Tuesday, January 5, 2010


Water is an incredibly important symbol, used throughout the scriptures, but it is almost always forgotten. Because of that, I feel like I should bring to light again some things about the symbolism of water that often pass us by.

In the opening verses of Genesis, it says

"[...] and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. "

The word firmament comes from the Hebrew word "raqiya", (called Raukeeyang in the Book of Abraham's facsimile #2) which comes from the root "raqa", which means to stamp, beat out or stretch. The firmament was perceived as a giant hemisphere above the ground, likened to a bowl, which is beaten and stretched out of metal (see Job 37:18).

The deep refers to an enormous ocean that originally made up the entirety of existence. As the above verse demonstrates, the Hebrews believed that great primordial deep was separated into the waters below the firmament (the sea), and the waters above the firmament, perceived as a literal ocean above their heads. In fact, the Hebrews believed that "windows" in the firmament were what caused rain (Genesis 7:11). It was the rising of the deep that caused the flood, and the receding of the deep that allowed Moses and the Israelites to pass on dry land.

[See the picture at the bottom of the blog for an illustration of the above concepts]

Basically, it's saying that everything in the world originally came from water, and that water was there before anything else. The Qu'ran, also stemming from a proud Hebrew heritage, seems to agree:

"Have those who disbelieved not considered that the heavens and the earth were a joined entity, and We separated them and made from water every living thing? Then will they not believe?" (21:30)

It says much the same thing in the New Testament (The New International Version, FYI. I've checked the Greek, and it makes more sense):

"But they deliberately forget that long ago by God's word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. " (2 Peter 3:5)

Obviously, the Hebrews believed that the universe was created out of something, and not nothing as many other Christian churches would say. I think Joseph Smith recognized that fact when he said that the world was made out of "unorganized matter". But I don't literally believe that the entire universe, or even the earth, came from an actual ocean. If modern science is anything to go by, the earth began in fire, and not in water. But I won't deny that there is an incredible symbolic truth being expressed here.

The Hebrews are not the only ones who believe the world came out of a primordial ocean. According to that wonderful website Wikipedia, many cultures have a creation myth where water was the original substance. The creation myths of the Hindus, the Finns, the ancient Egyptians, the Cherokees, the Bakuba and the Hmong all involve a primordial ocean of some sort that the world was made out of.

But why would they all use water, of all things? Well, I can imagine that a person who saw the ocean for the first time would see that it goes out to the horizon, as far as they can see. Perhaps they suppose it goes on forever. It makes them feel small. And so, they suppose that everything he knows on the land must be mere blotches on the infinite ocean of existence. As a result, they would come to think of water as the blank canvas of existence that everything is painted on.

In other creation myths, other "blank" substances were used. For example, the Shinto think the world was created from a cloud, which separated into the sea and the sky. In Greek mythology, according to Hesiod's Theogeny, the primordial substance Chaos gave birth to the first deities representing the earth, the underworld, darkness and desire.

The Chinese creation myth, although it is much more philosophical and mystical, also has a blank original "substance"

"There was something featureless yet complete, born before heaven and earth; Silent – amorphous – it stood alone and unchanging. We may regard it as the mother of heaven and earth. Not knowing its name, I style it the Tao [Way]"

In modern science we don't see the world very differently. Space (and energy, as well) seem as "blank" and as "empty" as any ocean. So we today see ourselves much like the ancient Hebrews, as an island in the middle of an ocean of space.

Additionally, in nearly all of these myths this original substance “gives life” in some way. In the case of the Tao, it is actually called the mother of heaven and earth. But the use of water as this substance makes this more explicit. Water gives life, more than anything else on earth. We need to drink it, and so do the animals which we eat. It waters our crops and we were actually born from water in the womb. Appropriately, the Hebrew word for the Deep, "Tehom", comes from the Sumerian word/deity Tiamat, also associated with a primordial ocean, which literally means "the mother of all life".
In other areas of scripture, water is also seen as life-giving and therefore divine. In 1 Nephi 11, Nephi speaks of a "Fountain of Living Waters" next to the Tree of Life (which I assume is the same one as the Garden of Eden), which is also a title later applied to Christ. Before the animals of land were created, the animals who live in the lower ocean (the sea) and the upper ocean (the sky) were created. The four rivers coming out of the Garden of Eden in Genesis seem to water the entire known world. Multiple times throughout the Qur'an Paradise is described as being filled with water of different types. God is described as speaking with the "voice of many waters" and in D&C 133, Joseph Smith speaks of barren deserts that shall bring forth living water after the Second Coming.
So, in that context I will liken the previously mentioned function of water: the life-filled original material of creation, to the other more well known function of water in the Gospel: as a purifier. The best example of this function is the ritual of baptism, performed to "wash away the sins" of the person being baptized.
Baptism has its roots in the Jewish ritual of mikveh. The Mikveh is ceremonial bath for Orthodox Jews to regain purity after encountering "unclean" things or activities, like childbirth, menstruation, touching a dead animal, etc.. Purifying by mikveh would be a common activity to Jews at the time of Christ, and baptism would be seen in its context. But according to the Orthodox Jewish author Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, that too has its origins in the conception of water as the source of all life. In his work Waters of Life, he says that the types of uncleanness that a mikveh purifies most often have something to do with death. And so, by ritually washing you are connecting with water, which he says come from the Garden of Eden, the source of all life.
And so I believe it is for baptism. As I mentioned before, water is inseparably associated with its life-giving qualities. By being baptized, we are coming into contact with the original source of all life and creation, and it repels unclean materials causing sin and death. It also has the added symbolism of going back into the waters of the beginning of life, the womb, to be symbolically reborn.
And as many have said before, the Great Flood (the other great water-related thing in the scriptures) was the Earth's baptism. It was filthy with sin and death, so the waters of life rose to cover it and purge it of evil. It wasn't merely being washed; it was going back to the world's original state of creation and remaking the undivided primordial ocean. It was returning to its womb: the Great Deep.

I hope you enjoyed this entry after a Christmas and early January hiatus. Thanks for reading!