The Old Testament in Relation to St. John's Gospel
by Paul Fraser

Old Testament Events Significant in the Fourth Gospel

Conflict between Jews and Samaritans

Following the death of Solomon (922 B.C.E.) Palestine was no longer a unit.  Instead there was fragmentation - the creation of two Kingdoms.  The Northern Kingdom, Israel, suffered a rapid decline and in 722 B.C.E. fell to the rapidly expanding Assyrian Empire.  Prophets from the Southern Kingdom of Israel had tried to warn their Northern counterparts of the dangers of entering into alliances with foreign powers.  This, they felt, marked a lack of trust in the God of Israel.  Unfortunately the divided Kingdom could not survive these ages of Imperial expansionism and in 587 B.C.E. Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and the Temple was destroyed.  The leaders of the people were taken into exile to Babylon and they remained there until the Persian leader Cyrus released them and permitted them to return to Palestine (538 B.C.E.).  Their most important aim was to re-establish Temple worship in Jerusalem and so they began to plan the rebuilding.  The Samaritans from the Northern Kingdom were anxious to help, but from the Jewish standpoint, mixing with the foreign people in the area (Ezra 4:2) had corrupted the Samaritans. But the Samaritans felt that they were faithfuladherents to the Mosaic tradition and shared the Jewish interest in rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. To this end, they offered to cooperate with the Jews inrebuilding the Temple, but their offer was spurned by Zerubbabel.

So, the Samaritans reacted. They did everything in their power to stop the building of the Temple which they regarded as a symbol of revived Jewish nationalism. These were the political troubles that led to the suspension of the work during the remainder of thereign of Cyrus (he died in 530 B.C.E.). The Temple was finally finished in 515 B.C.E. The rivalry between Jews and Samaritans reached a peak in the Fourth Century with the building of the rival Temple on Mount Gerizim.

Later they offended the Jews further by extending friendly assistance to the armies of Alexander. In return for their friendship Alexander gave the Samaritans permission to build a temple on Mount Gerizim, where they worshiped Yahweh and their tribal gods and offered sacrifices much after the order of the temple services at Jerusalem. At least they continued this worship up to the time of the Maccabees, when John Hyrcanus destroyed their temple on Mount Gerizim in 128 B.C.E.). The Apostle Philip, in his labors for the Samaritans after the death of Jesus, held many meetings on the site of this old Samaritan temple.

The Exodus
The experience of leaving slavery in Egypt and wandering in the desert for 40 years had a lasting effect on the minds and hearts of the people of Israel.  It was during this time that God formed them as one people.  They were given the Law through Moses and they learned that God dwelt with them, caring from their every need.  The Fourth Gospel contains many motifs which are characteristic of this wilderness experience of the Hebrew people.  Two of the most significant of these are:

Manna    and     Water from the Rock


John 6 gives us one of the clearest links between Jesus and the Moses/Exodus tradition.  It is evident from the peoples' response to the miracle of the feeding of the multitude that they recognize Jesus to be 'the Prophet'.  "When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, "This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world."(6:14)  This theme is then revisited later in the chapter.  The wilderness link is further validated by the time referencing used by John in 6:4 - "Now the Passover, the Festival of the Jews, was near."  In verse 32 we read that the manna in the wilderness did not come from Moses but from God, and secondly, that the manna received then was not the true bread from heaven.  That is now available in the person of Jesus who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.  Then, we read, the people began to complain.  Even in the emotional response of the people to the revelation by Jesus do we see a reflection of the exodus narrative.  In spite of winning their freedom the people still complained.  Even while the law was being given to Moses on Sinai, the people complained.  The peoples' voices echo that tradition through John's narrative.

It is important to remember that 'bread' was a term used of the Jewish Torah (based on Proverbs 9:5 - 'Come, eat of my bread'), and behind this whole chapter in John is the implication that the law of Moses  is now replaced by Jesus who is the bread of life.  The eucharistic overtones of this narrative are many and obvious.  The significance of what is happening goes far beyond the mere fulfilment of a Messianic sign.  This is about fulfilment and replacement.  It is about going beyond what the people had expected and redefining the relationships between God and his people.  The concept of mutual-indwelling is introduced, perhaps for the first time.  God will not only live among his people - he will live within them (6:56).  And their life will be the life of God who is, of course, eternal.

Water from the Rock

To begin, it is necessary to note that this is one of the themes most frequently alluded to in the Fourth Gospel, occurring some 25 times.  In many parts of the Old Testament the manna and the water from the rock are often linked together; e.g. in Nehemiah 9:15 we read, "For their hunger you gave them bread from heaven, and for their thirst you brought water for them out of the rock..."  So, in John, we should not be surprised to read of the Bread of Life in John 6 followed by the Living Water in John 7.

John gives us a time reference for this discourse of Jesus.  The Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths) is a commemoration of the forty years in the wilderness.  Thus we have an immediate and obvious link with the exodus event.   It was practice on this Feast to draw water from the Pool of Siloam and pour it into a silver bowl at the altar.  It is difficult to determine the exact origins of the accompanying Scripture citation "Out of the believer's heart will flow rivers of living water".  Some claim it comes from Isaiah 44:2-3, while others maintain that it is from the prophet Zechariah.  This latter claim accrues more credibility whenever one realizes that the text read on the Festival of Tabernacles comes from Zechariah 14:8:

"On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem half of them to the eastern sea, and half to the western sea..."
Thus, in the minds of the first audience of this Gospel it is easy to see how the reader might form an association between this text and the exodus experience.  Another approach, taken by C.H. Dodd, suggests that in Talmud and Midrash the Torah is constantly compared to water.  Thus, within this Gospel Jesus becomes even greater than the well that had been given through Jacob- he is the spring, the pure, living, flowing fountain of water.  For example in John 4:14, when we read "The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life", we can see the oft-repeated theme, that Jesus, the Word, replaces and surpasses the Torah.
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