Founded on Rivers
Peter J. Leithart
July 18, 2012
Category: Bible - NT - Revelation,Bible - OT - Psalms
The third trumpet blows, and a star named Wormwood poisons the rivers and springs (Revelation 8). Since the trumpet sequence is following the sequence of creation days, we would expect a judgment on the land or the grain and trees at the third trumpet. Instead, we get a judgment on rivers. The third bowl also strikes fresh water sources. What gives?
Psalm 24 provides a clue. Verse 1 contains an obvious parallel, but, like most poetic parallelisms in the Psalter, the second line is not merely a repetition of the first. Yahweh lays claim to two distinct things or aspects of the world:
a. The earth (eretz)
b. And her fullness
a’. the world (tebel)
b’. and her inhabitants.
The two Hebrew words for “earth” or “world” overlap considerably, but are not identical in meaning or scope. Eretz can refer to the land, but also means the ground itself; tebel most often refers to cultivated and organized ground. It is like the Greek distinction between kosmos and oikoumene. The earth bristles with plants and trees, the plants and trees being the “fullness” or even the “fulfillment” of earth. Grass and trees are earth come to fruitfulness. The Psalm brings out a parallel between the earth and its vegetation and the inhabited world and the people who inhabit it. It’s common imagery: All flesh is grass; the righteous man is a tree.People are to world as grass is to earth; people and their cultures are world come to fruitfulness and fulfillment.
Now, it seems that the parallel persists into the second verse of the Psalm:
a. upon seas
b. founded her
a’. and upon rivers
b’. established her.
Since there is a distinction between “earth” and “world” in verse 1, we have to ask, What is founded on seas and rivers? The Psalm seems to establish a link between earth (as ground) and seas on the one hand, and world (as inhabited and cultivated land) and rivers on the other. The first link is a common one: The waters “under the earth” are the foundation of earth. Rivers as foundation of civilization is somewhat less common, but it makes great sense. As James Jordan pointed out in a recent homily on Psalm 24, civilizations arise around rivers because people and communities need water. We might even draw this conclusion about biblical cosmology: The seas have springs in the depths, and so the sea is founded on springs of water; the land is founded upon the sea; and inhabited land is founded on rivers. At the base of everything is water. Thales was right!
This has many implications for our understanding of the biblical imagery of water, especially as applied to baptism. But let’s limit ourselves to Revelation 8: A judgment on the rivers and springs is a perfect third-day judgment because it is a judgment against the foundations of “world.” If world rests on water, if civilization depends on rivers and springs, then the poisoning of the rivers and springs is poisoning of the sources of cultural life. In Revelation 8, the rivers are specifically the rivers on which the world of Israel is founded, and the poison of Wormwood spreads to kill “many men” among the Jews.
Article printed from Peter J. Leithart: http://www.leithart.com
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