In John 3.3 Yeshua says that unless a person is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God. Let’s explore this statement and see what Yeshua meant and how does water play a role in the concept of being born again by looking at some deeper concepts associated with tevilah. In Col 2.16 we find out that food and drink, festivals, new moons and Sabbaths teach Messiah and are pictures of the spiritual things connected to these concepts.
The New Moon festival taught the concept of “born again” that Yeshua was referring to in John 3. It was not an unknown concept in the first century (see “New Moon” article this site for more detail). It was called “The Feast of the Born Again” and the rabbis equated this concept with conception in the womb (Hertz Siddur, Page 778). The main idea with an immersion is a change of status or identity. There is a relationship between water and the heavens.
The Hebrew word for heaven is “shamayim” which means “there is water” (Gen 1.6-8). The new birth has its origin in heaven (there is water). Now, there is a concept associated with the new birth that is called the “nefesh mi shmag” which means the “soul of hearing” which also means “the soul that obeys” because to hear also means to obey in Hebrew thought. James 1.22 says the same thing in that we should not be hearers of the word only, but doers. There is another term in Hebrew that is called the “nefesh mi shamayim” or “soul out of heaven” and again it shows the association between water and the heavens.
Now, in Genesis 1 and 2 we see the “womb” of creation and the earth emerges from the water and then man from the earth. He is placed in Eden’s garden and there were rivers that flowed out of Eden (Gen 2.10). Adam sins and is expelled, but the rivers continued to flow out of the Garden. When one performs the ceremony of Tevilah (immersion) in living water, they are re-establishing the link back to the innocence of Eden because all water has a link back to these rivers in Eden because of the water cycle. In other words, it is very possible that elements from Eden can exist in the water today.
Other rabbinical concepts on immersion says that when a person submerges in a mikvah, he momentarily enters a realm that is hostile to man. He cannot live in that water long. So, when he emerges out of that environment he is likened to one “born again” and he has re-establishes his link to Eden. A mikvah can also be in the ground, like a womb. The Hebrew word for grave is “kever” and it is the same word for womb. So, to come out of the mikvah was seen as coming out of the grave, hence being born again. Lazarus was a perfect example of this.
Now, when you entered the Second Temple you immersed in a mikvah. These have been found. However, these mikvaot were not present in the First Temple. The Temple was seen as a miniature Garden of Eden, with the entry from the east and the Lord’s presence was there. Adam served as a priest and the tree of life was there, just as the commandments were in the Ark in the Temple (Prov 15.4). Solomon carved garden scenes into the wood in the first Temple and we know a river will flow out of Ezekiels Temple.
There are some who believe that the original Garden of Eden was where the Temple stood. Adam and Chava (Eve) were expelled from the garden and sin expels us from the Temple. We need a change of status to enter in. One goes into the hostile environment (like the hostile environment of being in the earth) and they come up alive, a change of status.
So, let’s review what we have here. A tevilah (full body immersion) is an ancient ceremony that predates Yeshua by several centuries. You go through an immersion in a mikvah (ritual bath), river, lake, ocean or stream that has living water. This water connects us back to the water that flowed from the Garden of Eden and “comes out of the heavens.” Reasons why you immerse vary, but it involves any change of status. You can immerse before a wedding, Sabbath, festival, repentance of sin or daily if you want. You would immerse as a believer especially because it opens the door to receiving the benefits of the Kingdom of God brought about by the agent of God, the Messiah Yeshua.
The rabbis say that Israel went through an immersion in the Red Sea (1 Cor 10.2) and there was new life on the other side. Pharaoh’s (Satan) power and authority was broken forever. Later they crossed the Jordan River (symbol of death). God “parted the waters” in both instances. In Josh 3, the Ark (Yeshua) goes ahead 2000 cubits (2000 years) and the people follow. You see, Yeshua has gone ahead of us as the agent of God to bring us into the Kingdom of God and its benefits. Moses (the Law) could show us the promised land, but only Joshua (Yeshua/Ark) can takes us across. When they crossed over to the promised land, they had new power and there was more yet to come. They tasted, but not the fullness.
So, when the person immerses, they enter into all that Yeshua went before us to provide. This would be true in a mikvah, or by having water poured over their body by a vessel as was done in the case of Bathsheba. It “opens the door” to the benefits of the Kingdom. One receives the benefits in part, but the fullness will come later. If one is a believer and has not been through a ritual purification, they should do so out of obedience, but also because it is for their benefit. Now, be on guard against those who believe that an immersion is linked to salvation, either direct of indirect. It is not, but it is a door to receiving the benefits of the Kingdom of God in your life. But what does the Torah say about water purificstion?
We are going to look at the word “rachatz” (washing) and we are going to see that the tevilah that was practiced in the first century may not have been what was practiced before the time of second century at least. No mikva’ot dating back before then has ever been found. Some Jews practice a method of washing, even today, by taking a shower for instance, not a tevilah in a mikvah as we have just described (the Karaites for instance). This alternative will be presented for you to judge.
We will be using several sources on this alternative view. One is called, “Biblical Purification: Was it Immersion?” by Dr Hayah Katz. We will also use “The Origins of Tevilah (Ritual Immersion)” by Dr. Yonaton Adler. We highly recommend that you read those articles in conjunction with this article.
We have talked about purification and defilement before, and we know that the defilement by a corpse requires sprinkling with the ashes of the Red Heifer, not a full body immersion. Purification from childbirth or leprosy included a sacrifice, and so on. The Scriptures, in other words, gave different forms of cleansing for different things. Most have something in common: washing with water. But the question is, in what form?
The Scriptures use the term “rachatz” to denote everyday washing (Gen 24.32; 2 Sam 11.18) and ritual washing (Lev 14.8-9, 16.24). Ritual washing is the final step to the purification process, but it does not say how it was to be carried out. Was it by immersing the entire body as we have described in our teaching on tevilah, in a mikvah, pool or spring, or was there another possibility that is seen in the Scriptures themselves, and that is the pouring of water from a vessel onto the body.
Washing for ritual purification was not a minor concern in ancient times. It was a necessity. But how did the Israelites carry this out? We need to take into account geological and archaeological data in order to look at this. The water supply that was available to the kingdoms of Israel and Judah had several sources. There were springs, wells and waterworks made to reach ground water, cisterns and reservoirs. Archaeological and water studies have shown that water resources varied from place to place. Mountainous areas had springs but valleys have very few, and wells had to be dug (Gen 26.17-22).
During the time of the First Temple, water systems were built for many cities to have water. Reservoirs, tunnels and pools were made, like Hezekiah’s Tunnel. During these excavations, they looked for any installation that would have allowed for the immersion of the whole body in these First Temple period sites. We can assume, because of the lack of “mikva’ot” intended for immersions, that the water source used for washing depended on the water in the area. If there were springs, washing could be done by immersing in it, if not, by pouring water on the body. They had an option to choose, a spring or pouring water from a vessel onto the body.
The Scriptures only tells us about three instances where purification was done by “mayim chaim” or living water. These are in Num 19.17 (corpse); Lev 15.11 (bodily discharges); Lev 14.5, 50 (Leprosy). In all other cases, purification is done by washing in water, and it didn’t need to be running water. The forms for ritual washing for purification was taken from the forms of washing that were available in the region.
The only source that refers to a ritual purification that was actually done is in the case of Bathsheba in 2 Sam 11.1-4. David sees her from his roof washing herself, since “it was the time of her purification.” It seems that washing for the purpose of purification could be done in a residence, and it was not done by immersion in natural water such as a spring or a stream outside of town because she didn’t do it, but pouredp water onto her body with vessel.
She was not using a bathtub (more on this later) because they were were not used for washing within Judea, and none have been found in the First Temple period. Bathsheba was not ritually purifying herself by immersing her entire body in a mikvah here either. There is only one possibility, she washed by pouring water on her body from a vessel, the sort of washing that could have been done anywhere in her house. The Scriptures say her washing was for ritual purification, but for what reason exactly we are not told.
Purification by pouring water on the body appears in rituals in the ancient near east. Egypt had rooms for purification. A ceremony called “bit rimki” was done in Mesopotamia. These areas had water sources and yet they purified by pouring water on the body.
The leper (metzora) had a two stage purification as we have seen in other teachings, but it did not include the immersion of the impure in water (Lev 14.5-6). This purification had two stages. First, water is sprinkled from a vessel on the person being purified. Secondly, it included the laundering of the clothes, shaving all the hair, and washing in water (v 7-8). Living water is used for purification but it is placed in a vessel and sprinkled on the person. Only later does he wash in water, and that is not necessarily done in running water.
Only when purifying someone who is a “zav” or a “zavah” (chronic discharge) does it say they shall wash their body in living water. Here, the washing is to be done with living water. Since the leper and the one with corpse defilement are not required to immerse their entire bodies in living water, neither does the person with a chronic discharge. He accomplishes the necessary washing by pouring living water onto his body from a vessel.
So, where did mikva’ot come from? There is an absence of mikva’ot meant for full body ritual washing during the First Temple period. Evidently, purification could take place withing the confines of the home (Bathsheba) by pouring water on the body from a vessel. It is only in the period of the Second Temple on-wards that we find a change in the manner of ritual immersion, a full body immersion. Archaeology has found dozens of immersion baths in the Second Temple period. These changes were documented in the Mishnah, in the tractate Mikvaot.
This process of change in Jewish society took place in the Second Temple period. Cultural changes and increasing strictness came into ordinary life, including the insistence of being fully immersed in order to have ritual purification. That was not the previous practice. During the Roman period washing in a bathhouse became very common, and in Jewish society this was true also. All of these factors could have led to a change in ritual washing, and how it was carried out.
Jews have been doing “tevilah” for ritual purification ever since, for over two thousand years. The Torah gives many commands for removing ritual impurity by washing in water, what exactly did this mean? The rabbinic tradition is seen in many writings like Sifra, Emor 4.7, where it says a person is to wash in water, all at once. It doesn’t say that the Torah commands this, but the rabbis were consistent in assuming that whenever the Torah commands a person to wash (rachatz), it means a full body immersion (tevilah). This seems to be a simple supposition and it found favor during the medieval times. Maimonides says his understanding of of the mikva’ot is from oral tradition (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Mikvaot 1.2). But, is that what the Torah is really saying?
The idea that full body immersion is required by the Torah seems to be the assumption and unchallenged in rabbinic writings. In our experience, that is all we have ever heard for the most part. It was “written in stone.” However, there are some Jews who do not practice this, but they do practice ritual purity procedures that they see in the Scriptures. What we are doing here is presenting the other side of this based on no prior assumptions, but tracing historical evidence. This evidence can be found in the Torah, writings and archaeology. Then we can make an educated answer on this subject. So, let’s look deeper into this evidence.
The Torah repeatedly uses the word “rachatz” when talking about the use of water for ritually cleansing the human body. Nothing seems to indicate that any of these had in mind full body immersions as the method for this “washing.” On the contrary, the verb “rachatz” appears in other places in the context which does not include full body immersion, and that is when the priests washed their hands and feet at the Kior (Exo 30.19, 40.31). In addition, the fully clothed elders washed their hands over the “eglah arufah” (the broken-necked calf in Deut 21.6). Rachatz clearly means something other than full body immersion in these cases, and there is no reason to assume that it must refer to a full body immersion in other purification rituals.
The Torah uses “taval” for immersion in Lev 14.51 for objects, Lev 4.6 for parts of the body, and the entire person in 2 Kings 5.14. We have already talked about Bathsheba purifying herself by washing (rachatz) in 2 Sam 11.1-4. This is not a full body immersion and this shows the absence of ritual baths in the First Temple period. They had a simpler form of washing, the pouring of water over the body from a vessel.
Very few sources that predate the first century AD refer to purification through immersions. These include the Wisdom of Ben Sira 34.30 and the Book of Judith 12.7 (second century BC). Neither of these sources say that full body immersion was the common practice. One text in the Dead Sea Scrolls says that immersion was the method to be used for purification (4QTohorot A[4Q274] 1i 4-6). Other Dead Sea Scrolls use the Torah word “rachatz.” Josephus was a first century Jewish priest. He states that immersion had become prevalent and the way for ritual purification. He takes what is written about a person “washing” after a nocturnal emission in Lev 15.16-18, 22.4-6 and Deut 23.12 and says that a person is ritually pure after he submerges himself in cold water (Antiq/Jews 3.263). He echoes what the rabbinical teachings were saying.
The New Testament describes common ritual purification practices in the first century (Mark 7.3-4, Luke 11.38, Hebrews 9.10). There seems to be a development over time from a simple ceremony “to wash” to a far more intricate and not so simple practice called immersion (tevilah) by the first century. When did all this change take place? Archaeology has shown that immersion came about rather late in the Second Temple period, no earlier than the late second century BC. But why did it happen then?
Some think that the introduction of what is called the “hip bath” came into Judea from the Hellenistic regions in the Mediterranean. These bath tubs were large enough to allow a person to sit on a seat and have warm water poured over their bodies. They would eventually find themselves sitting in water. With these hip baths, it allowed one to ritually purify themselves. This concept developed into a new understanding of the biblical “rachatz.” So, the path from partial-body immersion in a hip tub to a full body immersion in a stepped pool can be seen through what Dr Adler calls “ritualization.” This is a way of acting that distinguishes itself from a non-ritualized act. Remember, no mikvaot have ever been found dating back to the First Temple period.
According to the rabbis, a mikvah can be invalidated if it contained “drawn water’ (water collected in an artificial utensil by a person-Mishnah, Mikvaot 2-7). No explanation is given as to why this is so, but that is what the rabbis say. They even go so far as to say it defiles the person. This is part of the gradual ritualization process that moved into the practice of full body immersion in a mikvah. Drawn water as seen in the Hellenistic bathing culture was not to be done. By invalidating a pool with drawn water, full immersion in the rabbinical idea of a mikvah was the only other alternative. But, the Torah does not refer to the mikvah as it is understood today, and ritual purification was achieved without a full body immersion. The rabbinical idea that anytime the Torah talks about “washing” it was referring to full body immersions cannot be proven, and it seems to be a part of the rabbinical and oral tradition that has evolved since the second century BC.
Immersion tape series, Hatikva Ministries
Aryeh Kaplan Anthology, “Rivers of Eden”
Origins Of Tevilah (Ritual Immersion) by Dr. Yonaton Adler
Biblical Purification: Was it Immersion? by Dr. Hayah Katz