that in Jesus we have something far greater than Jonah? That’s probably closer to the mark (pun intended).
Wilson suggests “that Mark’s narrative echoes elements of the Jonah story in order to draw a striking and ironic contrast between the rather pathetic Jonah, the reluctant herald, and Jesus, the true and faithful herald of the kingdom of God” (page 4). He notes at least a half dozen thematic connections and nearly as many verbal similarities and identities between the Jonah story and Mark’s narrative of the Stilling of the Storm. The connection is not certain, but it is strong enough to pursue.
Of course, there are differences in the stories as well. Wilson lists and discusses the most salient ones. Jonah flees away from his vocation as a prophet, and Jesus moves toward that vocation, fully aware of the costs. Within that difference is hidden a similarity for our text. Jonah is called to preach repentance to the pagan and hated Ninevites. Jesus crosses to the “other side” of the Sea of Galilee and enters Gentile (pagan) territory. The succeeding account of the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20) confirms the nature of the territory on the “other side.”
“Thus, reading the stilling of the storm narrative in light of the Jonah narrative highlights Jesus as the commissioned herald,” Wilson concludes, “who is faithful to his calling to take God’s message to the gentiles and who carries it out with determination…” (page 6).
Wilson continues by observing that God sent the storm to get Jonah’s attention. Jesus confronts the storm which is not God’s ally in the narrative but rather working in opposition to the coming of God’s kingdom. The fact that Jesus uses exorcism language to address the stormy sea makes this contrast clear. While the storm is a part of God’s creation, it is being used by the Strong One to inhibit the expansion of the kingdom into Gentile environs and must be brought to heel.
On the one hand, the storm ceases when Jonah is pitched overboard as a sacrifice to an angry deity. On the other hand, the storm ceases when Jesus speaks words of command. No sacrifice is necessary here. Wilson notes that the language about the fear of the witnesses is almost identical in the LXX account of Jonah and in Mark 4. The sailors in Jonah witnessed the power of God in a secondhand fashion. The disciples, however, got an up close and personal view of the One whom even wind and the sea obey.
“Mark presents Jesus not using a ‘Jonah typology,’” Wilson argues, “but by drawing an ironic contrast between Jonah and Jesus in a way that makes clear the pre-eminence of Jesus” (page 8).
The description is terse and dramatic. The waves are driven by the wind, overtopping the gunwales, and threatening to swamp the boat. Jesus must have been sleeping on something up off the deck. Otherwise, he would have been soaked since the stern of the boat would be lower than the bow. “The ferocious storm, for the disciples,” Bailey notes, “produces a terrifying and life-threatening situation, similar to that frequently faced by ancient people traveling on the Mediterranean Sea” (page 26).
Jacobsen notes that Mark’s audience was facing their own existential storm – life after the Jewish revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem. If Mark’s churches were indeed in Rome as tradition has it, then some of the hearers of this gospel would have witnessed the Roman triumphal parade as General Titus displayed the booty and the captive survivors taken from the burning and looting of Jerusalem.
Jacobsen’s reflection on this reality is worth quoting at length:
“The center of worship is destroyed; the cultural and religious center of the people no longer holds. Identities among Jewish Christians and other Jewish groups are all in play—and at a time when the tide of gentiles is rising. In the midst of all this chaos when the world-as-known is ending, here this Jesus is revealed not as one more therapist or miracle worker but as a revelation of God’s extraordinary cosmic purpose in the person of this ordinary Jesus, “just as he was” (verse 36) and even amenable like you and me to a good nap (verse 38).”
Jesus’ words to the wind and sea were in terms that one would use to address people overwrought with emotion. Get ahold of yourselves! Settle down! Jesus addresses the wind and the sea as persons rather than inanimate elements of a natural order. This makes sense because the Stilling of the Storm is not a “nature miracle.” It is, rather, yet another exorcism.
“Jesus doesn’t calm the storm as much as he overpowers it and brings it to heel,” writes Matt Skinner. “When he rebukes (epitimao) the violent wind and demands a still silence (phimoo) from the chaotic waters, it recalls him doing the same when he compelled unclean spirits (see the same verbs in Mark 1:25).”
“Jesus faces down the storm not with personal bromides (you have to face your fears, friends), but silences the storm and rebukes it (verse 39),” writes David Schnasa Jacobsen. “Those two verbs are exorcism words common to the rest of Jesus’ Kingdom ministry in Mark 1-3,” he observes. “The storm in verses 35-41 is cosmic, demonic, and worthy of Jesus’ scaled up efforts. As strange as it sounds,” Jacobsen argues, “Jesus is not offering therapy for our fears but an exorcism for a world out of whack.”
As Matt Skinner notes, Jesus offers no incantation or extraordinary action. He speaks and it happens. “You cover it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains,” we read in Psalm 104:7 (NRSV). “At your rebuke they flee; at the sound of your thunder, they take to flight.” The only one who manages wind and wave with a word is the Lord of all Creation.
He’s in the boat with us, just as he is. How will we respond in the midst of our own wave-tossed journeys?
References and Resources
Bailey, James L. “Fifth and Sixth Sundays after Pentecost (Mark 4:35-41 and Mark 5:21-43).” Currents in Theology and Mission 44:4 (October 2017), pp. 25-30.
Basta, Pasquale, 2020. “From Despair to Faith: The Stilling of the Storm.” Roczniki Kulturoznawcze, Vol. XI, number 3. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.18290/rkult20113-4.
Milinovich, Timothy. “The Parable of the Storm: Instruction and Demonstration in Mark 4:1-41.” Biblical Theology Bulletin Volume 45, Number 2, pages 88-98 (DOI: 10.1177/0146107915577098).
Staszak, Jean-Francois. “Other/Otherness.” https://www.unige.ch/sciences-societe/geo/files/3214/4464/7634/OtherOtherness.pdf.
Tshehla, Maarman S. “There Were Other Boats Too: A Note on Mark 4:36’s Contribution to Jesus’ Identity in Mark’s Gospel.” Scriptura 116 (2017), pp. 1-12. http://dx.doi.org/10.7833/116-1-1338.
Wilson, A. I., 2021, “In the same boat? Jonah and Jesus as wave-beaten heralds.” In die Skriflig 55(1), a2679. https://doi.org/10/4102/ids.v55i1.2670.