An Enigmatic Mirror
Jesus at the Festival of Sukkot, Part 2: John 7:25-53
Water from the Belly? (Jn. 7:37-39)
Repeating his earlier waters of life allegory (Jn. 4:10-15), Jesus proclaims "if anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink" (7:37). The context of this statement are scriptural allusions to waters of life (Isa. 55:1; Ps. 42-43; Sir. 24:19-21, 51:23-24; Mt. 5:6; Jn. 4:10-14, 6:35; Rev. 22:1-2, 17), and the important temple water libations performed during Sukkot. The water libation (simḥat beyt ha-šoevah), was performed every day during Sukkot along with prayer for the autumn rains. Priests made daily processions from the pool of Siloam to the Temple with vessels full of water mixed with wine which were poured out on the altar (Num. 28:7; Mishnah, Sukkah 4.9-10; Isa. 12:3). When Christ speaks of water in the temple on Sukkot, his listeners would have inevitably thought of these water libations. In this context, when Jesus proclaims "if anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink" (7:37), he is alluding to the temple invocations to God to bring the winter rains, the indispensable source of life in arid Judea. Jesus, as God, is thus the source of the waters of life (Isa. 12:3, 44:3, 49:10, 58:11; Ezek. 36:25-27, 47:1-11; Joel 3:18; Amos 9:11-15; Zech. 13:1).
Verse 38 raises an interesting question. Here Jesus quotes as scripture: "As the scripture (graphē) has said, 'Rivers of Living Water will flow from his stomach (koilia).'" The perplexing problem is that there is in fact no scripture in the Hebrew Bible that offers a source for this statement. Jesus is apparently quoting a scripture that no longer exists. And this is not the only example of citing unknown scripture in the New Testament (see Jn. 77:38, 12:34; Mt. 2:23; Eph. 5:14; 1 Tim. 5:18b; Heb. 1:6; James 4:5). Some of these passages may represent the citation of non-canonical Jewish writings, such as Jude 1:14-15, which cites 1 Enoch 1:9, 5:4, and 60:8.
To what biblical concept is Jesus' alluding with reference to living waters flowing from the stomach? It is likely this has reference to the eschatological belief that the waters of life will flow from the temple in the last days and restore the earth to its pristine Edenic state. This concept is first found in Joel 3:18, and greatly expanded in Ezekiel 47:1-12. It is also discussed in Zechariah 13:1 and 14:8-19, where it is explicitly linked with the festival of Sukkot (Zech. 14:18-19). Rabbinic tradition also saw the Sukkot water libation as linked with the prophesied waters of life flowing from the temple (Tosefta, Sukkah 3.3-8, 18). Furthermore, the water-drawing was viewed by Jews as symbolic of the Spirit: "Why did they call [the Court of the Women in the Temple] the place of drawing water? Because it was from there that they drew the Holy Spirit" (Jerusalem Talmud, Sukkah 5.1; Genesis Rabbah 70.1). This precisely parallels John's comment that the flowing waters symbolized the promised outpouring of the Spirit upon the Christians (7:39).
These eschatological waters flow from the temple, which was understood to be the center, or navel of the cosmos (Jubilees 8:19; Ezek. 38:12; Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a). Early Christians likewise made this connection explicit when they saw the river of living waters (Rev. 22:1-4) and eternal light (Rev. 22:5) coming forth from New Jerusalem—precisely the two allegories of water and light Jesus uses in his temple teachings at Sukkot (Jn. 7:37-39, 8:12).
William James Hamblin is professor of Near Eastern History at Brigham Young University. You can follow and discuss "An Enigmatic Mirror" on Facebook.