WATER IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

  1. Crossing the Red Sea and later passages of water

We have already referred briefly to the crossing of the Red Sea by the children of Israel at the beginning of their Exodus from Egypt.  The relevant sequence of events in the book of Exodus, with the Red Sea at the center, is:  warning from God of impending death for the first born in Egypt (Exodus 11); the hasty Passover meal of unleavened bread with the blood of the lambs sprinkled on the doors of the Israelites to avert the angel of death (chapter 12); departure from Egypt (chapter 13); Pharaoh and his army drowned in the Red Sea after the Israelites pass dry shod (chapter 14); thanksgiving by the Israelites with provision of water at Marah (chapter 15); manna given to feed the Israelites (chapter 16); water from the rock at Meribah and Massah (chapter 17).

The passage of the waters of the Red Sea in Exodus has the same fairly clear double or ambivalent meaning found for water in Genesis:  the sea brings, on the one hand, life and deliverance for the Israelites; on the other hand, death and destruction for the Egyptians.  But on a deeper level even for the Israelites considered alone this passage through water represents a kind of death, namely death to their old way of life as slaves in Egypt, in addition to the positive beginning of a journey into the hopeful future and a new life in the Promised Land.  Water represents life and death, but also often life through death.  This idea of entering new life through death will be central to baptismal typology and Christian living.

The elements of the Exodus story with typological significance are drawn out by the New Testament, both explicitly and implicitly, and then further drawn out by the liturgies of the Church.  But long before the New Testament begins to reflect on the Exodus with typological interpretation, later layers of the Old Testament already echo and repeat the elements of the whole Exodus story just noted, including prominently the passage of the Red Sea waters.  Therefore, a careful study of water in Scripture needs to consider not only the original Red Sea story in Exodus, but also its later iterations and permutations in the Old Testament.

All of these Old Testament stories will then affect the typological goal or archetype or future fulfilment of the Red Sea passage which lies in the New Testament and in the later worship of the Church.  The crossing of the Red Sea and the whole complex of related Exodus events are interpreted by Christians as types of Christ’s death and Resurrection and of baptism.  A particularly rich illustration of this typology comes in the Exultet, the great hymn of Paschal Praise sung by the deacon at the blessing of the Paschal Candle near the outset of the principal liturgy of the Christian year, the Easter Vigil.  The deacon sings in the Exultet:

Now therefore we sacrifice our Passover, wherein for us the very Lamb of God is slain, by whose Blood even the doors of his faithful people are made holy.  Now is come the night, wherein, when our fathers the children of Israel were led forth out of Egypt, thou dividest the sea and madest them to go on dry land in the midst of the waters….Now is come the night, whereby all that believe in Christ upon the face of the earth, delivered from this naughty world…are unto grace renewed, and made partakers of eternal life.

This blessing of the Paschal Candle then is followed both by the reading of the story of the Red Sea passage in one of the Vigil Prophecies and also by the blessing of the font.  The Old Testament Prophecies which are read after the Exultet and the blessing of the font at the Easter Vigil are filled with water typology, including the stories of creation and of Noah’s flood.  Furthermore, between the Prophecies and the blessing of the font, during the procession to the font, the choir sings the Sicut cervus from the beginning of Psalm 42.  The psalm contains further references to water both in the passage sung in the Vigil liturgy and also in the later verses which are not sung:

Like as the hart desireth the water-brooks, so longeth my soul after thee, O God.  My soul is athirst for God, yea, even for the living God….My God…therefore will I remember thee concerning the land of Jordan, and the little hill of Hermon.  One deep calleth another, because of the noise of the water-pipes.  All thy waves and storms are gone over me.

Water here in Psalm 42 has its full range of typological meanings because of its connection to the rich complex of events involving water passages in the earlier parts of the Old Testament.

Reference to the Easter Vigil is anticipating, however.  Before considering the gospel, the new covenant, and the Christian liturgy we must consider the earlier typological repetitions and echoes in the Old Testament of the Red Sea crossing.  These echoes repeat, but also add layers of meaning to, the original Red Sea story.

The best and clearest example in the Old Testament of a repetition of the Red Sea story is the first, in Joshua 3-4, where the children of Israel enter the Promised Land over the miraculously dried up waters of the Jordan River after their 40 years wandering in the desert.  God dries up the Jordan in a manner obviously reminiscent of the Red Sea crossing in Exodus, not least to show that Joshua has inherited the power and authority of Moses.  The connection between the Red Sea and Jordan River crossings is made explicit in Joshua 4:22f., when Joshua says to the Israelites:

Israel came over this Jordan on dry land.  For the LORD your God dried up the waters of Jordan from before you, until ye were passed over, as the LORD your God did to the Red sea, which he dried up from before us, until we were gone over.

It is significant that the Passover is explicitly renewed in Joshua 5 after the crossing of Jordan:  the first entry of Israel in the Promised Land after the Exodus is connected to the Passover and to the passage of the Red Sea which began the Exodus.  The story begins and ends with a similar passage of water.  The close proximity of the original Passover with the Red Sea crossing is then mirrored by the passage of the Red Sea and the renewal of the Passover.  This coupling of the wonderful passage of water in Scripture with a meal or with bread will occur again.

Furthermore, in Joshua 5, Joshua circumcises those who were not circumcised due to neglect during the forty years of the Exodus.  Circumcision is understood in the New Testament as another type of baptism (see Colossians 2:11-13).  The status of circumcision as a type of baptism strongly reinforces the baptismal signifi­cance of the Jordan crossing.  Sacramental types – passage of water, the Passover, and circumcision – are grouped together in Joshua 4 and 5.

At this point it might be helpful to note the particular spiritual and apologetic value of typological interpretation in the case of the Book of Joshua.  The story of the entry of Israel into Canaan under Joshua is notably bloody, as Israel ruthlessly slaughters the earlier inhabitants of the land by divine command.  This story is often disturbing to modern readers for obvious reasons.  Typological interpretation, however, helps us to find a positive meaning in texts which are troubling on the literal level.  If the passage of Jordan and the renewal of circumcision are types of baptism, and if the renewal of the Passover is among other things a foreshadowing of the Eucharist, then the subsequent story of Canaan’s conquest may well be read likewise as a foreshadowing of realities in the Christian life.  In particular, the inhabitants and kingdoms of Canaan may be understood as symbols for the world, the flesh, and the devil, which Christians renounce in our baptism and against which we are called subsequently to wage constant, albeit often hidden, warfare.  If the story is so interpreted, it is not so much recommending war against non-Christians as war against evil and against ourselves as our own worst enemies in the life of post-baptismal Christian sanctification.

The Red Sea crossing is also in the background of II Kings 2:6-15, the story of the translation of Elijah and of the succession of Elisha to the prophetic authority of Elijah.  Here too there are wonderful passages of water by both of the prophets.  The context for those passages, with their obvious echoes of the Red Sea crossing, is an even more general Exodus theme in the stories of the ministries of Elijah and Elisha.  Examples of this wider Exodus theme include, first, the flight of Elijah, like Moses before him, from a wrathful king:  Moses fled Pharaoh (Exodus 2:15), Elijah fled Ahab and Jezebel (I Kings 19:1-3).  Later Moses led the children of Israel to mount Sinai (or Horeb) where God gave them the Law, while Elijah also encountered God on Horeb (I Kings 19:8) and also encountered God (in the ‘still, small voice’, I Kings 19:12).  On the journey to Sinai and during their 40 year wandering in the desert, Moses and the Israelites were sustained by manna, a miraculous food, while Elijah also was sustained by wonderful food (I Kings 19:6-7) during his 40 day journey (19:8).  Elijah and Elisha both multiply bread wonderfully in another echo of manna (I Kings 17:10-6; II Kings 4:42-4).  In the light of this whole context of parallels between Moses and Exodus, on the one hand, the Elijah and Elisha, on the other, the crossings of water in II Kings 2 even more strongly echo the Red Sea crossing.  The passages of water in II Kings 2 by Elijah (2:8) and Elisha (2:14) are certainly less dramatic than those under Moses and Joshua, but clearly they also are miraculous and are meant to show the authority of the prophets as successors to the earlier great leaders of Israel.

All of these wonderful passages of water under various Old Testament heroes (Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Elisha) will in turn lie behind the New Testament miracle of Christ walking upon water, which we will consider in detail in the New Testament portion of this Bible study.

  1. Water in the Law:  ablutions and sprinklings in the ritual Law as types of baptism and purifica­tion through Christ

Sprinkling and washing for ritual and purification purposes are very common in the Old Testament.  The significance of these acts is somewhat complicated, however, by the fact that both water and blood are used for them.  The author of the New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews writes that ‘almost all things are by the law purged with blood’ (9:22), for in the Law of Moses the priests, sanctuary, and sacred items were sanctified by sprinkling with blood.  Since blood and water will be connected in the story of the crucifixion (John 19:34), these two kinds of sprinkling are also typologically related in ways that might not be immediately apparent.  That is, the sacrifice of Christ with its bloodshed is the source of the purifying power of the sacramental system, including water baptism.  The double significance of water (death; life and purification) connects the two kinds of sprinklings in the Old Testament.  This connection is also suggested in two other New Testament passages:

This is he that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ:  not by water only, but by water and blood.  (I St. John 5:6)

And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  (Revelation 7:14)

It seems no accident that these New Testament texts connecting water and blood are from the Johannine corpus, which often is particularly sensitive to Old Testament typology.

Apart from noting the internal connection between sprinklings with blood and with water, which becomes clear in the light of the New Testament, we need not in a Bible study on water look in detail at the Torah’s provisions concerning blood sprinklings.  An interested student, however, could begin a study of that subject by considering Leviticus 8:14-9 and 16:14-19.

As for washings with water, the priests of the Old Testament are commanded to wash their hands and feet with water before going into the tabernacle for their regular ministrations (Exodus 30:19ff.).  For the purposes of this regular washing the Law provides a laver made of brass outside the altar area (Exodus 30:18).  In the temple of Solomon there is an elaborate description of the large ‘molten sea’ (I Kings 7) made and set up the purpose of washings at the temple.  This large piece of metalwork was later destroyed by the Babylonians in II Kings 25:13-6 as part of their looting of Jerusalem of its valuables.  The regular ritual washing by the Old Testament priests has a counterpart in the liturgy of the Church, where the clergy wash their hands with prayer (‘Cleanse my hands, O Lord, and purify my heart’) before they begin to put on the Eucharistic vestments.  There is a second handwashing in the Eucharistic liturgy itself at the end of the offertory after the oblation of bread and wine and the invocation of the Holy Spirit.  The offertory handwashing is commonly called the Lavabo (‘I will wash’) from the first word of the Latin form of Psalm 26:6-12, which is said silently by the priest during the handwashing, beginning ‘I will wash my hands in innocency, O Lord, and so will I go to thine altar’ (Psalm 26:6).  While the initial handwashing before vesting is usually done in a sacristy with a normal sink and towel, the lavabo is performed ritually with a small cruet of water, a bowl, and a linen towel.  The water used for the lavabo is has been blessed by the priest before the mixing of the chalice, and therefore it is not later poured into a normal drain but into an earth drain or onto clean ground.  In pontifical Mass bishop’s hands are washed a third time, after the normal ablution of the chalice following communion.

The idea of washing as normal before approaching God in worship extends at least to some degree beyond the priests.  In Exodus 19, before the decisive encounter of Israel with God on mount Sinai, the LORD commands Moses to sanctify the people, to have them ‘wash their clothes’ (19:10) and not to approach the mountain too closely (19:12f,).  Moses conveys these commands, including the washing of clothes (19:14), and adds a command to abstain from sexual intercourse (19:15).

In addition to the regular priestly washing in Old Testament worship, the priests of Aaron’s line also underwent washings as part of the rites connected with their consecration.  God commands Moses to bring Aaron and his sons to ‘the door of the tabernacle of the congregation’ where the high priest is to ‘wash them with water’ (Exodus 29:4) before their vestments are put upon them.  This washing was part of the consecration rite of Old Testament priests in that it was performed before the initial vesting of priests along with other consecratory acts such as anointing.  Thereafter, however, washing merges into the regular ministry of the priests in that it was subsequently repeated on each occasion when priestly vestments were assumed.  This command concerning washing is repeated or enacted in Exodus 40:12, Leviticus 8:6, 16:4 & 24, which means the washing was not simply part of an initial consecration, but also, to repeat, part of the regular tabernacle ritual of vesting.

While hand washing during priestly vesting has a practical value in helping to keep costly vestments from soiling, it also has a symbolic or typological meaning:  ‘these are holy garments, therefore shall he wash his flesh in water, and so put them on’ (Leviticus 16:4).  Again, compare this Levitical washing before vesting with the ritual of the Christian Eucharist.  In both cases the washing has both practical and symbolic purposes.

In addition to this regular, priestly washing, the Old Testament provides a purification rite of washing for people who become ritually unclean or impure.  This rite must have been quite common, because the Torah establishes a host of cases that render people ritually impure.  For instance, a person becomes unclean through any contact with blood, including any hemorrhage or menstruation.  Indirect contact also renders a person ritually impure, so that a person who had direct contact with blood or a bleeding person renders anyone impure whom he in turn touches.  See Leviticus 15 for many cases of this sort.  Likewise touching a dead body or a grave, or anything that touches a dead body or a grave, renders a person ritually unclean.

Such ritual impurity, one should note, did not by itself imply moral impurity, evil, or failure.  In fact, in some cases the law itself requires or implies that some persons will contract ritual impurity for particular, necessary purposes.  Care for a dead parent, for example, might well be morally obligatory and good but also would render the son or daughter ritually impure for a time.  Likewise, as we will see, the rites of purification require acts that themselves produce ritual impurity.  While ritual impurity does not imply any moral fault, the concern for ritual purity was an important aspect of Israel’s holiness, her separation from the rest of the nations.

While not implying moral failure, in all cases ritual impurity requires a restoration of ritual or cultic purity through a defined rite of purification, including washing.  That is, while the impurity itself might not imply fault, a failure to restore purity would imply disobedience to God, and that would be a moral failure.  As a necessity for obedience to God’s revealed will in the old covenant, the rite of Levitical purification by water is a type of baptism whereby Christians are purged from sin and separated from the world to live a new life.  Cultic separation and ritual purity become types of Christian baptism and then of Christian sanctity, Christian living, and the life of grace.

The Old Testament rite for purification is described in detail in Numbers 19.  This chapter provides for a blessing water which will be used for ritual purifications.  This ‘water of separation’ or purification took its power from the ashes of a sacrificed heifer.  The heifer is sacrificed according to an elaborate rite, its remains are burned, again with a clearly defined rite, and then the resulting ashes are kept in a remote place to be mingled periodically with water which then is effective for sprinklings or washings to restore ritual purity.  The priest who burns the heifer and the man who removes the ashes to the remote place outside the camp both are rendered impure by these acts, which nonetheless are necessary for the rites of purification.

Since sacrificial animals in the Law are types of Christ’s sacrifice, the purifying water of separation is another a type of baptism.  The waters of baptism proceed from the wounded side of Christ and are empowered to cleanse from sins because of Christ’s death upon the Cross.  This source of the power of the sacraments in Christ’s death explains the frequent type of blood as a cleansing or ritually purifying agent in the Bible, both Old and New Testament:  again, consider Hebrews 9:13-28 and Revelation 7:14.  To repeat, blood and water are connected symbolically for this reason, and both proceeded from the side of Christ in St. John 19:34.  It is logical under the Old Testament law with its blood sacrifices that the water of separation is made effective by mixing in it the ashes of a sacrificed animal.

Leviticus 14 contains provisions concerning leprosy:  detecting leprosy and its healing and the cleansing of persons and places so healed from impurity.  The cleansing involves both a sacrifice (of two birds, 14:49) and then washings with water (14:50-2).

While it is outside the Torah, the story of the healing of Naaman by Elisha in II Kings 5 also involves leprosy and healing by water.  Elisha tells Naaman to ‘wash in Jordan seven times’ (5:10) to cleanse himself of leprosy.  After some initial reluctance, Naaman does as instructed:  he ‘dipped himself seven times in Jordan…and the flesh came again like unto the flesh of a little child, and he was clean’ (5:14).  This passage seems to straddle two or three ideas involving water.  It echoes some of the purifying uses of water in Numbers and Leviticus.  In addition, it is a miracle story about a healing in the Jordan River.  The earlier stories of Elijah and Elisha and the Jordan River may lie in the background of the Naaman story.  It certainly is a type of the New Testament baptisms in Jordan and so of Christian baptism.  Leprosy, as a disfiguring and wasting disease, is a type of sin and of the fall.  A healing of leprosy by water is a type of baptism, which cleanses from sin.

The Psalms contain a number of references to washing and cleansing that refer back to the ritual and cultic lavings of the Law and, typologically, also look forward to the washing of baptism:  e.g., Psalm 26, as noted above; and Psalm 51:  ‘Thou shalt purge me, O Lord, with hyssop, and I shall be clean; thou shalt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.’  The basic meaning of these and other Old Testament references to the cultic use of water, washing, and purification flow from the passages already considered in this study.

  1. Water in the Prophets:  Jonah and Ezekiel

By way of showing the extension of water symbolism and typology into the Latter (or writing) Prophets, two brief examples will suffice:  the stories of Jonah and of the healing and life-giving waters that flow from the renewed temple in the vision of Ezekiel 47.

The story of the sailors throwing Jonah as a sacrifice into the raging sea (Jonah 1:9-16) is itself filled with typological and Christological significance.  Jonah sleeps through the sea storm (1:5), as did Christ during a storm on Galilee (Matthew 8:24; and parallels in Mark and Luke).  In both cases the sleeper is awakened in alarm by others (Jonah 1:6; Matthew 8:25) and solves the problem.  Jonah offers himself as a willing victim in order to save others (1:12), though the type is imperfect because Jonah is indeed at fault for refusing God’s prophetic call (1:2f.).  In the cases of Jesus and the storm, he does not on this occasion sacrifice himself, but that will come later in the gospels.

In Jonah’s case, the sacrifice is effective (1:15).  In the most famous element of the story, Jonah is for three days and three night swallowed by a great sea creature prepared by the LORD (1:17):  a ‘great fish’ in KJV or a ‘whale’ in the New Testament reference.  The Hebrew term is generic for a sea creature.  In any case, the time in the creature’s bell is typologically interpreted by Jesus himself in Matthew 12:40:

For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Jesus takes Jonah as a prefigurement or type of his own death and burial, rather than as a type of baptism, and in the next verse in Matthew takes the preaching of Jonah to Nineveh as a further type of himself without specific mention of water.  But there is an internal connection between baptism, on the one hand, and the atoning death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, on the other.

The Christian reader inevitably sees the self-abandonment of Jonah, his prayer in the deep (Jonah 2:1-9), and his safe delivery from the sea (2:10) as types of baptism, with its death of the old man and entry into the new life of grace.  Just as baptism reverses many effects of the fall, so after Jonah’s restoration in 2:10, he resumes in chapters 3 and 4 the prophetic mission that he refused in 1:3.  The movement in Jonah 1 and 2 is of descent – down to Joppa, down to the ship, down to sleep in the hold, down into the sea and into the fish.  The direction reverses with 3:1f., with Jonah arising and going up to Nineveh.[i]  The descent into water turns disobedience and declination into obedience and ascent.

Ezekiel 47 is the last of the great visions in the book of Ezekiel.  Ezekiel is brought to the door of ‘the house’, the Jerusalem temple, where immediately he sees waters that ‘issue’ (KJV) or ‘seep’ (Alter) from the front and threshold of the building, which is towards the east (47:1).  This small stream of water flows to the right, that is south, apparently from or from beneath the altar (vv. 1f.), and it rapidly deepens until it is an impassable, mighty river (vv. 3-6).

The vision then includes trees on both sides of the stream (v. 7) and information from the ‘man’ of previous visions concerning the goal and purpose of the waters:  to flow through the desert into the ‘sea’ (that is, the Dead Sea), so that its waters ‘shall be healed’ (v. 8).  The vision continues with a description of the abundant life that will come forth from the healed waters of the sea.  The language in this vision echoes the story of creation in Genesis, with life ‘swarming’ in v. 9 (Alter’s translation) as in Genesis 1:20ff. and with the ‘fruit-bearing’ trees in v. 12 (Alter; ‘trees for meat’, KJV) as in Genesis 1:11f.

Ezekiel’s vision is of life and health restored to Israel by the healing waters of the restored temple.  The general sense of water as the source of life and healing is heightened in this vision, where it is the desert and the Dead Sea that are watered.

The clearest New Testament use of Ezekiel 47 is, of course, in Revelation 22:2, in John’s vision of the New Jerusalem.  In Saint John’s gospel Jesus identifies himself as the new and true temple in 2:19, and as the source of living and healing water in 4:13f.  Such references in the Johannine literature, which could be easily multiplied, show the implicit identification of the water from the temple in Ezekiel’s vision with Jesus himself.

By extension, though this is not an identification explicitly made in the New Testament, the healing water of Ezekiel 47, which brings teeming life back to the lifeless, barren waters of the Dead Sea, is a figure for baptism.  The waters descend from the hill of Sion to the lowest place on earth and flow through arid desert, but they bring healing and teeming life and restoration.  What sin and Sodom and Gomorrah blasted, baptism reverses and restores.

The connection between the vision of Ezekiel 47 and Christian sacramental reality has regular liturgical expression in the Vidi aquam, the antiphon that replaces the Asperges me during Paschaltide.  The Vidi aquam is not a direct quotation from Ezekiel 47 or Revelation 22, but is clearly based on Ezekiel’s vision:

I beheld water proceeding out of the temple, from the right side thereof, alleluia : and everything, whithersoever the waters of life shall come, shall be healed, and they all shall say, alleluia, alleluia.  

The Asperges/Vidi aquam is a weekly reminder of baptism, which joins together Old Testament vision, New Testament fulfillment, and sacramental representation and renewal.

There are, of course, many other references to water elsewhere in the prophets.  These two examples, however, suffice to show that the theme of water typology is very much present in second great division of the Old Testament.

[i] On the language of Jonah descending, see Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible:  Volume 2, Prophets, Nevi’im. A Translation with Commentary.  New York:  Norton, 2019.  Page 1289.

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