I’ve had fire and water on the brain (there’s gotta be a better way to say that) in recent days, as I met with some fellow ministers to talk about a potential special event around Pentecost, where fire is a prominent theme – and because water was a dominant topic in some of the March 23 Lectionary readings (Exodus 17:1-7 and John 4:5-42). So that question occurred to me the other day, and I thought I’d share it.
The obvious answer is that both terms – Consuming Fire and Living Water – are attempts to describe an entirely unwordly God using earthly metaphors in human language. Therefore, while each of these concepts is somewhat helpful in revealing truth about one small aspect of God, both are woefully inadequate when it comes to providing a full understanding of Him.
Or put a bit more succinctly, and with Exodus 3:14 still reverberating in my psyche…
He just is.
When the question first occurred to me, I imagined a more spirited internal debate on the paradoxical notion of Fire and Water coexisting in our God, but as Forrest Gump might say, that’s all I have to say about that. In this case, there might be more to be gained by pondering the question than attempting to actually answer it.
But whether this query intrigues you or not, the many uses of the words fire and water in the Bible are notable unto themselves, so I decided to use Bible Gateway’s internal search engine to explore these topics. In the process, I was reminded of some interesting truths.
Fire appears 364 times in the New International Version – a little more than half as often as the 617 times that water is used. In both cases, most of these occurrences are utilitarian: fire keeps us warm, provides light at night and cooks our food; water is what we drink when we’re thirsty and what we sail across when we need to get somewhere.
Fire and water are basic primal ingredients in both God’s creation and in human civilization, so one could hardly write a chapter about God’s people without mentioning them now and then.
But the Bible doesn’t stop there. These elements are more than part of the scenery of the story; they’re often almost like characters in it. And most interestingly, they’re sometimes heroes, and sometimes villains.
The flames in the furnaces that threatened to engulf Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego in Daniel 3 are described in terms that make them feel malevolent, for example.
And when Jesus calms the storm by rebuking the wind and the waves in Luke 8:24, the storm seems not to be the random result of air pressures, temperatures and humidities colliding and sorting themselves out, but a deliberate, malicious action on the part of the air and the water.
Maybe the most important example of this dichotomy occurs when you compare Matthew 5:22 – where Jesus talks about the fires of hell (clearly a bad thing) and Luke 3:16 – where John declares that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirt and fire (clearly a good thing).
But the most literal – and hilarious – example of the personification of fire comes in Exodus 32, when Moses confronts his brother and partner Aaron about building a golden calf idol for the Israelites to worship.
“Do not be angry, my lord,” Aaron answered. “You know how prone these people are to evil. They said to me, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’ So I told them, ‘Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.’ Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” – Exodus 32:22-24
‘Don’t blame me, Moses. The fire did this itself!’ Aaron says, making possibly the lamest excuse in the entire Bible.
Moses’ response to the situation a couple verses earlier is also interesting: he threw the calf back into the fire, ground the ashes into powder, scattered it on some water and made the people drink the water.
Moses fights fire with fire, and then with water.
Are there moments in our lives when we’re called to do the same?
I tend to think of any fiery confrontation as a bad thing, and that patience and calm are the only appropriate posture to take when confronting someone who’s out of line.
But there are times in the Gospels where Jesus uses his anger to make a point. And Moses – sometimes for better, sometimes for worse – was a bit of a hothead, as were some other heroes of the Bible.
So maybe these emotional forces are neither good nor bad on their own, they’re just tools God gives us to use – in the right proportions and the right order – to help bring about His will.
Fiery anger or the cool water of kindness? Sometimes, maybe it’s not an either-or, but a both-and.
Peace be with you.
† † †