Calming Storms & Drowning Legions

April 2012

Ancient Jewish sages believed that the future Messiah of Israel should display certain Moses-like characteristics—powerful spiritual leadership and astute Torah teaching.  It is no secret that Moses and Jesus have much in common, sharing similar life experiences.  In particular, both led a mission of deliverance from bondage.  Therefore, it should not surprise us to find parallels of language and themes from the Exodus within the Gospels.  For example, in Luke 11:20, Jesus says that if he drives out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon the people.  This unique phrase, “finger of God” is a direct reference to Ex 8:19 and the plague of the lice/gnats, where the Egyptian magicians proclaim that “this is the finger of God.”[1]

The Gospel writers, with the possible exception of Luke, were biblically oriented Jews writing to other Jews and “God-fearing” Gentiles.  When describing the life and teachings of Jesus, these writers would naturally want to communicate through shared biblical motifs understood in their Jewish framework.  It is logical to suggest that their target audiences would be holding to certain expectations about their long-awaited Messiah.

Torah Teaching in the Synagogues

Without understanding the life and work of Moses, the messianic reports about Jesus could potentially fall on deaf ears.  Of the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), Mark is perhaps the heaviest-laden with thematic parallels and inter-textual connections to the Exodus.  To fashion a message with such links would have fit well into the more respected styles of teaching and storytelling known in the ancient Jewish world, specifically midrash.  Within the ancient Jewish teaching there was often a sub-world of midrash, a sophisticated system of biblical interpretation that connected different parts of Scripture by word plays or subtle allusion.  It has been widely taught in Christian circles that Mark’s work was customized to fit the interests of a Gentile Roman audience.  However, with a careful investigation of his style, it seems doubtful that Mark cast his pearls of midrashic teachings on those with no synagogue background or biblical literacy.

Keeping this in mind, several parallels to the Exodus come to light in Mark’s depiction of Jesus.  Jesus under pressure from the crowds (Mk 3:9-10), calming the storm (Mk 4:35), and delivering the demoniac from a host of demons (Mk 5:1-30) has allusions to the Israelites flight from Egypt (Ex 12:34), Moses calming the children of Israel at the Reed Sea (Ex 14:13-14), and the subsequent destruction of Pharaoh’s army (Ex 14:27-28).

Under Pressure on the Shore

Both Mark and Luke relate that crowds pressed upon Jesus for healing and teaching while he was on the shores of the Sea of Galilee (Mk. 3:9, 10; Lk. 5:1).[2]   At one point Jesus instructs his disciples to prepare a small boat so the crowds would not “press hard” upon him (Mk 3:9).  Moments later, Mark tells us that Jesus is so rushed, he does not have time to eat a meal of bread (Mk 3:20).  This seemingly insignificant detail about being “pressed” strikes a biblical chord and may be a clue to a larger story build-up connected to the Exodus account.  With this phrase, “pressed hard”, Mark’s audience would be reminded that the children of Israel were under intense pressure and had little time to eat a meal with proper bread before their escape from Egypt (Ex 12:34).

In Exodus 14 we find Moses on the shore of the Reed Sea as the Israelite crowds press upon him for answers.  The jubilation over their recent deliverance from slavery in Egypt has suddenly turned into the highest level of anxiety.  As darkness falls, the Israelites are acutely aware that Pharaoh and his army are closing in behind them, while in front of them is the impassable Reed Sea.  The Israelites cry out to Moses saying “did you bring us here to die in the wilderness?” (Ex 14:11).

Calming Words—“Peace, Be Still!”

Paralleling Mark 4:35-41, with darkness looming on the horizon Jesus and his disciples set sail.  Later that night, they encounter a furious storm on the Sea of Galilee.[3]  At this critical moment Jesus is found sleeping on a cushion and his disciples are in a state of terror as the waves begin to break over their boats.  They awaken Jesus and cry out, “Teacher, don’t you care if we perish?” (Mk 4:36).  There is harmony here in all the Synoptic narratives, but the next detail sets Mark apart from the others when he tells us specifically what Jesus said to the wind and waves, “Peace! Be still!” (Mk 4:39).

Returning to Exodus 14, Moses is pressed for answers as the tension mounts and the future of the children of Israel hangs in the balance.  With the crowds pressing him, he exclaims, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today.  The Egyptians you see today you will never see again.  The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still” (Ex 14:13-14).[4]

With both Jesus calming the storm and Moses calming the Israelites, we have two nearly identical moments involving imminent doom that is tranquilized by the words “Quiet, be still” or “Peace be still.”  For reasons we may never know Matthew, Luke and John chose to leave out this fascinating link.

Pharoah’s Legions and Pigs Drown 

 In Mark 5, Jesus and his disciples finally reach the other side of the Sea of Galilee in the early morning (conjectured time of day).  They arrive in the Gerasene region of the Decapolis (possibly near modern day Kursi).  There Jesus is confronted by a man who has been tortured for years by an unclean spirit.  There is a dialogue between Jesus where the demons identify themselves by the military term “legion” and beg not to be sent out of the country (Mk 5:1-10).  Jesus promptly exorcises these spirits out of the man and they enter a herd of pigs located on a nearby hillside, whereby the pigs rush into the sea and drown (5:13).

In Greek religious culture which was pervasive on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, pigs were often selected for sacrificial purposes.  After Jesus casts the demons into the herd of swine that soon after drown, witnesses inform the local residents.  Instead of expressing joy or gratitude for the miracle that had set the demoniac free, the residents request that Jesus “leave their region” (apelthein apo ton orion Mk 5:17).  This angry reaction of the locals may provide a crucial hint at the religious offense of the pig drowning.  Their Greek religious infrastructure had just taken a blow.  After the Egyptians suffer from ten devastating plagues or divine strikes, we can hear a similar urgency in their words as they demand the Israelites be sent out of their region (ekbalein outous ek tais gais, Septuagint Ex. 12:33).

At the Reed Sea, Pharoah’s army is thrown into utter confusion (Ex. 14:24), and like the possessed pigs charging into the Sea of Galilee, Pharoah’s soldiers give chase to Israel.  Yet, both hordes of legions meet a watery grave.  Several commentators have suggested that Mark’s narrative about the drowning pigs was originally intended to be a satire about the Roman occupation of the Jews.  The wild boar was the symbol of the Roman 10th Legion, and the drowning of swine would have been welcome news to a Jewish audience.  Likewise, after years of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites would have celebrated after the drowning of their oppressors.


The Gospel of Mark skillfully draws our eyes and ears back to one of the greatest rescue accounts of all time from one of the most popular Torah books, Exodus.  Just as Moses represents God’s redemption from the bondage of Egyptian slavery, so too, Jesus is the redeemer of those trapped in spiritual bondage or suffering from demonic oppression.  Deliverance is a driving force in Jesus’ life and ministry.  Jesus not only sets them free, restoring them to their right mind, but the enemy takes a “hit” from the “hand of God” (Deut. 28:59).

Mark’s linguistic links and thematic hints to the Exodus resonate with and solidify one of the central messianic expectations—that he should be like Moses.   If Mark’s intended audience were indeed Roman, I would suggest that they were most likely Jewish Romans or ‘God-fearing’ Gentiles who attended synagogues and would have been familiar with the rich Exodus themes.  Mark’s portrayal of Jesus as a liberator and redeemer like Moses would have convincingly communicated to these synagogue members Jesus’ messianic purpose and message.

[1] David Flusser, Judaism and the Origins of the Christianity (Magnes Press, Jerusalem 1988) p. 550 – the expression could also be understood as an eschatological sign.

[2] Known as sea or lake Kinneret (כנרת ים) in biblical Hebrew (Num 34:11 and Jos. 13:27)

[3] Luke never uses the term ‘sea’ instead he consistently calls it a ‘lake’ (lymnain) a description more authentic to the size and reality of the Kinneret which is indeed a fresh water source.  Mark on the other hand, never uses any term but ‘sea’ (thalassa) when speaking about the Kinneret.  Matthew uses both terms but ‘sea’ is less frequent.  By definition a sea is typically a larger body of salt water.

[4] תחרישון   Taharishun = hold your peace, be quiet or be still