Progressive reflections on the lectionary #23

Mark 4:35-41: Storms and stones

Progressive reflections on the lectionary #23

There is a good pairing, in the lectionary this week, of the ‘stilling of the storm’ from Mark’s gospel, and the David and Goliath story from 1 Samuel. A ‘plain reading’ (surface level) take is easy - something along the lines of having faith, trusting that God can/will do miracles. In other words, that reading insists that faith alone is enough - that solves all our problems.

The trouble with that plain reading, as with pretty much all plain readings, is that it is demonstrably untrue. No amount of faith prevents terrible things from happenings, no amount of faith prevents the storms of life from giving us a battering, no amount of faith stops the giants of oppression and injustice overwhelming the little guy.

The consequent problem with taking this sort of approach is that it makes the stories inapplicable to the real world. Well, inapplicable to the experiential reality of our world, at any rate.

The David and Goliath story is a hangover from the ancient past of Israel - the glory days, when the bitter enemies were the Philistines, a group of people who possibly came from Crete originally - they first tried their luck in Egypt but after coming up against implacable opposition there moved on to Canaan where they set up home. The Philistines go on to become the perceived existential threat to the people of Israel.

What the story serves as, in the Hebrew scriptures, is an origin story for David - the great king of the tribe of Judah. In fact astute readers may have noted that there are, in fact two versions of David’s origins presented that almost gel, but don’t quite. In Chapter 16 we hear that David was taken into Saul’s service, and made an ‘armour bearer’ - an important position in the royal household. In chapter 17, on the other hand, he is shuttling back and forth between his home and domestic responsibilities in Bethlehem, and the royal camp where he would take food to his soldier brothers. To cut a long story short, in chapter 17 David comes to Saul’s attention (again) and fights Goliath, and then wins. Basically you can pick your David origin story, the one where he fights Goliath is the more fun one.

So again, this story is part of the set up of Israel’s history, it’s the starting point of the King David story that forms such an important part of the identity of the returning exiles.

How does this relate to the calming of the storm story?

Previously I have shown how the ‘signs’ (miracles) in Mark are sometimes read too literally - and should instead be understood as having other - less obvious - meanings. When Jesus casts out a demon, for instance, we should look for what that might represent.

As well as this, Mark, in common with other gospel writers, seeks to portray Jesus as the fulfilment of certain archetypes from the Hebrew Scriptures and perhaps elsewhere too. Rudolf Bultmann argued that Mark seeks to demonstrate Jesus as the ‘divine man’ type figure of Greek tradition, for instance.

In this particular story, one of the problems we have is that we are, largely speaking, unaware of the literature of the first century CE - outside, at least, of the Biblical stories that come from that time. This means, for instance, that we’re largely unaware of the way that storms are depicted in contemporary stories. Storms feature reasonably heavily in Greco Roman literature of the time, including at least one story, written by a Roman poet called Lucan, in which Caesar is faced with the power of a storm. In that case, even the divine emperor must accept the power of that which controls the weather.

There is a basic pattern to ancient storm stories (you may recognise it from other Biblical stories): A sudden storm whips up, winds roar and the boat is about to capsize due to the waves. Cargo is jettisoned, everyone despairs, people call out to God for help, and then ultimately, just as all hope seems lost, the hero in the story is saved somehow. That’s the basic pattern, and it applies to all the heroes, even Caesar, the divine emperor.

Mark’s version of the story, though, subverts the archetype - Jesus is never threatened. Jesus has the power to stop the storm in its tracks, it’s those around him who are frightened, he spends most of the story asleep. So the message? Jesus is greater than Caesar. Despite the obvious and apparent disparity in their strength, despite the clear vulnerability of the key character, the messiah is more powerful than the proverbial giant - the military invader. Which, funnily enough, is the same story as David and Goliath.

This blog is taken from Simon's Substack email series, to subscribe please go to https://simonjcross.substack.c...

Image: Photo by Barth Bailey on Unsplash


You must be logged in to comment.

Back to Blog