The Biblical Cosmos (which I’ll be reviewing here at Sacred Wrightings in due course), Robin Parry gives good reason to consider the text from another angle – a reason that has captured my imagination and caused me to reflect:
Jesus never walked on water; he walked on the sea; and the difference, says Robin, is important.
But why? Putting it simply, the sea, in biblical-cosmological terms, represents chaos that only the Lord can calm. So the gospels don’t merely portray Jesus as walking on actual water but as unaffected – unrestrained, perhaps – by the chaos around him. However, Robin goes further; he points out that the description of Jesus walking on the sea echoes Job 9:8 (LXX): God alone is the one who ‘walks on the sea’. By explicitly referring to Jesus walking on the sea rather than simply on water, it appears that Matthew, Mark and John are including Jesus in the divine identity. Indeed, in each account, Jesus also seems to do similarly: ‘It is I’, he says, or ‘I am’ (egō eimi; Matt. 14:27; Mark 6:50; John 6:20; the CEB translation of the latter reference makes this especially clear), which, of course, echoes the common divine appellation in the Old Testament.
Robin also notes that in Matthew’s account of Jesus walking on the sea, Peter attempts to join Jesus. As we all know, these attempts were not entirely successful; Peter began to sink. This is because, as Robin points out, Peter was walking on water (ta hudata) and not on the sea (tēs thalassēs); only God can walk on the sea! However, Robin doesn’t speculate about why Peter wanted to join Jesus outside the boat. Perhaps Peter had misperceived what was happening before his eyes. It could well be that Peter was enthralled by Jesus’s demonstration of power over the forces of nature and captivated by the possibility of sharing in this power. But only Jesus shares in the divine identity; only Jesus walks on the waters of chaos as God. Was Peter seeking a power and an identity that could never be his, either by right or by grace? If so, then Jesus doesn’t so much chide Peter for his poor water-walking skills as he does for doubting that, in Jesus, God is overcoming the chaos by inaugurating the kingdom. Two more things lend credibility to this interpretation. First, as soon as Jesus has finished walking on the sea, the storm calms; God has banished chaos. And, secondly, the disciples recognise and worship the divine conqueror of chaos, the man Jesus.