Symbol of life

Mineral water, photo by Walter J. Pilsak available through Creative CommonsWater, humankind's most basic physical need, is widely used as a potent symbol of life. This is certainly the case throughout the Bible, where, in the first book, the Garden of Eden is watered by a river (Genesis 2:10), and in the last book, ‘the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal,' flows ‘from the throne of God' (Revelation 22:1-2).

In Psalms 23:2 David describes God in terms of a shepherd, who leads him ‘beside quiet waters', and in Psalms 1:1-3 a man who delights in God's laws is compared to ‘a tree planted by streams of water … whose leaf does not wither.'

Water is used as a symbol for the spiritual life which God gives. Throughout the book of Jeremiah, God accuses his people of two sins:

They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own … broken cisterns that cannot hold water (Jeremiah 2:13).

John's Gospel tells of an encounter Jesus has with a woman at a well in Samaria. He asks her for a drink of water, and tells her,

‘Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life' (John 4:13-14).

Later in the same gospel, Jesus makes a public declaration:

 ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.'

The writer follows this statement with an explanation of what the symbol of water used here stands for, ‘By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive' (John 7:37-39).

Punishment and danger

Water can also represent God's punishment, as can be seen in the story of the flood (Genesis 6:9-22 and Genesis 7:1-24), or danger, as can be seen, for instance, in Psalms 107:23-30 which paints a dramatic picture of danger at sea and of God's control of the elements:

Others went out on the sea in ships; they were merchants on the mighty waters. They saw the works of the Lord, his wonderful deeds in the deep. For he spoke and stirred up a tempest that lifted high the waves. They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths; in their peril their courage melted away. They reeled and staggered like drunkards; they were at their wits' end. Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress. He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed. They were glad when it grew calm, and he guided them to their desired haven.

Jesus' command over a storm on Lake Galilee, and his ability to walk on water, caused his disciples to worship him as the Son of God (Matthew 14:22-33). ‘Walking on water' has become a proverbial expression for doing the impossible.

Related Topics

Big ideas: Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, ‘Second Adam'; Noah and the flood; Baptism

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