The importance of water symbolism in a purely literary or textual sense in the Bible cannot be stressed enough. Water plays a significant role in Scripture and history. According to Genesis 1:2, God the Spirit "hovered over the waters," and "long ago by God's word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged [the global flood] and destroyed" (2nd Peter 3:5-6). Evidently, the Spirit hovered over the primordial waters just as he hovers over the baptismal waters at Jesus' baptism, and the waters that God used to form the Earth are also the waters used to flood the earth during the time of Noah (Genesis 6-9). In this context, we understand that water can bring life, sustain life and end life.
The early Hebraic nomads knew well that water was precious in the deserts of the Near East, and as water was a precious commodity, it was a valuable treasure. Moses' experience in the wilderness during his forty years away from Egypt provided Him with an advantage when the exodus occurred and the Israelites journeyed in the wilderness for forty years (the second set of forty years in the wilderness for Moses), so that Moses knew well the geography of the land. Interestingly, Moses strikes a rock on two different occasions – in order to provide water to the people. One of the plagues brought upon Egypt is the turning of the Nile river (water) into blood.1
There are a number of other miracles associated with water. For example, God parted the Red Sea so that the Israelites could safely cross from one side to the other while escaping the Egyptians (Exodus 14:16-31). Around forty years later, at the time of Joshua a similar miracle occurs, in which the Israelites cross the parted Jordan river (Joshua 3-4). Around 400-500 years later, the prophet Elijah also parted the Jordan river directly before his assumption into heaven, and when his fellow prophet Elisha came back through afterward, he also struck the water and parted the Jordan (2nd Kings 2:8, 14).
In line with water-related miracle, we see in the canonical gospels that Jesus walked on water, calmed the water and after His crucifixion, blood and water flowed from His side (John 19:34; likely due to the rupturing of the heart or puncturing of the pericardial sac), which may possibly also be referenced in 1st John 5:6. Jesus is also well known for performing his first miracle at a wedding feast in Cana, where he turned the water into wine (John 2).2 Out of the water came the wine, which the master of the banquet considered to be "the best wine." Perhaps more important, though, is the account recorded in John 4:7-26. Here, Jesus speaks with a Samaritan woman about drawing up water from the well.3 Jesus claims to be the water of life, the “living water.” Why? Jesus is the sustainer and giver of life, and as St. Paul says in the New Testament, “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
It is worth noting that according to Ezekiel and Revelation 22:1-2, there is a river that flows from God’s Throne room within his Holy Temple in the New Jerusalem. This may be an interesting callback to the four rivers that flowed forth from the Garden of Eden. In fact, the river of the waters of life (Revelation 22:1-2) is described in such Edenic terms that we receive mention of the “tree of life” that brings life to the nations, and grows alongside this river that flows from God’s Throne.
Water is also used in baptism, as noted in the New Testament documents and early church writings such as The Didache (AD 50-120). Baptism in the early church was not something that would have been out of place. Jews were used to ritual washing and purification, and John the Baptist (mentioned in the Gospels and by Josephus) was a pre-Christian baptizer. John also baptized Jesus, at which point the Spirit of God descended (hovering much as it did during Creation) and the Father speaks from heaven. After the resurrection of Jesus, He commanded His disciples to baptize “in the name of the Son, and of the father, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).4 Baptism is used as one of the seven sacraments5 of the Catholic Church, where it is used to cleanse you of Original Sin. Other denominations claim that you cannot be saved unless you are baptized, whereas for other Christians, the only thing you need for salvation is trust (faith) in God. In this view, baptism is a sign of commitment: an external sign of an internal faith.
Perhaps a final – and very important – consideration in light of Scripture’s use of water is also its use of fish imagery. Fish play a very prominent role in the canonical and deuterocanonical works. Fish, of course, live, play and dwell in water. Jonah is swallowed while in the watery Mediterranean Sea by a large fish, and a fish in the deuterocanonical book of Tobit enables the demon Asmodeus to be fended off and the healing of Tobiah’s father Tobit.6 Jesus fed people with fish, the apostles were fisherman, and Jesus told people to be “fishers of men.” Water is clearly used in a variety of different contexts within Scripture, and will continue to be used as an element used to understand God’s activity within human experience.
1. While Moses turned the Nile River in Egypt from water into blood, Jesus turned the water into wine, a sort of antithesis.
2. In sociological terms, wine was drunk more often than not as a result of water contamination. A reference to this is found even within the New Testament, in a letter from St. Paul to Timothy, "Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illness" (1st Timothy 5:23). In these days, water was not very clean. The water was generally filled with contaminants, and individuals drank wine as a result of the unclean water. Sometimes the water was mixed with a bit of wine, or sometimes it was simply a moderate portion of wine.
3. This is claimed to be Jacob’s well. This also ties the water symbolism into the repeated Biblical motif (or type-scene) of the well. For example, Isaac's wife is found by a well, Moses saves the women by the well, Saul is searching by the well, and Jesus talks with the Samaritan woman by the well. It seems as though the well is a center or focus, and it is worth noting that the well itself contains the primary element: water.
4. Early Christians used a variety of baptismal formulas when baptizing. They would sometimes use “the Son, the Father and the Holy Spirit” (as Matthew and the Didache show), but as Acts shows, they usually used “in the name of Jesus,” “in the name of our Lord,” or “in the name of our Lord Jesus.”
5. The basic seven sacraments of the Catholic Church are Baptism, Confirmation, the Holy Eucharist, Repentance/Reconciliation (Penance), Holy Order, Matrimony (Marriage), and the Anointing of the Sick. The Council of Trent helped to define (but did not originate) these sacraments, and at Vatican II, the idea that Jesus is the “primordial sacrament” came about.
6. Both tales have an Assyrian background, dealing with the city of Nineveh – a fish swallows Jonah to make him go to Nineveh, and a fish tries to bit Tobiah as he tries to leave Nineveh. Scholars believe that Tobit takes partial influence from Jonah, and in fact, some early manuscripts of Tobit actually mention the prophet Jonah.