WATER IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

  1. The waters of creation and chaos, Genesis 1-11

The Near East seems to have known several creation myths, including the Babylonian Enuma Elish, which featured the taming or controlling or destruction of a water dragon or serpent who represents primeval chaos.  There may be echoes of these myths in mentions of a sea serpent (Amos 9:3), ‘the dragon’ (Ps. 74:14), ‘Rahab’ (Ps. 89:11; Isaiah 51:9), and ‘Lev­iathan’ (Ps. 74:14 & 104:26; Isaiah 27:1; Job 41:1).  Such echoes, however, are of minor significance in the light of the Old Testament’s understanding of God.  That the Psalms or Job speak of ‘Leviathan’ when discussing creation is not much more theologically significant than that Michelangelo uses particular artistic conventions in depicting God on the Sistine Chapel.  The artist or storyteller or theologian uses the tools, ideas, and images at hand.  That does not prove that Michelangelo thought of God as literally looking as he portrays him, or that the Psalmist literally believed in a primeval sea serpent.  In an inspired storyteller and Scriptural author, these images and ideas are con­trolled by divine purpose and by the authoritative interpretation of Old Testament monotheism and then of the Church.

In the story of creation in Genesis 1, water figures importantly.  First, at the beginning of creation there is a formless, watery void, ‘the deep’ upon which the Spirit of God ‘moves’ (1:2).  The verb ‘moved’ suggests a hovering motion, like a bird brooding or hovering over its nest.  The moving of the Spirit over the waters precedes all other creation.  The idea will recur in later related stories, such as the doves in the story of Noah (see Genesis 8:7-12) and of the baptism of Jesus (e.g., S. Mark 1:10).  There is no life at this point to be threatened by the watery deep, but water here has the sense of chaos and disorder.

On the second day of creation God divides the waters by creating ‘the firmament’ (1:6-8), which might be thought of as a kind of disk or lens from which the chaotic waters of the watery deep are separated and limited to a controlled and ordered place.  The dry firmament is separated from waters both above and below as if it floated in them.  Since the firmament is surrounded by water, breaches of its limits can lead to water coming in either from above (such as rain) or from below (the ‘fountains of the deep’).  In Noah’s flood the waters come in from all sides (7:11).

On the third day of creation God separates dry land and seas within this ordered disk.  In these several creative acts, one sees the significance of water as something that must be governed, controlled, and limited by divine action if further creation is to occur.  The waters in this context might be the stuff and raw matter of creation — the Spirit hovers over the water creatively to fructify and bring forth the world.  But even more, water is something that is potentially dangerous, something to be limited to certain places and boundaries if the rest of creation is to exist safely.  Therefore, water at the first here is already ambivalent:  in God’s Providence it is a source of life but with a potential for death.  Water will prove to be both fruitful and dangerous again and again in Scripture:  fruitful as when Israel passes through the Red Sea or the Jordan on the way to new life, when Scripture speaks of healing and sweet and life-giving waters, or baptism; dangerous as when God ceases to restrain the waters in the flood of Noah, when the Egyptians drown in the Red Sea, or in many references in Psalms and in Job to storms and Leviathan.

Water is both less ambivalent and also gentler in its significance in Genesis 2 than in Genesis 1.  As compared to the vast, cosmic elements of the creation story in Genesis 1:1-2:4, the story beginning in Genesis 2:5 is far more intimate and immediate.  God is depicted anthropomorphically, molding and breathing into and walking and talking with his creatures.  What is often described as the second Genesis creation story, nonetheless, also involves water:

…the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground.  But there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground. (2:5f.)

This gentle rise of mist from the earth and the consequent watering of the ground quickly give way to the creation of man and the garden in which he is placed in vv. 7 and 8.  The mist and rain here are not obvious cases of typology, but they do show a shift from the chaotic waters of the previous chapter.  Water has now been ordered and softened by God and has a definitely positive meaning.

A river ‘to water the garden’ flows from Eden (2:10) and then divides into four streams (2:10-14).  This Edenic river seems to influence later Biblical texts, such as Ezekiel 47 and Zechariah (13:1, 14:8), leading up to Revelation 22:1-2.  When Christ says that he is living water (St. John 4:10-14; 7:37-38), one must keep in mind the background of these Old Testament streams, beginning with the river of Eden, through the living waters proceeding from the temple in Ezekiel’s vision, and including the other positive, life-giving instances of water in the Old Testament.  The water of Eden’s river seems unambiguously good and positive in its significance.

The final great example of waters in the primeval narrative of Genesis 1-11 is the water of Noah’s flood in Genesis 6-8.  Here water is most obviously dangerous and destructive.  The unleashing of the waters from below and above and the breaking up of the firmament that protects creation from the chaotic and destructive potential of water, constitute a reversal of God’s creation in Genesis 1.  God withdraws the protecting limits that he established in his first creation, and the created world is therefore undone almost completely as water reverts to its destructive potential.

The only life not destroyed by the flood is that protected by the ark, made and filled by God’s command and according to his instructions.  It is no accident that the flooded world is finally dried up on the ‘six hundredth and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month’ of Noah’s life (8:13).  The first creation, begun by the restraining of water, took place in six days and then ended in the six hundredth year of Noah’s life when the waters were let loose again from above and below (7:11).  The new creation begins with the start of a seventh, sabbatical century for Noah, 600 + 1.  The numbers here as much as the presence of water suggest a new creation, a renewal of Genesis 1.  But although the creation is renewed as the flood ends, it does not fully recover from Adam’s sin, as the stories of Ham’s sin (9:20-27) and the tower of Babel (11:1-9) make clear.  Creation and destruction, sin and renewal, all remain in the world, and all are connected in various ways with water.  Water remains ambivalent in its potential meanings.

It is significant that the first appearance of the word ‘covenant’ occurs in immediate conjunction with God’s reference to the impending flood (Genesis 6:17, 18).  The series of Biblical covenants, which includes that connected to the rainbow at the end of Noah’s flood (9:12-7), reaches its culmination in the Christian covenant, to which baptism is the entrance.  The Old Testament covenants, including that of the rainbow here and of circumcision later under Abraham, foreshadow the Christian covenant.  It is not surprising, then, that the New Testament will interpret the Noah stories in just this way, as a type of baptism, the door into new life in Christ, one covenant foreshadowing the decisive covenant.

  1. Water in the desert:  springs and wells in the stories of the patriarchs and Exodus

As one might expect in the nomadic, arid world of the patriarchs, finding springs and oases, digging wells, and contentions over water are important facts of life.  This is true even today in the Middle East, where water rights are an important and vexed subject with implications for international relations.  For examples of this fairly straightforward importance of water consider Genesis 26:18-22, where Isaac digs wells and then has quarrels with his neighbors about the water; or Exodus 15:27, where the Exodus begins after the passage of the Red Sea with a stage at a major oasis.

The land chosen by Lot before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is described as ‘well watered everywhere…like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt…’ (Genesis 13:10).  This attractive description fits later (idealized!) references in Scripture to Canaan as a land flowing with milk and honey.  For readers familiar with what is to come later in the story, however, the apparently positive description includes a decidedly ominous element.  What appears to be a new Eden chosen by Lot will give way to the fire and brimstone, salt and blasting, that will follow the destruction of the cities of the plain (Genesis 19:24-8).  Similarly, the conjunction of ‘the garden of the LORD’ with ‘the land of Egypt’ is both understandable, in that Egypt was watered reliably by the Nile and its annual flood, but also ominous in that Egypt will be a place of enslavement that the Israelites will need to flee as surely as Lot flees Sodom.  The apparently attractive description of Lot’s choice in fact is ambiguous and shadowed.

One need not spend much time considering many mentions of water in the patriarchal narratives of Genesis.  Water is a sign of hospitality (Genesis 18:4); oases are sought out and wells dug to sustain life (again Genesis 26:13-23; Exodus 15:27); the exhaustion of water supplies threatens death and brings divine intervention (21:14-20).  In Deuteronomy 8, as Moses during the Exodus foretells the good things in the Promised Land, water is mentioned first, before crops and fruit, brass and iron:  ‘a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths that spring out of the valleys and hills’ (8:7).  Water in these examples does not carry a particularly heavy typological significance.  On occasion, however, beyond the historic, literal importance of water, these springs and wells and waters sometime do carry a further, typological meaning.

Two cases in which water is symbolically and typologically significant concern the well that Jacob comes upon on his search for a wife (which hearkens back to the similar incident of Abraham’s servant in search of a wife for Isaac) and the water of Marah and from the rock in Exodus.

In Genesis 24 Abraham’s servant goes in search of a wife for Isaac and comes upon ‘a well of water’ (24:11).  The willingness of Rebekah to draw water from the well for the servant and his camels is a sign that she is the wife to be.  In Genesis 29 Jacob similarly meets his wife to be, Rachel, by a well.  The well is blocked by a great stone, which presumably can only be removed by a group so that all have a chance at the water (29:2-3).  But when Jacob sees Rachel he rolls away the stone by himself to water her flock (10):  the strength is infused, it seems, by the force of Jacob’s love.  The removal of the stone from the well’s mouth at the sight of Rachel is probably meant to convey a gently sexual significance.  The easy removal of that obstacle, however, contrasts with the other obstacles that turn up as Jacob pursues his true love in the course of chapter 29.  Likewise it turns out that, in contrast with the easily unblocked well, Rachel, even after she is finally able to marry Jacob, has a womb that is blocked so that she has trouble conceiving (30:1-3, 22-24).  The well in this incident is in part a symbol for life, the womb, and fertility, and as such it is a type:  compare the description of the font at the Easter Vigil blessing as ‘this womb of living water’.

These stories of patriarchal betrothals are the first instances in Scripture of a ‘type scene’, to use Robert Alter’s term.  The elements of the full version of the betrothal type scene are:  a hero of Israel goes to a foreign land; he comes upon a woman by a well; water is drawn and kinship is recognized; young women (or in the King James Version translation ‘damsels’, for Hebrew na‘arah) run to report the encounter; there is a feast with betrothal.  Here water by itself is not powerfully typological, but it is part of a very full scene which is typological.  Examples or partial examples of this type scene in addition to the betrothals of Isaac and Jacob are Moses (Exodus 2), Ruth (Ruth 2) and Saul (I Samuel 9).  All of these cases will in turn echo in the story of Jesus, a hero of Israel, when he encounters a woman of Samaria (a foreign place) by a well.  This final story, in St. John 4:1-31, includes an explicit discussion of marriage and is, given its background in Genesis, presumably meant to show us that Jesus is both Israel’s Hero and also a Bridegroom.  Water, again, is an element, though only one of many, in these elaborate scenes that are typological as a whole.

In Exodus as the children of Israel wander in the desert, they occasionally begin to lack water and, the reader is told, come upon oases (see Numbers 33).  In Exodus 15 and 17 particularly there are two occasions of this sort.  In Exodus 15, immediately after God delivers his people by and through the waters of the Red Sea, they murmur when they find bitter water at Marah (15:23).  The contrast between God’s salvation of his people through water (Red Sea) and their mistrust of him in the matter of provision of water at Marah is striking.  Despite this mistrust, Moses casts a branch into the bitter waters, which then become sweet and potable (15:25).  This healing of the waters is explained within the story itself as a sign that the LORD would not ‘put…those diseases upon you, which I brought upon the Egyptians:  for I am the LORD who heals you.’ (15:26)  This healing of the waters at Marah is referred to in the Easter Vigil blessing of the baptismal font as a type of the baptismal waters.  Baptismal water is both blessed and also brings blessing, just as the waters of Marah were both healed of their bitterness and then were sweet and healing in turn.  This healing of bitter water also will echo in a story of Elisha (II Kings 2:19-22), while the casting of a branch into water will figure in a somewhat different story of Elisha in II Kings 6:1-7.

In Exodus 17 the people again complain about the lack of water at Massah and Meribah (17:7, the names mean ‘temptation’ and ‘contention’).  God then commands Moses to strike a rock with his rod (the one with which he struck the Nile during the struggle with Pharaoh) at Mount Horeb/Sinai, ‘and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink.  And Moses did so.’ (17:5-6)  This is the rock that is taken by St. Paul as a type of Christ in I Corinthians 10.  Christ is the Rock.

In Egypt water comes from the Nile regularly and could almost be taken for granted.  In the desert and in Canaan people are more conscious of their dependence upon God’s providence for water, since rains can fail and oases sometimes are not found.  Such a contrast between Egypt and Canaan is made explicit in Deuteronomy 11:10-17.  The waters Massah and Meribah consequently represent distrust in Providence by people who have recently and miraculously benefitted from the care of Providence.  This type of water has its fullest symbolic completion in Christ and baptism.  The water from the rock suggests the water from Christ’s side (St. John 19:34) and so, by extension, baptism.  The water from the rock comes from God in response to man’s sin.  The Israelites’ complaints foreshadow the killing of Christ; striking the rock foreshadows the piercing of Christ; water in the desert foreshadows both the water from Christ’s side and also baptism.  The fact that Moses strikes the rock may even be a type for the striking of Christ by those who particularly claimed to be followers of Moses, namely the chief priests and elders, though that is not something stated in Scripture or the liturgy.  In any case, this incident in Exodus is referred to often in later books of the Bible as a chief example of the Israelites’ provocations against God:  see Deuteronomy 6:15; 9:22; 32:51; 33:8; Psalm 95:8-11; and Hebrews 3:8-19.  This importance makes sense given the typological interpretation St. Paul gives to the event.

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