Baptism as Water Ordeal (Part 1)

The Noahic deluge, the Red Sea crossing, John’s ministry of baptism, and Jesus’ own baptism were all water ordeals

Dr. Meredith Kline, former Professor of Old Testament at Westminster Seminary California, has a two-part paper entitled “Oath and Ordeal Signs” published in the Westminster Theological Journal 27 (1964/65), 115-139, and 28 (1965/66), 1-37. I have excerpted the part about ancient “water ordeals” in which he connects them to water baptism.

I hope this would be beneficial to those who are studying the doctrine of Christian water baptism—its meaning, mode and lawful recipients.


The Deluge by Francis Danby

“The Deluge” by Francis Danby, c. 1837 (click to enlarge)

Kline says that “appeal to the gods for judicial decision was a standard feature in ancient legal procedure,” and that there are various forms of trial by ordeal in settling disputes and controversies. In Holy Scripture, the most graphic example of a trial by ordeal was the jealousy ordeal prescribed in Numbers 5:11-31. A more familiar variety was the drawing of lots to expose the guilty (Josh 7:14; Jon 1:7).

But in every judicial intervention of God in history, the ordeal principle is used. Most commonly, God uses water and fire.

The two common elemental forces that functioned as ordeal powers were water and fire. So it is too, as Peter observes, in cosmic history. God’s judgment of the ancient world was by water and the day of judgment awaiting the present heaven and earth will be an ordeal by fire. 1

The water ordeal was long current in the ancient Near East. It was practised throughout the Mesopotamian world and it is attested as early as the earliest known law code, that of the Sumerian Ur-Nammu. [The Hammurabi Code also has an example.]

Kline calls both the Noahic deluge and Red Sea crossing as water ordeals:

Archetype of water ordeals was the Noahic deluge. The main features of the subsequent divine-river trials were all found in the judgment of the Flood: the direct revelation of divine verdict, the use of water as the ordeal element, the overpowering of the condemned and the deliverance of the justified, and the entrance of the ark-saved heirs of the new world into the possession of the erstwhile estates of the ungodly.

The other outstanding water ordeals of Old Testament history were those through which Moses and Joshua led Israel at the Red Sea and the Jordan. These too were acts of redemptive judgment wherein God vindicated the cause of those who called upon his name and condemned their adversaries. The exodus ordeal, with Israel coming forth safe and the Egyptians overwhelmed in the depths, strikingly exemplified the dual potential of the ordeal process.

The Passage of the Red Sea by Francis Danby

“The Passage of the Red Sea” by Francis Danby, c. 1840 (click to enlarge)

In the Jordan ordeal, the dispossession of the condemned by the acquitted was prominent. At that historical juncture the rightful ownership of Canaan was precisely the legal issue at stake and God declared in favor of Israel by delivering them from Jordan’s overflowing torrents. Thereby Israel’s contemplated conquest of the land was vindicated as a holy war, a judgment of God. And the melting hearts of the Amorite and Canaanite kings, who grasped the legal significance of the episode as a divine verdict against them, was the inevitable psychological result (which would contribute in turn to the fulfillment of the verdict) in a culture where, even if superstitiously, the reality of the sacred ordeal was accepted. 2

Kline sees John’s ministry of baptism as another trial by water ordeal:

Since, then, the most memorable divine judgments of all covenant history had been trials by water ordeal and since John was sent to deliver the ultimatum of divine judgment, it does not appear too bold an interpretation of the baptismal sign of his mission to see in it a symbolic water ordeal, a dramatic enactment of the imminent messianic judgment. In such a visualization of the coming judgment John will have been resuming the prophetic tradition of picturing the messianic mission as a second Red Sea judgment (and so as a water ordeal). 3

Indeed, read again in the light of the history of covenant ordeals, the whole record of John’s ministry points to the understanding of his water rite as an ordeal sign rather than as a mere ceremonial bath of purification. The description of John’s baptism as “unto the remission of sins”, which is usually regarded as suggesting the idea of spiritual cleansing, is even more compatible with the forensic conception of a verdict of acquittal rendered in a judicial ordeal.

The time had come when here in the Jordan River, where once Yahweh had declared through an ordeal that the promised land belonged to Israel, he was requiring the Israelites to confess their forfeiture of the blessings of his kingdom and their liability to the wrath to come. Yet John’s proclamation was a preaching of “good tidings” to the people (Lk. 3:18) because it invited the repentant to anticipate the messianic judgment in a symbolic ordeal in the Jordan, so securing for themselves beforehand a verdict of remission of sin against the coming judgment. To seal a holy remnant by baptism unto the messianic kingdom was the proper purpose of the bearer of the ultimatum of the great King.

Kline relates the water ordeals of the Noahic deluge, the Red Sea crossing, and John’s baptism ministry to water baptism:

Further support for the interpretation of a baptismal rite as a sign of ordeal is found in the biblical use of βαπτίζω (and βάπτισμα) to denote historic ordeals. 4 Paul described Israel’s Red Sea ordeal as a being baptized (I Cor. 10:2) and Peter in effect calls the Noahic deluge ordeal a baptism (I Pet. 3:21). To these passages we shall want to return. But of particular relevance at this point is the fact that John the Baptist himself used the verb βαπτίζω for the impending ordeal in which the One mightier than he would wield his winnowing fork to separate from the covenant kingdom those whose circumcision had by want of Abrahamic faith become uncircumcision and who must therefore be cut off from the congregation of Israel and devoted to unquenchable flames… “He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire” (Matt. 3:11f.; Lk. 3:16f.; cf. Mk. 1:8). 5

John the Baptist Sees Jesus from Afar by James Tissot

“John the Baptist Sees Jesus from Afar” by James Tissot (click to enlarge)

More than that, John instituted a comparison between his own baptismal rite and the baptismal ordeal to be executed by the coming One: “I indeed baptize you with water … he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire.” John called attention to the great difference; his own baptism was only a symbol whereas the coming One would baptize men in an actual ordeal with the very elements of divine power. But the significant fact at present is not that John’s baptism was only a symbol but that, according to his own exposition of it, what John’s baptism symbolized was the coming messianic judgment. That is certainly the force of his double use of “baptize” in this comparison.

Kline now interprets the baptism of Jesus as another trial by water ordeal:

Jesus’ reception of John’s baptism can be more easily understood on this approach. As covenant Servant, Jesus submitted in symbol to the judgment of the God of the covenant in the waters of baptism. The event appropriately concluded with a divine verdict, the verdict of justification expressed by the heavenly voice and sealed by the Spirit’s anointing, Messiah’s earnest of the kingdom inheritance (Matt. 3:16, 17; Mk. 1:10, 11; Lk. 3:22; cf. Jn. 1:32, 33; Ps. 2:7 f.). For Jesus, as the Lamb of God, to submit to the symbol of judgment was to offer himself up to the curse of the covenant. By his baptism Jesus was consecrating himself unto his sacrificial death in the judicial ordeal of the Cross. 6 Such an understanding of his baptism is reflected in Jesus’ own reference to his coming passion as a baptism: “I have a baptism to be baptized with” (Lk. 12:50; cf. Mk. 10:38). 7

Baptism of Christ by Aert de Gelder

“Baptism of Christ” by Aert de Gelder, 1710 (click to enlarge)

Further background for Jesus’ conceptualizing of his sufferings as a water ordeal (and at the same time an additional antecedent for John’s introduction of a water rite symbolic of judicial ordeal) is found in those supplicatory Psalms in which the righteous servant pleads for deliverance from overwhelming waters. Of particular interest is Psalm 69 , from which the New Testament draws so deeply in its explication of the judicial sufferings of Christ: “I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me … . Let not the waterflood overflow me, neither let the deep swallow me up” (vv. 2b, 15a ; cf. vv. 1, 2a, 14). 8

The currency of this imagery in the days of John and Jesus is attested by the Qumran hymns. The ultimate judicial origin of the figure in the literal practice of trial by water is evidenced by the judicial atmosphere and structuring of Psalms in which it appears. The suppliant pleads in the language of the law court. Against the lying accusations of his adversaries he protests his innocence and appeals for a manifestation of divine justice, that is, for deliverance out of his ordeal. The suppliant Jonah found it possible to make literal use of this terminology of water ordeal in his appeal from the depths, and Jesus saw in Jonah’s trial by water the sign of his own judgment ordeal in the heart of the earth. 9

In concluding this Part One, he focuses on how John’s ministry of baptism was an ultimatum to Israel, whether they wanted to receive God’s blessing or curse:

John the Baptist was sent as a messenger of the Old Covenant to its final generation. His concern was not to prepare the world at large for the coming of Christ but to summon Israel unto the Lord to whom they had sworn allegiance at Sinai, ere his wrath broke upon them and the Mosaic kingdom was terminated in the flames of messianic judgment. The demand which John brought to Israel was focused in his call to baptism. This baptism was not an ordinance to be observed by Israel in their generations but a special sign for that terminal generation epitomizing the particular crisis in covenant history represented by the mission of John as messenger of the Lord’s ultimatum.

From the angle of repentance and faith, John’s ultimatum could be seen as a gracious invitation to the marriage feast of the Suzerain’s Son; and John’s baptism, as a seal of the remission of sins. Bright with promise in this regard was Jesus’ submission to John’s baptism. For the passing of Jesus through the divine judgment in the water rite in the Jordan meant to John’s baptism what the passing of Yahweh through the curse of the knife rite of Genesis 15 meant to Abraham’s circumcision. In each case the divine action constituted an invitation to all recipients of these covenant signs of consecration to identify themselves by faith with the Lord himself in their passage through the ordeal. So they might be assured of emerging from the overwhelming curse with a blessing. Jesus’ passage through the water ordeal with the others who were baptized in the Jordan was also one in meaning with the Lord’s presence with Israel in the theophany pillar during the passage through the Red Sea, and in the ark of the covenant during their crossing of the Jordan…

Viewed from a more comprehensive vantage point, John’s baptism was a sign of the ordeal through which Israel must pass to receive a judgment of either curse or blessing, for it represented the demand of a suzerainty-law covenant, an engagement sealed by dual sanctions. The actual judgment, experienced by that generation to which John was sent, was an ordeal unto the cursing and casting off of Israel, a remnant only being excepted. 10 The city and the sanctuary were destroyed and the end thereof was with a flood, a pouring out of desolation. 11 To this overflowing wrath the waters of John’s baptism had pointed, as well as to the remission of sins received by the remnant according to the election of grace.

By his message and baptism John thus proclaimed again to the seed of Abraham the meaning of their circumcision. Circumcision was no guarantee of inviolable privilege. It was a sign of the divine ordeal in which the axe, laid unto the roots of the unfruitful trees cursed by Messiah, would cut them off. 12 John’s baptism was in effect a re-circumcising.

Stand by for Part 2.


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