Jewish Biblical Origins of Living Water

by Richard Kuehnel and Rado Lencek

Biblical Origins

We examined the motif of living water in classical Greek and Latin tradition in

Greek and Latin Origins of Living Water

Another possible origin is Jewish biblical tradition. The Bible contains many references to the motif. "Living" water, i.e. fresh, running water,1 figured prominently in Old Testament priestly literature because of its cleansing power.2 In the book of Ezekiel a river of life flows from the altar of the Temple east through the desert to the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea.3

"This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah; and when it enters the stagnant waters of the sea, the water will become fresh. And wherever the river goes every living creature which swarms will live, and there will be very many fish; for this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes... And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fall, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing."4

The motif is repeated in the New Testament in which a river of living water proceeds out of the throne of God.5

In Revelation it is prophesied that the Lamb will lead to the "living fountains of waters,"6 and God will give to everyone who thirsts "water from the fountain of the water of life."7 These passages are based on Old Testament prophesies in Isaiah, in which God promises to give his people springs of water,8 but whereas the Old Testament refers to miraculous water, the New Testament passages take water in the figurative sense. The water represents life itself, life being existence in fellowship with God.9

In the Gospel of John, Christ says that if a man drinks the water that he gives, it will be in him a "well of water springing up into everlasting life,"10 and if one believes in Him, out of his belly will flow "rivers of living water."11 Living water is here used as a metaphor for the salvation that comes from above.12

Early Christian art depicts four rivers flowing from the throne of God, believed to be based upon the vision of St. John on the island of Patmos. They represent the four gospels which irrigate the earth with the Water of Life.13

Because the water of the Old Testament denotes water with miraculous powers, while the water of the New Testament is used metaphorically, it can be concluded that the former is a more likely source of influence on the belief in the magical properties of water. The powerful image of water in Ezekiel might easily have made an impression upon the imagination of the common man and thus influenced mythical beliefs.


1Buttrick, George Arthur, ed. "Water," The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, 4 vols. plus supplement, (New York: Abington Press, 1962-1976), IV:806.

2Lev. 14:5-6, 50-52, 15:13.

3Ezek. 47:1-7.

4Ezek. 47:8-12.

5Rev. 22:1-2.

6Rev. 7:17.

7Rev. 21:6.

8Is. 49:10.

9Goppelt, Leonard, "Drinking Water in Revelation and John's Gospel," Theological Dictionary of the Bible, 10 vols., Gerhard Kittel et. al., eds., translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964-1974), VIII:325-326.

10John 4:14.

11John 7:38.

12Goppelt, VIII:327.

13Webber, Frederich Roth, Church Symbolism, and Explanation of the More Important Symbols of the Old and New Testament, the Primitive, the Medieval and the Modern Church, 2nd. ed., (Cleveland: J.H. Jansen, 1938), p. 191.