This article is about how the Old Testament texts sometimes use “water” language figuratively. (I’ll handle the New Testament passages in another article so that this doesn’t get unmanageably long–as it’s already a substantial article.)
Now, water is very important to both ends of the Bible story. Consider its role at the conclusion:
Revelation 21:1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea (θάλασσα thalassa) was no more.
Whatever this is meant to convey, it’s obviously a big deal, because a Planet Earth with no sea would be quite a different place–whether it’s intended literally or figuratively. I contend that the “sea” here was not intended to be a literal reference to any of the oceans of Planet Earth. I also contend that the water/sea language at the beginning of the story was not intended literally, either:
Genesis 1:1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters (מַיִם mayim). And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. 6 And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters (מַיִם mayim), and let it separate the waters (מַיִם mayim) from the waters (מַיִם mayim).” 7 And God made the expanse and separated the waters (מַיִם mayim) that were under the expanse from the waters (מַיִם mayim) that were above the expanse. And it was so. 8 And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day. 9 And God said, “Let the waters (מַיִם mayim) under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters (מַיִם mayim) that were gathered together he called Seas (יָם yam) . And God saw that it was good.
The point of this present exercise is merely to demonstrate that terms such as water and sea are used figuratively or metaphorically at times in the Bible. I don’t mean to suggest that they are always used non-literally, mind you. Again, the simple point of this exercise is to show that ruling out their metaphorical use in the beginning and end of the story is unfounded.
What remains here, therefore, will be a list of passages in which I contend that the use of such terms is figurative. Some of what follows will be quite obviously figurative, and some will be debatable. I’ve typically listed the passages first, with notes indented thereafter. I have also made mention of various connections that may exist in the texts.
OLD TESTAMENT PASSAGES
Mayim occurs 585 times in 525 verses in the Old Testament. You may look into it here. Here are some notable cases of metaphorical use, with notes following each excerpt.
Psalm 18:16 He sent from on high, he took me;
he drew me out of many waters (מַיִם mayim).
17 He rescued me from my strong enemy
and from those who hated me,
for they were too mighty for me.
The introduction to this Psalm of David says that it was written, “…on the day when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul. It would seem that verses 16 and 17, therefore, are a classic case of Hebrew parallelism, whereby both verses refer to the same thing in different ways. If I’m right about this, the “waters” are David’s “strong enemy”. Thus, we have a case in which “waters” refers to beings.
Psalm 69:14 Deliver me
from sinking in the mire;
let me be delivered from my enemies
and from the deep waters (מַיִם mayim).
15 Let not the flood sweep over me,
or the deep swallow me up,
or the pit close its mouth over me.
Here the “deep waters” are associated with “enemies”, “the flood”, “the deep”, and “the pit”. It is hard to imagine a scenario in which “waters” here could be taken literally.
Psalm 77:16 When the waters (מַיִם mayim) saw you, O God,
when the waters (מַיִם mayim) saw you, they were afraid;
indeed, the deep trembled.
17 The clouds poured out water (מַיִם mayim);
the skies gave forth thunder;
your arrows flashed on every side.
18 The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
your lightnings lighted up the world;
the earth trembled and shook.
19 Your way was through the sea (יָם yam),
your path through the great waters (מַיִם mayim);
yet your footprints were unseen.
Something simply must be figurative in this passage, for literal waters are not “afraid” and do not “tremble.” If water here is a reference to beings, then the fear and trembling are literal. And if water here is to be taken literally, then the fear and trembling would have to be poetic devices to describe the grand occasion (of the parting of the Red Sea), most likely.
Psalm 104:He lays the beams of his chambers on the waters (מַיִם mayim);
he makes the clouds his chariot;
he rides on the wings of the wind;
4 he makes his messengers winds,
his ministers a flaming fire.
This passage is packed with figurative things. For example, are God’s ministers (servants) literally “a flaming fire”? No, not literally. And does the “wind” really have “wings”? No, not literally. What should make us think, then, that the beams of God’s living quarters are literally laid on the waters (H2O)? There is certainly enough figurative language here to obligate us to consider that the waters here might not be literal.
Psalm 124:1 If it had not been the Lord who was on our side—
let Israel now say—
2 if it had not been the Lord who was on our side
when people rose up against us,
3 then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us;
4 then the flood would have swept us away,
the torrent would have gone over us;
5 then over us would have gone
the raging waters (מַיִם mayim).
Here the “waters” language is employed to speak of aggressive people.
Psalm 144:7 Stretch out your hand from on high;
rescue me and deliver me from the many waters (מַיִם mayim),
from the hand of foreigners,
8 whose mouths speak lies
and whose right hand is a right hand of falsehood.
Here the “waters” are unrighteous foreigners.
Psalm 148:1 Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
praise him in the heights!
2 Praise him, all his angels;
praise him, all his hosts!
3 Praise him, sun and moon,
praise him, all you shining stars!
4 Praise him, you highest heavens,
and you waters (מַיִם mayim) above the heavens!
5 Let them praise the name of the Lord!
For he commanded and they were created.
6 And he established them forever and ever;
he gave a decree, and it shall not pass away.
In this psalm, the heavenly beings (including angels) are commanded to praise God. It would seem here that “waters above the heavens” is a reference to certain heavenly beings. And I note that the psalmist does not seem to expect that the waters below the heavens should praise God.
If you keep this in mind–that is, that the “heavens” here is a reference to angelic beings–then it raises the question of whether the next passage below should be understood in like fashion. Or was the speaker in Proverbs 8 speaking literally?
Proverbs 8:27 When he established the heavens, I was there;
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
28 when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
29 when he assigned to the sea (יָם yam) its limit,
so that the waters (מַיִם mayim) might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
30 then I was beside him, like a master workman,
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
31 rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the children of man.
Unlike Psalm 148 above, this passage is talking about the waters below the firmament. The psalmist had told the waters above it to praise God. In Proverbs 8, however, we see that the “waters” below had been given a “command”, and that a “limit” had been “assigned” for the “sea”. Once again, this puts us in a spot where we are forced to admit figurative language. Either the words like “command” and “assigned” are being used figuratively for creative acts (rather than communicative acts), or the “sea” and “waters” here are beings that can be communicated with. In either case–whether “water” and “sea” are figurative, or whether “assigned” and “command” are figurative–we have figurative language in a passage using “waters” and “sea” language.
Isaiah 17:12 Ah, the thunder of many peoples;
they thunder like the thundering of the sea (יָם yam)!
Ah, the roar of nations;
they roar like the roaring of mighty waters (מַיִם mayim)!
13 The nations roar like the roaring of many waters (מַיִם mayim) ,
but he will rebuke them, and they will flee far away,
chased like chaff on the mountains before the wind
and whirling dust before the storm.
14 At evening time, behold, terror!
Before morning, they are no more!
This is the portion of those who loot us,
and the lot of those who plunder us.
Once again, “sea” and “water” imagery are used to speak of other people who will be rebuked by God, and who will flee far away. This also brings to mind certain creation language about limits, boundaries, and commands not to be transgressed, such as in Proverbs 8:29 above.
Isaiah 57:20 But the wicked are like the tossing sea (יָם yam);
for it cannot be quiet,
and its waters (מַיִם mayim) toss up mire and dirt.
21 There is no peace,” says my God, “for the wicked.”
Wicked and restless people are in view here, likened to the tossing sea and its dirty waters.
Jeremiah 47:1 The word of the Lord that came to Jeremiah the prophet concerning the Philistines, before Pharaoh struck down Gaza.2 “Thus says the Lord:
Behold, waters (מַיִם mayim) are rising out of the north,
and shall become an overflowing torrent;
they shall overflow the land and all that fills it,
the city and those who dwell in it.
Men shall cry out,
and every inhabitant of the land shall wail.
3 At the noise of the stamping of the hoofs of his stallions,
at the rushing of his chariots, at the rumbling of their wheels,
the fathers look not back to their children,
so feeble are their hands,
4 because of the day that is coming to destroy
all the Philistines,
to cut off from Tyre and Sidon
every helper that remains.
The “waters” here are the onslaught of a military attack–or perhaps, a reference to the people who will comprise that attack.
Jeremiah 51:54 “A voice! A cry from Babylon!
The noise of great destruction from the land of the Chaldeans!
55 For the Lord is laying Babylon waste
and stilling her mighty voice.
Their waves roar like many waters (מַיִם mayim) ;
the noise of their voice is raised,
56 for a destroyer has come upon her,
her warriors are taken;
their bows are broken in pieces,
for the Lord is a God of recompense;
he will surely repay.
Here the “waters” is a reference to the noise of the people of Babylon.
Ezekiel 26:19 “For thus says the Lord God: When I make you a city laid waste, like the cities that are not inhabited, when I bring up the deep over you, and the great waters (מַיִם mayim) cover you, 20 then I will make you go down with those who go down to the pit, to the people of old, and I will make you to dwell in the world below, among ruins from of old, with those who go down to the pit, so that you will not be inhabited; but I will set beauty in the land of the living. 21 I will bring you to a dreadful end, and you shall be no more. Though you be sought for, you will never be found again, declares the Lord God.”
In this decree against Tyre, God likens the ruin that will bring them down to Sheol to a flood of “great waters”. Surely, this is not intended literally, for the verses that precede this passage make it plain that the city will be ravaged by war.
Hosea 5:10 The princes of Judah have become
like those who move the landmark;
upon them I will pour out
my wrath like water (מַיִם mayim).
Here God foretells his judgment against the “princes of Judah”–which might actually be a reference to angels who were supposed to be overseeing that tribe. He uses the word “water” to describe this judgment. Is this suppose to evoke images of overwhelming floods and multitudes of attackers as elsewhere?
Amos 5:8 He who made the Pleiades and Orion,
and turns deep darkness into the morning
and darkens the day into night,
who calls for the waters (מַיִם mayim) of the sea (יָם yam)
and pours them out on the surface of the earth,
the Lord is his name;
9 who makes destruction flash forth against the strong,
so that destruction comes upon the fortress.
(Note: This “pours them out” language is repeated in Amos 9:5-6)
Again, the watery language is used forebodingly of a coming destruction. Is this supposed to evoke images of Noah’s flood? Or rather, is it supposed to evoke images of the hordes of violent beings spoken of elsewhere? Or is it, perhaps, both? (And yes, this raises the very good question of whether we are to understand all the “water” passages in the Noah’s flood story as being strictly literal H2O, or whether there might have been some angelic beings involved in that somehow. I’m not suggesting that there were, mind you, but merely that the question is naturally raised in the process of this investigation.
Now, back to Amos 5. Interestingly, later in the same chapter, an alternative use of water appears—this time not telling about encroaching and restless hordes, but about righteousness and justice:
Amos 5:24 But let justice roll down like waters (מַיִם mayim),
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
This could be more judgment talk, but it might also be a reference to what things would be like once Jesus had been given all authority. (This deserves more study, for which I do not currently have time.) This idea may draw further support in the passage that follows below:
Habakkuk 2:14 For the earth will be filled
with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord
as the waters (מַיִם mayim) cover the sea (יָם yam).
Here the watery language is used to tell of something good, and not of something bad. As it is written in future tense, it makes me wonder whether it’s not speaking of how things would be once Jesus arrived.
Zechariah 14:8 On that day living waters (מַיִם mayim) shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea (יָם yam) and half of them to the western sea (יָם yam). It shall continue in summer as in winter. 9 And the Lord will be king over all the earth. On that day the Lord will be one and his name one.
As with Habakkuk 2:14 and (perhaps) Amos 5:14 above, here we see something new and good. These living waters–obviously not literal–were to flow out from Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ appointment to all authority. Zechariah was careful to designate that these waters were “living”, and we would do well to catch the distinction–just as we may distinguish between “angels” in the New Testament and “holy angels”, the latter of which are called such so that the writer can make sure that the reader knows it’s one of the good guys.
As to these “living waters”, I won’t get off on a tangent here, but you can view the passages where such phrase is used.
This concludes the Old Testament passages I have chosen to list. It may well be that other “water” and “sea” passages in the Old Testament were also intended figuratively, but it is difficult to know which are which in some cases.
I think that this exercise is sufficient, however, to make it pretty clear that God and his prophets did make figurative use of “water” and “sea” from time to time. Further, a good bit of that figurative use seems to paint a picture of surrounding hordes, either invading or threatening to invade upon good people.