Tenants, Traps, Teaching, and the Meaning of Melville’s “Moby Dick”

In Herman Melville’s novel, Moby Dick, a massive white whale named Moby Dick has bitten off Captain Ahab’s leg. In response to this, Ahab commits himself to killing the whale Moby Dick.

Captain Ahab bears the name of an idolatrous king of Israel.

Captain Ahab refuses to accept what has been done to him by a higher power.

Rather than accept the loss of his leg and move on with his life, Captain Ahab vows revenge and seeks to take it.

Melville is showing us how people who refuse to submit to God Almighty engage in a hopeless attempt to kill God and have their own will be done in life.

Melville has one character identify the whale as God incarnate. Ahab rebels against his fate and seeks vengeance for what has happened to him. Along the way Melville shows that Ahab’s quest has ruined him, destroyed his ability to enjoy life, and left him a boiling cauldron of hatred.

The story is Melville’s dramatic depiction and exposition of what life is like for those who refuse to submit to God and seek to establish their own will in place of his.

In the parable of the wicked tenants in Mark 12, Jesus tells a story that summarizes Israel’s history and explains why he is being rejected by the religious establishment. The religious establishment is like Melville’s Captain Ahab – they don’t want the Messiah God has given to them, so they declare war on the Lord and his Christ like Ahab trying to harpoon Moby Dick.

Then the Pharisees and Sadducees both try to trap Jesus.

The Pharisees come with a question about whether they should pay taxes to Caesar. These guys are more outmatched than a first year law student trying to take on Antonin Scalia. It’s like they’re trying to outrun a motorcycle on a tri-cycle.

The Sadducees come to Jesus with an argumentum ad absurdum that will show how ridiculous belief in the resurrection is. Jesus shows the fallacy of their argumentation on two points. First, he shows that there are factors about the resurrection they have not considered. What they think is a problem is not a problem because things will be changed in such a way that the problem goes away. Second, Jesus shows that the Torah, which they accept, implies the resurrection.

Jesus then answers an honest question about the greatest commandment, and the discussion of loving God and neighbor is a stark contrast with the traps Jesus has evaded. The Pharisees and Sadducees are like King Ahab of Israel, rejecting God’s Lordship and rebelling against him, seeking to establish their own will rather than submit and obey. And they are like Melville’s Captain Ahab, refusing to accept the Messiah God has given to them and instead seeking to harpoon Jesus.

You try to harpoon the whale, to kill God and take the vineyard for yourself, and you will ruin your life and destroy the lives of all around you. Melville depicts this as Captain Ahab’s quest for the whale results in the whale attacking the ship and the death of the whole crew—with the exception of the one named Ishmael (a name of one who did not partake of God’s covenant with Israel).

Mark 12 then concludes with Jesus teaching on the Christ, hypocrites, and sacrificial giving.

On Sunday, June 5, 2011, it was my privilege to preach Mark 12, “Tenants, Traps, and Teaching,” at Kenwood Baptist Church.

Don’t play Ahab’s part. Don’t go to your grave with his bitter words to the whale on your lips:

“to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”

I had a great time listening to Moby Dick, and if you’d like to beguile a little less than an hour with my sermon on Mark 12 it’s here.

7 Responses to Tenants, Traps, Teaching, and the Meaning of Melville’s “Moby Dick”

  1. Eric June 14, 2011 at 7:28 am #

    Great post and sermon, Jim! I remember first reading this idea in Sproul’s Lifeviews as an undergraduate. I still have not made my way through Melville’s tome. However, I will try to grab an audio version based on your recommendation. Also, this is a great illustration to go with this parable! Thank you for thinking and being faithful. Blessings! ECR

  2. Casey June 15, 2011 at 12:46 am #

    Fascinating post. I intend on reading Moby Dick in its entirety later this year, having only read a heavily abridged version back in high school. Is there good evidence that this was indeed Melville’s primary intent with the book, or is this a bit of your own allegorizing for the sake of your sermon? Either way, it seems like a fascinating way to look at the book.

    • JMH June 15, 2011 at 7:22 am #

      All literature involves interpretation, and Melville is showing, not telling.

      I contend this is indeed what he is showing.

      Blessings!

      JMH

  3. Patrick Chan June 15, 2011 at 9:01 am #

    Thanks for this post, Prof. Hamilton!

    By the way, if I remember correctly, you once mentioned you studied English literature too. If so, I don’t suppose you’d consider blogging on your fave English lit books someday? I think it’d be edifying to read your thoughts on English literature, especially coming from an intelligent and studied Reformed Christian perspective. Kind thanks!

    patrick

  4. Steve Whitt October 4, 2013 at 7:16 am #

    You’re exactly right about Moby-Dick, which is what makes the book a failure. Ahab comes so close, so close, to breaking through the chains and shackles of a belief in God. Sadly, he lived in a pre-Darwinian world where he had no good example of complexity arising from simplicity, so he couldn’t come to the correct conclusion that he was hunting a chimera. Hence his ultimate failure. Consider, instead, Huck Finn who, in a similar situation as Ahab, made the courageous choice that Ahab failed to make. Huck said, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell!” If only we all could find such courage.

    • JMH October 4, 2013 at 7:19 am #

      Steve,

      There’s nothing better than knowing God. There’s no one better than Jesus. Forgiveness is offered to you. You can repent of your sin and be saved from wrath. Jesus died to pay the penalty for sin. He calls everyone to come to him. If you disobey, you will answer for your own iniquity. Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

      Jim

      • Steve Whitt October 15, 2013 at 9:58 pm #

        There is something better. Ahab went looking for God and found death. Huck went looking for himself and found life. Good luck in your quest.

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