The Book: Waters of Eden: The Mystery of the Mikvah, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (linked through my Amazon Affiliates account.)
Summary: An exploration of the Jewish teachings on Mikvah (a special pool or body of water for ritual purification) in the written and oral Torah.
Recommended by: A messianic Jewish website I can’t seem to find now, sorry!
My Thoughts: This is the first non-fiction reading I’ve ever done on Judaism, and I found it fascinating. I was prompted to buy this book during my memorization of Matthew 3. I wondered where, exactly, the ritual of baptism had sprung from, when there was no record of it in the Old Testament and suddenly everyone was familiar with it when John the Baptist entered the scene. What was it about baptism that Christ needed to do in order to “fulfill all righteousness”? What was the Jewish understanding of baptism when Jesus entered the waters of the Jordan?
In some ways, the broad understanding discussed in Waters of Eden falls closely in line with New Testament teaching about baptism, and shed light on the historical understanding of baptism that would’ve been held in Jesus’ day. Kaplan talks about the connection of Mikvah to Sinai, conversion, and original sin. “How does immersion in a Mikvah change a person? This can best be understood on the basis of another Talmudic teaching that “a convert who embraces Judaism is like a new born child.” (page 12), and “…[A] Mikvah cannot be made in a vessel or tub, but must be built directly in the ground, for in a sense, the Mikvah also represents the grave. When a person immerses, he is temporarily in a state of nonliving, and when he emerges, he is resurrected with a new status.” It’s impossible to read this without thinking of Romans 6:3-4: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
Did I find the answer to my questions in this book? Sort of. Better understanding the Jewish traditional roots and understanding of baptism at the time of Jesus’ baptism helped make it clearer to me the notions of purification, rebirth and repentance, and consecration that would’ve surrounded immersion. One interesting side note is that baptism was generally for converts to Judaism, so when John called for repentance and baptism, he was calling his fellow Jews to something radical.
So why did Jesus say, “It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness,” when John objected to baptising him? I’m not sure. I think, though, of the roots in Sinai that Waters of Eden presents. In Matthew 4, right after his baptism, Jesus goes out into the wilderness to be tempted, and his responses to the tempter’s wiles are all taken from Deuteronomy, from areas where Israel failed their tests. If his baptism, then, represented his assumption of his active role as the bringer of the kingdom of heaven, the true child of God in perfect obedience, baptism could be seen as his commitment, and his wilderness trial the mirror of Israel’s. It’s admittedly only a theory, but either way, I’m glad I read this book, as I think it added depth and richness to my thinking; I’d like to do more reading on Judaism, the oral Torah, and the Second Temple period.