By Ardel Canaday–
At last, after setting the table with Parts 7 and 8 where I address the theological significance of Mark’s literary sandwich spanning 6:6b-44 wherein he makes use of many allusions to the Old Testament, I now offer comments upon Mark’s noteworthy Old Testament allusions in 6:45-52.
As I indicated in Part 6, when I promised to address this passage, I told of how while in the very act of teaching my eyes and ears would suddenly open to behold something in the biblical text for the first time. It was many years ago, but I remember it vividly. While teaching on Mark 6:45-52, I was teasing out some of the Old Testament allusions within the passage. One insightful student who was tracking well with me raised his hand to ask, “What about Mark’s statement, “Jesus ‘intended to pass by them,’ is it possible that this is an allusion to the same kind of statements as in passages like Exodus 33 and 1 Kings 19 when the Lord tells Moses and Elijah that he will ‘pass by them’ as he reveals himself to them on Mount Sinai?” To my shame, I had to acknowledge that while it certainly seemed likely, I would have to study the matter, for I had failed to catch the Old Testament allusion. I returned to class the next session to affirm that my student, whose name is Phil, had become my teacher and to thank him for doing so.
In addition to literary structural features that link the episode narrated in 6:45-52 with what precedes, not to mention with what follows, Mark makes the connection explicit when he explains that after the Twelve had struggled for a long time to make progress by rowing their boat against a strong wind, Jesus came near them by walking upon the sea, announcing his presence to console them, and then “climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened” (6:52). The disciples’ response of astonishment exhibits their failure to understand Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the multitude in the wilderness, because their hearts were hardened. For they failed to understand that by miraculously feeding the multitude in the wilderness Jesus was revealing himself as the Shepherd-King as he purposefully engaged a re-dramatization of the miraculous feeding of Israel with manna long ago in the wilderness. By this act of re-dramatizing the miraculous feeding of Israel Jesus was disclosing that he is much more than a Shepherd-King like all those who foreshadowed him, including Moses, Joshua, David, and his kingly line. Indeed, Jesus reveals himself as the messianic Shepherd-King who inaugurates the latter day exodus foreshadowed by the exodus of old, but for all who have eyes that lift upward from the shadows to see him who cast the shadows, they will understand what the disciples failed to apprehend. Those with eyes that truly see and ears to hear Old Testament echoes will recognize that Jesus’ actions, born out of compassion, of miraculously feeding the multitude in the wilderness and of treading upon the wind-tossed sea and stilling the wind upon arrival at his disciples’ boat, that these actions reveal that he is Yahweh himself. For the one who tends his flock like a shepherd and who gathers the lambs in his arms and bears them close to his heart while gently leading those who have young is none other than Yahweh (Isaiah 40:10-11). Likewise, for the one whose way, announced long ago by the prophet Isaiah (cf. Mark 1:1-3), entails re-dramatization of passage through the sea by treading upon the waters as he makes a path upon the sea, is no mere Shepherd-King like all others but is none other than Yahweh (cf. Isaiah 51:9-10; 43:15-17). This is what the disciples’ hardened hearts prevented them from understanding even after Jesus displayed right before their eyes Yahweh’s strong arm of salvation both in the wilderness feeding and in his treading upon the sea. This, then, brings us to the focal point of this installment, the various Old Testament allusions embedded within Mark 6:45-52.
Mark indicates that Jesus purposefully bids his disciples to get into the boat and to depart for the other side of the sea over to Bethsaida, for he has his own agenda to fulfill. First, like Moses, he ascends a mountain to speak with God and then late into the night Jesus approaches toward the vessel holding the Twelve as they labor to make headway against a powerful wind in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus’ purpose on this occasion upon the sea is not to rescue the Twelve from drowning, for though the wind requires that they strain hard at the oars, they seem not to be in any imminent danger. Nevertheless, Mark indicates that Jesus makes his way across the sea on foot toward his disciples because he sees them “straining at the oars, because the wind was against them” (6:48). Because the narrative features the distress of the Twelve as the reason Jesus approaches the boat, the episode evocatively states, “he intended to pass by them” (6:48). Mark subtly indicates that Jesus intends to make his disciples eyewitnesses of his epiphany by making his authority visible to the Twelve as he passes by to assure them of his presence.
As with his literary sandwich that immediately precedes 6:45-52, again, Mark’s narrative abounds with allusions to the Old Testament, particularly to portions of Isaiah the prophet but also to diverse portions elsewhere. Since Mark explicitly links Jesus’ treading upon the sea with his feeding the multitude in the wilderness it is fitting to take note of the prominent place held by themes emerging from Isaiah such as the wilderness (Isaiah 40:3; 43:19-20), the shepherd feeding the sheep (40:11), divine authority over the seas (43:2, 15-16), admonition “fear not” (35:4; 41:10); “I am” or “I am he” (41:4; 43:10, 13, 25) and deafness and blindness (42:16, 18, 20; 43:8) in Mark 6:53-56. Thus, if, as many have demonstrated that the evangelist is meditating upon the ancient prophet and using his text to expound the good news “as it was written in Isaiah the prophet” (Mark 1:1-2), so it should come as no surprise that Isaiah 40:11 prominently informs Mark’s understanding of Jesus’ miraculous feeding in the wilderness and that another portion of Isaiah, this time Isaiah 43:16, functions as the aperture through which diverse portions of Scripture may be seen as fulfilled when Jesus treads upon the sea as narrated in Mark 6:45-52. The verse is wrapped within a rich context.
“I am the Lord, your Holy One,
Israel’s Creator, your King.”
This is what the Lord says—
he who made a way through the sea,
a path through the mighty waters,
who drew out the chariots and horses,
the army and reinforcements together,
and they lay there, never to rise again,
extinguished, snuffed out like a wick:
“Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland,
to give drink to my people, my chosen,
the people I formed for myself
that they may proclaim my praise . . .” (Isaiah 43:15-21; cf. 51:10).[i]
True, Mark does not expressly cite this passage, though the prophet’s themes seem to guide the evangelist’s account concerning the Christ, especially as he inaugurates the new exodus theme of Isaiah. Nor does Mark explicitly cite any other Old Testament passage. Yet, as argued in the two previous installments in this series, Mark’s account provides numerous evocative allusions to the Old Testament. As already stated, Mark’s narratives concerning the miraculous feeding and Jesus’ trampling upon the sea are rich with allusions to Scripture. For example, anyone who knows the Old Testament reasonably well will likely hear dual echoes from Job’s reply to Bildad when he speaks of God—“He alone . . . treads on the waves of the sea [περιπατω̂ν ὡς ἐπʼ ἐδάφους ἐπὶ θαλάσσης]. . . . He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted. When he passes me [ἐὰν ὑπερβῇ με], I cannot see him; when he goes by [ἐὰν παρέλθῃ με], I cannot perceive him” (Job 9:8, 10-11). Again, Mark’s account of Jesus walking upon the sea evokes other Old Testament allusions. Subtle though Mark’s phrase surely is, “he intended to pass by them” (ἤθελεν παρελθεῖν αὐτούς) evokes allusion not only to Job 9:11 but also to two prominent theophanies: one to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 33:19-33) and one to Elijah on the same mountain (1 Kings 19:11). Mark’s account concerning Christ, who “intended to pass by” his disciples in the middle of the sea, echoes both of these accounts of epiphanies that occurred with these prominent Old Testament characters, thus allusively foreshadowing the greater epiphany which Mark later recounts in his narrative concerning the Mount of Transfiguration when the epiphanic cloud on the mountain envelopes Moses and Elijah as they speak with Jesus who is transfigured in the presence of Peter, James, and John. So, long ago, after Moses has requested, “Now show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18), the Lord instructs him, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by [ἡνίκα δʼ ἂν παρέλθῃ μου ἡ δόξα], I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by [ἕως ἂν παρέλθω]” (Exodus 33:21-22). Once again, long ago, Elijah took refuge in a cave on Mount Sinai (Horeb), away from Ahab and Jezebel, when the Word of the Lord came to instruct him, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by [ἰδοὺ παρελεύσεται κύριος]” (1 Kings 19:11).
Such an allusion to theophanies that appeared first to Moses and later to Elijah should hardly be surprising following the earlier evocative references to Moses in the literary sandwich’s outer narrative (Mark 6:6b-13; 30-44 and the evocation of the Ahab-Jezebel-Elijah narrative within the large sandwich inset of 6:14-29. How like Mark to embed this allusive whisper, “he intended to pass by them,” as an echo of the theophany on Mount Horeb that “passed by” fearful Elijah not in the powerful wind nor in the earthquake that followed nor even in the subsequent fire but in the “gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:11-13). Likewise, given the exodus imagery of Isaiah 43:16, how fitting is the allusion to the theophany on Mount Horeb when the Lord’s “glory passes by” Moses who craves reassurance of the Lord’s presence (Exodus 33:12-23).
Similar to the theophanies that Moses and Elijah experienced long ago, so Jesus presents a theophanic revelation of himself by treading upon the waves of the sea tossed about with a violent wind. This theophany brings to mind an earlier epiphanic revelation when Jesus, who was being rocked while sleeping upon a cushion, was awakened from his slumber to calm the wind and waves with a rebuke aptly cast to demons (cf. Mark 4:39 & 1:25, ἐπιτιμάω, φιμόω). On that occasion Jesus’ divine action terrified Twelve who were already frightened by the wind, for they asked, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (4:41). Now, when Jesus provides a clear answer to his disciples’ question about his identity in the theophanic act of passing by the Twelve in the boat as the strong winds howl and impair their rowing, instead of recognizing him when they see him, again they cry out in terror. Out of the wind and as he treads upon the wind-tossed waves of the sea Jesus speaks words tailor-made for a theophany: “Take heart! I am! Fear not!”
Because the emphatic “I am” (ἐγώ εἰμι, 6:50) is ambiguous, it is conceivable that it may bear its normal sense, “It is I, Jesus.” Yet, because of his earlier mention of Jesus’ communication with God on the mountain (6:46) and that Jesus discloses himself to the Twelve in keeping with theophanic revelations of the Old Testament, it is likely that Jesus’ “I am” is an echo of the “I am who I am” of Exodus 3:14 refracted through the prophet Isaiah on whom Mark is meditating. For Jesus’ admonitions—“take courage” and “fear not”—which bracket “I am,” are regular elements of divine self-revelation (see Isaiah 41:4-6; 43:1-3, 10-13; 44:2-851:7-11). Suddenly the wind goes calm when Jesus climbs into the boat. Jesus’ actions astonish the Twelve (cf. 5:42). Because they fail to observe in Jesus’ actions as foreshadowed by dramatizations embedded within the Old Testament Scriptures, they do not have the framework or categories for comprehending Jesus’ presence within the boat in the middle of the sea and the wind’s sudden cessation.
Mark explains that the disciples “were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened” (6:51-52). This explanation itself, more evocative and enigmatic than explicative, preserves for Mark’s readers in literary form the need to puzzle out the connection between Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the multitude and his trampling upon the wind-tossed waves of the sea. Mark’s linkage requires readers to recognize that Jesus’ miraculous actions function symbolically as much as his parables do. Thus, if the disciples had recognized that Jesus’ miraculous multiplication of the loaves in the wilderness revealed him as the Shepherd-King foreshadowed by Moses, by Joshua, by David and by Israel’s line of kings, they would have acknowledged Jesus as Yahweh-Shepherd when he was about to pass by them while walking upon the sea.
Consequently, that Mark attributes their failure to “hardness of heart” indicates that at this point in Jesus’ ministry his disciples, though devoted to following him, are not substantially different from opponents who are allied against him, particularly Herodians and Pharisees (3:6), which accounts for Jesus’ urgent warning: “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod,” a rebuke that triggered another expression of misunderstanding (8:14-16) to which Jesus responds with his series of interrogatives: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?” (8:17-21). So, when the Twelve persist in their misunderstanding concerning the loaves, even after a second miraculous multiplication of loaves for a large multitude (8:1-13), once again when they are in a familiar setting, within a boat upon the sea, Jesus’ interrogatives expose the fact that their misunderstanding is not a matter of intellectual memory but of faith (8:14-21). For the disciples correctly recall that from five loaves Jesus fed the vast multitude and that they gathered twelve basketfuls of bread pieces after the first wilderness feeding (8:19) and seven basketfuls after the second miraculous feeding (8:20). Their misunderstanding is failure to believe that Jesus is Yahweh, God’s Son.
Mark 6:45-52 is instructive for us today because if we would see Jesus correctly and acknowledge him rightly, our faith must transcend that of the Twelve who failed to consider his parabolic miracles and deeds within the proper framework, namely, the Old Testament Scriptures. Indeed, Jesus is God, but if we desire to acknowledge him rightly, we are obliged to recognize him as the one who fulfills Old Testament foreshadows, even as Yahweh himself who alone, has the power to rain down bread from heaven or to multiply five loaves large enough for a young lad to feed a multitude of 5000 and still have twelve basketfuls of leftovers and has authority both to tread upon wind-swept waves of the sea and to order the sea to be suddenly calm. Indeed, Jesus is Yahweh, the “I am” who fulfills the latter day exodus foreshadowed and foretold by the Law and the Prophets, distinctively so by Isaiah.
1 Allusion to Psalm 77:16-20 is also likely: “The waters saw you, God, the waters saw you and writhed; the very depths were convulsed. The clouds poured down water, the heavens resounded with thunder; your arrows flashed back and forth. Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind, your lightning lit up the world; the earth trembled and quaked. Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen. You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.”