Taken with the feeding of the 5000, Jesus’s “walking on the water” miracle is an allusion to the Exodus. There are a number of elements found in John 6 which may be understood as using Exodus language. The fact that this miracle takes place around the time of Passover brings the events of the Exodus to the foreground. In the immediate context, the provision of food in the wilderness clearly evokes the wilderness traditions. Jesus organizes the people into groups and gives them food, just as Moses did in the wilderness. This is the main point of the lengthy discussion between Jesus and the people in John 6.
The churning waters of the storm are an allusion to the chaos of the sea in the Exodus. Jesus walks on the water as if it is dry land and leads his disciples through the waters to the other side of the sea. In Mark 6:48, Jesus is passing by them, similar to God passing before Moses and revealing his glory (Exod 33:18-34:6). The same verb is use din Mark 6:48 and LXX Exod 33:19. When God causes his glory to pass by Moses, the Lord declares his sacred name and character (Exod 34:6). God reveals his name at Sinai, he is “I am,” here in John 6:20 Jesus says “I am” using the same words as LXX Exodus 3:14-15.
It is possible the phrase “do not be afraid” alludes to the Exodus as well, although the words are common in a theophany or when an angel appears. The aorist passive form of the verb φοβέω appears in LXX Exod 14:10, when Israel saw the army of Pharaoh the were greatly afraid, Moses tells the people to not be afraid, although the word in LXX Exod 14:20 is θαρρέω, not φοβέω. The Hebrew verb is the same (ary).
What is the point of Jesus enacting the Exodus and Wilderness events as a part of his ministry? Jesus is creating a new Israel, leading them on a New Exodus through the wilderness at the end of the Exile. If Jesus is announcing the end of the Exile in his ministry, then his disciples ought to have anticipating the coming of the new covenant as well as the coming of the Holy Spirit as a sign of the dawning of the new age.
The miracle also confirms that Jesus is in fact God. God trampling the chaotic waters of the sea is a classic element of the divine warrior metaphor in the Hebrew Bible. In Psalm 77:16-19 God is described as walking through the seas as the rage around him (cf., Job 9:8, Hab 3:15). In Psalm 77 the writer has a moment of despair, thinking that God has abandoned him. In Psalm 77:8-9, for example, the writer wonders if God has forgotten to be gracious. Someone might wonder if God has become so angry he has canceled out his compassion for Israel.
It is only when the writer begins to meditate on the might acts of God which he has already done that he realizes that God will act one again on behalf of his people. In Psalm 77:11-12 the writer says that he will “ponder on the works of God” and “meditate on his mighty deeds.”
In Psalm 77:16-19 the Lord himself treads on the waters, and it is the waters who are afraid and flee before the Lord. The Lord led his people through a path in the sea into the wilderness like a flock (verse 20). In fact, the Psalm ends enigmatically with a reference to Israel being led like flocks by Moses and Aaron. They were led into the wilderness where God provided them food and water and enacted his Covenant with them at Sinai.
By walking on the water and leading his twelve disciples through the storm to the other side, Jesus is consciously evoking the Exodus and Wilderness traditions being celebrated at Passover, but he places himself in the center of the story. Just as God led Israel in the past, now Jesus leads Israel at the end of the exile.
What are other elements of this memorable miracle which reveal something about Jesus’s relationship with the God of the Hebrew Bible?