by Doug Ward
On the sixth day of creation God directed the first humans, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth" (Gen 1:28).
In compilations of the 613 commandments of the Torah, Gen 1:28 is the first one listed. But this is much more than a commandment: it is a great blessing, a privilege, and an opportunity. God has given us a special status as his image bearers (v. 26), making us his agents in administering his rule over the earth.
Filling the earth and subduing it is a monumental endeavor, made even more challenging by human sinfulness (Gen 3:16-19). It is especially difficult for us to "fill the earth" when we frequently engage in murder (Gen 4:8) and warfare (Gen 14:1-12).
Yet despite our many failings, the human race has done much to carry out the blessing of Gen 1:28. Today there are over seven billion people in the world, an accomplishment made possible by amazing advances in agriculture, medicine, science, and technology. For example smallpox, a disease responsible for the deaths of hundreds of millions of people, has been completely eradicated since 1980.
Looking just at the great accomplishments of the last few centuries, we might imagine the future as a steady march of progress, with the scope of human dominion eventually encompassing every aspect of our existence. We have become accustomed to being "in control" of many parts of life. However, there are some matters that are simply beyond our control. One such matter is the weather.
With the development of computer technology In the 1950s, some leading scientists were hopeful that we would be able to use our new computational resources to predict, and then increasingly control, the weather. But when scientists constructed basic computer models to simulate the weather, they learned something surprising. When they made tiny changes in the starting values of the variables in the models, the results of the new simulations would quickly diverge from the original ones. Systems that have this property of "sensitive dependence on initial conditions" or "chaotic dynamics" turn out to be inherently unpredictable. In the case of weather, we will never be able to accurately predict the weather more than several days into the future, no matter how much computing power we devote to the task. Weather is not something that we can confidently predict, let alone control.1
These facts about meteorology provide a helpful reality check in an era when we often harbor unrealistic views of human capabilities. Such views are on full display during election campaigns. For example in 2004, political opponents of American President George W. Bush blamed him for that year's hurricanes. In 2008, posters on my university campus proclaimed, "This Election Could be the End of Global Warming-Vote!" These posters took their cues from Barack Obama, who promised during his campaign to control the level of the world's oceans. We seem to expect superhuman feats from our leaders, who in turn promise to meet our expectations.
In the Hebrew Scriptures the God of Israel is set apart by his control of wind and waves, two main components of weather. God set up the earth's weather and agriculture on the second and third days of creation (Gen 1:6-13), a process poetically pictured in Psalm 104:5-9. Referring to the waters of the earth, Psalm 104:7 praises God saying, "At your rebuke they fled; at the sound of your thunder they took to flight."
God's mastery of the elements was further displayed at the parting of the Red Sea, when Moses stretched out his hand and "the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind" (Exod 14:21). Psalm 106:9 declares, "He rebuked the Red Sea, and it became dry, and he led them through the deep as through a desert."
Mankind's position in the cosmos is portrayed in Psalm 107:23-32, where mariners go "down to the sea in ships" (v. 23) and see God's "wondrous works in the deep" (v. 24). This passage goes on to describe how God "commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea" (v. 25). Then when the frightened mariners cried out to God, he "made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed” (v. 29).
"Who Then Is This?"
In light of the foregoing it is illuminating to consider an incident from the life of Jesus recorded in Mark 4:35-41. Here Jesus and his disciples head across the sea of Galilee in a boat (v. 36), like the mariners of Ps 107. As in Ps 107 the wind and waves rise, and the disciples are frightened. Just as the mariners in Ps 107 cry out to God, the disciples rouse Jesus and plead for help (v. 38). Jesus then stills the storm (v. 39), as God does in Ps 107:29.
The account in Mark ends with the disciples asking, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?" Their question invites the reader to consider the identity of Jesus, and we are given some strong hints about the answer. Jesus plays a role in Mark 4 parallel to that of God in Ps 107.2 As in Ps 104:7 and Ps 106:9, Jesus calms the wind and waves by simply rebuking them himself (Mark 4:39), rather than asking God for a response as Moses did at the Red Sea and Elijah did in praying for the end of a drought (1 Kings 18:42). The implication is that Jesus is more than a human agent of God, like Moses or Elijah; rather, he is God in the flesh.
In carrying out the blessing to "fill the earth and subdue it," God has given us considerable abilities and resources for our task, but we are not in full control of our circumstances. Instead we serve as God's representatives, working in partnership with him under his direction. Like the mariners in Ps 107, we can cry out for help amidst the storms of life; and like the disciples in Mark 4, we know that Jesus is in the boat with us, accompanying us to our destination.
1See the chapter on "The Butterfly Effect" in Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick, Viking Penguin, 1987.
2The parallels between Mark 4:35-41 and Ps 107:23-32 are nicely summarized in a table in Chapter 9 of Dr. Brant Pitre's The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ, Image, New York, 2016.
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On 27 Jan 2017, 15:06.