WATER IN SCRIPTURE

INTRODUCTION

Usually my Bible studies have been studies of complete individual books of the Old or New Testament, in which we work through the book from beginning to end.  On occasion, however, it is useful to pursue a topical study, which considers a subject through Scripture as a whole or at any rate through a number of Biblical books.  This kind of topical study is particularly useful as a way to show the unity of Scripture:  particular concerns, themes, and ideas run throughout Scripture and knit it together.  These persistent themes serve to unify what otherwise might seem to be widely disparate books, exhibiting a large variety of genres and coming from a multiplicity of periods and pens.  In an indirect way the unity that becomes visible through a topical Biblical study serves to show the literary genius, or even the inspiration, of Scripture.  I hope that at least in a general way this study should help to illustrate how a unifying subject, namely water, weaves together apparently diverse genres and texts in the Old and New Testament.

 

  1.  Typology in the Bible

More particularly, this study will use the example of one topic to show both how the Bible uses typology and also the importance typology has in conveying the teaching of Scripture.  For this purpose, the particular example of a type chosen for study, namely water, is somewhat arbitrary.  Other examples, such as bread or marriage or sacrifice might serve as well as water to show both the general nature of Biblical typology and also the unity of Scripture that common themes help to create and reveal.

That said, the particular subject in question, water, is indeed very important.  While some other types might be as pervasive and significant, water is certainly a good example.  This study will not be exhaustive, but it will try to cover most of the major appearances of water and related things in the Bible.  Taken as a whole this should show the way a reader might approach other topical subjects for other studies.

A ‘type’ is a person who or a thing that prefigures or foreshadows a future or later person or thing.  Sometimes ‘type’ is paired with ‘antitype’.  In that case the ‘type’ is the foreshadowing, while the ‘antitype’ is the later reality to which the type points.  The antitype is the body that casts the shadow back from the future, while the type is the foreshadowing.  The words ‘emblem’, ‘figure’, or ‘symbol’ might be used to mean the same thing as type, but ‘type’ more commonly or clearly includes the element of foreshadowing.  A type is a kind of prophecy, a symbolic, temporally prior, anticipation.

Given this definition of ‘type’, typological interpretation of Scripture means interpreting Old Testament persons and things as foreshadows, anticipations, or prefigurements of Christ or of Christian realities such as the Church or the sacraments.  Likewise, persons and things in Christ’s parables or in the materials of his miracles and other actions, can serve as foreshadows of later things in the Church’s life or in the life of Christians.

The word ‘type’ is itself Biblical.  In the Greek New Testament both ‘type’ and ‘antitype’ occur several times.  An important example occurs in Romans 5:14 where Saint Paul refers to Adam as a ‘type’ of Christ.

…death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come.

The Greek word used here by Paul is tupos (τύπος), which the King James’ Version (KJV) translates as ‘figure’.  Paul means that Adam prefigures or foreshadows Christ:  as Adam’s work had universal effects, so does Christ’s; as Adam is a representa­tive human being, so is Christ; and so forth.

Another, and more extensive, example of typological interpretation from St. Paul occurs in I Corinthians 10:1-11.  Here St. Paul gives an extensive interpretation of many incidents in the Exodus which in verse 6 he calls types (tupoi), which on this occasion the KJV translates as ‘examples’.  In verse 11 Paul says that ‘all these things’ from Exodus ‘happened…for ensamples’ (tupikos).  A footnote in the KJV gives as an alternative translation the word ‘types’.  Passages from the Exodus to which Paul refers in this typological interpretation include Exodus 13:21, 14:22, 16:15, 17:6, & 32:6, and Numbers 14:29-32, 11:4, 25:1, & 21:5f., all of which Paul uses to explain Christ and the need for Christians to be loyal to him.

Some of the types developed by Paul in I Corinthians 10 concern water.  Consider 10:4, where Paul speaks of Moses using his staff to produce water from a rock in the desert (referring back to Exodus 17:1-7).  In I St. Peter 3:20-21, Peter also uses a type involving water, namely the flood of Noah and the ark, as prefiguring baptism.  Peter writes that the saving of eight souls in Noah’s ark is a ‘figure’ (literally ‘antitype’) of baptism.  More generally again in Hebrews 9 the epistle interprets things in the Jewish temple and sacrificial system as foreshadows of Christ and his cross, using again the term used in I St. Peter 3:21, ‘antitype’ (Hebrews 9:24).  The idea and the terminology of typology, then, are familiar in the New Testament epistles, and this method of interpretation is already applied by those epistles to the Old Testament.

Likewise in Christ’s own teaching there are examples of typological use of Old Testament figures, such as Jonah (St. Matthew 12:39-40) or the brass serpent (St. John 3:14-15).  In related fashion, Christ’s teaching also uses the related phenomenon of allegorical interpretation of his own parables or stories:  for instance, in the parable of the sower and the seed (Mark 4:2-20, and in parallel parables in Matthew and Luke).  The parables and speeches of Jesus do not speak about ‘types’ or otherwise use terminology about typological interpretation, but Jesus very much employs such interpretation.

If St. Paul and our Lord himself used typological interpretation, there seems good reason for Christians to do the same or at least to understand how to interpret Scripture the way such weighty authorities do.  This study will pursue a single type, namely water.  It will consider water itself in its various forms and manifestations, such as streams, the sea, floods, and rainfall, and in its various natural and human uses.  This consideration will look at all the major sections of the Bible:  the Pentateuch; the Old Testament history books and prophets; the Psalms and other poetical books; and the various parts of the New Testament (the Synoptic Gospels, Saint John’s Gospel, the Acts, the Pauline and Catholic epistles, and Revelation).

 

2.  Water in general in Scripture and as a type

Before considering the meanings of water of Scripture, it may be useful to consider the meanings of water in general.  The Bible builds on the natural and human significance of the things of which it speaks.  The symbolic meaning of water in Scripture, in the particular kind of foreshadowing symbols that we have termed ‘types’, builds on the natural and universal significances of water.

There are several different kinds of signs and symbols.  Two of the most important kinds of signs are conventional and natural.

Some signs are purely conventional; that is they are significant because a group or community agrees upon their meaning.  Their significance is the result of a social convention.  The lanterns of Paul Revere’s ‘one if by land, two if by sea’ were a conventional sign with a meaning that rested entirely on a prior agreement.  Likewise our society agrees that an octagonal red piece of metal on a street corner means that a driver should stop his vehicle and pause before proceeding with caution.  This meaning is mostly the result of a social convention, law, or agreement, and not the result of the intrinsic nature of red octagons.  Insofar as a society might just as easily decide that electric blue circles or lemon yellow rectangles should mean ‘Stop!’, the octagonal red stop sign is conventional.

If traffic signs are mostly conventional, other signs are mostly natural.  A natural sign is not significant, or not merely significant, because of a social convention, but because of something intrinsic to the sign itself.  So, for instance, smoke rising from the far side of a hill naturally signifies the presence of fire or of burning of some sort.  Thunder is a natural sign of a storm.  So too water is a natural sign with several intrinsic significations or meanings that are not mainly the result of a convention or social agreement.

Water, as one of the chief necessities of life, naturally signifies life.  It suggests hydration, refreshment, cooling, or the relief of parching and of drought, all of which in turn by extension signify life.

Next, water also can naturally signify washing, cleansing, or purification, since it is the first and still most common means of cleaning bodies, clothes, and other objects.

While water is a necessity for life and, in consequence, a natural sign for life, it also can have the opposite sense of death.  Water can naturally signify drowning and therefore death that comes from drowning.  A little less obviously, water in the Old Testament can have the sense of chaos and destruction.

These broad senses for water, namely life, cleansing, and death, are all ancient and are embedded in the earliest human experiences.  Not surprisingly, then, a study of the Scriptural significance of water will reveal examples of all these meanings, as will be clear when we begin to look at particular Biblical texts.  On this level, however, while water has certainly has various natural symbolic meanings, the symbolism is in question is not necessarily typology.  That is, water in Scripture almost inevitably will suggest life or cleansing or death, or some combination of these meanings, but it will not necessarily foreshadow and prefigure later Biblical passages or realities.  We have defined a type as a particular kind of figure or emblem or sign:  namely signs that have a certain prophetic or prefiguring sense.  All types are symbols, but not all symbols are types.

Sometimes signs have both natural and conventional meanings.  To return to stop signs, while in terms of traffic signs a red octagon is mainly conventional, the color red is certainly and intrinsically bright and noticeable.  Insofar as the purpose of the stop sign is to arrest the attention of drivers at dangerous intersections, the particular sign that a group has chosen to mean ‘Stop!’ builds on something natural about bright red.  Often typological signs take some natural sign and add to it an additional meaning that flows from convention, history, or another added source of significance.

While water is not necessarily a type, nonetheless throughout Scripture it frequently does have typological meanings which build on the natural senses of water (life, cleansing, death).  Often the fullest and deepest level of meaning in Scripture comes clear when one considers its types in the light of the antitypes or archetypes (or basic realities) which are Christ and the sacra­mental system of his Church.  Considered in this light, water inevitably suggests baptism, which includes all of the natural meanings of water:  renewal and life (baptismal regeneration), washing and cleansing (baptismal remission of sins), and death (the death of the old self, sin, the old Adam).  These meanings, which we will find again and again in the Biblical appearances of water, are types, the special kind of sign and symbol that is the object of this Bible study.

Another general point is important when considering the significance of water in Scripture.  That is, that the Bible unfolds in a very arid climate.  Much of the Biblical world is desert or semi-desert.  In such climates water is a precious thing, and its life-giving, refreshing significance would be particular­ly strong.  The natural significance of water as life-giving in a desert climate is stronger than in a climate in which water is plentiful and, in consequence, more taken for granted.

But the other natural meanings of water, namely water as cleanser and as a cause of drowning and death, are also often present in Biblical culture.  So, for instance, the Pentateuch calls for many ritual washings and ablutions with water, suggesting the cleansing function of water.  Likewise, Old Testament culture was not comfortable with boats and seafaring and was very conscious of the danger of storms and drowning.  It is true that at the height of Israel’s monarchy under Solomon and for a time later there was a Hebrew trading fleet, but even this was only a late and partial exception to the Hebrew dislike for ships.  Solomon’s trading fleet was largely manned, it seems, by foreigners (I Kings 9:26-28), and under Jehoshaphat the gold fleet was destroyed (see I Kings 22:48 and II Chronicles 20:35-37) and apparently never thereafter restored.  The fear of large bodies of water was natural for a desert or semi-desert people.

Furthermore, the Old Testament saw the world as a kind of disk surrounded by water above and below.  If these waters broke in, the world would be destroyed by drowning.  This idea would naturally contribute to fear of water and to the idea that water could destroy and kill.  So, the particular circumstances of Old Testament belief, culture, and climate reinforced all of the natural meanings of water.

It is true that in the New Testament period the Jews were not completely adverse to the sea.  The disciples included several fishermen, and the gospels show our Lord on a boat several times, albeit only on the very small ‘sea’ of Galilee.  Nevertheless, the Old Testament background remains significant for the New Testament’s interpretation.

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