I’ve always had a bit of apprehension swimming in large bodies of water, like lakes or oceans. Especially if the water is dark and cold. I grew up in Hawaii, where there are many almost crystal-clear bays and the water is generally around 80 degrees, but even there, especially in the winter, the surf could rise and become extremely threatening. Finding out I spent half my childhood in the Aloha state, people sometimes ask me why I never surfed, but the reason is it is flat-out dangerous. A person can get seriously hurt surfing, and those of us who lived there knew it firsthand.
The ancient Israelites were not a seafaring people, and their apprehension about the water is reflected in the Scriptures. For example, we find out that in heaven, there will be no more sea (Rev 21:1). That’s an Israelite heaven, not a Polynesian one, for sure! Be that as it may, the sea often symbolizes in Scripture the forces of evil or chaos that threaten God’s people and challenge God’s sovereignty over the cosmos. In today’s Readings, Jesus exercises absolute command of the sea and the sky, the waves and the wind. This reveals Jesus as God Himself, the creator, who can be trusted to save us.
Since my reflections on Year B are now available as a book here, I’ll just give my commentary on the First Reading below:
Our First Reading is Job 38:1, 8-11:
The Lord addressed Job out of the storm and said:
Who shut within doors the sea,
when it burst forth from the womb;
when I made the clouds its garment
and thick darkness its swaddling bands?
When I set limits for it
and fastened the bar of its door,
and said: Thus far shall you come but no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stilled!
The Book of Job is seldom read on a Lord’s Day or major Feast—only in Year B on the 5th and 12th Sundays of Ordinary Time—so I’ll take this opportunity to say a little bit about the book.
The Book of Job consists of a prologue and epilogue in the voice of a narrator, and between these we three cycles of dialogue between Job and his three “frenemies,” (Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar), a long soliloquy by Job, a soliloquy by a younger friend Elihu, and finally a lengthy interrogation of Job by God. It was probably written originally as a kind of ancient Near Easter theater piece or play, similar to the oldest of the Greek tragedies.
The plot of Job is well-known. Job is an old and wise man, a kind of ancient clan cheiftan or sheikh, known far and wide for his righteousness. Satan persuades God to allow him (Satan) to afflict Job and test his faith. God consents and Satan destroys Job’s property and family, even plaguing him with skin sores. Job laments bitterly, but refuses to curse God or to give up on his relationship with God. Job’s friends are convinced the calamities are due to Job’s secret sin, but Job maintains his innocence. In the finale of the book, God appears in a theophany and engages Job in dialogue, challenging him with questions along the line of, “Where were you when I created the cosmos?” (Job 38-42).
God’s challenges to Job concerning Job’s lack of knowledge or control over all the aspects of the universe for which God is responsible appears on initial reading to be a “shock and awe” strategy on God’s part, to overpower Job rather than actually address his questions concerning why he was made to suffer so much evil. However, on further reflection, God’s challenges to Job do constitute an answer to Job’s questioning of the justice of God: God is pointing out that, in order adequately to assess whether God is justified in his providential guidance of any particular event, Job would have to be a much different being—a being like God himself, able to comprehend (and guide) all the factors that interact and must be taken into account as cosmic history moves forward. While not addressing the Job’s particular case, God is implying that there are factors beyond Job’s comprehension that provide the rationale for innocent suffering. Whether the reader is satisfied with this response depends on whether the reader trusts or distrusts God to be speaking truthfully on this subject. Job, for his part, adopts the posture of trust.
Our First Reading comes from the beginning of these divine speeches to Job. It emphasizes that God, and God alone, is capable of taming the sea, which to this day poses a threat to humanity that we cannot entirely neutralize (as we are reminded every hurricane season). Control of these natural forces is clearly something divine, not human. Therefore, when Jesus controls the waves in our Gospel, we realize he is God in flesh.