In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.
And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.
And God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the firmament and separated the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament. And it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.
And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. (Genesis 1:1-9)
The creation narrative of Genesis 1 portrays God bringing things into existence from nothing, and then shaping the chaotic creation by imposing an order on it. Out of the watery chaos of the deep, dry land is revealed. God then hems in the chaos of the waters so that life can exist on earth. This account of creation in Genesis 1 is read in the Orthodox Church during Vespers on the Eve of Theophany. It is read as part of the theme of the role of water in the creation and salvation of the world.
This theme of the vast waters of the world representing the chaos that threatens creation but which God contains is found in other biblical accounts as well. Certainly we recognize these themes in the story of the Great Flood from Genesis 6-9 (which interestingly is not read at the Feast of Theophany). The Flood story though has the same themes – ultimately the dry land emerging from the flood waters which signals a new creation, and the dove hovering above the waters is reminiscent of both the Spirit over the waters in Genesis 1 and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove over Christ at His baptism in the Jordan River.
We also find a similar theme in the Exodus narrative of the Israelites fleeing Egypt but finding themselves trapped between Pharoah’s pursuing army and the Red Sea (some of this is read at Theophany in Exodus 14:15-29). We see in the story the chaos, the threat of extinction, darkness and the Light of God in the Pillar of Fire. But then God works His miracle and the Israelites are able to cross over the sea as if it were dry land as the waters are piled up on two sides of them and walled in while the Israelites pass through. The chaos of the water descends again when Pharoah’s army tries to follow suit and drowns them. As in the Noah story of the Great Flood, God’s chosen people are saved while their enemies are destroyed.
The Exodus crossing of the Red Sea by the Hebrews is interpreted in the Wisdom of Solomon as Israel emerging from the chaos of the waters as a new creation.
“For the whole creation in its kind was fashioned again from above to serve Your commands, that Your servants might be kept unharmed. The cloud was seen overshadowing the camp and the emerging of dry land out of the water previously present, an unhindered way out of the Red Sea and a grassy plain out of the violence of rough water, through which those sheltered by Your hand passed with the whole nation after observing marvelous wonders.” (Wisdom of Solomon 19:6-8)
The emerging of the dry land from the sea is certainly meant to remind us of Genesis 1 and Israel is emerging as the new or renewed people of God. They are being given a new life, a new beginning, a new creation.
We see again these same themes appearing in the Feast of Theophany. For at the baptism of Christ, we encounter again water with the Holy Spirit hovering above, and the voice of God who in the beginning called all things from nothingness into being now at Christ’s baptism declaring the Word made flesh. Creation is renewed and we are called to rejoice again in God’s new creation where water is no longer symbolic of the threat of chaos. For now the forces of the waters – of the deep – have been tamed and transfigured into a cleansing force to take away the sins of the world. In the Great Flood sins were wiped out by the chaos of the waters drowning humanity. At Theophany the waters are transformed into life giving waters that drown sin not sinners and wash away even the sin of the first Adam. For entering those waters are the same Wisdom and Word of God who tamed the depths and restrained the seas at the beginning of creation. Today in Christ’s baptism – in our blessing of the water – the nature of water is sanctified and it becomes a means of our sanctification.
So perhaps it is not surprising that we Orthodox don’t read the story of the Flood at Theophany. For at the Baptism of Christ the true nature of water is revealed – not a destructive force of chaos which drowns sinners but rather a life giving force that washes away sin so that we might be united to Christ in His death and resurrection.
Of old, the river Jordan turned back
Before Elisha’s mantel at Elijah’s ascension.
The waters were made to part in two
so the wet surface became a dry path.
This was truly a symbol of baptism
In which we cross through mortal life.
Christ has come to the Jordan to sanctify the waters!
(Theophany Hymn of the Royal Hours)