In the early 20th century, scholars had a profound cynicism about the historicity of the Bible. This was mainly because very little archaeology had been done, and scholars didn’t understand the results well enough to see the evidence that was there.
Just in the past twenty years, key evidence has been found for many of the characters in the biblical text. For instance, in 1990, the ossuary of the family of Caiaphas the high priest was found, and some of the bones that were found were those of a man in his 60’s, presumably Caiaphas himself. We even have the very bones of one of the people present at the trial of Jesus. Inscriptions with the names of Herod, Pilate and others have also been found. Next time you read the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and death, think about that!
Christians tend to be intimidated by scholarship and are fearful of higher study, feeling that it is more spiritual to not fill our heads with lots of facts. This is unfortunate because if we believe that God is who he says, and that the message of the gospel is true, we should not lose confidence that it will hold up under scrutiny.
The “good news” is that the archaeological evidence points our way, and we can study with integrity and see that the story holds up. If anything, the message only gets stronger when put into its native context.
In my own “walk,” I have found that the more knowledge I have under my belt about the evidence for the scriptures, even for potential difficulties in the text, the more bold my witness has been. Before, I felt like the ground I stood on was a tiny patch of knowledge. I was poised on one foot trying to keep my balance while defending it from others, as well as from my own doubts! The more I study, the more the ground becomes solid around me, and the bolder I become in sharing with others.
Jews say that “study is the highest form of worship” — and it is, because the more we study the real world, the more the reality becomes clear that God truly is here, and that he is acting powerfully in our midst.
He [Jesus] got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to push out a little from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Push out into deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Teacher, we have worked all night and caught nothing! However, if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they enclosed a great school of fish … when Simon Peter saw it, he fell at Jesus’ feet and said, “Go away from me, Lord. I am a sinful man!” (Lk 5:3–6, 8)
Understanding more about ancient fishing on the Sea of Galilee allows us to paint, in vivid detail, this scene of one of the first miracles of Jesus’ ministry as it occurred, likely during winter on the lake shore at Heptapegon near Capernaum.1
Peter and the other fishermen were using a trammel net to catch musht (Tilapia galilea; “St. Peter’s fish”). They fished at night and stopped their work at dawn because in the light of day the fish could see the netting. Before the fishermen turned in for the day, they carefully washed their nets and hung them to dry. If the linen nets were not dried promptly after use they would rot in a short time.
From the gospel account we learn that Jesus arrived at the lake shore while the fishermen were still washing their nets, and immediately got into one of the boats and began to teach. If the washing of the trammel nets took place shortly after dawn, then Jesus must have begun teaching very early in the morning.2
Jewish sources support this picture of the diligence and faithfulness of teachers in Israel during this period, and the people’s eagerness to learn Torah. From rabbinic literature one learns that the rabbis taught in every conceivable venue and at any time of the day or night.
Here we have an example of a rabbi teaching in the early morning, perhaps as early as 7:00, from a boat moored offshore. A crowd large enough to cause Jesus to use a boat as a teaching platform had gathered, despite the early hour.
The Tough Work of the Fisherman
Was it just by chance that Jesus chose fishermen as disciples, or had their difficult work especially prepared them for the task for which they were chosen? The Sea of Galilee fishermen were tough. Their bodies were wet much of the time, even in the winter, for it is during the winter when fishing is at its best on the Sea of Galilee — the musht season is in the winter, as is the sardine season. The winter is also the rainy season in Israel, and it often rained on the fishermen during those long winter nights when they were out on the lake.3 (In those days there were no rubberized rain gear like today’s fishermen wear!)
The fisherman’s work was also difficult physically, entailing rowing to and from the fishing sites, hauling in heavy nets and lifting catches of fish. Cast-net fishermen had to dive under the water repeatedly to retrieve their nets. Most fishermen worked all night and slept during the day. We can image that a typical fishing village like Capernaum was quiet until 12:30 or 1:00 p.m., with mothers shushing noisy children or any dog that barked.
Put yourself in Peter’s place, having worked all night in a small boat, in the cold, in the dark, perhaps in the rain. How would you feel if while washing your nets shortly after dawn, dead tired after a long night of fishing, someone climbed into your boat and asked you to row him out into the lake, and then you had to sit in the boat waiting for several hours while that person spoke to an audience?
Before long, your patience would be wearing thin because you would not only be sleepy, you would begin to be very hungry as well. Imagine then being ordered to go back to work, to let down your nets again — after they had already been washed! What chutzpah on the part of Jesus!
Where was Jesus when he said to Peter, “Push out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch”? Where was Jesus when Peter fell at his feet in shock and amazement? Our impression of the story in Luke 5:1–11 is sometimes colored by a similar story found in John 21:1–14. We often unconsciously harmonize these accounts even though the story in John takes place after the resurrection.
We picture Jesus standing elegantly on the beach, perhaps with an arm outstretched towards Peter’s boat some distance offshore. We envision Peter jumping out of his boat, swimming ashore, falling on his face on the beach before Jesus, and then climbing back aboard his boat to drag the loaded net ashore. This is due to the influence of John’s account which has Peter, when he heard that it was the Lord, jumping out of his boat which was 200 cubits (about 90 meters) from land and swimming ashore.
However, in Luke’s story, Jesus is in Peter’s boat when he tells Peter to push out into the deep water and begin fishing again. Jesus is also in the boat when Peter falls at his feet immediately after the loaded fish nets are hauled into the boat.
It may seem to us from English translations of this story that Peter alone maneuvered the boat into position for Jesus’ teaching session, that Peter alone took his boat out to deeper water, and that Peter single-handedly let down the nets.
But Jesus’ command — “Push out [plural] into the deep water and let down [plural] your [plural] nets for a catch” — indicates that there was at least one other fisherman from Peter’s crew who got into the boat with Peter and Jesus. Also the statement in verse 7, “they motioned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them,” shows that Peter was not the only fisherman in the boat.
The trammel net boat was normally manned by four fishermen. It is therefore likely that there were two or three other fishermen who got into the boat along with Peter. (The trammel net boat could with some difficulty be operated by a crew of two — one crew member rowing and the other playing out and hauling in the nets.)
If only two people besides Peter and Jesus got into the boat, then perhaps Jesus served as the crew’s fourth member. If three got in then Jesus was in the way, since in a boat of this size — fifteen to eighteen feet long — there was barely room for four fishermen, their nets and other equipment.
This alters the usual picture we have of Jesus’ lakeside teaching session: as the crowd listened to Jesus, they saw him in a boat flanked by two to four fishermen. Furthermore, we have to picture Jesus, as the nets were being hauled into the boat, crowded into a corner of the boat and partially covered with nets and fish — unless he had replaced the fourth crew member and was helping to pull in the nets. Had Jesus himself spent time fishing on the Sea of Galilee?
The Miracle of the Catch
When Peter saw the enormous catch, he fell down in the boat in front of Jesus crying, “Go away from me, Lord. I am a sinful man!” The text adds that Peter and those with him were astonished “at the catch of fish which they had taken.” Did these fishermen react this way because statistically it was unlikely that they would catch fish, not to speak of a near-record catch, after having worked all night and caught nothing?
Yes, this partially accounts for their shock. The unlikelihood of now catching enough fish to be worth their while financially is also indicated by Peter’s initial response. He didn’t immediately do as Jesus said, but first argued a little: “Lord, we have worked all night and caught nothing.”
But there is more to these Galilean fishermen’s reaction of amazement than the catch itself or its size. Until the introduction of transparent nylon nets in the mid-1950s, trammel net fishing was done only at night. In the daytime, the fish could see the nets and avoid them.
The miracle was that the fish swam blindly into the net. In addition, in trammel net fishing the fish had to be scared into the nets after the nets had been put in place. Although possible, it does not seem from Luke’s account that the fishermen made a commotion to frighten the fish.
What was it, then, that caused Peter to fall in fear at Jesus’ feet? Apparently, it was the timing of the miracle. It was amazement at Jesus’ ability to, as we say, “call the shots.” Immediately after he finished preaching, when it was convenient for him, Jesus compensated these fishermen for their inconvenience.
The confidence of Jesus stands out. To teach a crowd of people Jesus apparently did not mind the inconvenience he caused these fishermen, because he planned to reward them for their service and knew that he could do so whenever he wished. We see this same confidence demonstrated by Peter after Pentecost when Peter, knowing in advance what he was going to do and what would be the result, healed a lifelong cripple (Acts 3:6).
Jesus was not unaware of the tiredness of the fishermen and their frustration at not having caught anything after working so hard all night. He knew that they were dead tired and wanted to go home and go to sleep. He also knew of their general need for income and their particular lack of it after this unsuccessful night of fishing.
He removed their frustration at having wasted a night’s work and blessed them with enough fish to compensate them not just for the few hours he took of their time but with as many fish as they would normally have caught in several nights of good fishing. The catch described in Luke 5 was about three-fourths of a ton — as much as a trammel net fishing crew would normally take in two week’s work, allowing for nights like the one that Peter and his crew had just experienced when nothing is caught.
1 This chapter is based on the research of Mendel Nun, who spent a lifetime studying the ancient fishing methods used on the Sea of Galilee. Since Jesus spent so much time on or near the sea, and his first disciples were Sea of Galilee fishermen, Nun’s work is important in illuminating many gospel stories.
2 Nun has also shown that in the story of the miraculous catch, Peter could only have been using a trammel net or a veranda net, a variation of the trammel net. He could not have been fishing with a seine because it was not used near Heptapegon/Capernaum. The floor of the lake in that area of the coast is so rocky that the seine would have continually gotten hung up on the rocks. And it is unlikely that Peter was using a cast-net because he was fishing with a boat and crew.
3 For more on trammel net fishing on the Sea of Galilee, see “Let Down Your Nets” by Mendel Nun, Jerusalem Perspective 24 (Jan/Feb 1990), pp. 11–13.
Cursed (Arur) is the man who trusts in mankind and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord. He will be like a bush (arar) in the desert, and will not see when prosperity comes, but will live in stony wastes in the wilderness, a land of salt without inhabitant. (Jer. 17:5)
But blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in Him. For he will be like a tree planted by the water, that extends its roots by a stream. It will not fear when the heat comes, but its leaves will be green, and it will not be anxious in a year of drought, nor cease to yield fruit. (Jer 17:7)
After reading this proverb about the cursed tree and the blessed tree, it is easy to imagine what the blessed tree must look like — thick green leaves; branches covered in large, luscious fruit; abundant growth even when everything is dry all around.
We came to a tree that fit that image perfectly while nearing the end of a trip to Israel a few years back. The tree I’m referring to is in the picture to the left. It was just outside the nature preserve of the En-Gedi springs, a beautiful oasis in the middle of the Judean wilderness, near the barren salt flats that surround the Dead Sea.
The remarkable thing about this beautiful tree is that it is actually the cursed tree that Jeremiah spoke about in this proverb. According to Nogah Hareuveni, an expert on plants of the Bible, in Hebrew the name of this tree is called the Arar, which sounds similar to the word for cursed, arur, and is part of a wordplay which is central to this poem.
Why is it called “cursed”? Because if a thirsty, hot traveler approaches the tree and picks a nice big fruit, he will find a nasty surprise. When opened, the fruit makes a “pssst” sound, and is hollow and filled with webs and dust and a dry pit.
The Bedouin call this tree the “Cursed Lemon” or “Sodom Apple” because it grows in the salt lands that surround the Dead Sea where Sodom and Gomorrah once were. According to their legends, when God destroyed Sodom, He cursed the fruit of this tree also.
I first heard about this tree from Ray Vander Laan, and I was captivated by the imagery both of the tree itself and what Jeremiah says about it in the poem. From studying Hebrew and being in Israel, I’ve seen even more depth of imagery in this poem. Here are some of my thoughts about it:
In Hebrew, the future tense is used in proverbs to indicate an indefinite length of time. So in Hebrew, it sounds like you say, “A stitch in time will save nine.” If, then, you assume that the future tense of the Jeremiah passage is more of the proverbial sense that we have in English, this is what it sounds like:
Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord. He is like a bush in the desert, which does not see when prosperity comes, but lives in stony wastes in the wilderness, a land of salt without inhabitant. (Jer. 17:5)
(But) blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in Him. For he is like a tree planted by the water, that extends its roots by a stream. It doesn’t fear when the heat comes, but its leaves are green, and it is not anxious in a year of drought, and doesn’t cease to yield fruit. (Jer 17:7)
Once I started reading the poem this way, I saw it very differently. I used to think that the cursing was done by God, in order to punish a person for not trusting. Now, I see this as the natural consequences of action, and see it in my own life. When I assume that my strength comes from myself, I am filled with worry all the time. Even when times are good I can’t see the prosperity around me! All my circumstances seem negative, like a barren wasteland; and I feel lonely and weary even when friends and family are nearby.
On the other hand, when I put my trust in God, I can live with relatively little anxiety even in the worst times. One couple I know had a house fire that destroyed all of their possessions while they were away from home. The insurance adjuster couldn’t understand why they were calm and collected, but it was because they saw that God had saved their family and was obviously taking care of them through it. They simply weren’t experiencing the drought the way they would have if they didn’t see God’s hand surrounding them.
One interesting contrast is that in the literal Hebrew, the cursed person “doesn’t see the coming of good” while the blessed person “doesn’t fear the coming of heat.” At first I thought it was odd that heat is considered a negative, but when my thermometer peaked at 120 degrees while at En-Gedi, I understood.
In Israel, everything is dry and dead in the summertime because of the heat, and the winter is the time of growing crops. Israelis tend to look at summer in the way that Westerners look at winter — a difficult and depressing time that comes every year. They also have a special blessing to praise God every time it rains, which gives life to their land. Think about that next time you complain about a rainy day.
Another image that I got from this poem is that in some sense, the tree actually chooses where it is going to live. Does it choose to live by the river, or does it choose to live in the barren wasteland? Ironically, this Arara tree was within sight distance of both the lush oasis of En-Gedi and the amazingly barren Dead Sea. It seems to be symbolic of my own life which goes back and forth between an excited faith in God, and depressing cynicism about what the future may hold. I seem to choose my location day by day.
Finally, from looking at the cursed tree, what really is wrong with it? Essentially, it can grow tall and get leafy, but the big problem is that the fruit has no juice. In essence, the tree is supposed to absorb life-giving water from the soil and pass it on to others through its fruit, but this is not happening. It is as if the tree has cut itself off from the source of living water by relying on its own strength. It looks fine from the outside, but yields empty fruit.
In some sense, the juice is the maim chaim, “living water,” of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus says will pour out of the one who believes in him (John 7:38). The “juice” comes having a life that is filled with the refreshing presence of the Lord, and without that, our lives are empty and hollow.
The Bible is often hard for us to understand because it comes from a Hebrew-thinking mindset very different than our own. Many words translate one way into English, but actually have a richer meaning in Hebrew that sheds light on many passages.
It’s also important to have a sense of the spiritual imagery that the Bible uses, to get into the minds of the ancient Israelites and see how they experienced God’s presence in the world. They found pictures of theological concepts in the world around them, and God communicated with them through them. Jesus also uses these images to tell about himself, and we need to understand his culture to comprehend his message.
One prominent image that recurs from Genesis to Revelation is that of living water. In the Middle East, water is scarce and precious, and very much needed for survival. Only a few months of the year does rain fall in Israel, and the rest of the time the ancient peoples survived on stagnant water that was stored in cisterns in the ground. When rain does fall after many months of clear blue skies, it seems to be a miraculous gift from God.
The difference with or without rain in Israel is amazing – the hills can be barren and brown much of the year, but after a season of rain, covered in green meadows and flowers. Where there are rivers, lush vegetation surrounds them, while only yards away, all is barren.
Out of this arose the idea of living water, or mayim chaim (MY-eem KHY-eem), which refers to water in the form of rain or flowing from a natural spring, which has come directly from God, not carried by human hands or stored in cisterns. It also is a contrast to sea water, especially that of the Dead Sea, which looks refreshing but is poisonous, and makes the land around it barren.
Living water was strongly associated with the presence of God. Many times in the scriptures, God is called the source of living water.
From Eden, where God dwelled with man, a river welled up that formed the headwaters of four mighty rivers. (Gen 2:10).
Psalm 29:10 pictures God sitting “enthroned over the flood.”
In Revelation, the river of life flows out from under the throne of God (Rev. 22:1).
In Jeremiah it says,
O LORD, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the LORD, the spring of living water. (Jer. 17:13)
Even other nations understood this picture of the gods being associated with sources of living water. Pagans of the first century who worshiped Pan set up their shrines at the great cave from which the Jordan emerged at Caesarea Philippi, north of Galilee, and called it the “Gates of Hades”. This image was common to many cultures of that area, and God used that image to teach his people about himself.
Spiritual Lesson: Water in Israel and Egypt
One lesson that the ancient Hebrews would have learned about God’s ways came from the contrast in the water sources of Egypt and Israel. In Deuteronomy 11:10 – 12 it says,
The land you are entering to take over is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you planted your seed and irrigated it by foot as in a vegetable garden. But the land you are crossing the Jordan to take possession of is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven. It is a land the LORD your God cares for; the eyes of the LORD your God are continually on it from the beginning of the year to its end.
The difference between Egypt and the promised land of Canaan was that in Egypt almost no rain fell, and crops were entirely irrigated by the flooding Nile and by the labor of hand-watering, while in Canaan the land was entirely watered by rain from God. While Egypt didn’t feel the presence of God through rain, it achieved its secure food source through human effort. Egypt and Canaan, therefore, were a contrast of security of human effort compared to dependence on God. The Egyptians were even aware of the difference between their land and others – one Greek historian quotes them as feeling this way:
“If the gods shall some day see fit not to grant the Greeks rain, but shall afflict them with a long drought, the Greeks will be swept away by a famine, since they have nothing to rely on but rain from Zeus, and have no other resources for water.” (Heroditus 2:13)
And in fact, in Genesis we hear that Abraham and Isaac are forced to go to Egypt several times when a drought overtakes Canaan, and of course during Joseph’s time, that is what brings the entire family to Egypt to survive.
There was a spiritual lesson for the Israelites when they left the land of Egypt for the promised land of Canaan — that when God chose a land for his people, he didn’t choose a place where they could have security because of their own efforts, he chose a land where they would be far more dependent on him and would need his presence watching over them to send them the living water of rain.
Many Christians have seen God do the same thing in their own lives, when they step out to follow him and he takes them from security of their own effort and brings them to a point of dependence on him, which doesn’t always include prosperity as the world sees it.
In like manner, even though Israel is the “Promised Land,” in many places the land is not nearly as lush as Egypt. It is interesting that God often desires dependence for his people rather than abundance, as our “prosperity gospel” teachers may tell us.
Living Water as the Holy Spirit
For the Israelites, the presence of rain in Israel was very much associated with blessing by God, and its absence with his disapproval. Almost every prophet decreed that drought would come as a punishment for their sins. But God’s redemption was likened to him sending abundant rain, giving them living water to drink:
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. (Isaiah 35:5-7)
Because living water came directly from God, it was closely associated with God’s Spirit in the world. When God promised to redeem his people, he promised to send his Spirit:
For I will pour out water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out My Spirit on your offspring and My blessing on your descendants; and they will spring up among the grass like poplars by streams of water. (Isaiah 44:3 – 4)
In Joel, the outpouring of God’s Spirit in the last days is closely associated with living water:
Be glad, O people of Zion, rejoice in the LORD your God, for he has given you the autumn rains in righteousness. He sends you abundant showers, both autumn and spring rains, as before… Then you will know that I am in Israel, that I am the LORD your God, and that there is no other; never again will my people be ashamed. And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. (Joel 2:23, 27-29)
This image of living water is therefore an important feature of the ministry of Jesus. In the book of John, he explains that he is the one who truly brings living water into the world. He says to the Samaritan woman,
Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life. (John 4:13-14)
And later, during the feast of Sukkot, on the last and greatest day, when the prayers of Israel were an impassioned plea for God to bless them with rain, Jesus stood up and shouted, saying,
“If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink! He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’” But this he spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:37 – 39)
An interesting rabbinic insight is that “living water” is also understood to mean a true knowledge of God. Certainly this is associated with the Holy Spirit, who teaches us God’s will and guides and directs us. And certainly it is associated with Jesus’ ministry of revealing God’s true character by Jesus’ sacrificial love for us. It is in contrast with that of “brackish water” like that of the Dead Sea, which is a false knowledge of God, that false prophets and twisted doctrines yield. Although it looks fine to the eye, it is quite poisonous!
And, in Hebrew, the word for knowledge, da’at, carries the connotation of intimacy and care, as when we know a person, we care for them. So, living water as knowledge of God really means an intimate relationship with him, which is what the Spirit gives us.
A Beautiful Prophecy of Living Water
In Ezekiel 47, there is a wonderful picture of living water. The prophet Ezekiel is at the temple, and sees a little trickle of water flowing out from under the alter. The water flows out of the temple down the south stairs. A thousand cubits from the temple, the strange flow of water has grown ankle-deep, and a thousand more cubits it is knee-deep, and a thousand more it is waist deep, and finally it becomes a stream so deep and wide that it can’t be crossed. This paradoxical river does a strange thing – it gets fuller as it flows away from its source. How can that be?
Moreover, this little stream from the temple is flowing southeast out of Jerusalem toward the Dead Sea, twelve miles away. The land to the east of Jerusalem is arid, and the area near the Dead Sea is a poisoned salt wasteland where absolutely nothing can live. But this stream has a marvelous affect:
On the bank of the river there were very many trees on the one side and on the other. Then he said to me, “These waters go out toward the eastern region and go down into the Arabah; then they go toward the sea, being made to flow into the sea, and the waters of the sea become fresh. “It will come about that every living creature which swarms in every place where the river goes, will live. And there will be very many fish, for these waters go there and the others become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes. “
And it will come about that fishermen will stand beside it; from En-Gedi to En-Eglaim there will be a place for the spreading of nets. Their fish will be according to their kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea, very many. “But its swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they will be left for salt. “By the river on its bank, on one side and on the other, will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither and their fruit will not fail. They will bear every month because their water flows from the sanctuary, and their fruit will be for food and their leaves for healing.” (Ezek 47:7-12)
It is beautiful to see how the image of this river of life flowing from the temple in Ezekiel 47 describes the outpouring of the Spirit that occurred at Pentecost. Of course, the Spirit first fell on the people in the temple as they were worshiping there, as tongues of flame settled on them. It was as if the Spirit started trickling out of the sanctuary to that little “puddle” of believers.
Interestingly, when Peter preached to the people at the temple at Pentecost, he was probably standing on the south stairs, where the water in Ezekiel’s vision flowed! That is a large public gathering place where the worshippers entered the temple, a common site of public teaching. Also on that south stairs are the mikvehs (ceremonial baths), where 3000 people that day were baptized in living water. They have been excavated and are visible even today.
The trickle of God’s Spirit became ankle deep as the first believers shared the gospel and many in the city believed, and then knee deep as they carried the gospel to the surrounding countries. Instead of running out of energy as it flowed, the river of God’s Spirit got deeper and wider as it flowed! And its ultimate destination is that of the most desolate of wastelands, full of the poisonous, brackish water of the Dead Sea. This is the dark reality of a world devoid of a true knowledge of God. Anywhere it touches it gives new life and an intimate relationship with God where there was only death before.
We were all the more touched by the fact that one of the places where this river of life flows is En-Gedi, the image we chose for our name. We knew that En-Gedi is an oasis full of waterfalls that show the image of living water. But only after studying this passage did we realize that En-Gedi is fed by waters that come down from the mountain of Jerusalem, and are right at the edge of this “River of Life” of God’s Holy Spirit that he is pouring out on the world.
What is God’s final plan for this river that gets deeper and wider as it flows?
The earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Habakkuk. 2:14, Isaiah 11:9)
In you, O LORD, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame. Rescue me and deliver me in your righteousness; turn your ear to me and save me. Be my rock of refuge, to which I can always go; give the command to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress. Psalm 71:1-3
Masada stands as a huge outcropping of rock jutting 1,440 feet above the desert floor on the western shore of the Dead Sea. It is located fourteen miles north of the southern end of the sea and eleven miles south of En-gedi. Masada remains today one of the Jewish people’s greatest symbols, and except for Jerusalem, it is the most popular destination of people visiting Israel.
Its history as a desert fortress goes back far into the past. David moved throughout this region of the southern Judean desert as he was hiding from Saul, and quite likely spent time on this mountain. Although Masada is not mentioned by name in the Bible, we see glimpses of it in several places where God is called a “rock of refuge,” or “my fortress.” Metzudah means “refuge” or “fortress” in Hebrew. (In addition to our text above, see also 1 Sam 22:4-5, 23:14, 24:22, and Psalms 18:2, 31, and 144:2.)
The remains that we we see today are from the time of Herod, who not only increased the fortifications, but built magnificent garden palaces on either end of the mountain. It almost never rains here, yet Herod built an elaborate water system to divert water that originated in the Judean mountains into cisterns at Masada. Servants carried water from there to upper reservoirs servicing the palaces, to an Olympic size swimming pool!
The reason Masada is one of the Jewish people’s greatest symbols is for what occurred there during the Jewish revolt against Rome during 66 – 72AD. A group of Zealots took Masada and it became a place of refuge for other Jews fleeing the Roman terrorism. For three years they were able to fend off the Romans and worship the Living God while enduring the rigors of desert life. Finally, faced with certain capture and torture, the group of 960 chose to take their own lives, rather than become slaves of Rome. “The valor of the Jewish zealots residing on Masada during the Roman siege is celebrated as the supreme example of self-sacrifice for the preservation of the nation of Israel. Today, when the recruits of the Israel Armored Corps take their oath of allegiance, they do so on Masada to remind each generation of the price their forefathers paid for their nation. They cry: “Masada shall not fall again!” (1)
A view of the snake path from the top of Masada
To climb the arduous snake path in the 120° sun, to imagine looking down helplessly from above on your fellow countrymen enslaved to build a siege ramp against you, to stand at the precipice thinking across history about all the many who have served the Lord at the cost of their lives is to wonder if I will have the courage to stand that test for my Lord one day.
Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him. Psalm 2:10-12.
Additional sources for this article:
Josephus Flavius, Jewish Wars, Chapter 8 http://www.templebuilders.com
“Cursed (Arur) is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord. He will be like a bush (arar) in the desert, and will not see when prosperity comes, but will live in stony wastes in the wilderness, a land of salt without inhabitant.
But blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in Him. For he will be like a tree planted by the water, that extends its roots by a stream. It will not fear when the heat comes, but its leaves will be green, and it will not be anxious in a year of drought, nor cease to yield fruit.” Jeremiah 17:5-7
After reading this proverb about the cursed tree and the blessed tree, it is easy to imagine what the blessed tree must look like — thick green leaves; branches covered in large, luscious fruit; abundant growth even when everything is dry all around. The tree pictured here looks like such a tree.
But the remarkable thing about this beautiful tree is that it is actually the cursed tree that Jeremiah spoke about in this proverb. According to Nogah Hareuveni, an expert on plants of the Bible, in Hebrew the name of this tree is called the Arar, which sounds similar to the word for cursed (arur) and is part of a wordplay which is central to this poem.
Why is it called “cursed”? Because if a thirsty, hot traveler approaches the tree and picks a nice big fruit, he will find a nasty surprise. When opened, the fruit makes a “pssst” sound, and is hollow and filled with webs and dust and a dry pit. The Bedouin call this tree the “Cursed Lemon” or “Sodom Apple” because it grows in the desert salt lands that surround the Dead Sea where Sodom and Gomorrah once were. According to their legends, when God destroyed Sodom, he cursed the fruit of this tree also.
Interestingly, the cursed tree looks very healthy and abundant, as if it has a survived even in hard times and still has done well in life. Like the tree, many people who rely on their own strength really persevere enough so that they seem to “have it all.”
But we will not be judged on our “tallness” (fame, notariety) or our “leafy-ness” (material success), but on the fruit of our lives. Jesus tells us that rocks and weeds in our life can prevent us from bearing fruit. But it seems that even if we seem to be bearing fruit, there is a danger that it might be quite empty.
What really is wrong with the tree? Essentially, the big problem is that the fruit has no juice. The tree is supposed to absorb life-giving water from the soil and pass it on to others through its fruit, but something is not happening. It is as if the tree has cut itself off from the source of living water by relying on its own strength.
In some sense, the juice is the maim chaim (living water) of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus says will pour out of the one who believes in him (John 7:38). The “juice” comes having a life that is filled with the refreshing presence of the Lord, and without that, our lives are empty and hollow.
As we close this section on living water for now, would you take a few minutes to do something very Hebraic? Take a glass … fill it with water … hold it up and look at it for a time. Think about God’s faithfulness to you and think about how so many people don’t have this simple glass of water so easily. Bless the Lord for his precious gift, then, take a big long drink. Let it soak deep into your soul as you read these beautiful passages about the Living Water:
“The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.”
“For I will pour out water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out My Spirit on your offspring and My blessing on your descendants; and they will spring up among the grass like poplars by streams of water.” Isaiah 44:3-4
“On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half to the eastern sea and half to the western sea, in summer and in winter. The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name.” Zechariah 14:8-9
“Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” John 4:13-14
“Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.’” John 7:37-38
For more on this topic, please read our Director’s Article of April/May, 2003 titled, “Living Water.”
Let my teaching fall like rain and my words descend like dew, like showers on new grass, like abundant rain on tender plants. Deuteronomy 32:2
A fascinating rabbinic story points out how studying God’s word is like water:
One day a a great rabbi of around Jesus’ time, Rabbi Akiva, came across a stone by a river that had been greatly worn away by a slow drip of water falling on it over the centuries.
He remarked, “What has hollowed this stone? Is it not a small drop of water falling on it day after day? If soft water can wear away hard stone, how much more should the words of the Scriptures, which are like iron, carve their way into my heart, which is flesh and blood? (1)
It is interesting to note that it was not one drip of water, but the constant force, drip after drip, year after year, that had a great effect. We often talk about God’s Spirit being “poured out,” imagining it gushing as a great river. But here, the powerful work in our lives is done by the impact of a single drip, as we let it change us over time. The process is very gradual, and not overnight.
Also, often Christians think a big event like a powerful speaker or weekend conference will change peoples’ lives. But most of the time, God’s Spirit tends not to work through big “splashes.” Instead, through the slow drip of study and prayer, day after day, year after year, he shapes into what he wants us to be.
(1) From Avot de Rabbi Natan, as quoted by J. Telushkin in The Book of Jewish Values, Copyright 2000, Bell Tower, New York, p.1
Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. ‘He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, `From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.'” By this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. John 7:37-39
This story about Jesus and living water is amazingly rich when we see it in its context – when we learn more about the biblical festivals and even the weather of Israel.
The feast that Jesus attended was Sukkot, the great harvest feast of the year. It takes place in September/October, after Rosh Hashana and the fast of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement for the sins of the nation. It had not rained in six months, since about the time of Passover in March. Their very lives depended on the coming of the fall rains, something that wasn’t certain in that arid land. The rabbis believed that during the 10 “days of awe” before Yom Kipper, God was deciding whether to grant them favor and send rain the next year. Only if God had forgiven their sin at Yom Kippur would he send the living water of rain.
On this last day and greatest day of Sukkot, millions of people prayed fervently for the rain to begin. Many of the prophets saw this living water God sent after atonement as a picture of forgiveness and redemption. It was described by Joel many years before:
Blow a trumpet in Zion,
Consecrate a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly…
Then the LORD will be zealous for His land
And will have pity on His people.
So rejoice, O sons of Zion,
For He has given you the early rain for your vindication.
And He has poured down for you the rain,
The early and latter rain as before….
It will come about after this
That I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind;
And your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Your old men will dream dreams,
Your young men will see visions.
Even on the male and female servants
I will pour out My Spirit in those days.
(Joel 2:15, 18, 23, 28)
It is fascinating to see how this describes the mission of Jesus – that he came to atone for sin and pour out God’s Spirit in the world. But in order to receive this new life, they had to come to him and drink, from the true source of Living Water.
“Let my teaching drop as the rain, My speech distill as the dew, As the droplets on the fresh grass and as the showers on the herb.” Deuteronomy 32:2
Another form of living water that was important biblically is something that we hardly think about — dew. In Israel it does not rain for half the year, and were it not for the dew in summer, all plant life would die.
In fact, dew and rain are equally important to the crops in Israel. If there is no rain in the winter season, the grass and early crops do not grow, if no dew in summer, later crops dry up and fruit does not mature. If there are many nights without dew, it constitutes a drought, in their thinking.
In Israel, on many nights dew is amazingly abundant. Because of the moisture of the Mediterranean, in early summer the dews are so heavy that the plants and trees are literally soaked with water at night. In fact, Israelis often use squeegees to remove the dew from their car windows before they can drive in the morning. In the story of Gideon, it said that he wrung a bowl full of water out of a fleece that he put out overnight (Judges 6:38). Even in areas that receive almost no rain, the dew is enough to sustain enough plant growth that sheep can graze, as they search for the few tufts of grass available in the pastures that are sustained by dew.
To the ancient people who were so dependent on their crops, dew was considered a nightly reminder of God’s constant care. In the Sinai, the manna came with it, supplying their sustenance that way too (Exodus 16:13; Numbers 11:9). In Hosea, God declares, “I will heal their waywardness and love them freely, for my anger has turned away from them. I will be like the dew to Israel; he will blossom like a lily.” (Hosea 14:4-5).
Even though the dew is not important for our crops now, it is a good for us to see it as a picture of God’s daily sustenance of a drink of living water that lets just enough grass grow to feed us for the next day. Next time, when you see it, remind yourself of God’s daily kindness toward you.