Water covers approximately 70-75% of the earth’s surface makes up about 70% of the human body. Water is arguably the most important natural resource in the entire world. All life depends on it. On the other hand, water may be a terrifying life changing force when it comes in the form of hurricanes, floods, or blizzards. Because of the universal nature of water, it is not surprising that H20 plays a central role in the Bible as well.
Today we are going to explore the watery events in the Old Testament that foreshadowed the New Testament sacrament of Baptism. Drawing from both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, I will focus on the two major aquatic events that prefigure baptism. Finally I will explain how the destructive powers of water superbly describe our faith life.
Great Flood of Genesis
Genesis 7 tells of a large flood that covers the earth after 40 days of continual rain. Whether or not a literal flood covered the entire earth or if it was a localized deluge does not matter. What is important is the symbolism used and the ways the Early Church Fathers interpreted this event as a prefiguration of the sacrament of Baptism. According to St. Justin Marytr in chapter 138 of his Dialogues with Trypho,
You know, then, sirs, that God has said in Isaiah to Jerusalem: ‘I saved you in the deluge of Noah.’ By this which God said was meant that the mystery of saved men appeared in the deluge. For righteous Noah, along with the other mortals at the deluge, i.e., with his own wife, his three sons and their wives, being eight in number, were a symbol of the eighth day, wherein Christ appeared when He rose from the dead, forever the first in power. For Christ, being the first-born of every creature, became again the chief of another race regenerated by Himself through water, and faith, and wood, containing the mystery of the cross; even as Noah was saved by wood when he rode over the waters with his household. Accordingly, when the prophet says, ‘I saved you in the times of Noah,’ as I have already remarked, he addresses the people who are equally faithful to God, and possess the same signs.
Interestingly, Christians built traditional Baptismal fonts in octagonal structures to represent the eight souls saved in the Genesis Flood. The number eight in ancient times represented eternity. According to
Dr. Denis McNamara in his article The Sacred Depth of the Baptismal Font: The Place of Re-Creation,
In many historical examples, the octagon has taken precedence from the list of possible shapes, likely because of the symbolism of the number eight and its association with the theological “eighth day.” Genesis speaks of God creating the world in six days and resting on the seventh, and so the “eighth day” is the metaphorical day of eternity as the day “after” the earthly sabbath, a day of re-creation into eschatological completion. Relatedly, there were eight souls in Noah’s ark who became the source of new life after the deadly flood. Since baptism is the door to this new life, the eight-sided baptistery takes on a symbolic significance particularly appropriate to the sacrament’s effect.
Another way the Genesis flood foreshadowed Baptism is the dove Noah sent out to test the subsiding of the waters in Genesis 8:10. Cardinal Jean Danielou states that this reference is a foreshadowing of the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus in the form of a dove in the Gospels. Lastly, the Church Father Tertullian viewed the saving wood of the ark as prefiguring the wood of the Cross by which Jesus dies for our salvation.
Crossing of the Red Sea
Aside from the Genesis flood, the most common typological Old Testament event that foreshadows Baptism occurs in Exodus. Here the Crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites represents a freedom from slavery [they were under the rule of the Egyptians]. Using Moses as an instrument of His power, God parts the Red Sea and allows the Israelites to leave slavery while at the same time destroying the Egyptian army that tries to chase after them. The Catechism of the Catholic Church 1220 declares, “But above all, the crossing of the Red Sea, literally the liberation of Israel from the slavery of Egypt, announces the liberation wrought by Baptism: You freed the children of Abraham from the slavery of Pharaoh, bringing them dry-shod through the waters of the Red Sea, to be an image of the people set free in Baptism.”
Tying the previous two examples together, the common thread is that Baptism represents a type of death—this sacrament KILLS original sin and makes us ADOPTED sons and daughters of God! St. Paul states it best, “So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Our process in becoming a new creation starts with the sacrament of Baptism. What is more, the Greek word βαπτίζω [Baptism] translates to submersion under water. When I hear the verb submerge the image that is usually associated in my mind relates to drowning or death. In a real sense a spiritual death occurs—death to one’s sins, namely original sin.
I do not think it was a coincidence either that the Gospel writers placed Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of his public ministry. The submersion of Jesus in the baptismal waters of the Jordan River prefigures his death on the Cross and the death to self we are all called to partake in!