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The symbolism of water in the Old Testament

PARTING THE Red Sea
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Water has always had a two-fold connection to life and death throughout the Bible.

In order to become a full member of the Christian faith, one must first pass through the waters of baptism. It is no coincidence that water has become a “gateway” into Christianity, as God was slowly preparing his chosen people for this revelation throughout the history of the world.

Water is mentioned in the first verse of Genesis as, “the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1). The solemn blessing of the baptismal font at the Easter Vigil recalls this event and explains its spiritual significance, “O God, whose Spirit in the first moments of the world’s creation hovered over the waters, so that the very substance of water would even then take to itself the power to sanctify ...”

Shortly after the creation of the world and the expulsion of Adam and Eve out of the Garden, Noah is introduced and water again is mentioned, this time as a purifying agent to cleanse the world of wickedness. The solemn blessing continues with this symbolism, “O God, who by the outpouring of the flood foreshadowed regeneration, so that from the mystery of one and the same element of water would come an end to vice and a beginning of virtue.”

After some time water plays a pivotal role in the liberation of Moses and the people of Israel. Now water become associated with freedom and being set apart, “O God, who caused the children of Abraham to pass dry-shod through the Red Sea, so that the chosen people, set free from slavery to Pharaoh, would prefigure the people of the baptized …”

The chosen people travel to enter the Promised Land, but must first wander in the desert. Moses listens to the cries of his people for water and, “lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his rod twice; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their cattle” (Numbers 20:11). Water not only purifies and sets free, but also nourishes and gives new life.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes: “If water springing up from the earth symbolizes life, the water of the sea is a symbol of death and so can represent the mystery of the cross. By this symbolism Baptism signifies communion with Christ’s death” (CCC 1220).

After reading the Old Testament it should come as no surprise why God chose the waters of Baptism to become an integral part of his new covenant with us. The depth of symbolism behind water is extremely rich. That is why this natural element continues to teach us much about our Christian life.

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