This blog is the first in a series of blog posts on “echoes” in the Bible. In it, we’ll explore the way that the biblical authors reference other parts of scripture to help us better understand the events that they’re relaying to us.
Several months ago, a friend was thinking through a sermon he was preparing on the Mark 6 account of Jesus walking on water. If you’ve grown up around the church, it’s a familiar passage. It’s one of the great miracles where Jesus breaks all of the laws of surface tension and forgoes seafaring public transit altogether to get from point a to point b. Put simply, Jesus walked on water. Familiar as it might be, he mentioned one particular phrase in the passage that was giving him trouble, “He came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them.” Maybe you’ve read this passage before, but like my friend, never noticed that phrase (or at least never stopped for very long to ponder what it might mean), or why Mark includes it in his gospel.
As it turns out, this is an excellent example of what scholars call, “intertextuality.” Or more informally, “echoes.” Intertextuality reminds us that the biblical authors are often alluding to other parts of scripture to help us understand the passage in front of us. This approach asks us to pay closer attention to the words of scripture. At this point, maybe you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed. After all, the Bible is a big book and if you need to understand the whole thing to follow any one part of it, then studying scripture begins to look like an impossible task. But to say that the Bible is more precious when we see the pieces in light of the whole is not to say it’s incomprehensible if you don’t pick up on all the allusions and references.
Theologians Alistair Roberts and Andrew Wilson offer a helpful illustration of what an echo looks like in the form of a popular Disney movie: The Lion King. As much as I loved that film growing up, never once did it occur to me that the basic plotline of The Lion King is actually a retelling of the story of William Shakespeare’s, “Hamlet.” After a friend pointed this out, it unlocked a whole new layer of significance. Something similar happens when we look carefully at our passage in Mark. In the same way, Jesus’ walking on water is a miracle that needs no explanation at it’s most basic level, but the gospel authors want us to understand that more is going on. Matthew’s gospel records that after Jesus got into the boat, his disciples worshipped him. No doubt, it’s because they saw the way that Jesus’ actions, “echoed” something written elsewhere in scripture, in particular, Job 9, which states, “How can a man be in the right before God? He who removes mountains, and they know it not, when he overturns them in his anger, who shakes the earth out of its place and its pillars tremble...who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea...behold he passes by me and I see him not.”
Here we get to the whole point of the miracle, the explanation of that strange phrase, “he meant to pass by them” and the reason why the disciples worship. The Bible is filled with times where the disciples “miss the point.” But here, they understand what they’re seeing as Jesus trampled upon the waves of the sea. Job says that God alone walks on the waters, and he now does so in Christ. It is God who passed by Job, and it is God who passed by Moses on Mount Sinai. Somehow, in a way they don’t quite understand, that same God now passes by the disciples. All they can do is worship.
This is not just an interesting miracle involving surface tension, or Jesus proving once for all that the quickest way between two points is a straight line (even if there’s a body of water in the way). This is Christ doing what only God does, and Mark wants us to see that for what it is. Job, “saw him not,” but Mark invites us to come and see this mysteriously transcendent and radically immanent God in the flesh of Jesus.
So how do we make the most of something like intertextuality when we’re reading the Bible? A couple suggestions for you as you engage with scripture on your own:
1.) Read The Bible: A prominent New Testament scholar was once asked, “How should I read the Bible?” to which he responded, “Frequently and thoroughly.” While this seems like a sarcastic answer to an honest question, it’s absolutely right. Recognizing the way that the Bible, “Echoes” itself becomes a whole lot easier when you’re more familiar with the rest of scripture. Like I mentioned in the previous illustration, you can see the way that the Lion King “echoes” Hamlet once you’ve actually read Hamlet.
2.) Pay attention to the footnotes: Oftentimes, good bibles will include notes to show you which passages of scripture are being referenced. Whenever that happens, it’s a good idea not just to read the specific verses footnoted, but the whole section it’s taken from. The story of Jesus walking on water uses the language from one particular verse in Job 9, but Mark assumes that you know the whole passage.
3.) Take a look at some books on the subject: The best way to develop a sense for reading the Bible like this is to see someone else do it well. Lately, there have been some great books written about all of the Echoes throughout scripture. A fantastic starting point is, “Echoes of Exodus” by Alastair Roberts and Andrew Wilson.