Mosaic Metaphors

by Jack Slinkman

“Waters were a common symbol in ancient cosmology for disorder and what we call nothingness, and the main visual binary in the seven day [creation] narrative is ‘out of the waters come the dry land in the garden…’ [But] in Genesis 2 verse 4, it inverts those two images, where instead of beginning with a disordered waters from which land emerges, it’s exactly the opposite, it’s disordered wilderness from which a bit of waters emerge to plant a garden. So both stories end up with a garden, but one is land out of water and the other is water out of land… and they’re complementary ways of thinking about the same reality.” (The Bible Project 26:28-27:35)

Genesis 1 and 2 are a kaleidoscope of color, intention, and goodness. As their stories unfold, their themes spring to life as vividly and tangibly as illustrations in a pop-up book. Thumbing through the creation accounts feels as if someone were to compact the whole of the human condition into an origami accordion, one that scales both the melodic high notes of our intentional design and the dissonant depths of our human depravity. That’s not to say that Genesis 1 and 2 are without their differences. Creation, in Genesis 1, is a response. It is God’s structured reply to the chaos that predated the world. But, in Genesis 2, creation is a prompt. It is a call to life. While both chapters are rooted in the garden of Eden, they branch out in different directions, almost as if being attached to and divided by interactive cut-outs of the tree of life and the tree of knowledge. Picture Genesis 1 and 2 as the first two pages of a pop-up book, the garden of Eden firmly planted atop the rest of the Bible. Thinking three dimensionally, still, any ideas that were seeded in these two stories would take root in the stories to follow. The biblical authors first introduce water as a metaphor in Genesis 1 and 2, and, like rainwater saturating the soil beneath a tree, the metaphors runoff of Genesis 1 and 2, forking off in different directions, collecting at key passages, and converging at the Gospel. The way that these twin chapters (think fraternal, not identical) play with water is as complementary as it is dissimilar. Each time their streams overlap - at key points in the Old Testament, in Moses’ life, and in the Gospel - we can see the workmanship of a master designer cross-stitching rivers to form the tapestry of our salvation.

In the beginning, the very beginning, the earth was a formless void of water (Genesis 1:2). Though God’s first act of creation was to distinguish the heavens from the earth, water glued sky to ground like God was chewing his way through a primordial pack of blue bubblegum (Genesis 1:6-8). He then breathed life into the chewing gum, blowing it out into a terrarium and filling it with an ecosystem of living things. In near-eastern society, it was believed that the only thing preventing endless rain was a dome-like bubble that stretched across the sky. So when, in Genesis 6-9, mankind flooded the earth with sin, God popped His bubble in the sky, flooding the earth with a water equally as turbulent. Once God relented, we were back to Genesis 1, this time replacing Adam and Eve with Noah and his ark. As happened on the third day of creation, “the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed, and the rain had stopped falling from the sky. The water receded steadily from the earth” (Genesis 8:2-3); wanting “the water under the sky” to “be gathered in one place,” God “let dry ground appear” for Noah as he did with Adam and Eve (Genesis 1:9). But Noah uses this dry ground to juice the forbidden fruit into his own brand of wine, “plant[ing] a vineyard,” getting drunk off of disobedience, and winding up naked and ashamed like Adam and Eve (Genesis 9:20-25). If these two stories are in dialogue with one another, then, eventually, Jonah inherited the loose ends of their conversation, but rather than tying the strands of their stories into a satisfying conclusion, Jonah further knotted everything in sin, a sin that, first, got him tossed overboard and into water and, second, led him to his own version of wickedness under a tree (Jonah 1-4). Genesis 1 wants us to think of water as a cosmic goop - it is chaotic and sticky. Though Adam and Eve were banished to the arid wilderness, though Noah was untouched by God’s floodwater, and though Jonah was spat up onto dry land, it’s as if, en route to disobedience, all four biblical characters stepped in Genesis 1’s murky mire, then tracked the blue sludge across the whole of the Old Testament.

Prior to Genesis 3, Genesis 1’s waters were chaotic potential (no more and no less), unattained prior to creation. But just as the serpent did with the forbidden fruit, sin convolutes our understanding of Genesis 1’s waters, poisoning the well as it were. Thanks to Genesis 3, to trace Genesis 1’s path throughout the Bible is to pull on a common thread of sin - the many parallels between the fall (Adam and Eve’s story) and the flood (Noah’s story) suggest that we are still tethered to original sin, still hemmed in by our own corruption. The grand irony of original sin is that the forbidden fruit was purported to grant us wisdom (the knowledge of good and evil), but instead, the tree revealed just how little we knew about good and evil. Noah was buoyed by his faithfulness, yet, upon docking his ship, his first act was to enshrine his sin in a tree. Jonah begrudgingly warned the Ninevites to repent, but the striking down of the tree at the end of his story revealed his own lack of repentance. Where the Genesis 1 discharge bends and agitates, God stakes trees in the ground as gracious reminders that we have strayed from the straight and narrow. Each tree, then, and most especially the tree that Jesus was hung on, is designed to reroute the wayward course of our self-directed lives. Such is the power of Gospel irony: whenever we are confronted with an irony, God is returning us to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, separating wrong from right, and undoing the work of original sin. It’s as if the metaphor of water has ferried seeds from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and down the riverbed of human existence, and each time humanity took a turn for the worst, the metaphor deposited a reminder of God’s goodness along the bank of the river.

If sin repurposes Genesis 1 waters as a consumptive force, then Genesis 2 waters offer themselves up to be consumed, as living water. They are the living waters that Jesus speaks of in John 7:37-39, the well that the Samaritan woman draws from in John 4:1-26. It’s important to distinguish here that, while in Genesis 1, water predated the dry land as intimated by the verse “and God said, ‘Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear’” (Genesis 1:9), “this is” Genesis 2’s account: “no shrub of the field had yet appeared on the earth and no plant of the field had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no man to work the ground, but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground” (Genesis 2:4-6). That’s not to say that Genesis 1 and 2 chronologically contradict one another (I’ll leave that can of worms only half open), but more to say that the two relate to water in wildly different ways - it is almost as if the garden of Eden was a filter, channeling the consuming nature of Genesis 1 into the consumable product of Genesis 2.

While Genesis 1 and 2 often pull in different directions, they are just as inclined to intersect with one another. The biblical authors fashion the two into an intricately woven pattern and nest Moses’ story atop their creation as if it were the papyrus basket that Pharaoh’s daughter found Moses in (Exodus 2:1-10). Just as the tree of knowledge juxtaposes good and evil, Moses’ life contrasts Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. Moses’ name (assigned by an interaction with water) clues us in on the apparent irony between Genesis 1 and 2. His name, given to him because his adoptive mother “drew him out of the water” (Exodus 2:10), hints at the fact that Moses was “drawn out” of and protected from Genesis 1 waters (once at childbirth, a second time as the plagues poured out of the Nile, and a third time at the Red Sea) so that he could “draw” Genesis 2 water for the Israelites. Notably, the prophet threw a piece of wood in bitter water in order that the water would become “fit to drink” or “sweet” (Exodus 15:22-27) and, twice, he struck a stone with his wood staff in order that the stone would produce water (Exodus 17:1-7; Numbers 20:1-13). These instances also call back to Noah who failed his testing because he wanted a “bitter” drink. And it all foreshadows the “bitter” drink that was offered to Jesus on the (wooden) cross so that we might be able to taste Genesis 2’s living water (Mark 15:21-24).

Ultimately, just like the serpent, Genesis 1 is a consuming water that snakes out of the garden of Eden and swallows everything in its path (the sea monster almost appears sentient in Moses’ story, allowing Moses to lure the Egyptians into its jaws then spitting him and his wooden staff out of its mouth like it was cleaning its teeth with a toothpick at the end of a meal). Each tree that God springs up in response serves to remind us that Jesus would eventually skewer this snake and make an example of it á la the bronze serpent in Numbers 21:4-9. So, whenever Genesis 1 waters are paired with wood - Noah takes shelter in an ark (a wooden structure) and Jonah takes shelter in a tree (another wooden structure) - it’s as if God is returning us to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil to teach us what we failed to learn the first time around. To conflate the practicalities of Jesus’ day job with the cosmic intention of his ministry, the wood and nails are nothing more than the tools of a humble carpenter. Of course, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil has the capacity to reconcile good and evil, and, of course, Jesus is able to do the same at the tree on Calvary. So while, yes, Genesis 1 waters threaten to wipe us out (woe to Pharaoh and the Egyptians), we can trust Jesus to be our vessel (think Noah and his ark, Moses and his basket) to lead us into the belly of the beast (on now to Jonah and the whale), so that we can sing his praises when we cross over into new life (as happened at the Red Sea and as Jesus taught us to do with baptism). To Genesis 1 waters Jesus is our wooden vessel, protecting us from imminent death, and to Genesis 2 waters Jesus is a wooden spigot, granting us access to the living water we so desperately need.

Works Cited

The Bible. New International Version, Zondervan Publishing House, 1984.

Mackie, Tim. Collins, Jon. “Dragons in the Bible - Chaos Dragon E1.” The Bible Project. Apple Podcasts, uploaded July 21, 2023,

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