Did Jesus walk on water because he couldn’t swim?

Jenny Diski

  • The Children of Noah: Jewish Seafaring in Ancient Times by Raphael Patai
    Princeton, 208 pp, £17.95, May 1998, ISBN 0 691 01580 5

The title startles. The children of Noah were tower-raisers, nomads, farmers, slaves, desert wanderers, war mongers, city-dwellers, poets and musicians even, but sailors? Jewish seafaring? Jewish seafaring? Certainly, there were family days out at the seaside: my father would roll his trousers up to his calves, and my mother discard her shoes to sit on their deckchairs, but neither of them ever ventured seaward beyond the darker, wetter stretch of sand. I was taught to swim (not by my parents, who I never saw buoyant), though, as I understood it, the lessons were so that I could get out of the sea, should I ever be so foolish and unfortunate as to find myself in it. For even non-practising Jews like us, the sea didn’t seem kosher. Jewish people I knew were tailors or shopkeepers, their children were supposed to become businessmen, doctors, lawyers, academics, no one ever mentioned the possibility of a career as a mariner. It made traditional sense to me: hadn’t Moses ordered the Red Sea to part rather than have the Children of Israel get their feet wet?

The late Raphael Patai’s book is, it must be said, a slim volume, and it was over sixty years in the making, whereas his work on the more plausible Jewish alchemists took only ten years to publish. There is no evidence that any of the four great Biblical travellers on water – Noah, Moses, Jonah and Jesus – had what you could call a vocation for the sea.

Boat-building in the Bible, and indeed in the other early flood narratives, is not a skill discovered or intuited by humanity, Patai says. Both the need for boats and the ability to make them are bestowed on mankind from on high. When Atraharsis, in one Akkadian text, is instructed by the god Ea to build a ship, he’s at a loss: ‘I have never built a ship; draw a design of it on the ground, that, seeing the design, I may build a ship.’ Utnapishtim, the Babylonian Noah of the Epic of Gilgamesh, also has to receive detailed information from Ea on the construction of his ship. Noah is the only shipbuilder in the Bible, and he, too, gets divine instruction: ‘Make thee an ark of gopher wood; with rooms shalt thou make the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch. And this is how thou shalt make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits.’ So far as boats are concerned, God, not the Devil, is in the detail.

Neither Noah, nor the ten generations that preceded him back to Adam’s time, had any need for boats. Adam is named for the earth from which he was created. His heirs were tillers of soil, and builders of cities. Before Noah, the only time that the sea gets a mention is at the beginning of Genesis, when the spirit of God moved on the face of the waters, which it seems were already there before the start of things. The waters are, Patai explains, according to Talmudic cosmology, tohu, of the tohu bohu translated in the King James Bible as ‘without form and void’; an essential part of the chaos which was all there was before God separated and ordered the world into existence. These were the seas that contained Rahab, Leviathan and other sea monsters which, sings the Psalmist, God defeated before he made the world: ‘Thou didst break the sea in pieces by Thy strength, Thou didst shatter the heads of the sea monsters in the waters, Thou did crush the heads of Leviathan, Thou gavest him to be food to the sharks of the sea.’ God, it seemed, on some accounts (Psalm 107, the Book of Job, and rabbinical commentaries on Genesis), did not just make the world, he fought with the sea to make it. And having over-mastered the waters, when he wanted to annihilate the world he regretted making, it was the waters he used to destroy it. ‘I will cause it to rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth.’ (The rabbis, wishing to take God’s word as gospel, worried about the problem of fish, who clearly would not be erased from the world by a flood. It was solved when one rabbi decided that the waters that rained down were boiling, thus doing for the fish, and allowing God to keep his word to the letter.)

Little wonder that the Jews had no taste for the sea. Noah is silent. Unlike later chosen ones who questioned and debated with God about his plans, even changing his mind, Noah never speaks. He simply ‘did according unto all that the Lord had commanded him’. He is a survivor, not a sailor. The waters rise, the world dies and, locked up in the box God designed for him, he endures the wait. But Patai detects at least one element of seamanship in him. He refers to a study by James Hornell entitled The Role of Birds in Early Navigation which

adduces reference to the practice of carrying aboard several ‘shore-sighting birds’ among the ancient Hindu merchants (fifth-century BCE) when sailing on overseas voyages… ‘used to locate the nearest land when the ship’s position became doubtful’ … The same practice is mentioned in the Buddhist Kevad dha Sutta of Digha … Five centuries later Pliny mentions the same custom as practised by the seamen of Ceylon when making sea voyages, as they were unable to steer by the stars.

The raven and the dove give Noah a certain credibility as a sailor, although Midrashic sources suggest that he spent all his sea-going time learning what and when to feed the animals in his charge. So much so, says one, that he never closed his eyes for one minute during his 150 days afloat. As a sailor, Noah became expert in animal husbandry. Back on land, Noah showed no further interest in the sea: he took up farming and planted the world’s first vineyard. Though in becoming also the world’s first drunk, he may have been exhibiting an elemental trait of the old seadog.

Moses, too, floated to salvation in an ark, though by now, it seems, boat-building skills had been acquired and there was no need for direct guidance from God. When the mother of Moses ‘could not longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child therein; and she laid it in the flags by the river brink.’ This is more river than sea-faring, but it’s an oddly watery start for a prophet whose life was dominated by mountain and desert. Neither Noah nor Moses journeys on the water for the purpose of trade or discovery. The Bible refers on both occasions to the ark as tevah, that is, a chest or box, and not a ship (oniyah).

Though Patai doesn’t mention him, Jacob is another who, like my parents, exhibits a reluctance when faced with water. At Jabbok, needing to ford the Jordan, he sent his wives and worldly goods across, but remained behind for the night during which he encountered the wrestling angel who would change his name to Israel. For all that scholars might suggest his motive was anxiety about facing his brother, Esau, whose birthright and blessing he had stolen, it seems to me possible that he was in a watery funk. Only an extremely unpleasant night sent him wading across the river the next morning.

Jonah, too, becomes a seafarer through a greater fear of something else. Rather than proclaim against the city of Nineveh, as God wishes, he takes flight and buys a passage on a ship about to sail across the Mediterranean from Joppa (Jaffa) to Tarshish, which is thought to be on the Iberian Peninsula. The crew of this ship are not Jewish, and when the Hebrew God foments a storm, they show both proper sea-going superstition and seamanship by crying ‘every man unto his god, and they cast forth the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it unto them’. Jonah, strangely, sleeps through the whole thing, perhaps because he is such a landlubber that he doesn’t know it’s time to panic, or because he’s such a landlubber that he’s been rendered barely conscious by seasickness.

Jesus also sleeps through a storm aboard a boat in the Sea of Gennesareth. The disciples cry: “Master, carest thou not that we perish?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, “Peace, be still!” Of course, Jesus is more concerned here with being the Son of God than a Jew in his casual mastery over the sea. Possibly overcoming a dislike of water was part of the new teaching. When he walked on the water, it was with the overt purpose of testing Peter’s faith, but it suggests to me a lack of swimming skills on both their parts.

However, if none of these Biblical characters convinces me of a longstanding Jewish attraction to going down to the sea in ships, the fact remains that ancient Palestine had ports on its long Mediterranean coastline, and that there was certainly much toing and froing, warring and trading in the area. Of Solomon, we are told in 1 Kings 10.22, ‘For the king had at sea a navy of Tarshish with the navy of Hiram: once in three years came the navy of Tarshish, bringing gold, and silver ivory, and apes, and peacocks.’ It’s not at all clear whether the ships were built by Solomon’s men, but in Judah, King Jehoshaphat ‘made Tarshish ships to go to Ophir for gold’, although Jewish shipbuilding skills are thrown into doubt when we find out that these ships ‘were broken at Ezion-Gever’ either by a storm or because they were inexpertly built. Whether it was at this moment that Jehoshaphat jumped we are not told.

According to the Mormons, however, Jewish seafaring was an ancient tradition. America, claimed Joseph Smith, was populated by a remnant of seafaring Jews. The Book of Mormon tells of a group of Jews living in the early sixth century BCE under King Zedekiah in Jerusalem, who, in an attempt to escape from an unfriendly government, sailed, via the Straits of Gibraltar, across the Atlantic Ocean, to arrive somewhere on the American continent 344 days after starting out. So perhaps seafaring is a lost Jewish art, after all.

Patai offers plentiful evidence in the form of religious laws for life at sea, Midrashic commentary on the Hebrew Bible, and folklore to suggest that the Jews, reluctantly or otherwise, were indeed a sea-going lot. But this doesn’t necessarily mean they liked it. The commentating rabbis were ambivalent about sailors, though they weren’t enthusiastic about other professions either: ‘Let a man not teach his son to become a donkey driver, a camel driver, a potter, sailor, shepherd, or shopkeeper, for their trade is the trade of robbers,’ the Babylonian Talmud warns. Patai paraphrases the great Rashi, on the other hand, saying ‘that sailors live in constant danger, and therefore their hearts are inclined toward their Father in Heaven; they travel to places of much danger and are always trembling at the perils that beset them.’ The distaste for the sea continues. Were it not for divine dispensation, says a Midrash on the Book of Leviticus, ‘every man who goes down to the sea would die at once’.

Sea journeys had become an unfortunate necessity and laws were established for sea-going Jews. The Sabbath had to be kept at sea, during which time no riding or sitting in any vehicle is permitted, so the laws state that journeys had to start no later than Wednesday and that a Jewish traveller had to come to an agreement with the skipper that he would break the voyage for the Sabbath. This was highly unlikely, but it allowed the Jew to blame the Gentile for breaking his word. Not that all skippers were Gentile. Patai gives an account of the fourth-century Jewish shipmaster, Amarantus Navicularius, with whom Bishop Sinesius sailed from Alexandria to Corynna. In spite of his latinised name, Captain Amarantus was not so assimilated into Alexandrian culture that he failed to observe orthodox Jewish law. The Jewish owned and manned ship was recalled by the Bishop:

All the sailors of the ship, their number being 12, and together with the captain 13, were Jews, the children of that accursed nation which thinks it is doing a good deed by causing death to the Greeks … They were all deformed in one or another part of their bodies. As long as we were not in danger they amused themselves by calling one another not by their proper names but by their bodily defects: Lame, Ruptured, Left-handed, Squint, and so forth … We were about fifty passengers on board; among us a third part were women, mostly beautiful and charming. But, nevertheless, you should not envy me. Even Priapus himself would have behaved piously in a ship steered by Amarantus, who did not allow us even one short hour of pleasure in which to be free of mortal fear.

The problem was a storm that blew up as the Jewish Sabbath arrived with Friday’s sunset:

When Amarantus perceived that the sun had gone down, he dropped the steering rudder from his hands. The passengers thought that he had done thus because of despair. When it became known to them what the real reason was … and all their requests that he should return to the rudder were in vain – because as we entreated him to save the ship from danger he only continued to read his book – they tried to threaten him. One brave soldier … drew his sword and threatened to cut off the man’s head unless he instantly took the rudder again into his hands. But the captain, like a true Maccabean, could not be moved to transgress the commandments of his religion. Later, however, at midnight, he returned to the rudder voluntarily, saying, ‘Now our law permits it to me, because there is a danger of life.’

The Talmud states that when life is at risk, Sabbath rules are suspended, but what pleasure Amarantus clearly has at the Bishop’s expense in keeping to the letter of the law. Here, at last, is an honest to God Jewish seafarer.