Richard W. Coffen | 10 January 2023 |
The Promised Land! It sits atop what once was called the Great Rift Valley. Here one tectonic plate is subducting (slipping under) the other. And on the top of this seam of plates, the Promised Land nestles, with its two lakes (the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea) and a river (the Jordan).
The Jordan floods from the melting snow and ice on Mt. Hermon, some 60 miles distant, as well as from natural springs scattered along the way. People of the Promised Land could bucket water from the river, the lake, and pull water from the Western Aquifer Basin, which serves an area of 3,457 to 5,470 square miles.
These sources have provided drinking water for thousands of people for thousands of years. During ancient times, of course, they had no knowledge of bacterial infections, and, according to the Talmud, many died from dysentery.
Fishing in Galilee
The Sea of Galilee has provided food for generations of people. At least ten species of fish have been caught commercially in its waters, such as the longheaded barbel, and musht (tilapia—the so-called St. Peter’s fish), as well as the Kinneret sardine, eaten pickled or salted. Fish were caught with either a seine net, thrown from shore, or a trammel net, tossed out of boats in the open waters.
Fishing was considered dangerous because the Sea of Galilee was popularly regarded as Satan’s lair. Also, it was hard work.
It had been a busy day. Jesus was physically and emotionally drained. Fortuitously, a fishing boat had been “moored” onto the rocky shore near Capernaum. The boat had been constructed from 10 different woods. A poor fisherman—perhaps Peter’s father—had overseen its construction, and owned it. Its interior had an area of approximately 200 square feet.
Jesus clambered aboard, avoiding knocking his knees or ankles on the rim. In the stern lay an amassed fishing net and a musty-smelling cushion. Jesus plunked down on both. Immediately he was snoring. Scripture says that “As he got into the boat, his disciples followed” (Matthew 8:23, NET).
Rocky, Andy, Jim, and John (you know them by other names) manned the oars, used mainly for steering but also for locomotion in a pinch. Tom walked around the beached boat, getting his feet and shins wet. His reluctance to hop aboard provoked Rocky. “Tom, do you plan to board or just wash your feet?”
“Gonna be overcrowded, Rocky.”
“Climb in, Tom, for crying out loud!”
Phil, Bart, Matt, Jake, and Simon tucked the hems of their robes under their waistbands and hoisted their weary bodies into the boat. Jude and Jud strained as they pushed the vessel into the lapping water. With effort, the two managed to hoist themselves into the fishing boat, joining the others. With all 13 aboard, the 3-by-5-foot area per man felt almost adequate! The entire boat was a mere 4 feet deep, 7 ½ feet wide, and 27 feet long.
It was sunset. However, if lucky, they’d reach the other side of the lake in a few hours. It was only eight miles across at most. However, Rocky, Andy, Jim, and John knew the moods of Lake Galilee. Because of its elevation of 209 feet below sea level and because of the encircling hills, cold winds often gushed down the mountainsides and clashed with the warmer air kissing the water. Intense squalls resulted.
Sure enough, an unwanted wind gusted down the hillsides, pouring across the lake. Dark clouds and nearly impenetrable fog gained almost instant intensity. Waves crested over the 4-foot sidewalls of the boat. Scripture records that “a great storm developed on the sea so that the waves began to swamp the boat” (Matthew 8:24, NET). Rocky, Andy, Jim, and John strained at the oars, trying to keep the little barque headed in the proper direction.
Soon, everyone aboard was sopping wet. Waves roared over the prow. Then over the windward side. Now over the leeward side! The boat lurched like a breeching whale. First, the bow would thrust skyward. Then it would plunge. Water from sometimes-placid Galilee sloshed about on the floor of the boat. According to Luke’s description of the event, “the boat started filling up with water” (Luke 8:23, NET).
Phil found a clay jar swishing about in the bottom of the boat that had contained chum. He grabbed it and began to bail. Still, the water sloshing on the floor kept rising. It was ankle-deep. Then shin-deep. Would it reach their waists? Phil’s efforts were nearly fruitless. Soon the water lurked mere inches below the rails of the little ship.
Rocky, Andy, Jim, and John did their best manning the oars, but their usually hardened and calloused hands were raw—oozing blood with each draw of the oars. Even their best efforts seemed futile in the darkness. Each passenger clung to the top edge of the sidewalls. Knuckles were white. Soon fingers began to hurt, and hands cramped.
Where Is Jesus?
His presence came to mind first with Tom. Was Jesus OK? Afraid? What? “He was asleep” (Matthew 8:24, NET). Perhaps the pitching of the boat on the surf was like Mary’s rocking him as a baby some 30 years earlier. Perhaps he even let out a snore, which caught their otherwise-distracted attention.
A group of those soaked-to-the-skin sailors “came and woke him” (Matthew 8:25, NET). It may have taken several tries! Jesus, also doused to the skin, shook the sleep from his head. “Huh? What is it?” The word Matthew used here, “awoke,” (Greek: egeίro) denoted rousing—even rousing from the dead. Perhaps that’s how it seemed there on that bobbing and plunging boat! How could Jesus sleep through it?
The scared-out-of-their-wits disciples shouted above the roar of the wind and waves, “Lord, save us! We are about to die!” (Matthew 8:25, NET). That’s how the situation looked as Rocky, Andy, Jim, and John heroically pulled on the oars and as Phil scooped more water into the jug and flung it (the water, not the jug!) overboard.
Jesus, leaning on an elbow and yawning, “said to them, ‘Why are you cowardly, you people of little faith?’” (Matthew 8:26, NET). He used two special descriptors of his sopping wet, scared-to-death disciples. The first was deilós, a term used by Plato, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Theocritus that denoted timidness at best and cowardliness at worst. The second word was oligópistos, a compound word consisting of “small” and “faith” or “trust.” Jesus coined this term. Amid that roaring storm with that boat overloaded with passengers and lake water, Jesus, apparently not happy for having been so rudely awakened, hurled two insults at his students!
While the 26-foot-by-8-foot-by-4-foot boat bobbed like a cork, Jesus “arose, and rebuked the winds and the sea” (Matthew 8:26, NET). It had to be difficult to stand while the boat pitched like a bucking bronco. He spoke more gently to the wind and water than he did to the petrified disciples who had awakened him. The Greek word rendered “rebuked” (epitimáo) actually had overtones of respect and could be translated “firmly but gently directed.”
He commanded: “Peace, be still” (Mark 4:39). Jesus used just two words. Siopáō commonly described quietness. It denoted Zechariah’s dumbness after doubting Gabriel’s message. The verb can be rendered “hush.” Phimóō as a noun originally referred to the bridle used to control a horse. As a verb, it could denote something like being dumbstruck. In short, Jesus commanded the wind and waves as though they were sentient: “Shush! Whoa!”
Following Jesus’ instruction to the wind and lake, “it was dead calm” (Matthew 8:26, NET). It seems that the next thing the disciples knew, the flat bottom of the boat scraped the shore on “the other side of the lake, . . . the region of the Gerasenes” (Mark 5:1, NET).
In the daily devotional book by John Bradshaw, The Hope of Glory, he says that faith or trust “believes God will do what He says He will do” (p. 338). Bradshaw’s emphasis was on the importance of faith itself. We need to believe—trust in God. “Without faith it is impossible to please” God (Hebrews 11:6, NET).
That, of course, is a good emphasis, but does it logically follow the lesson inherent in the story told in all the synoptic gospels? I think not. Few of us have the gargantuan faith of George Müller, who refused to make known the needs of his orphanages, except to God.
The lesson to be learned, as I read the biblical story, is that despite the smallness of our faith (even though it be the size of a mustard seed [Luke 17:6]), God will save us—the greatest feat of all. Tiny faith can remove mountains of genetics. It can calm storms resulting from childhood rearing.
For us today those mountains may not be physical crags; the storms may not entail literal swells. But they’re real nonetheless. And we don’t need giant amounts of faith to overcome them. Jesus isn’t scolding us for our tiny amount of faith, because he has done the hardest work of all: saving us, especially from ourselves.
Richard W. Coffen is a retired vice president of editorial services at Review and Herald Publishing Association. He writes from Green Valley, Arizona.