Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Theme of Flooding in the Old Testament

In considering the theme of flooding in the Old Testament, it is best to view the initial period that the earth was covered by water after God created the world as being the first instance of flooding recorded in the Bible (Gen 1:2). God dealt with the “problem” of the formlessness and emptiness of the intial creation by creating form and filling the domains so delineated. God did this through the power of his word. As part of this, God spoke such that the waters upon the earth might be gathered to one place, in order that dry land might appear (Gen 1:9). In this way, God divided the land from the seas (Gen 1:10). The original flooded state of the world could not continue on if animal and human forms of life were to exist and flourish.

The work of God separating the dry land from the seas at the time of creation established a dichotomy between the dry land and the sea, a dichotomy that is reflected in a number of places in the Old Testament (e.g., Exod 14:16, 22, 29; Neh 9:11; Ps 66:6; 95:5; Jon 1:9, 13; Hag 2:6). Proverbs 8:29 describes this work of separation as involving a divine command, reflecting divine wisdom, by means of which God assigned a limit to the sea, a command that the sea could not ordinarily “transgress.” Just as Gen 1 implies, it is God who controls the boundary between the land and the waters of the rivers and the seas. Thus, the psalmist could say that God “puts the deeps in storehouses” (Ps 33:7).

Yet ever since this first separation, the waters have always threatened to overcome the land; nevertheless the word of God has maintained the boundary between the land and the sea, preventing the flooding of the land by the waters on a worldwide scale, apart from the time of the great flood of Noah (see “The Theme of Flooding in the Bible: Noah’s Flood”). The role of the word of God in this matter is important. If it was the word of God that brought order out of chaos in the beginning, then without the word of God the world would revert to its default state with the waters overcoming the land. This is what happened at the time of Noah: “all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened” (Gen 7:11). Through that event, God showed the human race the consequences of disobedience. Human disobedience results in a reversion to the default state, which is chaos.

The theme of flooding also occurs in the account of the exodus. The water of the Reed Sea stood as a symbol of the impending death of Israel at the hands of the pursuing army. But God “divided the sea, and let [Israel] pass through it … he made the waters stand like a heap” (Ps 78:13). Or as the Song of Moses puts it: “At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up; the floods stood up in a heap; the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea” (Exod 15:8). Conversely, the destruction of the Egyptian army was as a result of flooding. As the Song of Moses celebrated: “The floods covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone” (Exod 15:5). See also Ps 106:9–11.

The relationship between water, chaos, and death on the one side, and dry land, salvation, and life on the other, as developed in Gen 1, the Noah narrative, and the incident of the Reed Sea, provides the conceptual framework for the biblical metaphor of being overcome by water as an image of death, and also for the related metaphor of being rescued through or from water as an image of salvation from death.

In Psalm 18, for example, David pictures the threat of death from the opposition of enemies as being like a torrential flood dragging him down to Sheol (Ps 18:4–5). But in response to the psalmist’s cry for salvation, God acted to “lay bare” “the channels of the sea” through his word of rebuke (Ps 18:15). “He sent from on high, he took me; he drew me out of many waters … He brought me out into a broad place; he rescued me, because he delighted in me” (Ps 18:16, 19).

Psalm 69 is another example:
Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me … Deliver me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters. Let not the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the pit close its mouth over me (Ps 69:1–2, 14–15).
Flood imagery also appears in Ps 88:
You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves … Your wrath has swept over me; your dreadful assaults destroy me. They surround me like a flood all day long; they close in on me together (Ps 88:6–7, 16–17).
Similarly Ps 124:
If it had not been Yahweh who was on our side when people rose up against us, then they would have swallowed us up alive, when their anger was kindled against us; then the flood would have swept us away, the torrent would have gone over us; then over us would have gone the raging waters (Ps 124:2–5).
Flood imagery also occurs in Ps 32:6; 42:7; and Jonah describes his experience in the stormy sea in terms of flooding (Jon 2:3, 5–6).

Finally, it should be noted that the power of floodwaters is also used as an image of the power of God. The floodwaters surge and roar, but “mightier than the thunders of many waters, mightier than the waves of the sea, Yahweh on high is mighty!” (Ps 93:3–4). “Yahweh sits enthroned over the flood; Yahweh sits enthroned as king forever!” (Ps 29:10).

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