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Politics of Scripture

Going Down to the Sea with Job, Psalms, and Shakespeare

The messianic banquet imagined by the Jewish sages nurtures attitudes of respect, blessing, recognition, and wonder. These comportments converge in humility, an earthbound ethic that we practice together, through speech, action, and the work of dwelling.


1 Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind:
2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
3 Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
4 Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.
5 Who determined its measurements–surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?
6 On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone
7 when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
8 Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?–
9 when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band,
10 and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors,
11 and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?”

Job 38:1-11 (NRSVue)


1 O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.
2 Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, those he redeemed from trouble
3 and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south. …
23 Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters;
24 they saw the deeds of the LORD, his wondrous works in the deep.
25 For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea.
26 They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their calamity;
27 they reeled and staggered like drunkards, and were at their wits’ end.
28 Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress;
29 he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.
30 Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven.
31 Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.
32 Let them extol him in the congregation of the people, and praise him in the assembly of the elders.

Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32 (NRSVue)

Figure 1: Osman Yildirim (Pacifica Institute) pours water from Mecca into a baptismal basin, in an interfaith water communion led by Pastor Sadie Cullumber (Harbor Christian Church), at St. Mark Presbyterian Church, Newport Beach, May 9, 2024. Photo: Sara Černe.

“The Pacific Ocean.”

“Upper Newport Back Bay.”

“Santa Ana River.”

“Loma Ridge.”

“Rainfall.”

“Mecca.”

These are some of the water sources named by community members as they poured water into a baptismal font at the front of St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach on May 9, 2024. At the end of the evening, after teachings from a scientist, a community organizer, and Abrahamic faith leaders, we lined up again to refill our bottles. Now the water was gritty with sand and brackish with salt. It was also filled with the new meaning that our time together had brought to it – messages of care and repair in response to our shared creatureliness.

This interfaith water communion, designed and led by Pastor Sadie Cullumber of Harbor Christian Church, contributed to a climate action grant that I co-direct at the University of California, Irvine. In a similar spirit, this week’s lectionary pairs two works of wisdom literature that honor the ocean as a source of beauty, power, and danger. Psalm 107 invokes the messianic ingathering of the nations from “the east and from the west, from the north and from the south” predicted in so many Jewish texts. We aspired to actualize this messianic dream of peace, unity, and wonder in our water communion.  

God’s speech to Job from the whirlwind (Job 38:1-11) and Psalm 107’s evocation of a storm at sea extoll the ordering genius of God as a creator capable of destruction as well as lovingkindness. The divine being in Job speaks from on high about the moment of creation itself, whereas the Psalmist witnesses God’s ongoing activity in the storms of historical time. 

These paired perspectives invite listeners to practice humility – an invitation taken up by Shakespeare in The Tempest. Shakespeare’s call to acknowledge our earthly estate was shaped by the rhythms of the lectionary, a conversation I’ll share with you later in this post.

But first, Job. The passage in Job captures the magnificent transitions from chaos to order on the birthday of the world. God compares the primordial sea to an infant that has burst out, wild and wailing, from the womb of chaos. Under God’s care, cloud and night become swaddling clothes that contain and calm the raging waters, while the morning stars of the first day hum a lullaby of praise. God is both father and mother to the newborn energies of the world.

Speaking in a whirlwind, atmosphere itself declares God’s majesty. The divine whirlwind meets the cloud of Job’s complaint, “words of unknowing” that “darken counsel” (Job 38:2). One cloud overshadows and disperses the other as images of divine order take shape within a sea of changes that Job cannot fully grasp.

Job responds with humility: “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?” (Job 40:4). The English word humility derives from the Latin humus, ground or earth. Humility means staying close to the loamy dust that nourishes our entrances and exits. Humility as a response to the vastness of creation can inspire new habits of thought, speech, and action. The image of the ocean as a bawling newborn might inspire acts of care, while the sheer might of the unbound seas might trigger fear and respect for natural systems.

Whereas the passage from Job surveys the moment of creation from a great distance, Psalm 107 immerses us in a world where nature and history are already entangled. Sailors “go down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters” (verse 23). On quiet days, they witness God’s “wondrous works of the deep” (verse 24). On rough days, the wind churns sea and sky into maelstroms that threaten shipwreck. God, however, “hushes” and “stills” the waves (verse 29), recalling the parental care of the deity in Job.

When I read Psalm 107, I am struck by the naturalism of the verses: I am on that ship dragged high and low by the waves, and I stagger like a drunkard trying to keep my balance on the careening vessel of life.

Shakespeare heard that drama and put it on stage in the opening of The Tempest, which begins smack in the middle of a raging storm:

Master: Boatswain!
Boatswain: Here, master: what cheer?
Master: Good, speak to the mariners: fall to’t, yarely, or we run ourselves aground: bestir, bestir.

(Tempest 1.1-3)

Shakespeare channels Psalm 107’s reeling rhythm as the sailors attempt to ride the waves and supplicate to God: “All lost! to prayers, to prayers! all lost!” (Tempest 1.62). Compare Psalm 144: “Set me free and rescue me from the mighty waters” (Psalm 144:8).

The sailors practice humility not as a form of passive submission but as the essence of their know-how. Humility is a survival skill for all those who “go down to the sea in ships.”

The mariners respect the power of the sea, but their royal passengers do not. The Boatswain chides their arrogance: “What cares these roarers [waves] for the name of king?” (Tempest 1.1.18).

On shore, the magician Prospero is the man behind the storm. Prospero resembles the technologists observed by Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition. According to Arendt, the first space satellite, launched in 1957, signaled humanity’s prideful desire to “escape from … imprisonment on earth” (20). 

Escaping the earth is the opposite of humility. Prospero thinks he is the divinity in the whirlwind, but, like the royals on the capsizing ship, the magician must learn that he, too, is a sailor on the seas of mortality. 

Prospero’s daughter Miranda folds the cosmic perspective of Job 38 into the immersive perspective of Psalm 144. Her name means wonder, the attitude of admiration and respect that accompanies humility. Witnessing the tempest from the safety of the shore, she begs her father to still the storm:

If by your art, my dearest father, you have
Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.
The sky, it seems, would pour down stinking pitch,
But that the sea, mounting to the welkin’s cheek,
Dashes the fire out. O, I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer: a brave vessel,
Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her,
Dash’d all to pieces. O, the cry did knock
Against my very heart. Poor souls, they perish’d.
Had I been any god of power, I would
Have sunk the sea within the earth or ere
It should the good ship so have swallow’d and
The fraughting souls within her.

(Tempest 1.2.1-13)

The “roar” of the “wild waters” recalls the newborn sea in Job 38 and the tempest in Psalm 107. Imagining herself as Job’s “god of power,” Miranda expresses tender care towards the creatures on the vessel.

If humility is the lesson in these three texts, the ocean and its atmospheric drama is the teacher. In each text, the poet who “goes down to the sea” asks: What stories of power and conquest and what habits of attention, attunement, and care might these waters disclose?

In my reading, Prospero is a self-styled storm god and technocrat who must learn to sound his own merciful capacities. Miranda instructs him in the ways of wonder. And Caliban is Shakespeare’s psalmist, in search of a better god than the one who floods the island with the violence of his resentments.

Prospero is shipwrecked on the island and can’t wait to get home. Caliban was born on the island and wants to reclaim it as his dwelling place. Caliban has been humiliated by Prospero. Humiliation is humility inflicted by the powerful on those they disempower. But Caliban is also a psalmist who crafts his own ethic of care as a way of being earthbound.

Humming bits of the Psalter throughout the play, Caliban composes his own poem in response to the music of the island in Act Three:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

(Tempest 3.2.133-41)

The image of a fructifying rain runs through the Psalms as a countermelody to the sound of storms: “May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth” (Psalm 72:6).  Caliban becomes the infant swaddled in the clouds of God’s lovingkindness and sung to sleep by the stars in Job 38. Like the sailors in Psalm 107:30, he is “glad because [he] has quiet” and has been “brought to his desired haven.” Unlike those kindred creatures, however, Caliban is the source of his own soothing, in concert with the music of the island itself.

Responding to the launch of Sputnik in 1957, Hannah Arendt wrote,

This future man, whom the scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years, seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself. There is no reason to doubt our abilities to accomplish such an exchange, just as there is no reason to doubt our present ability to destroy all organic life on earth. The question is only whether we wish to use our new scientific and technical knowledge in this direction, and this question cannot be decided by scientific means; it is a political question of the first order and therefore can hardly be left to the decision of professional scientists or professional politicians.

(Human Condition, 21-22)

Utopian visions are technocratic, replacing what Arendt calls “the free gift” of living together with an artificial reality we make ourselves. Messianism, the ingathering of the tribes of Israel with the nations of the earth, is not utopian in this sense. The messianic banquet imagined by the Jewish sages nurtures attitudes of respect, blessing, recognition, and wonder. These comportments converge in humility, an earthbound ethic that we practice together, through speech, action, and the work of dwelling.

Humility is a virtue, but not in the limited, individualistic sense that the word “virtue” carries today. In ancient and scholastic virtue ethics, virtues such as courage, justice, hope, and charity contribute to a layered landscape of powers and privileges that unevenly shape the pursuit of happiness for a plurality of actors. This social understanding of virtue enjoins us to tend the gardens we share with others, not the garden of our selves.

In this sense, Humility is an intellectual virtue that requires openness to reason. Humility is also a political virtue that acknowledges the humanity of others. In Arendt’s formulation, the hard work of politics, which eschews the magic of science, stems from the fact that “Men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world” (26). 

Whereas “the world” is social, “the earth” names the biome where we dwell. Humility is a creaturely as well as a political virtue, rooting us in creaturely life.  

Messianic, not utopian, plural and not singular, given and not made: this is the brave new world invoked in the first lines of Psalm 107:

O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, those he redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south.

(Psalm 107:1-3)

My climate group’s interfaith Water Communion, an ingathering of persons, traditions, and ways of knowing, flowed into this same well of wisdom, distilling a moment of hope and healing, of humility and humanity, within a call to action. In the words of the Psalmist to those that survive shipwreck: “Let them extol him in the congregation of the people, and praise him in the assembly of the elders” (107:32). Amen.

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