Water Symbol in Exodus (Old Testament)

Moses Parts the Red Sea

Moses Parts the Red Sea

What Does Water Symbolize in Exodus?

One of the symbols of the sacred in the Book of Exodus was water. Water came into the picture near the beginning of the text. The Pharaoh commanded, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile….” Moses’ mother decided that the only way to protect her son was to place her son in a basket and then place the basket in the Nile River.  The Pharaoh’s daughter found the basket floating down the river, “…She named him Moses, because, she said, ‘I drew him out of the water.’”

In the narrative of Moses and the Pharaoh’s daughter water was a positive symbol. When water appeared again in the text of the Book of Exodus as negative symbol, at least for the people of Egypt. Pharaoh refused to free the Hebrew people.  As a result of his action the first plague on the land of Egypt was water turned to blood.

“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Pharaoh’s heart is hardened: he refuses to let the people go…Say to him, ‘By this you shall know that I am the Lord.’ See, with this staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile and it shall be turned to blood. The fish in the river shall die, the river itself shall stink, and the Egyptians shall be unable to drink water from the Nile’.” This plague was the opposite of the sacredness of water found in the Book of Genesis; in the Book of Genesis, water gave life and it was good thing.


The next time water appeared in the Book of Exodus, it was again a negative for the Egyptians.  In chapter 14 of the Book of Exodus the people had to cross the Red Sea. The Lord told Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. But you lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground.” 

One concern of scholars is that the Red Sea mentioned in the text might be the Reed Sea, which was more of a swamp than a sea. Regardless of the translation issues and historical inaccuracy of the text, water in this case was positive for the Hebrew people and negative for the Egyptians.  Water was negative for the Egyptians because not only did the Hebrew people escape Egypt but, “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers’.”

Water appeared for a final time in the Book of Exodus in chapter 17 as a positive force. The people were angry with Moses because they were wandering in the desert and they did not have water. Moses asked the Lord what he should do, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hands the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.”

In the Book of Exodus water was both a positive and negative symbol of the sacred. Water saved Moses from Pharaoh’s law. Water turned to blood when Pharaoh would not free the Hebrew people. Moses parted the Red Sea and Egyptians perished when the waters went back together. God provided the people with water from a rock when they were wandering in the desert.