Monday, August 4, 2014

A Superfluous Miracle?

Below is a rough translation and some preliminary comments regarding Matthew 14:22-33, the well known story of Jesus “walking on water.” To be honest, I have often thought that this was the most useless “miracle” in all of the gospels. With no obvious upside – like a healing or exorcism or feeding the masses – the miracle here simply seems to be a demonstration that Jesus is “the son of God” and has the ability to do things that others have too much doubt to do. I struggle with that perception because it would seem to be pretty clear by now that Jesus is unlike everyone else. More troubling to me is the idea that Jesus just did some great performance in order to prove to people that he was capable of miracles. That seems to be an unworthy raison d'être for miracles, to me. I am not saying that every miracle needs to serve a utilitarian purpose that is evident to me in order for me to find meaning in it. But, I do not sense – from the general direction of the gospel – that miracles are meant to be simple demonstrative proof of Jesus’ sonship of God. 

After looking at this text verse-by-verse, I will re-visit this question that I have regarding the meaning and purpose of this particular miracle.

22 Καὶ εὐθέως ἠνάγκασεν τοὺς μαθητὰς ἐμβῆναι εἰς τὸ πλοῖον καὶ προάγειν 
αὐτὸν εἰς τὸ πέραν, ἕως οὗ ἀπολύσῃ τοὺς ὄχλους. 
And immediately he forced the disciples to jump into the boat and to go before him to the other side, until he might dismiss the crowd.
ἠνάγκασεν: AAI 3s, ἀναγκάζω, 1) to necessitate, compel, drive to, constrain 
ἐμβῆναι: AAInf, ἐμβάλλω, 1) to throw in, cast into 
προάγειν: PAInf, προάγω, 1) to lead forward, lead forth  
ἀπολύσῃ: AASubj 3s, ἀπολύω, 1) to set free  2) to let go, dismiss, (to detain no longer)
1. The language in this verse is curious and forceful.
a. Jesus “forced” (ἠνάγκασεν, see definition) the disciples.
b. He forced them to “jump in” the boat (ἐμβῆναι means “to throw in”, but since this is active and does not have an object, I am using “to jump in”).
c. One expects a ἵνα, “in order that he might dismiss the crowd,” but instead there is an ἕως, “until he might dismiss the crowd.”  I wonder if this is a longer and more difficult process than meets the eye. It is my contention (see last week’s post) that the crowd may well have gathered with violent intentions, following the senseless execution of John the Baptizer.
2. What might be the point here? If the crowd had intentions of responding to Herod’s act of killing John with violence, maybe Jesus needs to separate the disciples – especially that hotheaded Simon Peter and those “Sons of Thunder” James and John – in order to disperse the crowd. Or, maybe someone just has to get the departure going.
3. An interpretive question: Does the disciples’ quick and forced departure mark the end of the previous story? Does it simply set up the following story? Does it bridge the stories of the feeding of the 5,000+ and the walk on water during a storm?

23 καὶ ἀπολύσας τοὺς ὄχλους ἀνέβη εἰς τὸ ὄρος κατ' ἰδίαν προσεύξασθαι. 
ὀψίας δὲ γενομένης μόνος ἦν ἐκεῖ. 
And having dismissed the crowd, he went up into the mountain by himself to pray. Yet having become evening he was alone there.
ἀπολύσας: AAPart nsm, ἀπολύω, 1) to set free  2) to let go, dismiss
ἀνέβη: AAI 3s, ἀναβαίνω, 1) ascend  1a) to go up  
προσεύξασθαι: AMInf, προσεύχομαι, 1) to offer prayers, to pray 
γενομένης: AMPart gsf, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being 
1. The phrase “by himself” (κατ' ἰδίαν) is repeated from v.13 when Jesus “withdrew by boat by himself to a solitary place.” 
2. The phrase “having become evening” (ὀψίας δὲ γενομένης) is also repeated from v.15 of the previous story.
3. I wonder what the significance of Jesus’ solitude is to this story. His first solitude was interrupted by the crowd. This one seems to end when it ends. Jesus’ first withdrawal into solitude was prompted by the news of John the Baptizer’s death. Is that still the motive?

24  τὸ δὲ πλοῖον ἤδη σταδίους πολλοὺς ἀπὸ τῆς γῆς ἀπεῖχεν, βασανιζόμενον 
ὑπὸ τῶν κυμάτων, ἦν γὰρ ἐναντίος ὁ ἄνεμος. 
Yet the boat now was holding back many stadia from the land, being battered by the waves, for the wind was contrary.
ἀπεῖχεν: IAI 3s, ἀπέχω, 1) have  1a) to hold back, keep off, prevent
βασανιζόμενον: PPPart nsn, βασανίζω, 1) to test (metals) by the touchstone…5) to be harassed, 5a) of those who at sea are struggling with a head wind 
ἦν: IAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. The most foolish thing to do in a storm at sea, of course, it to try to land the boat and risk being battered by the rocks on the shore rather than the waves.

25 τετάρτῃ δὲ φυλακῇ τῆς νυκτὸς ἦλθεν πρὸς αὐτοὺς περιπατῶν ἐπὶ τὴν 
θάλασσαν. 
Yet in the fourth watch of the night he came to them walking on the sea.
ἦλθεν: AAI 3s, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come 
περιπατῶν: PAPart nsm, περιπατέω, 1) to walk 
1. A “behold” or “Shazam!” or something like would be nice here to signify that people (even Jesus) don’t come walking across water every day.

2. A storm at sea is one of the most compelling symbols of chaos for sea-faring folk. It is THE dreaded possibility, where nothing is stable and everything is in flux. Something that might be stable – a rock, etc. – would actually be a threat in a storm because the storm takes away the ability to navigate toward stability. I wonder if the storm here is a symbol for the chaotic moment for the disciples following John’s senseless execution.   

26οἱ δὲ μαθηταὶ ἰδόντες αὐτὸν ἐπὶ τῆς θαλάσσης περιπατοῦντα 
ἐταράχθησαν λέγοντες ὅτι Φάντασμά ἐστιν, καὶ ἀπὸ τοῦ φόβου ἔκραξαν. 
Then the disciples seeing him on the sea walking were troubled saying, “It is a Phantasm,” and they squawked out from the fear.
ἰδόντες: AAPart npm, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes 
περιπατοῦντα: PAPart asm, περιπατέω, 1) to walk
ἐταράχθησαν: API 3p, ταράσσω, 1) to agitate, trouble (a thing, by the movement of its parts to and fro)  1a) to cause one inward commotion,
λέγοντες: PAPart npm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
ἔκραξαν: AAI 3p, κράζω, 1) to croak  1a) of the cry of a raven  1b) hence, to cry out, cry aloud, vociferate
1. A further definition of κράζω implies that it might have started out as an onomatopoeia, to mimic the croak of a raven. I think “squawk” is a close English equivalent, implying panic that loses all dignity.

27εὐθὺς δὲ ἐλάλησεν [ὁ Ἰησοῦς] αὐτοῖς λέγων, Θαρσεῖτε, ἐγώ εἰμι: μὴ 
φοβεῖσθε.
Then immediately [Jesus] spoke to them saying, “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afeared.”
ἐλάλησεν: AAI 3s, λαλέω, 1) to utter a voice or emit a sound 
λέγων: PAPart nsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
Θαρσεῖτε: PAImpv 2p, θαρσέω,  (in NT only in imperative) be of good courage! take courage! cheer up! take heart! feel confidence!
εἰμι: PAI 1s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
φοβεῖσθε: PMImpv 2p, φοβέωto terrify, frighten
1. ἐγώ εἰμι often appears in the “I am” sayings, but ἐγώ can also be the nominative predicate of the verb εἰμι; hence “It is I.” 

28 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ αὐτῷ  Πέτρος εἶπεν, Κύριε, εἰ σὺ εἶ, κέλευσόν με ἐλθεῖν 
πρὸς σὲ ἐπὶ τὰ ὕδατα: 
Then having answered to him, Peter said, “Lord, if it is you, order me to come to you into the water.”
ἀποκριθεὶς: APPart nsm, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
εἶ: PAI 2s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
κέλευσόν: AAImpv 2p, κελεύω, 1) to command, to order
ἐλθεῖν: AAInf, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come 

1. I had originally noted here that Peter makes Jesus indicative “It is I” conditional with “If it is you.” Now I remember how Paul Achtemeier has said that the ‘εἰ’ followed by an indicative verb (as here, with εἰμί) should be “since,” not “if.”
2. The verb “to order” (κελεύω) is repeated from v.19 in the previous story, when Jesus ordered the crowd to sit before the feeding of the 5,000+.
3. There is a bit of irony that Peter uses an imperative verb to command Jesus to command him.
4. What in THE world would compel someone in a boat in a storm in the sea to say to Jesus at this point, “Command me to come to you”? 

29  δὲ εἶπεν, Ἐλθέ. καὶ καταβὰς ἀπὸ τοῦ πλοίου [ὁ] Πέτρος περιεπάτησεν 
ἐπὶ τὰ ὕδατα καὶ ἦλθεν πρὸς τὸν Ἰησοῦν. 
Then he said, “Come.” And having climbed from the boat Peter walked on the water and came to Jesus.”
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
Ἐλθέ: AAImpv 2s, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come 
καταβὰς: AAPart nsm, καταβαίνω, 1) to go down, come down, descend  1a) the place from which one has come down from 
περιεπάτησεν: AAI 3s, περιπατέω, 1) to walk 
ἦλθεν: AAI 3s, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come 

30 βλέπων δὲ τὸν ἄνεμον [ἰσχυρὸν] ἐφοβήθη, καὶ ἀρξάμενος 
καταποντίζεσθαι ἔκραξεν λέγων, Κύριε, σῶσόν με. 
Yet having seen the [forceful] wind he was afeared, and having begun to sink he squawked saying, “Lord, save me.”
βλέπων: PAPart nsm, βλέπω, 1) to see, discern, of the bodily eye
ἐφοβήθη: API 3s, φοβέωto terrify, frighten
ἀρξάμενος: AMPart nsm, ἄρχω, 1) to be chief, to lead, to rule
καταποντίζεσθαι: PPInf, καταποντίζω 1. to throw into the sea, passive to be plunged or drowned therein. 2. to sink down in the sea.
ἔκραξεν: AAI 3s, κράζω, 1) to croak  1a) of the cry of a raven  1b) hence, to cry out, cry aloud, vociferate
λέγων: PAPart nsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
σῶσόν: AAImpv 2s, σῴζω, 1) to save, keep safe and sound, to rescue from danger or destruction

31 εὐθέως δὲ  Ἰησοῦς ἐκτείνας τὴν χεῖρα ἐπελάβετο αὐτοῦ καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ, 
Ὀλιγόπιστε, εἰς τί ἐδίστασας; 
Yet immediately Jesus having stretched out his hand grabbed and says to him, “You of little faith, why did you waver?”
ἐκτείνας: AAPart nsm, ἐκτείνω, 1) to stretch out, stretch forth, 1a) over, towards, against one
ἐπελάβετο: AMI 3s, ἐπιλαμβάνομαι, 1) to take in addition, to lay hold of, take possession of, overtake, attain, attain to; in NT only in middle to hold one's self on by, lay hold of, with or without violence.
λέγει: PAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἐδίστασας: AAI 2s, διστάζω, 1) to doubt, waiver 
1. The phrase, “having stretched out the hand laid hold of him” is awkward. One decision a translator needs to make is what to do with the αὐτοῦ.
a. Is it possessive and does it refer to Jesus’ hand? If so, it could read “Having stretched out his [Jesus’] hand grabbed and says to him …”  
b. Or, does it refer to Peter as the object of the preposition “ἐπελάβετο”? (There are other occasions when ἐπελάβετο takes the genitive as its object.) In that case, it could read, “having stretched forth the hand, laid hold of him and says to him,” as Young’s Literal Translation does.
2. The verb “waver” (δι-στάζω) literally means ‘to stand in two ways.’ I love the parallel between this question and a question posed by Elijah in I Kings 18:21 Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.”

32 καὶ ἀναβάντων αὐτῶν εἰς τὸ πλοῖον ἐκόπασεν  ἄνεμος. 
And they having climbed up into the boat, the wind ceased.
ἀναβάντων: AAPart gpm, ἀναβαίνω, 1) ascend  1a) to go up 
ἐκόπασεν: AAI 3s, κοπάζω, 1) to grow weary or tired 2) to cease from violence, cease raging

33 οἱ δὲ ἐν τῷ πλοίῳ προσεκύνησαν αὐτῷ λέγοντες, Ἀληθῶς θεοῦ υἱὸς εἶ. 
Then the ones in the boat bowed to him saying, “Truly he is a son of God.”
προσεκύνησαν: AAI 3p, προσκυνέω, 1) to kiss the hand to (towards) one, in token of reverence  … 3) in the NT by kneeling or prostration to do homage (to one) or make  obeisance, whether in order to express respect or to make supplication
λέγοντες: PAPart npm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
εἶ: PAI 2s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. For comparison’s sake, the Centurion at the cross says, Ἀληθῶς θεοῦ υἱὸς ἦν οὗτος, “truly this one was a son of God,” a very similar expression to what the disciples say, but in the past tense.
2. In neither expression is the definite article “the son of God” used. It is indefinite, “a son of God.”

The story ends with those in the boat claiming that Jesus is truly a son of God, reinforcing the notion that the purpose of this miracle (if indeed a miracle needs to show a purpose to the likes of me) is to demonstrate Jesus’ sonship of God.

I wonder if something else is afoot. Maybe this story is about the disciples. Certainly that is the case for Mark’s version (c.6), where the story shows the disciples failure (once again). For Mark, Peter does not assert himself, but all of them are frightened by Jesus and they do not conclude with claiming Jesus as a son of God. Rather, the narrator concludes, “And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”

Since Matthew receives this story from Mark, but lacks Mark’s ongoing harsh criticism of the disciples’ utter failures, perhaps Matthew is refocusing this story as part of the aftermath of John’s execution. While Mark and Matthew follow the same pattern – John’s execution; the feeding of the 5,000+; Jesus walking on the water – Mark interrupts that pattern by bracketing John’s execution with the disciples’ missionary journey. After hearing about John’s death, the disciples report about their journey, then Jesus invites them to go to the deserted place. For Mark, the immediate context of the feeding story, then, is not John’s death, but the disciples’ journey.

Matthew changes this context. It seems to me that the whole of c.14 is played out in the shadow of John’s death. John’s death is why Jesus goes to the deserted place; John’s death is why the crowd goes also; John’s death is why Jesus is gut-wrenched that they are like sheep without a shepherd; John’s death is why Jesus forcefully makes the disciples leave until he can disperse the crowd.

I suspect that the disciples are chief among those who are fueling the fires of violent response and this story is a way for them to realize their own wavering impotence next to Jesus’ faith-filled power. It causes me to wonder about the interplay between certainty and fear, that may be the difference between a God-inspired movement and a mob.

Much to chew on as the week progresses. 

8 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for the time and effort you put into these translations. They are really helpful and give me a lot to think about!

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  2. Really great insightful stuff, and very good questions about the text! Thanks1

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  3. Lara and Kevin,
    Thanks for your gracious and encouraging comments! (I start to wonder about the value of this blog sometimes when the crickets are chirping). Any input you have to offer would always be welcomed!
    Thanks again,
    Mark

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  4. I have to echo their appreciation. As one who has not (yet) studied Greek, I find your translations and comments very helpful and frequently thought-provoking. Thank you!

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  5. As always - thank you for your exegesis, your hunches & your pastoral approach to the text. Best wishes this Sunday on your installation at St.Mark's!

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  6. Thank you for your powerful insights.

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  7. I discovered your blog through Text Week. I am in a lectionary class and really appreciate your comments and insights. I put LBALI on my favorites list, but found that it didn't update automatically. Do I need to subscribe or sign up for that to happen? Not a tech expert obviously!

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  8. Hi Bex,
    Hmm... I'm not sure. Since I am not an end user, I don't have much familiarity with that stuff either. I think if you hit the 'join this site' button on my sidebar (under the mug), you should get each post sent to your email. I think. Please let me know if that works.
    Meanwhile, welcome! And thanks for the note.

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