In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. – Genesis 1:1-2
Wait. If God hadn’t created anything yet, how were there waters for the Spirit to hover over?
I could ask a dozen follow-up questions, all of which would probably get me nowhere. I could attempt to answer the question by reading between the lines (as I see them) to rationalize a plausible (according to me) interpretation of the text, but I’m not sure that’s the right approach either. For me, at least, this is another one of those questions that’s more interesting to meditate on than to actually try to answer.
Speaking of waters, we started this series with another intriguing biblical question: How can God can be a Consuming Fire and also the source of Living Water? How can these mutually exclusive elements coexist in one God?
And it didn’t take long to fully and completely answer that question, either: they just do.
But the exercise of posing the query prompted me to take a closer look at fire and water in the Bible, and wonder what the many references to these elemental forces that seem, in the text, to have a semi-conscious will of their own (sometimes for us, other times against us), can teach us.
I’ve sifted through a number of iconic FireWater stories from the Good Book, and we scratched the surface on Friday. But there’s a lot more where that came from:
Fire and water collide famously in 1 Kings 18:16-38 – a very dramatic passage, in which the prophet Elijah goes toe-to-toe with the priests of Baal in a conjure-off. After his opponents begged, pleaded and even cut themselves with swords (as was their custom) to try to get their god to bring fire down on their altar of sacrifice, Elijah mocks and taunts them.
Then, he soaks his own altar with water three times – enough of the wet stuff to also fill a trench surrounding the altar. You’d need a flame thrower and 20 minutes to get this stuff to even smoulder. But when Elijah asks God for fire, He delivers an inferno:
‘Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.’ – 1 Kings 18:38
Final score: Yahweh – 1, Baal – 0.
Some other stuff, which I encourage you to read about yourself, happens, and in the very next chapter, Elijah is distraught and aches for contact with, and encouragement, from God. He goes to the top of the mountain, and …
‘Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.’ – 1 Kings 19:11b-12
This time, God was not in the fire. Instead, he came to Elijah in a gentle whisper.
Incidentally, I heard couple of sermon that touched on this topic recently, and even if it’s not really about fire or water, the punch line is worth sharing: Often, we want God to make Himself and His will known to us with a loud, clear, unmissable, unmistakable shout. But instead, He whispers. Why does He do this? Because, the preacher noted, when someone whispers, we have to actively listen to them in order to hear what they’re saying − and therefore, we hear them better than when they shout. And I think we can draw strength from the fact God is close enough to us to whisper in our ears, rather than shouting at us from across the street.
But I digress. Back to fire and water…
Let’s take a look at Moses again. Fire and water enter the Exodus-Wilderness story so often, there’s bound to be some good stuff here, right?
At the start of the story, it’s the water of the Nile that saves Baby Moses from the hand of the infanticidal Pharaoh. Fast forward a few dozen chapters and God guides the Israelites through their desert wandering by providing a Pillar of Fire for them to follow at night, and a Pillar of Cloud (water vapor) by day.
In one of the most famous water-related scenes in the whole Bible, God has the Israelites make camp at Pi Hahiroth by the Red Sea in Exodus 14, and initially, they’re probably quite grateful. After all, the seawater might not be good for drinking, but the sea breezes that blow off of it have to be more pleasant than the dusty desert winds they’ve endured so far since leaving Egypt. A little respite for the desert-weary traveller, I’m sure.
But then Pharaoh and his army show up, and the Israelites, understandably, panic. With their backs to the sea, they have nowhere to run, and the welcome waters become prison bars. Then, as the famous story goes, God opens the back door of the jail by parting the sea, and Israel escapes. The insurmountable obstacle is anything but – for God. And once they’ve escape, the water becomes a weapon in His hands, as He uses it to wipe out the Egyptian army.
‘Mightier than the thunder of the great waters, mightier than the breakers of the sea— the Lord on high is mighty.’ – Psalm 93:4
Aren’t you glad He’s on your side?
At the risk of going to the same well once too often, I’m going to conclude today’s entry by returning to Exodus 3.
This FireWater series began by putting the label ‘Consuming Fire‘ on our God, but in the Burning Bush encounter, what first makes the Fire of God noteworthy to Moses is the fact that it doesn’t consume the bush.
These descriptions and categories we assign to God can be useful. But we probably shouldn’t get too attached to them.
Peace be with you.
† † †