This post is part of the jesus at the feast of booths series (click to view the other posts in this series).
John 7-8 records Jesus’ interactions at the Feast of Booths. During the feast, Jesus made several important and, in some people’s minds, inflammatory claims regarding himself. Failing to interpret Jesus’ remarks in light of the Old Testament will lead to failing to understand the full weight of Jesus’ claims. The current series of articles aims to show how an understanding the Old Testament background surrounding the Feast of Booths helps one to understand the Feast of Booths narrative found in John 7-8. The first two articles in this series dealt with some of the more pressing text critical considerations in John 7-8 and the Old Testament background of the Feast of Booths. The next four articles in the series will focus on the Johannine text. In particular, these four articles will interpret four statements made by or about Jesus attempting to give the proper weight to the Old Testament background. The four statements to be considered are: 1) John 7.37-38, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (ESV); 2) John 7.40, “This really is the Prophet” (ESV); 3) John 8.33, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone” (ESV); 4) John 8.58, “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am’” (ESV). These four articles will contribute to the series thesis by showing that Jesus was speaking to his audience and being understood by his audience in light of the Old Testament background in general and in light of the Feast of Booths setting in particular.
John 7:37-38 - On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (ESV).
There are several layers of Old Testament background at work in John 7.37-38 that shed light on Jesus’ claim; each layer gives more weight to Jesus’ claim. The current article will briefly consider: the protological, prophetic, and eschatological imagery of living water flowing from a single source; the use of thirst/water imagery as a metaphor for salvation; and the particular significance of water and thirst in the context of the Feast of Booths.
First, living water flowing from a single source to all the world is not only gospel imagery but also protological, prophetic, and eschatological imagery. The tree of life and water are important in the first Eden. Genesis 2.9b-10 gives the following description of the Garden of Eden, “The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers” (ESV). To say the least, a river becoming four separate rivers is a geological oddity; the picture here is that water is flowing out of Eden to the rest of the land. Is it too much to say that life is being given to all the land from a common source? Certainly, it is not. The twin elements of the tree of life and a river flowing out of the dwelling place of God are also employed as prophetic and eschatological imagery. The consistent biblical use of the tree and river imagery as life giving, requires that the same understanding be applied to the tree and river in the garden of Eden.
Ezekiel 47 records Ezekiel’s vision of a growing river flowing from the temple of God. He writes,
As I went back, I saw on the bank of the river very many trees on the one side and on the other. And he said to me, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah, and enters the sea; when the water flows into the sea, the water will become fresh. And wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish. For this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes. Fishermen will stand beside the sea. From Engedi to Eneglaim it will be a place for the spreading of nets. Its fish will be of very many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea. But its swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they are to be left for salt. And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing (Ezekiel 47.7-12, ESV).
Indeed, this is the same scenario one finds in the return to Eden, the New Jerusalem recorded in Revelation 22.1-2,
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (ESV).
Christ subtly uses the protological, prophetic, and eschatological imagery of life-giving water increasing, without tributary, as it goes out in his statement at the Feast of Booths. Jesus is the single source from which many drink resulting in rivers of living water flowing from their hearts. In this statement, subtle as it may be, Jesus establishes himself as the source of life and the temple from which the living water issues forth.
Second, water, thirst, and the associated imagery are metaphors for the man’s need and God’s salvation throughout Scripture. Two clear examples of thirst and water being used as a metaphor for salvation are Isaiah 55.1,
Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price (ESV),
and John 4.7-15,
A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water” (ESV).
When we have these passages, and others like them, in mind, we see clearly that Jesus is not simply concerned for the physical need of his audience. Jesus is drawing on Old Testament imagery in order to offer salvation.
Finally, the setting in which Jesus speaks is important. Jesus’ proclamation recorded in John 7.37-38 is made, “On the last day of the feast, the great day.” The Mishnah outlines a water ceremony involved with the Feast of Booths wherein water was carried from the Pool of Siloam to the altar where the water was poured out. If this ceremony, which Mishnah Sukkah 4.9 associates with Isaiah 12.3 (and may also be a development of imagery from Zechariah 14), had been developed by the time of Christ, then a call to the thirsty would have been somewhat ironic. Water would have been everywhere; quenching one’s thirst would not have been a great challenge. While the the Feast of Booths traditions outlined in the Mishnah might or might not have been in practice in Jesus’ day, thirst is still an interesting place for Jesus to begin his statements. The very fact that they were in Jerusalem, a city in which water was plentiful, means finding something to drink would not have been so difficult that one needed a special person to provide water. The physical setting, not to mention the thirst/water theme that is developed throughout the gospel of John, gives a clear clue that Jesus’ goal was not simply quenching physical thirst. What then was Jesus’ point?
The Feast of Booths was a time of remembrance. The Jews were looking back to their wilderness wanderings. A central part of the wilderness wandering was the constant fight for water. Two very similar confrontations between the people and Moses are recorded in Exodus 17 and Numbers 20. The Exodus account is as follows,
All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the LORD, and camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” And the LORD said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the LORD by saying, “Is the LORD among us or not” (Exodus 17:1-7, ESV)?
If Israel’s wilderness wanderings were in fact marked by longing, in particular a longing for water, and the Feast of Booths was a commemoration of Israel’s wilderness wanderings, then Jesus proclamation, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink,” would have been a bold invitation indeed. In the Exodus confrontation narrative, God stands on the rock that Moses strikes in order to receive water. Understanding Jesus’ statement against the backdrop of Israel’s thirst and God’s miraculous provision of water, through his being struck with the rock, lends much weight to Jesus’ statement. Jesus is claiming that he was the one struck in order that Israel could have water. Indeed this is Paul’s interpretation of the confrontation narrative, he writes,
For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ (1 Corinthians 10:1-4, ESV).
Jesus was not simply making a clever statement, but he was speaking into the particular setting of the Feast of Booths. Jesus’ invitation to come to him and drink is only fully understood after peeling back the many layers of Old Testament background. It is reasonable to assume that Jesus’ audience would have been well versed in the Old Testament and the wilderness wanderings of Israel. It is reasonable to assume that the wilderness wanderings of Israel would have been on the forefront of the minds of Jesus’ audience as they celebrated the Feast of Booths. If we are to begin to grasp the full weight of Jesus’ claims at the Feast of Booths, then we must let the Old Testament background have its full influence. Interpreting the Feasts of Booths narrative shows us, from what may have seemed like a simple metaphorical statement to some, that Jesus claimed to be the source of the eschatological living water, the source of salvation, and the Rock that was struck with God’s wrath in order to provide this living water for his people.
This post is part of the jesus at the feast of booths series (click to view the other posts in this series).