I. Lord of the Sea
For many of us, the Mediterranean Sea conjures images of peace and tranquility. If you anticipated going to Italy, France, Greece, or Turkey, you might envision yourself reading novels on the Mediterranean’s sandy beaches, or perhaps sipping a beverage at a café overlooking its azure-blue waters and gently rolling surf. The Mediterranean in your mind might look a bit like a far-away version of Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville.
The ancient Israelites had a far more uneasy relationship with the Mediterranean – and the sea in general. Words they typically used to describe the sea in the Bible come from the opposite end of the semantic domain. Words like roaring, tumult, raging, and thundering. Largely, the Hebrews feared the sea, as did their “kissing cousins,” the Canaanites.
Why would our ancient biblical ancestors feel so differently of the sea than we do? Because they were desert dwellers. While the land of Canaan bordered the sea, most of the population lived inland. Of course we live inland, too, and we don’t necessarily fear the sea as they did. But we live in different times. Imagine wandering in the hot desert and cresting the brow of a hill to behold the Mediterranean for the first time. You’re thirsty and dehydrated – perhaps even dangerously so. Suddenly a body of water stretches out before you that is so vast that you can’t see the other side, even from your hilltop perch.
“Praise be to God!” you shout. “Praise be to God who has delivered me from the hot sun and parched earth and provided so abundantly!”
As fast as your body will take you, you make your way to the sea, envisioning the joys of drinking to your heart’s content and the many crops you will plant beside it. You can guess the outcome. Sources of fresh water, like lakes, streams, and rain, were highly revered. The sea? Not so much.
Drinking the sea would have felt like giant betrayal. Here before you is water that looks sweet but chokes you with bitterness; that promises to hydrate your body buy actually dehydrates it; that promises to sustain thriving crops but actually kills plants and poisons the soil.
It is for these reasons that Israel’s cousins, the Canaanites, explicitly associated the sea with death and destruction. Their most feared and evil god was simply called “Yam,” sowhich means Sea. Yam, who was often depicted as a great sea monster, was considered so evil – and powerful – in fact, that he once is said to have killed Baal – the Canaanite equivalent of Zeus – in battle. Baal was later resurrected, but that’s a story for another day … In Canaanite mythology, not even Baal – which means Lord – was Lord of the Sea. The Sea was lord of Baal, at least on its territory. So if you should ever find yourself sailing upon the face of Yam in a storm, you needn’t bother praying for safety.
As fellow desert dwellers, the Hebrews shared the Canaanite fear and suspicion of the sea. Their name for the sea was the same as the Canaanites, “Yam.” But for the Hebrews, Yam did not stand for the incarnation of chaos and evil. It was not a god at all. Yam simply meant Sea. In fact, the Hebrews ultimately saw good in the sea, not evil. They believed the sea to be good because of their firm belief that God created the sea. As its creator, God was Lord of the sea, not the other way around.
I find the difference between the Canaanite and Hebrew conceptions of Yam/Sea instructive. For both peoples, the Yam/Sea was full of destructive potential. Yet due to one small but terribly significant difference, the Canaanites viewed the sea as an incarnation of evil, and the Hebrews viewed the sea as something ultimately life-bearing and good. In Genesis 1, God even empowers the sea with creative ability, then blesses its creatures saying, “Be fruitful and multiply!” The difference between the Canaanite and Israelite views had to do was who ruled Sea. According to the Canaanites, the Yam/Sea ruled itself. Even the high-god Baal had no real power over it. According to the Israelites, the sea was subject to Yahweh’s rule. In fact, in our passage this morning, the Hebrew author specifically names the “great sea monsters” as mere creations of God, not gods themselves (remember: Canaanite Yam was depicted as a sea monster).
This difference of conception of who was ruling what may seem like no more than a small one between two ancient peoples that has no bearing on our everyday lives. Yet this could not be further from the truth. The ancient Hebrews, like the ancient Celtic Christians, were convinced that Creation is a theophany (self-manifestation) of God. As such, nature speaks beyond itself to our relationship with God, each other. Consider the following question: Who rules over the chaos in your life right now? Who is Lord of that which you find most threatening to your survival, your well-being, your happiness?
If the chaos that afflicts you is all you can see, and it’s power is all you acknowledge, then like the Canaanites who ceded the sea’s destructive potential to the great sea monster, Yam, rather than their highest God, you will see only its destructive potential. Yet if you bow to God rather than buckling before the chaos – if you acknowledge and turn to a higher power than the tumult – then that which holds the potential to destroy you can also bless you. The “sea monster” that threatens you becomes subject to God’s authority and, as such, becomes fraught with possibility. Like the mighty sea, you may well discover that there is a whole world of possibility beneath its waves – be those “waves” your fight against cancer, or struggle within a relationship, the loss of a job, or your fear of the future. Like the ancient Hebrews, you may find that God is capable of turning your struggle a source of life and vitality for you – at least if God is Lord of your struggle and you haven’t bowed to the struggle itself. The Sea Monster becomes a Sea Creature.
Let’s turn to those sea creatures for a moment. Once the “monster” becomes a “creature” – in the sea or in your life – even more is revealed of God’s creative power.
II. Godly Play
Last week, as the Darkwood Brew planning team and I prepared for specifically this Sunday’s episode on the Fifth Day of Creation in Genesis 1:2–23, we spoke with our Skype Guest, Dr. Bruce Epperly. Bruce is the author of 22 books including one on Celtic Christianity called The Center is Everywhere. We asked Bruce what wisdom the ancient Celts drew from the sea concerning God, and our relationship with God. He reflected on the Celts’ love of the sea, and their awe of it. The Celts had an even higher estimation of the sea than did the Hebrews because so many of them made their livelihood from the sea. As fishing people and voyagers, the Celts knew something of the sea’s potential power and ferocity. They spoke of the sea – and God – a bit like Mr. Beaver speaks of Aslan the Lion/God in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia: “He isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
In this sense, the Celts intuited something deeply biblical from their interaction with the sea. The “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” says the Bible. Many people get hung up on the “fear” part, drawing its meaning more from horror movies than close interaction with nature. Such “fear” in the Bible normally refers to “awestruck wonder” – the kind you feel when you interact with something that isn’t safe, but is good nonetheless.
The Celts also discerned in the sea something of the playfulness of God, says Dr. Epperly. This playfulness is suggested in our passage where both the waters of the seas and the air above teams and swarms with living creatures. If you’ve ever seen a school of herring or a swarm of starlings in action, you know something of playfulness. If the creatures God creates are indicative in any way of who God is, then you can guess that there is something deep in the heart of God that is inherently relational and inherently playful.
In the modern world, we know that even the great “sea monsters” of Genesis – like whales – bear strong evidence of playfulness. In March, bioacoustics researcher Katy Payne Payne spoke at Countryside to deliver our yearly Radical Amazement lecture through the Center for Faith Studies. I had heard of Payne’s mind-blowing work with elephants on NPR a couple of years ago, but I had no idea that her acoustical work started years ago with whales.
In 1963, Payne was introduced to a body of recordings made by an engineer named Frank Watlington off the coast of Bermuda. Watlington had been recording underwater sounds for the Navy for ten years, monitoring explosions, presumably from torpedo blasts and other tests. What Watlington found besides occasional blasts was that the ocean reverberated with the songs of humpback whales. Watlington kept this knowledge secret, fearing that if the Navy learned of the whale songs, information could get into the wrong hands, thus endangering the whales. After talking all day with Katy Payne and her husband, Watlington entrusted all ten years of recordings to Katy saying, “Go save the whales.”
Over the coming months, Payne studied each recording thoroughly. Here is a segment of one recording: https://vimeo.com/61934165 (scroll to 11:20 in the video). What she discovered is so extraordinary that if I didn’t hear it in person, and the evidence wasn’t backed up with thousands of hours of scientific research, I never would have believed it. What sounds like random sounds is actually more like a developed and refined musical score. It looks like this:
What you see here is not merely an audio wave representation of what you hear on the recording, but the precise representation of a song the whale can repeat because it has been set to memory. Not only did a single whale sing this song, but all the whales in the Bermuda area were singing it!
Pouring through years of recordings, Payne discovered that the song the whales were singing wasn’t static, either. Over the course of several months the song would change slightly as new “verses” were added and some subtracted. A year later when the whales returned to the area, you could still recognize the basic song, but all kinds of innovation had occurred and all the whales were singing the new version!
Yes, the “great sea monsters” of Genesis aren’t just swimming around silently under those waters. They’re working on songs together and singing them to the ocean. Undoubtedly, some of this serves a biological and evolutionary purpose. (The best reason evolutionary biologists have found so far is that female humpback whales like innovation!) But surely the changing song serves other purposes besides survival, just like our music helps us more than survive. It helps us play, and through playing we do more than just exist on this earth. We thrive.
If you doubt that the whales know something of play, perhaps scenes like this will confirm it:
You’d think that the whales forget what they are every once in a while and think they are birds! By the way, what kind of bird makes this sound? (Go to the same video link above and scroll to 18:53 for the audio) While this recording sounds like a bird in the forest, it is actually one of Katy’s whale songs that has simply been sped up. Just as Genesis 1 imagines the sea monsters and the swarms of living creatures in the oceans and the skies as being related to one another through their creation on the fifth day, so they seem to be related even in play. (The major difference is that whales innovate on their songs and birds do not.)
In a world in which every bit of creation is a theophany or self-revelation of God, such play indicates that God is also playful. After all, these creatures are God’s design. The capacity for play seems to be built into the basic design of evolution – by a playful God.
What this should indicate for us today, if nothing else, is that if you are not playing, you’re not evolving. If you are not playful, you are only existing, not living. All of us go through periods where lightheartedness and play is difficult. However, if a month has passed and you have not played in any significant way, you might want to ask if you are participating in the natural flow of life or resisting it? If you aren’t regularly experiencing moments of play, you need to take a hard look at how you are living your life. If God’s Creation is any indication, you may not be not doing what you were designed to do!
If you need confirmation from the New Testament, consider the words of Jesus. The one who is said to have stood upon the stormy sea and stilled it also says: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30) When you find a Lord who is mightier than the stormy chaos you face, new possibilities emerge that were hidden from view before. You discover that life not only exists but plays beneath the surface of things. When you lose your fear of the stormy sea, you may just find that the Lord of it is inviting you not only to face the sea with courage, but to come and walk upon it. Perhaps even to dance!