Waters of chaos, rivers of life

Whether land locked or living in the caress of her tides, we need water. Life goes where the river flows, without it we wither and die. But water is also a devastating force. When rivers breech and oceans surge, chaos is unleashed. Survivors are often left with no choice but to start over.

For ancient people, these observations evoked the idea of potential. Just as maternal waters break in the violent throes of labour, so in creation mythology, worlds are typically born of primordial waters.
Chaos and creation

We see this imagery deployed in the Hebrew creation story. In Genesis 1, we read, “darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters”. God separates the waters, and the world is created.

God later regrets this decision and sends a flood to destroy the world, “for the earth is filled with violence”. By Genesis 6, we see “the fountains of the deep burst forth” in a return to the primordial state. But a righteous man, Noah, and his family are preserved in an ark. The waters recede, and the world is re-created.

The Gospel of Luke makes an allusion to these waters, when an angel tells Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” The Spirit hovers over Mary like the waters at creation. Jesus’ birth is remembered as a new kind of creation.

So the waters represent a world in potentia, the birthplace of something new. We move from concrete images to intimations of miraculous birth. In this broad sweep, we see a pattern emerge: Creation. Destruction. Recreation.

Crossing the waters

In the Book of Exodus, we see these themes in more detail. Moses is born of the waters. In an attempt to hide him from state-sanctioned infanticide, his mother places him in a basket on the Nile. The Pharaoh’s daughter discovers him there, and adopts him into the Royal family. She gives him the name Moses, because she “drew him out of the water”. This turns out to be a portentous name, as Moses will draw a nation out of the water.

God uses Moses to separate the waters of the Red Sea and deliver the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt. In the lyrical Song of Moses: “The surging waters stood up like a wall; the deep waters congealed in the heart of the sea.” The Israelites cross over, and the waters descend on their pursuing masters. The Hebrew identity as slaves perishes in the water behind them, and a new identity is born: Israel.

The Israelites cross the waters once more in the Book of Joshua. After forty years in the wilderness, they cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. In this story, the Ark of the Covenant plays a key role. Like Noah’s ark, and Moses’ basket, the Ark of the Covenant is figured as an instrument of salvation through perilous waters.

The idea of deliverance compresses miraculous birth and salvation into a single event. The pattern becomes: creation-destruction-recreation.

Falling into the deep

The story of Jonah distils these ideas further in a psychedelic drama that is refreshingly human. God commands Jonah to speak truth to power in Nineveh, but he hilariously sets sail in the opposite direction. As a result, a supernatural storm hits the boat, and Jonah is thrown into the sea and swallowed by a giant fish. After three days, the fish vomits him up onto dry land.

Inside the fish, Jonah praises God: “The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you, Lord my God, brought my life up from the pit.”

In Jonah’s prayer, we remember the “engulfing waters” of the Red Sea; the chaotic “deep” that births creation, a nation, and salvation out of the primordial flood. But Jonah’s portrait reveals more. The “roots of the mountains… the earth beneath” and “the pit” are references to the ancient idea of the underworld: Sheol. Jonah’s fall into the deep is portrayed as nothing less than immersion into the shadowy realm of the dead, to be reborn.

The parallel with Jesus’ death and resurrection is hard to miss. When asked to perform a miracle by religious leaders, Jesus responds: “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”

Jesus’ story is like a fractal that contains all the other stories, marking him out as our cosmic exemplar. He is the Creator who remakes the world out of his death. He is Moses, born of the bloody Nile, who leads us out of slavery. He is the Pharaoh’s daughter who adopts us into a Royal family. He is the ark that preserves what is true in us, and the waters that destroy what is false. He walks on the flood and subdues it. He is the promise and the pledge of what will become of all our little deaths. We are buoyed up on the waters. Led out of a psychic wilderness into the Promised Land. Reborn of the fish that circles the abyss. The motif is one of transformation. 
Jesus reveals a mystery that borders on sacrilege, even to secular ears. The waters of damnation and the waters of salvation are the same waters.

Thresholds of transformation

One of the most quoted passages in the Bible is in the Gospel of John, where Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except though me.” As our cosmic exemplar, Jesus is the way a true life is lived. No one comes to the Mystery except though the “flood”, which is far more embodied than it is theological.

The way of the flood, or “cross”, is built into the fabric of life. At times, the journey feels like dying, and is in fact, a series of deaths. An infant must die to become a child; a child must die to become an adult, and these transitions can be incredibly painful.

For this reason, threshold events are often contained in rites and rituals. In many traditional settings, a young man undergoes trials and wounding to mark his passage into manhood. Less dramatically, Christians are gently baptised into a watery grave, to be resurrected into a new life and community. These rituals are akin to river crossings. The initiate is held in a ceremonial container, like an “ark”. A ceremony master oversees the proceedings.

But sometimes life initiates us violently, overtaking us like a flood. When we hear that a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer, the waters of chaos rush in. Our normal state is disrupted; everything is suspended in flux. Transitions like a painful divorce, or loss of a job, assail our identity and wound us deeply. There is no ceremony master for these events. We feel that we are drowning. Alone.

This emotional flood can be devastating. Unless it becomes a crossing, there is no life to come. We can become attached to the land of the dead, like the Egyptian chariots bogged down in the seabed. The waters of chaos become a whirlpool that seems impossible to escape.

The only way out is through. Christian saints and mystics learnt to see the flood as an ally, not an enemy. They realised that the waters of chaos could only push them further into the ark. For them, the belly of the fish becomes a sanctuary, the birthplace of eternal life. It has been called “the dark night of the soul”, “the interior castle”, and “the cloud of unknowing”. It is a mode of dying, even to death itself, where darkness is accepted as the waters doing their work of purification.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the mystics have been so little understood. The Apostle Paul writes, “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.” As we’ve seen, salvation and destruction are not separate events. Each of us wrestles with an inner Egyptian slave master and an Israelite waiting to be born. One must die so the other can live.

Rivers of living water

This brings us to water as a symbol of abundant life. Like the Promised Land, “flowing with milk and honey”, the river of life represents fertility and flourishing. In its most literal sense, “living water” is pure, flowing, clear, fresh, and wholesome — never stagnant or salty. It quenches our parchedness and satisfies our desert longing.

The archetypal river of life is established in Genesis. Flowing out from Eden, it multiplies and waters the earth. The biblical writers use this device repeatedly to evoke paradise moving out into the world.

Ezekiel and Zechariah prophesy that Zion and its temple will miraculously become water sources. Ezekiel gives an oracle that even the Dead Sea will be freshened: “Wherever the river goes every living creature swarms to live, and there will be many fish, once these waters reach there. It will become fresh; and everything will live where the river goes.”

Finally, in the Book of Revelation, the river of life returns “as bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God”. In Ezekiel’s vision, the river flows from the temple. But through the eyes of our cosmic exemplar, the river flows from the throne of God in us. Jesus makes this explicit when he says: “rivers of living water will flow from within them.”

The river of life is an eternal circle, moving out from the first Book of Genesis to the last Book of Revelation. It evokes literal, metaphorical and cosmic meanings, but Jesus reveals its Source as an existential reality. This river is a “spring of water gushing up to eternal life” in us. Chaos is forever transformed. The only thing that drowns in these waters is the self.