Hydrology and the Poetics of the Incarnation

written by Peter D. Spychalla, Ph.D,  Assistant Professor of New Testament & Spiritual Formation

Cycle 1 — The water cycle.  My family raises potatoes on a farm in Northern Wisconsin, a state that receives about 30 inches of precipitation annually and sits upon 1.2 quadrillion gallons of underground water . . . enough water to cover the state to a depth of nearly 100 feet.  Life-giving water, falling from the sky, enables the spuds to sprout and taters to thrive.  Having completed its vitalizing work, this water returns to the atmosphere through evaporation and plant transpiration.

Agrarian Hebrews, living over 2500 years ago in the Ancient Near East, were no strangers to this hydrologic cycle.  In the poetry of Isaiah the prophet, YHWH, the God of the universe, refers to this pattern, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, . . . ” (Isaiah 55:10; NRSV here and throughout).  This description emphasizes the impact of the water.

Cycle 2 — Personification of the divine word.  YHWH uses the pattern of the water cycle to highlight the guaranteed effect of His spoken word.  The poetry of Isaiah continues, “So shall My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11).  The comparison is explicit (a simile: “as . . . so“).  The spoken word of God is personified, depicted as a divine emissary, an agent who acts and accomplishes an assigned task.  The word “goes forth” and is “sent” by God for a specific divine purpose:  “what I desire” and “the matter for which I sent it.”  The word will “return” to God.  By repetition, the text lays stress on the success of the divine word’s mission:  “not return to Me empty,” “accomplishing what I desire,” and “succeeding.”

This apt analogy, rooted in terra firma, transcends to teach the certain fulfillment of the Sovereign’s spoken word.  First, in the immediate context of Isaiah, YHWH’s promise of future salvation for Israel, and secondly by extension, to all of God’s word.  Prayerful reflection on this artful text rightly leads us from delight to worship.  Still, the Divine Poet is not yet finished with this canonical motif of the personified word.

Cycle 3 — Incarnation of the Divine Word.  In the Fourth Gospel, John presents the mission of Jesus on the model of God’s effective, personified word from Isaiah 55:11.  Jesus is depicted as coming into the world  (John 1:9; John 11:27; similar in John 1:14; John 3:13, John 3:17, John 3:19; John 6:14, John 6:33, John 6:38, John 6:41-42, John 6:50-51, John 6:58; John 8:14, John 8:23, John 8:42; John 9:39; John 10:10, John 10:36; John 12:46; John 16:27-28; John 17:8, John 17:18; John 18:37).   Jesus is sent by the Father (John 3:17; John 4:34; John 5:23-24, John 5:30, John 5:36-37; John 6:38-39, John 6:44, John 6:57; John 7:16, John 7:28-29, John 7:33; John 8:16, John 8:18, John 8:26, John 8:29, John 8:42; John 9:4; John 12:44-45, John 12:49; John 13:3, John 13:20; John 15:21; John 16:5; John 17:8; John 20:21).  Jesus is portrayed as returning to the Father (John 6:62; John 7:33; John 8:14, John 8:21; John 13:1, John 13:3; John 14:1-3, John 14:12, John 14:28; John 16:5-10; John 20:17).

Most significantly, the Apostle John characterizes the Son of God as doing the Father’s will (John 5:30; John 6:38-39; John 8:29) and accomplishing the Father’s purpose:  “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work” (John 4:34), “The works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me” (John 5:36), and “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do” (John 17:4).

Before the eyes of John and the other first century witnesses, literary personification present in ancient Hebrew poetry quite literally came alive, walking among women and men.  What do you call such a one, an agent sent into the world by the Father, returning to the Father, and accomplishing all of the Father’s purpose?  The disciple whom Jesus loved, steeped in the Holy Scriptures, calls Him exactly what the ancient text calls such a divine emissary, the “Word” (John 1:1; Isaiah 55:11).

Water and Word—sent from heaven—giving life.

The Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14).  And that is no small potatoes.

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Urbana Theological Seminary is pleased to introduce Peter Spychalla, Ph.D., as the newest member of our faculty.  Dr. Spychalla has taken the position of Assistant Professor of New Testament & Spiritual Formation.  Prior to this new appointment Dr. Spychalla has been a Lecturer at Urbana Seminary since 2008.  Dr. Spychalla earned his Ph.D. in New Testament from Wheaton College and is completing a D.Min. in Spiritual Formation from Lincoln Christian Seminary.  As part of his introduction to the Urbana Seminary community we have asked him to write the next two blogs for “A Word from Urbana Seminary.”  Dr. Spychalla lives in Normal, IL.  When you get a chance please join us in welcoming Peter to his new position at Urbana Theological Seminary.