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Rivers of Living Water (John 7:37-39)

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series The John the Baptist Experience: Book 3

The John the Baptist Experience
Book 3: The Fellowship of the Forerunner
Deeper Dive #1:
Rivers of Living Water (John 7:37-39)

Copyright © 20231

by
Jim Kerwin

Frustrated Curiosity

Title graphic over a photo of the Jordan River in IsraelWhere is the verse Jesus quoted? That depends on where John meant to put his “period”!2

Idon’t understand what grace God worked in my heart to make me so, but once I came to Jesus I sought to be a Bible reader — someone who reads The Book through cover to cover at least every year.3 As I continued reading through, I discovered the truth of St. Augustine’s words:

The Old Testament is the New concealed;
the New Testament is the Old revealed.

And I became more and more convinced of what the Apostle Paul taught about what we call the “Old Testament”—

  • For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.
  • Romans 15:4

It was (and still is!) a delight to tie New Testament quotations and allusions back to their sources in the passages of the Old Testament. Numbered or “lettered” marginal notes pointing to Old Testament references and kindred verses in the New Testament became my underlined best friends.

But sometimes those “best friends” failed me, and the best example I can think of is John 7:37-39 —

37Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If any man is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. 38He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water.’” 39But 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.

Wow! If this is true, every believer should have “rivers [plural!] of living water flowing out of his belly”!4 What a promise! I didn’t know any Christian like that, but if Jesus said it, I wanted to know more. Was this a promise for the future? Could there ever be such river-full believers? My hunger was whetted and my curiosity was piqued. If Jesus offered it, I wanted it. Where was the passage from which He quoted? I had to know!

Generally, whenever “the Scripture said” something, it was fairly easy to find the Old Testament origin of the citation. Not here. Not this time! Try as I might, with the Bible study tools I had at the time, I couldn’t find the answer. Piqued curiosity slowly devolved into frustrated curiosity.

“It’s Not There!”

Sunday, January 28, 1973 brought the blessing of one of my two fathers in the Lord, Pastor Percy Gutteridge, teaching at our small fellowship, both morning and evening. He delivered two messages that I have never forgotten. In the morning he taught on Rivers of Living Water from John 7:38. I was about five years old in the Lord at that time. When I realized which passage he had chosen for his morning-message text, I was “all ears,” and all the more so when he read verse 38:

He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.5

Imagine my surprise when Pastor Gutteridge, this great Bible teacher, said to us, “I looked for years and years and years for that scripture, but I couldn’t find it.” Then he asked the congregation if any of us had looked for it. I raised my hand, surprised that mine was the only one that went up. Percy asked me, “Did you find it, brother?” to which I sheepishly replied, with no little embarrassment, “No.” Imagine my greater surprise when he replied, “That’s good, brother. Because it’s not there!

Then he went on to teach us the Old Testament basis of Jesus’ words, and it all made perfect sense. It’s a joy to pass on what I learned from him, as well as what the Lord has opened up about the subject since then.

“Greeking Out” (but Only Just a Bit)

We English speakers have it easy. The main changes in our words involve verb conjugations — I am, we are, they were, she shall be, etc. — though we might be surprised to hear that those conjugations are known as inflectional changes. Our nouns, adjectives, adverbs, etc., aren’t much affected by change; that is, they aren’t inflected. And word order in the sentence communicates important data, like whether a noun is serving as the subject, direct object, or indirect object.

My father served in the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II. Once the war ended, he was billeted for a time with a German family. Though he learned only a little German, Dad delighted in sharing (what to him was) that language’s oddity — at least in a literal word-order translation.

“Throw the horse over the fence some hay.”
“Throw father down the stairs his hat.”

We can make out each sentence’s meaning after getting over what (to us) seems like a humorous word order. German (like Greek, so be patient; we’re getting there) is an inflected language. In somewhat the same manner that verbs conjugate, all the words in a sentence — nouns, pronouns, articles, adverbs, and adjectives — decline. In this process of declension, words take on suffixes (and other changes) which telegraph how they are functioning in a sentence — one type of ending for the subject of the sentence, another for a direct object, another for an indirect object, etc. And an adjective for the subject / object / indirect object, and so on, will share the same declension ending as the word it modifies.6

Let’s bring this back around to Koiné Greek, the original language of our New Testament. It, too, is an inflected language. Words can be somewhat “out of order” (from an English way of thinking) and still make sense to a reader of Greek. The Greek language is precise (though not perfect); and its inflected nature allowed some things that seem strange to us now.

For instance, the earliest NT Greek manuscripts which are available7 have such characteristics as being written:

  • entirely in capital letters;
  • without punctuation;
  • without spaces between the words;
  • without spaces between the sentences;8
  • for the most part, without “chapters”;9  and,
  • without verses.

Because of Greek’s structure and precision as a declined language, ancient readers could readily separate the words and sentences in their minds “on the fly” as they read. My readers will have no quarrel with me in saying that the Scriptures are inerrant and divinely inspired in their original autographs. But there is a “man-made” element that’s been introduced over the centuries, and it’s this — the separation of the Greek text into sentences and paragraphs, and the added punctuation (i.e., periods, commas, semi-colons, etc.) are products of men. (That’s also true of breaking books into chapters, something which happened around a.d. 1000. That was followed by versification around a.d. 1100.) All that dividing up has been done fairly well; but like any work of men, it’s not perfect, neither are the divisions divinely “inspired.”

Our Dilemma

So although Scripture is inspired and inerrant, in almost every English and Spanish translation of John 7:37-39 of which I am aware,10 we are faced with multiple issues and unanswered questions, from the Biblical narrative, from context, from history, and (one could argue) even from personal experience and observation. Consider:

  • As most of our translations of John 7:38 stand, Jesus is made to cite an Old Testament passage which apparently doesn’t exist.
  • That mysterious, ephemeral Old Testament passage referred to by Jesus purportedly makes a promise that each believer will have rivers (note the plural!) of living water flowing from inside of them. Never mind for the moment that no one has been able to find such a verse. (We’ll get back to that.) Let’s ask instead, “Why would Jesus put the focus on believers, rather than on His Father, or the Holy Spirit, or Himself?” (Yes, I know this passage resolves itself in the promise of the Holy Spirit in verse 39. But that is a parenthetic statement made by John in retrospect. Could anyone in Jesus’ audience on the day He spoke these words have had any inkling of His deeper meaning?) Wouldn’t putting the focus on believers rob God of His glory?
  • We would expect Jesus’ words here to have had a deep and special significance within the context of the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) which He and His listeners were celebrating.
  • Although mighty works were done by the various characters in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, we don’t find anyone who seems to qualify as a source of “rivers,” nor do we find anyone claiming such a promise or referring to it.

The New Testament contains many quotations from the Law and the Prophets, and we can go back and study the cited passages in context to gain a greater understanding;11 but as we mentioned, so far no one has located this “rivers of living water out of a believer” passage.12

What if the passage can’t be found because (as Pastor Gutteridge said), it’s not there? Here’s my proposal: If our translation of Jesus’ words makes Jesus say something that’s not true, then there must be something wrong with our translation. Or, more specifically, perhaps there is something wrong with the phrasing of the passage translated.

“Breaking Up Is Hard to Do”

Remember those spaceless, punctuation-free Greek manuscripts we mentioned a few pages ago? It turns out that the lyrics of the old love song might be applicable here: “Breaking up is hard to do.”13 There’s no reason not to re-examine the arbitrary break which separates John 7:37 from verse 38; and there’s nothing inviolable about the word order of the passage.

But perhaps first we could look at two other examples of a “‘broken’ breaking process” to illustrate the point.

In my opinion, one of the most “‘broken’ chapter breaks” in Scripture is found where John chapter 13 was severed from John 14. (Remember: John didn’t write in chapters; those divisions were a much later development.) Here is how chapter 13 concludes:

  • 36Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, where are You going?” Jesus answered, “Where I go, you cannot follow Me now; but you will follow later.” 37Peter said to Him, “Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for You.” 38Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for Me? Truly, truly, I say to you, a rooster will not crow until you deny Me three times.”
  • John 13:36-38

There’s nothing wrong with the translation there. But if my daily Bible-reading chart tells me to end at verse 38, my soul comes away overclouded with a bit of melancholy. However, Jesus’ discourse didn’t pause at that point; only the arbitrary chapterization does! Let’s ignore the artificial chapter division and listen to Jesus’ words as they were spoken:

  • 13:36Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, where are You going?” Jesus answered, “Where I go, you cannot follow Me now; but you will follow later.” 37Peter said to Him, “Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for You.” 38Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for Me? Truly, truly, I say to you, a rooster will not crow until you deny Me three times. 14:1Do not let your heart14 be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me.”
  • John 13:36-38 – John 14:1

Do you see how the tone of the passage changes by not cutting off Jesus’ words at the end of verse 38? We haven’t changed one word of translation; we’ve merely restored the flow of Jesus’ words.

The apostle Paul is known for his long, involved Greek sentences, making some passages a challenge for translators (and especially Greek students). How do we break up those lengthy, paragraph-sized sentences into something more digestible for English readers? Where do we put the punctuation?

I remember the surprise of a very new thought because of a change in punctuation. I had been used to the King James translation of Ephesians 1:4-5 —

4According as He hath chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love: 5Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will…

Imagine my eyes growing wide when I saw how shifting the phrase-ending punctuation in the nasb revealed predestination to be an act of love!

4just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love 5He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will…

Each translation is true to the word order. But the nasb feels beholden neither to the traditional verse-break nor the commonly accepted punctuation; and because of this freedom, we’re allowed to see Paul’s words — and God’s sovereignty — in a new light.

I trust these two passages serve as adequate examples of the possibilities opened by altering man-made punctuation, and chapter and verse breaks.15

Repositioning the Punctuation of Our Passage

Having considered these examples, perhaps we can now ask: Would a re-phrasing or re-versification of John 7:37-38 make Jesus’ words ring more clearly, thus leading us to the seemingly “missing” Old Testament reference of which He speaks? Let’s see!

Not many commentaries address our issue, but The Jerome Bible Commentary is a refreshing exception. Weighing in on John 7:37-38, the writer explains:

The punctuation of Jesus’ pronouncement is in doubt, and with it the interpretation. We can read: “If anyone thirst, let him come [to me]; and let him drink who believes in me. As the Scripture says….” In this acceptation, the scriptural citation would refer to Christ himself. Alternatively, we can read: “If anyone thirst, let him come [to me] and drink. Who believes in me, as the Scripture says….” Here the citation would refer to the believer.16 [emphasis mine]

So there is acknowledgment of an alternative phrasing. If we ignore the 37-38 verse break and shift the “period” forward through only five words, we would alter our current nasb text to read:

37Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If any man is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink, 38he who believes in Me.

“As the Scripture said, ‘From His innermost being shall flow rivers of living water.’”17

So far, so good. But isn’t this just a modern rearranging of the passage? No, this slight re-arrangement actually takes us back to a very ancient original understanding of our text.

A Very Old Debate

Lest this matter of phrasing or punctuation in our passage should seem like a modern frivolity, it might interest the reader to know that this passage was a matter of debate among the Early Church Fathers starting in the Third Century a.d.

There seems to have been no “debate” about this matter in the Church’s earliest centuries. The reading we propose actually seems to have been the older one, supported by such theological heavyweights as Justin Martyr (c. a.d. 100 – c. 165), Irenaeus (c. a.d. 130 – c. 202), Tertullian (a.d. 155-220), and Hippolytus of Rome (c. a.d. 170 – c. 235).18 (Note that the latest of these dates barely takes us a third of the way into the the Third Century. a.d.) Scholars have given this the title of the “Western” interpretation, and (perhaps more importantly) the “Christological” interpretation, since it focuses the source of the rivers of living water as Jesus Christ Himself.

We become aware of a competing interpretive evolution of the passage starting in the Third Century. Origen (c. a.d. 185-c. 253) and Athanasius (c. a.d. 296-373, bringing us into the late Fourth Century) proffered what now seems to have become the majority view. Under this “newer” preaching on the passage, called the “Eastern interpretation” (because its earliest proponents lived and ministered in the eastern part of the Mediterranean), the believer becomes the source of living water.

Challenges of Each Interpretation

What are the challenges of accepting one reading over another? Let’s start with the “newer, Eastern,” believer-centric interpretation:

  • The source of the “rivers of living water” is in the believer, after s/he has drunk from Christ. That’s fine, if Jesus actually said this. But as we shall see presently, God Himself makes a strong, insistent claim that only He is the source of living water.
  • There is no verse in the Old Testament scriptures which makes such a claim about believers, though many have tried throughout the years to tie this idea, however weakly, to nine passages.19
  • Of those nine passages, only Isaiah 58:11 mentions a water-flow from the believer, and that is merely a “spring,” sufficient to simply water a garden, a far cry from rivers. But a “spring” is completely in line with Jesus’ revelation to the Samaritan woman: “…whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life” (John 4:14). The water that Jesus offered this thirsty woman would become a spring-fed well, not a river (much less multiple rivers).
  • I mention that “spring,” because a spring is not a river, let alone the multiple rivers required by Jesus’ statement (“out of his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water”). If we search back through Church history, even to the miraculous events of the Book of Acts, we can’t find a believer out of whom flowed a single river, much less a mighty Amazon River of the Holy Spirit, and certainly no one whose “flow” involved plural rivers.
  • Rivers, be it noted, generally do not stop. (All right, I’ll grant you that the Jordan did stop several times, but don’t blame that famous, if second-rate, river for God allowing Joshua and Elijah and Elisha to interrupt its flow.) The flow of any human “river” would end when that person died.

On the basis of these last two problems — the lack of both a clear Old Testament reference or allusion, as well as a fulfillment (or even existence) of this purported promise of rivers flowing from believers — we have to hold the Eastern, believer-centric phrasing of John 7:37-38 suspect. Why? Because interpreted this way, it makes Jesus, the one who is the Truth, say things which are not true.

But what about the original, “Western,” Christological phrasing and understanding of John 7:37-38? If, as proposed above, we read the passage this way:

37Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If any man is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink, 38he who believes in Me.

As the Scripture said, ‘From His20 innermost being shall flow rivers of living water.’”…

…do we solve any of the problems of the believer-centered interpretation? Let’s see:

  • If the “His” of verse 38 refers to Christ, then when we come to Him and drink, we are not in violation of the living-water source God speaks of in both Jeremiah 2:13 and Jeremiah 17:13. (More on this in a bit; but it turns out that the Lord is very jealous about being acknowledged as the source of living water.)
  • We need not look to any man or woman, living or historical, as a fulfillment of being a source of rivers of living water, because the Source is Christ Himself. (John will substantiate and underscore this point later in his Gospel.)
  • Ah, but we still need a clear, unequivocal Old Testament reference to which Jesus is pointing when He declares, “As the Scripture said”!

Using this original phrasing of Jesus’ words here in John 7:38, our passage fits hand-in-glove within its various contexts. That should make finding our “as the Scripture said” reference fairly simple.

So What Are the Contexts?

Anyone wishing to “rightly divide the word of truth”21 knows that we must look at any given passage in the light of multiple contexts.

  1. What is the historical context of the selection? Along with examining our selection in the light of history, what do we know of the cultural context of that time?22 There’s also the context of the passage itself. What leads up to the selection we are reading? What follows immediately afterwards?
  2. Within the context of the given book / epistle / gospel we are reading, how does this selection fit into the author’s overarching theme, the focus through which he hopes to persuade his audience, the truth(s) he wishes to emphasize?
  3. Concerning the linguistic context, are there depths and nuances and illuminations that the Hebrew or (in the case of our John 7:37-39 passage) Greek text could afford us if we understood these original languages a little better?
  4. And, as is always the focus of my hermeneutics seminars (now called simply What’s the Context?), what we need to bear in mind is the greatest context of all — that of the entirety of Scripture (which is why my life example and untiring exhortation for decades has been, “Read through the Bible at least once a year, every year”).

Context #1: Sukkot / “Tabernacles” / Booths

One of the Three Required Feasts

John makes obvious that the historical / cultural context of Jesus’ famous words is the celebration of the Feast of Booths.23 Allowing ourselves to think in “chapters,” for just a moment, John 7:2 sets the time and tone for everything that follows in chapter 7:

Now the feast of the Jews, the Feast of Booths, was at hand.

Thus from this point forward in John 7 almost all the action occurs during this celebration in Jerusalem.24 But what was the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles (Sukkot in Hebrew)?

The Feast of Booths was the third of the three mandatory annual religious feasts incumbent upon all Jewish males. These “appointed times of the Lord, holy convocations” (Leviticus 23:4), as explained by the Most High early in Israel’s wilderness wanderings, were:

  • Passover/Feast of Unleavened Bread, starting the 14th day of the first month (Leviticus 23:5-8).
  • The second, fifty days later, is that Feast which later became known as Pentecost (Leviticus 23:15-21). Exodus 23:16 calls this “the Feast of the Harvest of the first fruits.” This is also called the Feast of Weeks (Exodus 34:22).
  • The seventh month in the Jewish calendar brought three special observances: on the first day came Trumpets (Leviticus 23:23-24), followed on the tenth day by the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur, vv. 26-32), and culminating in the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles (vv. 33-43). The Lord gives the primary reason for this final celebration:
  • 42“‘You shall live in booths for seven days; all the native-born in Israel shall live in booths, 43so that your generations may know that I had the sons of Israel live in booths when I brought them out from the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.’”
  • The children of Israel dwelt in tents every day for forty years while in the wilderness. Obviously the inauguration of this post-harvest aspect of the Feast of Booths celebration awaited Israel’s conquest of and permanent residence in its promised land. Then the people would have shifted from their nomadic lifestyle to an agrarian existence. Every year at the end of their harvest season, God instructed the Israelites and their descendants to act out, and in a small measure to experience and remember, their journey and progress through the desert and God’s divine provision for them. They were to do this by building “booths” made from leafy boughs of trees, in order that they might live, eat, and sleep in them throughout the festival week.25
  • Because of when it would fall in Israel’s agricultural cycle, that is, at the end of the final harvesting, the Lord also gave this Feast its secondary emphasis:
  • 13“You shall celebrate the Feast of Booths seven days after you have gathered in from your threshing floor and your wine vat; 14and you shall rejoice in your feast…. 15Seven days you shall celebrate a feast to the Lord your God in the place which the Lord chooses, because the Lord your God will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands, so that you shall be altogether joyful.”
  • Deuteronomy 16:13-15
  • This is the main reason why this feast was also known as “Feast of the Ingathering” (Exodus 23:16).26

No Booths During “Booths”?

It would seem, however, that for many centuries Israel did not celebrate this feast in the way God intended. We know that the assigned festival was celebrated in Solomon’s time with its sacrifices (2 Chronicles 8:12-13), and among the returned exiles before Ezra’s arrival (Ezra 3:4). But a primary element appears to have been lacking, something we discover in Nehemiah 8:13-18 (especially v. 17):

13Then on the second day the heads of fathers’ households of all the people, the priests, and the Levites were gathered to Ezra the scribe that they might gain insight into the words of the law. 14And they found written in the law how the Lord had commanded through Moses that the sons of Israel should live in booths during the feast of the seventh month.

15So they proclaimed and circulated a proclamation in all their cities and in Jerusalem, saying, “Go out to the hills, and bring olive branches, and wild olive branches, myrtle branches, palm branches, and branches of other leafy trees, to make booths, as it is written.”

16So the people went out and brought them and made booths for themselves, each on his roof, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of God, and in the square at the Water Gate, and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim. 17And the entire assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in them. The sons of Israel had indeed not done so from the days of Joshua the son of Nun to that day. And there was great rejoicing.

18And he read from the book of the law of God daily, from the first day to the last day. And they celebrated the feast seven days, and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly according to the ordinance.

Thank you, Brother Ezra, for restoring the booths to the Feast of Booths! Using round figures, the Exodus occurred in 1440 b.c., and Ezra returned from the Captivity around 460 b.c. Even if we grant a generous meaning to Nehemiah 8:13 above and assume that the Israelites did indeed celebrate this festival with temporary shelters up until Joshua’s death, that means that this key element of the Feast of Booths had been missing for nearly 900 years — nine centuries.

Remember God’s reason for living in booths during this festival: “…so that your generations may know that I had the sons of Israel live in booths when I brought them out from the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 23:43).

Living in a “land flowing with milk and honey,” they depended on God for the rains of heaven for their harvests. But in the desert they had depended on God for everything — protection from the sun and the darkness, provision for food and water, and even clothes and shoes which never wore out.27

Context #2: The Themes of John’s Gospel

We’re still talking about the contexts of John 7:37-39, so it is helpful to take a step back and see a theme that John has woven into his Gospel up to this point. Those who read the Scriptures often and deeply will realize that up to this “chapter 7” part of his Gospel, John has been masterfully tying elements of His narrative back to Israel’s wilderness experience. For instance:

  • The Exodus from Egypt to be with Yahweh in the wilderness began with shedding of the blood of the Passover lambs (Exodus 12). As Jesus returns from His personal “wilderness experience,”28 the Apostle John records John the Baptist declaring Jesus to be God’s Lamb: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29, 35).
  • But the Gospel-writer is only beginning his association of Jesus with his “Israel in the wilderness” theme! In fact, having started with the Passover Lamb, he now incorporates an event from near the end of the forty-year wandering. In our rush to focus on the justly famous John 3:16, we lose sight of the fact that its words, truth, and impact are meant to flow from this important Old Testament reference in the preceding verses, John 3:14-15—
    • 14“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; 15that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life.”
  • You can read the full report about this in Numbers 21:6-9.29 John’s narrative has taken Jesus from His role as Passover Lamb to His role of the sin-bearing, crucified one. This is the first hint John gives that Jesus must be “lifted up” (John 3:14), that is, crucified.30
  • Having drawn these types of Christ from Israel’s wilderness experience, John now introduces one of the major, ongoing events of Israel’s daily desert experience — the daily provision of Manna. This is the theme of what we call John chapter 6, where Jesus declares Himself to be God’s Manna with this proclamation:
    • 32“Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. 33For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.34They said therefore to Him, “Lord, evermore give us this bread.” 35Jesus said to them, I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger…”
    • John 6:33-35
  • I’m actually being a bit disingenuous by breaking verse 35 where I did. We’re not quite ready to deal with John’s fourth wilderness-theme point, and I don’t want Jesus to “spill the beans” on it just yet! But those of you who are faithful Old Testament readers can probably guess where John is headed thematically.31

Context #3: Linguistic Insight

Trying to strengthen our understanding of John 7:37-39, we’ve looked at the historical / cultural context of the Feast of Tabernacles itself; and we’ve paid some attention to the context of the “wilderness experience” theme John is interweaving with his narrative. Now let’s approach the linguistic context. Do the Greek words used have any insights to offer us?

In the case of John 7:38, the Greek of the phrase “out of his innermost being” (ek tês koilías autoû / ἐκ τῆς κοιλίας αὐτοῦ)32 contains two words which demand our attention.

  • The first word we’ll look at is autoû / αὐτοῦ, which in translation yields the very common possessive masculine pronoun his or the phrase of him. Scholars who debate the two phrasings of John 7:38, no matter which “side” they favor, wrestle with the challenge of determining the antecedent of autoû. (Apologies for using that technical term, antecedent, but this is a technical point and it requires a precise vocabulary. An antecedent is the word or phrase to which a pronoun refers.) In the “newer,” more common “Eastern” reading of our passage (with the “period” at the end of verse 37), autoû / αὐτοῦ has to be understood to refer back to the believer, that is, the “he” of “he who believes in Me.”
  • By contrast, in the original “Western” reading of John 7:38 (with the “period” after “he who believes in me”), we start with a new sentence midway through the verse: “As the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his koilía shall flow rivers of living water.’” So, although we don’t yet know what the antecedent to his is, we expect the Old Testament quotation to supply that word — if we can find the location of that Old Testament reference.
  • The other Greek word in our phrase “out of his innermost being” (ek tês koilías autoû [ἐκ τῆς κοιλίας αὐτοῦ]) is koilía (κοιλία).33 Before we can come to grips with how this word is used in John 7:38, it helps to know that New Testament translators usually understand this word to mean:
    • belly or stomach; e.g., Matthew 12:40; 15:17 ∥ Mark 7:19; Luke 15:16; 1 Corinthians 6:13; Revelation 10:9, 10; etc. Paul stretches this meaning just a bit to include sinful desires, i.e., appetites (Romans 16:18; Philippians 3:19).
    • womb or uterus; this is a physiological word-favorite of our physician friend, Dr. Luke, as in Luke 1:15, 41, 42, 44; 2:21; 11:27; 23:29. John makes use of koilía as womb, too, in Nicodemus’ query (John 3:4). And where many modern translations of this word might read from birth, the Greek is simply from the womb (e.g., Matthew 19:12; Acts 3:2; 14:8; Galatians 1:15).
    • In these first and second sub-bullets, I’ve listed 21 of the 22 times that koilía / κοιλία appears in the Greek New Testament. Which verse is missing? You guessed it — John 7:38. Do either belly or uterus fit the context here? Not really. We’ve seen how the rest of the New Testament always uses koilía (κοιλία) as a literal belly34 or womb.35 Another option chosen for this word in John 7:38 is heart36 (though I am unaware of koilía / κοιλία being substituted for kardía / καρδία — the normal Greek word for heart — anywhere else in the New Testament).
    • Essentially admitting the limitations of belly, womb, and heart in John 7:38, other translations choose a different tact, opting for a metaphoric phrase like inmost being or innermost being,37 while the larger share of modern translations opt for some variation on the phrase deep within him.38 Nevertheless, in most of these cases, the underlying translational assumption is still that whatever koilía means, it refers to the believer.
    • Is there any other way to understand koilía? After all, as we consider the options — within him, innermost being, heart, womb, belly — it feels like we haven’t quite hit the bullseye. (That might well be because we are trying to make our understanding of koilía fit into the preconceived, purported believer-centric interpretation.) But we needn’t give up hope. All languages adapt and evolve, and ancient Greek was no exception. We call New Testament Greek Koiné Greek because it was the common (“koiné”) Greek spoken in the time of Jesus, not the classical Greek of Homer, Plato, Herodotus, and Aristophanes.39 But sometimes looking back on classical Greek helps us to unpack the source from which Koiné Greek words evolved.
    • In the case of koilía / κοιλία, Swanson’s Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek challenges us to open such an investigation. In its final definition of koilía / κοιλία, it gives the meaning valley, “a meaning,” it says, “based on the sonic similarity to κοιλάς [koilás].”40
    • “Sonic similarity”? What’s that? It’s a “scholar talk” way of saying, “Koilía (κοιλία) sounds almost exactly like another word — koilás (κοιλάς).” Actually, as one might expect, there turns out to be a family of words from classical Greek which helped give us our Koiné Greek New Testament word koilía (κοιλία):
      • The verb of the family is koilaínō (κοιλαίνω). It means to make hollow, to scoop out.
      • The adjective of the family is koílos (κοίλος). Hollow or hollowed is the standard rendering, and it was used to describe such things as an empty ship’s hold, the inside of the famous Trojan Horse (before the Greek infiltrators filled it), or the area of a valley.
      • Thus the related classical Greek (i.e., pre-New-Testament) nounkoilás (κοιλάς) — came to mean a valley or ravine itself.41 What is a valley if not a long gorge or canyon hollowed out of a mountainside or a plain by a river’s erosive power?42 And from where does that water come? Ultimately it seems to issue from the womb or “belly” — the koilía / κοιλία — of the earth.
      • Here’s another thought about koilía (κοιλία): a womb is “hollow” (koílos [κοίλος]) if it does not have a child growing within it. Similarly, a belly, too, is “hollow” if it has lacked food for a time.43
    • Well and good — but so what? The “so what” is this: What if the Old Testament passage about which Jesus spoke had to do with an “innermost” aspect of something that was hollow, or that came from or caused a river valley? (No, we won’t find the Greek word koilía and its family members in such an Old Testament passage, since the passage will have been written in Hebrew. But at the very least we should expect to find the concept.) Let that bee buzz in your bonnet for a few pages. We’ll return to it presently.

Context #4: The Entirety of Scripture

We will see this “context” come into play in both the Old and New Testaments once we discover the Scripture passage to which Jesus alludes. This is one of the joys and privileges of reading the the Bible through cover to cover every year: it affords the insight and familiarity to identify some of the connections in God's “big picture.”

Tying It All Together

So now from our various contexts we have the parameters for our Old Testament quest — the “as the Scripture said” of John 7:38. Can we find an Old Testament passage very familiar to Jesus and His listeners that meets the following criteria? It must:

  • Tie the Feast of Tabernacles tightly with Israel’s Wilderness experience.
  • Focus on life-or-death thirst that needed to be quenched by life-giving water which only God Himself can provide.
  • Add another link in John’s chain of Wilderness events and metaphors. (Let’s see: Passover Lamb, bronze serpent, Manna from heaven. Where would John go next?)
  • Make the word his (autoũ [αὐτοῦ]) refer to someone other than the believer. And,
  • Link koilía (κοιλία) to something out of which water will flow, or to a hollow place, or to a river that hollows out a valley in its course.

Yes, we can find the passage! Otherwise Jesus wouldn’t have said such a thing, and John wouldn’t have written such a thing. Now that we have re-phrased Jesus’ words, we’re not looking for a believer-centered quote, but rather a God-centered one. Welcome to one of the most famous and sacred peaks of Scripture — “Horeb, the mountain of God”!44

River(s) from the Rock

Is there a worthy Old Testament passage that can serve as a candidate for the passage to which Jesus referred, one that fits John’s various contexts, as well as the parameters we’ve outlined? Yes! As the target passage for “as the scripture said,” I propose an event early in the wilderness wanderings — in Exodus 17.

A Brief Backdrop:
The First Weeks in the Desert

To set the stage (which is another way to think about context), let’s do a quick review:

  • Right after the Passover, during which God’s final judgment fell on Egypt, the children of Israel depart from Egypt with haste and joy in Exodus 12. (You will recall that the Passover Lamb is the first of John’s three “wilderness wandering” themes.)
  • The Lord leads them by means of the cloud and pillar (Exodus 13).
  • Pharaoh and his army pursue Israel in order to punish and re-enslave them, but the pursuers meet a watery demise (Exodus 14). Israel celebrates God’s victory over their former slave masters (Exodus 15:1-21).
  • Although they experience some temporary water-quality problems (e.g., Marah, Exodus 15:22-26), water supply is not initially an issue (e.g., the springs of Elim; 15:27). However…
  • …the food supply they carry is soon consumed, causing a hunger crisis, which the Lord meets in the form of manna (Exodus 16), a blessing which God provides until the day Israel crosses the Jordan River and enters the promised land (Joshua 5:12). (And here is the third element of John’s “wilderness wandering” theme — Jesus as the manna or bread from heaven.)

In Exodus 17, God leads Israel deeper into the desert — the trackless, barren, oven-like, waterless wilderness which we now call the Sinai Peninsula. The Bible is quite detailed about the route they took up to this point, but we can’t allow our subject to become a tedious geography lesson, so I will relegate the “travelogue” notes to this endnote.45

The main things to bear in mind are these:

  • Horeb is the name of a small mountain range, in which Sinai is one of the peaks. Thus Israel reaches the western edge of the Horeb range before it reaches Mount Sinai proper.
  • Nevertheless, because of this close association (the mountain range Horeb and the specific peak Mount Sinai) Horeb and Sinai are used interchangeably elsewhere in scripture (primarily in Deuteronomy).

Our Target Text

Now that we know where our story takes place — near whatever serves as the amorphous border between the Wildernesses of Sin and Sinai, somewhere out on the western edge of a small mountain range called Horeb (which contains Mount Sinai, soon to be Israel’s rendezvous with God) — let’s read the account carefully.

  • 1Then all the congregation of the sons of Israel journeyed by stages from the wilderness of Sin, according to the command of the Lord, and camped at Rephidim, and there was no water for the people to drink. 2Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water that we may drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?”
  • 3But the people thirsted there for water; and they grumbled against Moses and said, “Why, now, have you brought us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” 4So Moses cried out to the Lord, saying, “What shall I do to this people? A little more and they will stone me.”
  • 5Then the Lord said to Moses, “Pass before the people and take with you some of the elders of Israel; and take in your hand your staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, that the people may drink.” And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel.
  • 7And he named the place Massah and Meribah because of the quarrel of the sons of Israel, and because they tested the Lord , saying, “Is the Lord among us, or not?”
  • Exodus 17:1-7 nasb

Does It Meet Our Criteria?

This is undoubtedly one of the most famous passages in the Old Testament. How many of our criteria does it match? Let’s list the obvious ones:

  • This Exodus 17 event occurs very early in the wilderness wanderings, a very good fit for John’s Feast of Tabernacles context, during which Jesus uttered His famous declaration. By this point the people had been “camping in the desert” for about ten weeks.46
  • This is clearly a narrative about a time of great thirst. Under “ordinary” circumstances, the human body can only go about three days without water. That survival “countdown timer” is shorter and ticks a lot louder in a desert-heat situation. The people weren’t just thirsty — they realized that they and their livestock were facing imminent death from dehydration. “If any man thirst…”! (John 7:37)
  • In the most significant portion of this passage is God’s remarkable statement: “I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb; and you shall strike the rock….” (v. 6). Jehovah is closely and spatially associating Himself with this rock at Horeb. Then, in the context of that intimate association, He orders Moses to strike the rock with which He has identified Himself.
  • Scholar M. R. Vincent shares an interesting and important observation about this passage: “In Exod. 17:6, ‘there shall come water out of it,' is literally, ‘there shall come water from within him.’”47 Although Vincent himself is remembered as a Greek scholar, he is not referring to the LXX / Greek Old Testament in this instance.48 Rather, he is pointing out that in the Hebrew phrase out of it, the pronoun it is actually masculine (specifically a third-person singular masculine suffixed pronoun). On a simple linguistic level, the pronoun has to be masculine, because its antecedent צוּר / tsur — rock, cliff — is masculine.
  • But in the case of this Exodus 17 passage, the proper name of the rock-associated Jehovah (v. 5) is also masculine. Thus a thoughtful reader can read Vincent’s linguistic point —“Water will flow from within him — and see the association with Jesus’ words: “Out of his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water.”49
  • Lest we miss how this ticks a box in our criteria list, we have now uncovered John’s fourth “wilderness wanderings” metaphor. John links Exodus 16 and John 6 to present Jesus as the Living Bread, the Manna from heaven. In John 7, the Apostle links back to Exodus 17, with Jesus as the Rock out of whom will flow God’s life-giving water.
  • Ah, but we still have to make the connection to belly / womb / innermost being / within / hollow / valley / koilía / koilá / koílos! Where does the water come from? Ultimately from God, of course. But to the multitude of observers present, it seems to come from a hollow within the rock. And the river which comes from within the Rock of Horeb must immediately begin to create its own riverbed — a channel which will be hollowed out from the land by the water’s erosion.

Yes, but Rivers?!

But I can hear some readers thinking, “Wait. This Exodus 17 passage says nothing about a river. Come to think of it, it certainly says nothing about rivers plural. You haven’t yet made a complete case.” Excellent observation! But we’re not yet done with this passage. We need to apply both common sense and appeal to the principle of Scripture commenting on Scripture.

As to common sense: This water supply has to slake the thirst of several millions of people and their flocks and herds. While I can’t put an exact number on it, I don’t use that word millions lightly. When the first census of able-bodied men is complete (males “from twenty years old and upward”) in Numbers 1, the grand total is 603,550 (Numbers 1:45), not including the Levites.50 Let’s extrapolate with some simple math:

    • The number of men and women must be about the same in a population group. After all, the men have mothers, sisters, and wives. So, for argument’s sake, let’s approximate an equal number of females from twenty years old and upward. Now our population count stands at 1,207,100. To make the following math easier, we’ll round that figure down to 1.2 million adults.
    • Adults? Just here we introduce another consideration — children and minors, who also get very thirsty. And we know there must have been a lot of Israelite children, because despite everything the Egyptians could do to the Israelites (including, for at least a period, male-infanticide), Scripture says, “The more [the Egyptians afflicted them [the Israelites], the more multiplied” (Exodus 1:12). Thus it would be fair to assume that we could double our population estimate yet again to include the boys and girls in the vast caravan. Now we have a population of 2.4 million parched souls. And there’s no way to estimate the number of sheep, cows, oxen, camels, donkeys and other transportable domestic animals.

Now do you see the scope of the need? When Moses struck that rock, well… what do you picture in your mind? A babbling brook? A pleasant little stream depicted on the color-illustrated, elementary-school-age Sunday School handouts you received, in which a few colorfully clad people are dipping their jugs and vases?

No! It had to have been a mighty river to have met the need of so many and to have met it so immediately. And, although the word “river” isn’t used in Exodus 17, it is used — even in the plural! — in other interpreting scripture passages. I will cite just two, interweaving some of my own remarks. The first passage is from Psalm 78:14-16, 20:

  • 14Then He led them with the cloud by day,
    And all the night with a light of fire.
    15He split the rocks in the wilderness,
    And gave them abundant drink like the ocean depths.
  • verses 14-15

“Like the ocean depths”? That sounds like a lot of water!

  • 16He brought forth streams also from the rock,
    And caused waters to run down like rivers.…
  • verse 16

Do you remember that, according to Jesus’ words (“shall flow rivers), we are looking for rivers plural? Here is the Holy Spirit’s own commentary on the abundance of water in Exodus 17 — like rivers!

  • 20“Behold, He struck the rock, so that waters gushed out,
    And streams were overflowing…”
  • verse 20

Once again, waters plural and streams plural, as well as hydrologically lively, active verb forms like gushed and were overflowing. And did you notice what the translators did with the pronoun (oh, those pronouns!) “He”? They capitalized it, meaning that “He” refers to God.

God struck the rock? Wait, didn’t Moses strike the rock? Both statements are true! One of the Messianic themes of the Old Testament is that of the Suffering Servant. Consider the words of Isaiah 53:10 —

  • But the Lord was pleased
    To crush Him, putting Him to grief…

The Servant — the Him whom the Lord would crush (or bruise, as in the older English translations) — is Christ. And we hear an echo of this in Zechariah 13:7 —

“Awake, O sword, against My Shepherd,
And against the man, My Associate,”
Declares the Lord of hosts.
Strike the Shepherd…”

It pleased God to crush, bruise, strike His Son? For our redemption, yes, it did. It’s as though the Apostle John is having Jesus say, “If you are thirsty, come to Me, the Smitten Rock out of which the life-giving water flows.” That Rock was smitten by the rod with which Moses had brought down the plagues and judgments of God on Egypt. The use of that terrible symbol of Judgment against the rock with which God associated Himself speaks to us of Christ bearing our penalty on the cross. As the inspired Anne Cousin put it in her famous hymn:

Jehovah lifted up His rod;
O Christ, it fell on Thee!
Thou wast sore stricken of Thy God;
There’s not one stroke for me.
Thy tears, Thy blood, beneath it flowed;
Thy bruising healeth me.51

But remember, I promised you two “river passages” from the Psalms. Here is the other one:

  • 40…And satisfied them with the bread of heaven.
    41He opened the rock and water flowed out;
    It ran in the dry places like a river.
  • Psalm 105:40b-41

Here’s another river-from-the-rock secret I can share with you. Perhaps you’ve never thought about it, but Exodus 17 is the only time for the next 39 years that Israel ever has to beseech God for water. Water supply doesn’t become an issue again until Israel is on its final approach to the conquest of the promised land (Numbers 20). In a desert waste as large as the Sinai Peninsula, how can that be? The answer is obvious once we see it — that Rock of Horeb river continued to flow, available at any time for the people, during Israel’s time in the desert.

Paul’s Commentary

If you think that statement is ridiculous or unscriptural, your “think” is out of sync with the apostle Paul! Listen to the peripatetic penman’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 —

1For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; 2and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; 3and all ate the same spiritual food; 4and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ.

For those of you waiting for another level of proof, there it is — “the rock was Christ.”

But we’re talking about a related issue here: the provision that this God-given river afforded Israel during their decades in the wilderness. Paul says, “They were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them.” I very much doubt Paul means that Mount Horeb pulled itself up by the roots on the nights when Israel journeyed, and then, behold, in the morning the Rock of Horeb was just as close as it had been before they pulled up stakes! (What kind of earthshaking noise would a massive massif make while trying to furtively tiptoe through the desert behind God’s people?) Well, then, how did the rock “follow them”? Because it wasn’t the “rock,” per se; it was the river flowing out of the Rock-Source which followed them. As I mentioned above, despite many more complaints and murmurings against God in the chapters between Exodus 17 and Numbers 20, protests about the lack of water are never raised.

Living Water: Only One Source

I think perhaps we’ve thoroughly covered John’s insistence that Jesus used the word rivers [plural] of living water. But having said that, now we need to tie up this matter of why believers can’t possibly be the source of living water. Perhaps regular Old Testament readers will know immediately where we’ll go — God’s words in Jeremiah — in order to find this.

Listen as Jehovah calls upon all creation to be “appalled” and “desolate” by the following thought:

    • 12“Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
      And shudder, be very desolate,” declares the Lord.
      13“For My people have committed two evils:
      They have forsaken Me,
      The fountain of living waters
      ,
      To hew for themselves cisterns,
      Broken cisterns
      That can hold no water.
    • Jeremiah 2:12-13

Some attributes belong to God alone, the One who will not share His glory with another (Isaiah 42:8). Being the Source of living water — the Holy Spirit — is one such holy and essential prerogative. Therefore it’s probably not mere happenstance that in the very same chapter in which God declares the human heart to be “more deceitful than all else, and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9), Jeremiah is led to pray like this:

    • 12A glorious throne on high from the beginning
      Is the place of our sanctuary.
      13O Lord, the hope of Israel,
      All who forsake You will be put to shame.
      Those who turn away on earth will be written down,
      Because they have forsaken the fountain of living water,
      even the Lord.

      14Heal me, O Lord, and I will be healed;
      Save me and I will be saved,
      For You are my praise.
    • Jeremiah 17:12-14

Knowing that He Himself would be the Smitten Rock, the Fountain of Living Water, that is the Holy Spirit (the promise of Whose coming is a major theme in John’s Gospel), I think we can agree that Jesus would never quote a purported promise (still floating around nebulously in the Old Testament and still waiting to be discovered) that would make a believer — any believer, much less potentially all believers — a source of the Living Water. Source? Never! Partaker​? Absolutely! — “If any man thirst, let him come to Me and drink, he who believes in Me!”

The Apostle John’s Eyewitness Testimony

Do we need any final proof of what Jesus’ (and John’s) words mean in John 7:37-39? Perhaps not, but the Scripture-inspiring Holy Spirit graciously brings the matter to a spectacular, breathtaking conclusion through the eyewitness account of the Apostle John at the cross. Here it is, from John 19:31-35 —

31Then the Jews, because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. 32So the soldiers came, and broke the legs of the first man and of the other who was crucified with Him; 33but coming to Jesus, when they saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. 34But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. 35And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe.

I have highlighted two phrases for us to consider:

  • Out of Jesus’ pierced side “immediately blood and water came out.” The blood we would expect; but a noticeable amount of water? This is the body of a Man who has been bleeding since His lashing in the Praetorium. This same Man refused the drink offered to Him just before He was nailed to the cross because it contained a pain-numbing drug (Matthew 27:34). He was so dehydrated that (according to the prophetic psalm) His strength was dried up like a potsherd and His tongue was stuck in His mouth (Psalm 22:15). This dehydration was probably what made some of His final words incomprehensible to onlookers (e.g., Matthew 27:46-47); and it was one of the reasons for His declaration, “I thirst” (John 19:28). “Blood and water came out”? John is telling you that a miracle took place. And then…
  • …John tells you what the miracle means and what you should do in response to it. He says he testifies of what he has seen, especially this last-recorded “water from His side” miracle, and he tells you that it’s “so you might believe.” So that you might believe what? Have you forgotten the words of John 7:37-39 so quickly? Here they are again:
    • “If any man is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink, 38he who believes in Me. As the Scripture said, ‘From His innermost being shall flow rivers of living water.’”
  • From a blood-drained, dehydrated body, blood — and an unexpected gush of water! — poured from Jesus’ body. John, who passed so much about the Holy Spirit down to us through his Gospel (especially in John chapters 14 and 16) is intimating that this unexpected effusion of water is the earnest of what Jesus promised.

From that pierced side came the gush of water John witnessed, representing what was to come from the Rock whom God Himself had smitten. This may be the reason why John added his parenthetic statement to the words Jesus spoke at the Feast of Tabernacles:

  • 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 7:39

John was present to witness God smiting His “Rock” at Calvary. On the Day of Pentecost he was swept along with the mighty current when the Rivers of Living Water began to flow from that Rock. And John could give his hearty “amen!” when Peter proclaimed this Pentecostal outpouring as proof of God’s completed plan.

  • 32“This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses. 33Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth this which you both see and hear.”
  • Acts 2:32-33

The water from the wound in Jesus’ side was God’s earnest. The Living Water from heaven, the Holy Spirit received by Jesus from the Father, and poured out on the earth, is proof that the Rock with whom God associated Himself, the Rock He had Moses smite in type, became the Source of the Spirit of God. “If any man thirst, let him come to Me and drink, he who believes in Me.”

No Longer Lost for Want of a ‘ . ’!

Perhaps you’re familiar with the old proverb poem:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost;
For want of a shoe the horse was lost;
For want of a horse the battle was lost;
For the failure of battle the kingdom was lost—
All for the want of a horse-shoe nail.

That missing “nail” could well be represented by our unfortunate verse break (between John 7:37-38) and the corresponding arbitrary placement of the “period” at the end of “come to Me and drink,” instead of at “he who believes in Me.” Loss of that “nail” — the misplacement of that vital, sentence-ending “period” — has led us down a joyless path of false hope — mis-directed hope that we would find an Old Testament verse which would justify our mis-placed hope (based on the mis-phrased words of Jesus) that we believers would be the source of “rivers of living water.”

But now that the “nail” is no longer “missing,” the “horse’s shoe” no longer falls off. Properly phrased and punctuated, Jesus’ words lead us exactly where He meant us to go — to the account of the Smitten Rock of Horeb and its river, all in Exodus 17.

I can’t think of a better way to give thanks for this lovely truth than the final words of George H. Bourne’s hymn:

Life-imparting heavenly Manna,
Smitten Rock with streaming side,
Heav’n and earth with loud hosanna
Worship Thee, the Lamb Who died.
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Ris’n, ascended, glorified!
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Ris’n, ascended, glorified!52


Endnotes:


  1. This is a preview chapter from the book The John the Baptist Experience: Book 3: The Fellowship of the Forerunner; copyright © 2023 by Jim Kerwin. All rights reserved.

    Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture quotations are taken from New American Standard Bible (nasb) Copyright ©1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, CA. All rights reserved. Used by Permission. www.lockman.org

  2. The underlying Jordan River photograph is copyright by Rex Wholster and used under license from iStockphotos.com.
  3. Looking back, the Lord may have even sown that desire in my heart about a month prior to my salvation. I recall that weeks before I surrendered to Jesus I was working on completing a personal goal of “reading through the Bible at least once in my life.” Genesis was interesting; Exodus “slowed down” a bit in its closing chapters. And by the morning of the day of my salvation, I was so hopelessly bogged down in the priestly regulations midway through Leviticus that I thought I might have to abandon the project.

    That flagging, “academic” motivation for Bible reading was transformed on the night of my salvation, because the Author and the Opener of the Book were now living within.

  4. My main Bible was the King James Version at the time, and “belly” is how that translation rendered the word.
  5. Pastor Gutteridge almost always used the King James Version of the Bible, as was far more common back then.
  6. For those who wish to pursue this idea of declension just a bit further, without actually having to learn a declined language, there’s a very helpful introduction to be found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Declension.
  7. I’m thinking of the Codex Sinaiticus as a good example.
  8. It might be surprising to us when we can go to the local Office Max or warehouse club and order a box of 10 reams (5000 sheets) of paper for $40 (a mere 8/10¢ per sheet), but papyrus and parchment were very expensive to produce in ancient times. Thus, space was not to be wasted on… well, spacing!
  9. The Book of Psalms would be a good example of an exception.
  10. We will note the exceptions shortly.
  11. I believe Bible reading would be far more of heart-opening spiritual adventure if more Christians were diligent in this sort of study. I share some examples in the first “Deeper Dive” of The Exceptional Messenger (Book One in The John the Baptist Experience series). That article is called Pulling the Bible’s “Mnemonic Triggers”.
  12. To those who would argue, “Oh, well, there’s probably some portion of Old Testament scripture missing,” Paul has an inspired counter-argument: To the Jews “were entrusted the oracles of God” (Romans 3:2). They were used by God to finalize the canon of the Old Testament scriptures.
  13. With apologies to Neil Sedaka!
  14. The Greek of this verse is interesting. The nasb here translates heart in the singular, as it appears in the original. (This is also the choice of the translators of the asv, bishops, drb, geneva, kjv, nkjv, rv, lbla, nbla (both su corazón), and ylt versions). Why then do other translations render the passage with hearts in the plural (e.g., esv, isv, leb, niv, weymouth, and williams)? They do so because the modifying possessive — your — is plural in the Greek. In English we have no clear way of knowing if a you or yours is singular or plural without more context clues.

    But even if Jesus did shift from a singular “you” (i.e., addressing Peter in 13:36) to a plural “your” in 14:1 (which would mean He is now including the other eleven in His comments), the flow of thought isn’t truncated. “Yes, Peter, you, who see yourself as the ‘lead disciple’ of this group, will deny Me. But, you, Peter, and the rest of you (who must be shocked and disheartened by what I’ve just predicted) — don’t let your collective heart be troubled. Focus on and believe in God and Me, not yourselves.”

  15. I offer another example in my article Wingless Angels and Their Poetry, in part of which I propose a phrase / punctuation change to the worshipful and memorable couplet of the angels recorded in Luke 2:14. The alteration (not of word order, but of punctuation) reveals the angels to be worshiping both the Enthroned Father in heaven and the Incarnate Son in the manger simultaneously. The change in phrasing perfectly fits the night of Christ’s birth and suggests how an otherwise obscure Messianic prophecy quoted in Hebrews finds its fulfillment.
  16. Brown, R. E., Fitzmyer, J. A., & Murphy, R. E. (1996, c1968). The Jerome Biblical Commentary (2:440; §105). Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.
  17. How many English translations present the phrasing of John 7:38 this way? Consider this list:

    • “All who believe in me should drink! As the scriptures said concerning me, Rivers of living water will flow out from within him” (Common English Bible). Note here that the translators add the words I have bolded (i.e., “concerning me”) because they feel that the re-phrasing warrants this understanding.
    • “…whoever believes in me should drink. As the scripture says, ‘Streams of life-giving water will pour out from his side’” (Good News Translation). Here again, I have bolded the phrase “will pour out of his side,” because the translators (as we shall see later in the text) are taking the greater Johannine context into view.
    • “… the one who believes in me. Just as the scripture said, ‘Out of his belly will flow rivers of living water’” (Lexham English Bible).
    • ‘…whoever believes in me, let him drink.’ As Scripture says, ‘Streams of living water shall flow out from within him’ (New English Bible. Note that the way this is punctuated, the translators may be suggesting that the “As Scripture says,” phrase is an insertion by John, along with his parenthetical comment in v. 39.
    • “…let the one who believes in me drink. Just as the scripture says, ‘From within him will flow rivers of living water’” (New English Translation, otherwise know as the NET Bible). As we continue through our text, we’ll see that the translators believe this refers to Christ, not believers.

    All of these translations indicate in their notes that the alternate reading is possible. And speaking of noting alternate translations…

    …among the translations which choose the more popular “believer-centric” rendition of this passage, some contain notes that indicate that the “moved period” approach may also be possible. These include the English Standard Version, New Catholic Bible, New International Version, and the Revised Standard Version.

    There are those who apparently “want it both ways.” For instance, the New Revised Standard Version (and its variants) fix the verse-split and move the period. But then…

    • …and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”’
    • John 7:38 nrsv

    I have bolded the word believer’s in the last phrase so that it stands out to the reader. Often a translation will indicate somehow (often by italics) that a word or phrase, although not in the original text, has been supplied by the translators. Not so here! Even though they “re-verse” and re-phrase Jesus’ words, the underlying assumption of the translation team is still the “Eastern,” believer-centric interpretation.

  18. In this section, I am indebted to the scholars who produced the New English Translation for their detailed notes and the overview of the historical interpretations of John 7:38. They give quite a thorough summary of both sides of the issue, as well as the reasoning in choosing their rendering of 37c“If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me, and 38let the one who believes in me drink. Just as the scripture says, ‘From within him will flow rivers of living water’” — just as we are suggesting. NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com. All rights reserved.
  19. One thinks of such suggested Bible cross-references as Proverbs 4:23; 5:15; Isaiah 44:3; 55:1; 58:11; Ezekiel 47:1ff.; Joel 3:18; Zechariah 13:1; 14:8.
  20. Note that because the passage, phrased in this way, is meant to be Christological, I have capitalized the personal pronoun His (in Greek autoû / αὐτοῦ, the genitive form of autós / αὐτός), in order to help the reader remember that this refers to Christ Himself.
  21. 2 Timothy 2:15
  22. Interested readers will find rich rewards from time invested in such books as Alfred Edersheim’s The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (and, actually, any of Edersheim’s titles). The same might be said of The Jewish New Testament, if it is read side by side with its accompanying The Jewish New Testament Commentary. Also very helpful to have on hand would be a “manners and customs of the Bible” reference book.
  23. For those of you interested in such things, there are two noteworthy Feast of Tabernacles traditions, one from Jewish lore and one from the Church.

    There’s a Jewish tradition that the Law was given during what would have been the first “Feast of Tabernacles” at the foot of Mount Sinai. The timing doesn’t seem to fit with God’s original, audible proclamation of the Law (Exodus 19-20), but it might well accord with the time that the second set of tablets “written by the finger of God” were brought down the mountain by Moses (Deuteronomy 34:28). Hold that thought for a few paragraphs.

    One Church tradition is that Jesus was born during the Feast of Tabernacles. This is largely based on a special verb John uses near the beginning of his Gospel. But before I look into that word and its family members, let me make a seemingly unrelated point about Roman administrative efficiency.

    When Caesar’s tax-census decree was issued (Luke 1:1) and registration in one’s birth-city was required (v. 3), “business as usual” was disrupted — a very disorderly and untidy situation which would not have been to Roman liking. But since all Jewish males were already required by the Law of God to travel to Jerusalem for the three annual feasts of the Lord, the Roman rulers of Palestine probably caused this registration to coincide with one of those three festivals (when “business as usual” was disrupted anyhow), a wise administrative decision.

    Now that we’ve made the Roman overlords happy, let’s see what light the Greek language might be able to shed on this tradition that Jesus was born during the Feast of Tabernacles. We’ll start with the main word and then introduce its family members.

    • skēnḗ (σκηνή). This is a fairly common word meaning tent or temporary booth or shelter. This word appears 20 times in the NT, mostly in Hebrews and Revelation, and mostly having to do with God’s tabernacle. In addition, Peter, as you may recall, wanted to erect three of these on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:4 ∥ Mark 9:5 ∥ Luke 9:33).
    • skēnopēgía (σκηνοπηγία). Here we see the same skēn- (σκην-) root which will characterize everything in this “tent family” of words. This particular one means Feast of Tents (or Tabernacles), and only appears in John 7:2.
    • skēnopoiós (σκηνοποιός). The poios ending here comes from the common verb poiéō (ποιέω)— to do or make. So it should come as no surprise that this word means tent-maker, the occupation of Paul, Aquila, and Priscilla (Acts 18:3).
    • Two variations on this word are used for the human body:
      • Using skēnos (σκῆνος), Paul talks about putting off the human “tent” or body (2 Corinthians 5:1, 4) in death; while…
      • …Peter uses a similar word, skēnōma (σκήνωμα), to describe his imminent martyrdom (2 Peter 1:13-14), in which his soul will be moving on from its tent, its temporary dwelling place.
    • And now, at last, we come to John’s special verb, possibly his allusion to Jesus’ birth during the Feast of Tabernacles. The word is the verb form of our “tent family” — skēnóō (σκηνόω). The word can be translated to dwell; but we could also make a special verb out of it — to tabernacle.
    • John famously uses this verb in John 1:14 —
      • And the Word became flesh, and dwelt (eskēnōnsen (ἐσκήνωσεν) — tabernacled!) among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.
    • There were other Greek verbs available to John that would have expressed the concept of dwell. But writing his Gospel under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, recording the historical fact of God Incarnate living among men, John was led to appropriate this unique verb — to tabernacle.

    If, as Jewish tradition suggests, the stone-etched Ten Words were given at the Feast of Tabernacles, it wouldn’t be surprising at all that God would send His Incarnate Word during the very same festival period. Perhaps it is this Feast of Tabernacles contrast and comparison John had in mind when a few lines later he wrote:

      • For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.
      • John 1:17

    It’s certainly food for thought.

  24. Due diligence requires that I mention the Temple water ceremony performed during the Feast of Tabernacles in Jesus’ times. Since Alfred Edersheim seems to be the primary source for most others who write about this, I will summarize his points from The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, book 4, chapter 7.

    Each day during Sukkot, a priest carrying a golden pitcher would depart from the Temple, make his way through what was called the Fountain Gate to the Pool of Siloam. This priest, accompanied by a band of flautists and earnest worshipers, would fill his pitcher. Then this procession would wend its way back to the Temple.

    The arrival of this group coming up from Siloam was timed to coincide with the laying out of the sacrifice on the great altar. Another priest, bearing wine for the drink offering, would join the water-bearing priest and together they approached the altar. Each priest would then stand before separate silver funnels, one for the wine and the other for the water, into which they would pour the respective liquids which they bore. The funnels led to the base of the altar.

    The congregation present would then sing the Hallel, that is, the song / chant consisting of Psalms 113 through 118. “It was then,” writes Edersheim, “immediately after the symbolic rite of water-pouring, immediately after the people had responded by repeating those lines from Psalm cxviii (118)… that there rose, so loud as to be heard throughout the Temple, the Voice of Jesus. He interrupted not the services, for they had for the moment ceased: He interpreted and fulfilled them.”

    Here are some of my thoughts on this ceremony:

    • All of this symbolism accrued over many centuries, finding no basis in Scripture, meaning that it was man-made, not divinely inspired. Edersheim points out that many in Jesus’ time believed that this “water-pouring was an ordinance instituted by Moses, ‘a Halakhah of Moses from Sinai.’” Halakah (or Halakhah, as Edersheim spells it) is the Jewish oral law recorded in the Talmud, tradition treated by the Pharisees as nearly equal in authority with the Scriptures.
    • When we consider in John 7:38 that Jesus is promising “rivers of living water,” the amount of water retrieved and poured out by the priest in this special water ceremony was paltry by comparison! Edersheim states that the priest’s golden pitcher was “capable of holding three log”; and in the accompanying footnote to his statement he explains that three log is “rather more than two pints,” that is, barely more than a quart (or slightly less than a liter). (This word log is mentioned as a liquid measure in Leviticus 4:10,15,21.)
    • Regarding Jesus’ words at the end of that water-pouring ceremony, Edersheim insists that “all would have understood that His word must refer to the Holy Spirit, since the rite was universally regarded as symbolical of His outpouring.” If this is true — and I know we’re dealing with symbolism here — how sadly ironic it is that God’s Spirit is represented by the token of a quart-sized trickle drawn from a placid pool. Oh, yes, this water was carried in a shining golden pitcher with pomp, music, and excitement — but only to be poured into a silver funnel, thus to disappear from view — “down the drain,” if you will. I could wax into a jeremiad (but I will restrain myself) about how we (even the most “pentecostal” among us) “honor” the Holy Spirit, while minimizing and trivializing Him into quart-sized encounters in our lives and worship services.
    • Considering that quart-sized minimal representation of God’s Spirit, perhaps Jesus was making a sharp and ironic contrast: “Are you really thirsty? Don’t settle for the ‘convenient quart-sized refresher bottle.’ Those who believe in Me should come to Me and drink, because out of Me will flow rivers of living water!”

  25. Think of it as a week of “backyard camping” (or, since houses had flat roofs then, housetop camping), a week to celebrate after the last sheaves had been brought in from the fields to the barns.
  26. There may actually be an “echo” of the Feast of Booths in the Book of Ruth. The events of Ruth 3 all take place outside at night, a night when all the men, at least, seem to have slept outside on or around the threshing floor.
  27. See Deuteronomy 29:5.
  28. Some people read this portion of John’s Gospel and are befuddled. “I thought Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days after His encounter with and baptism by John.” Well, He did, as is made clear by Matthew 4:1-1 ∥ Mark 1:12-13 ∥ Luke 4:1-13. So why doesn’t He go off into the wilderness in John’s Gospel? It’s because John records the moment when Jesus returns from His temptation in the wilderness. Notice that from this point in the narrative, John the Baptizer’s words are all past tense:
    • “…on behalf of Whom I said…” (v. 30).
    • “I did not recognize Him” (vv. 31, 33).
    • “I have beheld the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him” (v. 32).
    • “And I have seen, and have borne witness that this is the Son of God” (v. 34).

    It may be worthy of note that it is after Jesus has endured and triumphed through a season of powerful temptation that John makes his declaration of “the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world”!

  29. Numbers 21:6-9 — 6And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7So the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord and you; intercede with the Lord, that He may remove the serpents from us.” And Moses interceded for the people. 8Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he shall live.” 9And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.
  30. Note that this incident occurred just prior to Israel’s conquests of Heshbon and Bashan (Numbers 21:21-33), their rout of Midian (Numbers 31:1-24), and the distribution of this east-of-Jordan land to the tribes of Reuben and Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh (Numbers 32), setting the stage for Israel’s cross-Jordan invasion of Canaan.
  31. Jesus uses the same “lifted up from the earth” language in John 12:32 to anticipate His crucifixion, as is proven by John’s comment: “But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die” (John 12:33). The crowd echoes back the same “lifted up” phrase to Him in a question (John 12:34).
  32. Besides John’s fourth theme (the one we’re postponing for the moment), there is at least one other “wilderness wanderings” theme which appears in this Gospel. John 8:57-59 conveys the relevant incident. Let’s start with the first exchange Jesus had with the crowd:

    56“Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” 57The Jews therefore said to Him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?”

    But you say, “Abraham was in Genesis.” That’s true. And full marks to you if you know that Jesus is referring to Abraham’s encounter with God (and the sacrifice He provided) when he prepared to offer up his son Isaac on Mount Moriah (Genesis 22:1-19). Abraham had not withheld his son, his only son, from God (Genesis 22:12,16), and in his loving obedience, he prefigured the love-sacrifice of God the Father “who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all” (Romans 8:32). Perhaps this is the underlying reason why God called this patriarch “Abraham, My friend” (Isaiah 41:8).

    But let’s keep reading this passage in John:

    58Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” 59Therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid Himself, and went out of the temple.

    Why did they want to stone Jesus? Because He had just made the same declaration that God made to Moses at the burning bush:

    • 13Then Moses said to God, “Behold, I am going to the sons of Israel, and I shall say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ Now they may say to me, ‘What is His name?’ What shall I say to them?” 14And God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
    • Exodus 3:13-14

    Those with the stones in their hands had no doubt that Jesus was equating Himself with God.

  33. Although it’s a side point to our main investigation here, some readers may find this tidbit of interest: Often in Greek, a word the author wishes to emphasize comes first in the sentence. The flexibility of an inflected language allows for this. Thus the word order we find in John’s record of Jesus’ statement is worthy of note when we read: Potamoí ek tês koilías autoû rheúsousin húdatos zōntos / Ποταμοὶ ἐκ τῆς κοιλίας αὐτοῦ ῥεύσουσιν ὕδατος ζῶντος.

    The first word is rivers (potamoí). And so the phrase in literal English would read: Rivers out of the innermost being of him will flow, living water. (It would be clear to a reader of Greek that the final phrase, living water, modifies the word rivers. Remember our German example of “throw father down the stairs his hat”?)

    If there’s a significance to leading off with the word rivers, it may be this — John (and therefore Jesus) is emphasizing the volume, the flow, the irresistible hydrological weight and pressure of the water thundering out of the source of the water.

    You’ve faithfully read this entire note, so here’s one more possible Greek-y reward for your troubles. That verb flow in the verse (rheúsousin / ῥεύσουσιν, the future third-person plural active indicative form of rhéō / ῥέω) is a hapax legomenon, which is to say that this word appears only once in the New Testament — here in John 7:38.

  34. Koilía / κοιλία is the nominative (noun / subject) form of the word, the way it would be listed in a Greek lexicon (i.e., a dictionary). It appears in our Greek text of John 7:38 with what appears to be an “s” (a final “sigma” in Greek) ending. This is an inflected form which shows how the word is being used in the sentence — from / of / belonging to the womb.
  35. Nevertheless, rendering koilía as belly in John 7:38 is the choice of older translations such as King James, Darby translation, Douay-Rheims 1899, Geneva, Revised Geneva Translation, and Young’s Literal Translation.
  36. To the best of my knowledge, only the old Wycliffe translation uses womb in John 7:38.
  37. Heart is the preference of various translations, including English Standard Version, International Standard Version, J. B. Phillips New Testament, Modern English Version, Mounce Reverse-Interlinear New Testament, New Century Version, New King James Version, New Living Translation, New Revised Standard Version, and the Revised Standard Version.
  38. Variations on the phrase inmost / innermost being appear in such translations as Amplified Bible, Amplified Bible (Classic edition), Lavender’s New Testament, Legacy Standard Bible, The Living Bible, and New American Standard Bible (various editions).
  39. Facets of the phrase (deep) within him occur in the American Standard Version, Christian Standard Bible, Common English Bible, Complete Jewish Bible, Contemporary English Version, Holman Christian Standard Bible, The Message, New American Bible (Revised Edition), New Catholic Bible, New English Translation, New International Reader’s Version; New International Version, The Voice, Williams’ New Testament, and World English Bible.
  40. In rough figures, we can say that the classical Greek period spanned the period of 500-300 b.c. As for the writers mentioned, their approximate lifespans are as follows: Homer (c. eighth century b.c.), Plato (c. 425-348 b.c.), Herodotus (c. 484 – c. 425 b.c.), and Aristophanes (c. 446 – c. 386 b.c.).
  41. The Enhanced Strong’s Concordance urges a similar investigation when it suggests that koilía (κοιλία) derives from another word from the same family — koílos (κοίλος).
  42. These definitions come from Liddell, H. (1996). A Lexicon: Abridged from Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon (439). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
  43. If you think about it, there’s a good reason why we call a small river valley in the mountains a hollow. Less than a mile from my childhood home is a road called Wolf Hollow Road, so called because it follows the gorge hollowed out over centuries by the babbling Chaughtanoonda Creek as it crashes down its short, steep course to empty itself into the famous Mohawk River.
  44. One wonders if Peter’s koilía was grumbling about being koílos in Acts 10:9-10. It was, after all, “the sixth hour” (lunch time), but “they were still making preparations” for lunch. No wonder “he became hungry and was desiring to eat”! If you’ve ever experienced anything of the Lord’s humor, it will not surprise you that while these “hollow,” hungry circumstances are assailing Peter, the Lord would say, “Arise, Peter, kill and eat!” (v. 13) — not just once, but three times (v. 16).
  45. Such is the description given to this mountain range just before Moses’ personal encounter (Exodus 3:1). The words are echoed a second time in detailing Elijah’s destination (1 Kings 19:8) after his Carmel encounter and run-in with Jezebel.
  46. The vast desert was divided by travelers into various named “wildernesses.”
    • Having crossed the Red Sea, Israel ventures into the Wilderness of Shur, when they encamp at Marah and Elim (Exodus 15:22-27).
    • The people then move on into the Wilderness of Sin “which is between Elim and Sinai,” and we are even provided with the day of their arrival at this location — “the fifteenth day of the second month after their departure from the land of Egypt” (Exodus 16:1). This is where they experience the above-mentioned food crisis and God’s provision. (As mentioned in the text, the place-name “Sin” in this context has nothing to do with the English word for sin.)
    • Exodus 17:1 falls into the two-week period of Israel’s movement that brings us from the Wilderness of Sin to Rephidim (a place name, 17:1) and “the rock at Horeb” (v. 6). How do we know it falls into this two-week “window”? Because Exodus 19:1 tells us that Israel “came into the Wilderness of Sinai” “in the third month after the sons of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day” (that is, the first day of the month). They “camped in front of the mountain,” which is to say, Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:11, 18). This phrase “the wilderness of Sinai” appears over a dozen times in the Torah. Interestingly, the martyr Stephen uses the more complete phrase “the wilderness of Mount Sinai” (Acts 7:30).

    We could list other “wildernesses” through which Israel passed after Sinai, but they aren’t relevant to our purposes here. What is relevant and necessary to our geographical understanding is the fact that several of the place-names we encounter are used in more than one way. Consider:

    • We’ve just seen that Sinai is both the name of a wilderness and of the famous mountain. Only God and Moses (and, at times, a few select, invited others) are ever on Mount Sinai. But Israel’s experience of the events in this part of their timeline is always from the perspective of the vast “wilderness of Sinai” which radiated out from the base of that mountain.
    • Then there’s the place-name Horeb. It is actually “a general name for the whole mountain range of which Sinai was one of the summits” (Easton’s Bible Dictionary, s.v., Horeb). In other words, Horeb is the name of a group of mountains, of which Sinai is the most prominent (or at least the most famous).
    • Confusion is sometimes generated because Horeb and Sinai are used in a nearly interchangeable way in the book of Deuteronomy. Here are but two examples:
      • “…the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire” (Deuteronomy 4:15);
      • “The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb” (5:2; cf. 29:1; this substitutive language is echoed in 1 Kings 8:9).

    Because Mount Sinai was a “subset” of the Horeb mountain range and (perhaps) because the “rock of Horeb” (in our Exodus 17 passage) was encountered before Mount Sinai proper, the two place names are used synonymously and interchangeably when referring to the giving of the Law.

  47. There is a commonly held misconception that the rock-striking incidents of Massah-Meribah mentioned here in Exodus 17 and the one recorded at Meribah-Kadesh (Numbers 20) are one and the same event. That is not true, and we go to some length in our study On the Brink of Failure? in order to make the differences clear. I have borrowed most of this endnote from that study and have adapted it for those who don’t have access to On the Brink of Failure.

    The first rock-striking occasion (Exodus 17:1-7) was early in the “wilderness wanderings,” not long after the departure from Egypt, and before the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. The second occasion was just before the conquests east of the Jordan began, the period leading up to the entry into the promised land (Numbers 20). Therefore the two “rock striking” events were nearly 40 years and over 150 miles apart.

    It is easy to be confused by two name-similarities found in the two accounts:

    1. The name Meribah is used of both places. But Meribah isn’t so much a place name as it is a word to describe what occurred at the location so named. The word in Hebrew (מְרִיבָה / mərîḇāh) means quarreling or rebellion; hence the meaning, the place of strife. With regards to the Numbers 20 incident, the name for this location pops up occasionally in other Old Testament passages, most often in the compound form of Meribah-Kadesh or Meribath-Kadesh (e.g., Deuteronomy 32:51; Ezekiel 47:19; 48:28), meaning “the Meribah near Kadesh.” (Kadesh was in the southernmost reaches of what became the territory of the tribe of Judah.)

      But the Exodus 17 location was given a dual name of “Massah and Meribah.” Massah (מַסָּה / massāh) in Hebrew means despair or trial. Yes, the people quarreled (meribah) with Moses, but they were newly liberated slaves with little experience in trusting God, hence in the midst of their trial (massah) they gave into despair (massah) at having no water. Later in the Old Testament, this Exodus 17 location is usually referred to simply as Massah (e.g., Deuteronomy 6:16; 9:22; 33:8; and Psalm 95:8, whence the quotation in Hebrews 3:7-11). The purpose of using only Massah (rather than Massah-Meribah) seems to be an attempt to differentiate this location from Meribah-Kadesh.

    2. Zin or Sin? Confusion also arises over the similarity in names (at least in English) of the Wildernesses of Sin and Zin. We have alluded to the fact that in Numbers 20, Meribah is near Kadesh. The writer says that this is “in the wilderness of Zin” (Hebrew: צִן / ṣin). But the events of Exodus 17 occur in the Wilderness of Sin (Hebrew: סִין / sîn), an area of the western Sinai. (Remember: Hebrew is read in the opposite direction from English (i.e., right to left), so the “ן” (final “nun” or “n”) in each word is the last letter, not the first.)

      The pronunciations are not as similar as they might appear in the English transliteration from Hebrew. Zin (צִן / ṣin) is pronounced tsin, starting with a sound like the “ts” of the final two letters in boots; and the vowel is a short “i” sound, like in the English word pit. Sin (סִין / sîn), on the other hand, starts with a simple “s” sound, but the “i” is more like the i in our word machine — a “long e” sound.

      Thus Zin should be pronounced tsin (rhymes with pin); and Sin should be pronounced seen (rhymes with teen). To sum it up — two different words, two different spellings and pronunciations, two different locations.

  48. Vincent, M. R. (2002). Word Studies in the New Testament (2:163, s.v. John 7:38, s.s.v. belly). Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
  49. Rock in the LXX version of Exodus 17:6 would be pétra / πέτρα, a feminine word, which would require the corresponding possessive pronoun also to be feminine — autēs / αὐτῆς — forcing an overly literal translation to read from within her. Thus Vincent is clearly writing about the Hebrew text in this instance, as we shall see.
  50. In academic fairness to Vincent, despite his observations on Exodus 17:6, in his overall comments on John 7:38 he clearly seems to be of the opinion that the water flow is from the believer, as his underlying assumption is that the “Eastern” phrasing of John 7:37-39 is the correct one. I don’t want to misrepresent his position. Nevertheless, this neither diminishes the validity of his note on Exodus 17:6, nor its applicability to our overall argument.
  51. The Levites numbered 22,000 (Numbers 3:39), but the Levitical head-count can’t be readily compared with that of the rest of the non-Levitical population. Why? The Lord tells Moses to enumerate them using a different age parameter — “every male from a month old and upward” (v. 39). Essentially, all but the newborns are to be included. Thus to avoid complications, we won’t include the Levites in our extrapolations.
  52. From the hymn O Christ, What Burdens Bowed Thy Head
  53. From Bourne’s hymn, Lord, Enthroned in Heav’nly Splendor
Series Navigation<< 2: The Secret of John's Appeal
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