The Relief Society teacher was teaching the lesson on the signs of the Second Coming, and she was writing these events on the board as fast as we sisters could shout them out. “Wars,” “Rumors of wars,” “Pestilence,” “Earthquakes,” she wrote. Then came an unusual one:
“The waters of the Dead Sea will be healed.”
(Yes, readers, I admit that contribution came from me.) It was interesting enough to capture my attention for quite a while, so if you want a report of the rest of her lesson, you will have to get it from someone else.
The reference to the waters of the Dead Sea being healed was from Ezekiel 47. I spent some time reading about the running water coming from the temple, going down into the desert, and then running into the sea, and healing its waters. This causes a great multitude of fish to come, and the fishers spread forth their nets to catch them.
Then, as I am wont to do, I looked at the symbolic nature of the scripture passage. Rather than reading this passage literally as it is described in our SS lesson, as the waters of the literal Dead Sea somehow being chemically changed, I looked at some of the symbolic meanings of the scriptural terms. Often in the scriptures the restored gospel is described as living water. Fishers of men are missionaries. At once, a greater meaning of Ezekiel 47 became clear. As I read it again with these things in mind, I saw a prophecy of the gospel (living water) flowing forth from the Temple of God. I saw it going into a desert wasteland of the earth without the restored truths of Jesus Christ. I saw a previously spiritually barren world now healed and full of people ready to hear the good news of the gospel of peace. There were missionaries and members of the Church ready and waiting to gather these converts with their nets of fellowship.
Of course, I’m sure I’m not the first to interpret this chapter symbolically. But I think that Latter-day Saints tend to gravitate more naturally toward a literal reading of the scriptures. Here’s how Joseph Smith described it:
Judah must return, Jerusalem must be rebuilt, and the temple, and water come out from under the temple and the waters of the Dead Sea be healed. It will take some time to rebuild the walls of the city and the temple etc.; and all this must be done before the Son of Man will make His appearance.
In the LDS Guide to the Scriptures, topic “Dead Sea,” this explanation is given:
The salt sea at the southern end of the Jordan Valley. It was also known as the Salt Sea. Its surface is approximately 1300 feet (915 meters) below the Mediterranean Sea. The cities of Sodom, Gomorrah, and Zoar or Bela were near its shores (Gen. 14: 2-3). In fulfillment of prophecy and as one of the signs of the second coming of the Savior, the waters of the Dead Sea will be healed, and life will flourish there (Ezek. 47: 8-9).
Often, interpreting the scriptures symbolically fits well with our doctrine and frees us from the cognitive dissonance we experience when prophesied events don’t happen exactly as they are described. Why do we have such trouble giving holy writ a figurative meaning rather than a literal one? What makes us prefer wild speculative theories about the desalination of a gradually shrinking body of water with modern technology in support of literalist exegesis? What literal interpretations do you tend to cling to?
Your insights have added a whole new dimension to my understanding of “healing the waters.” The class you taught must have been amazing. Sometimes we restrict ourselves to the literal because it is the easy thing to do. To break into the figurative requires firing up some unused neurons, which we are usually not wont to do. Thanks for posting your ideas.
Well, the “class I taught” was actually in my head, while another teacher gave the real lesson, the one on the signs of the times…
What a wonderful thought. You can be my Sunday School teacher anytime. This question of literalism is very important to me as a biologist who argues all the time for the compatibility of evolution and Mormonism. Literalism to me poisons (like the salt and minerals of the Dead Sea?) the spiritual insights (fresh living waters?) that I think he scriptures are often trying to communicate. Maybe the prophecy about waters of the Dead Sea being healed are talking about how that in the Last Days we would give up literalism for a deeper spiritual engagement with the scriptures!
Your insight into this scripture is both fascinating and beautiful. It is difficult to know when to look at the scriptures literally or symbolically. But I have found that you can always find deep truths when reading between the lines of scriptures.
I enjoyed this post. Thanks for your insights.
I have assumed that the understanding about the Temple and the healing of the Dead Sea will be made clear when those days arrive and the prophecy is being fulfilled. I tend to take these things literally based on the way other Old Testament prophecies have been fulfilled. Take Isaiah 29 as an example, it tells in some detail about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon and is literally fulfilled. I wish I had the time this morning to review other O.T. prophecies and how they were fulfilled; figuratively or literally. Another one came to mind as I was writing, the 7 years of fat and lean found in Genesis 41, where Joseph interpreted pharaoh dream.
Hey, I went to your blog to check it out but none of the articles come up. Just an FYI since I am interested in your posts.
Thanks for the heads up. It may be due to site maintenance. I was able to open with Firefox, though slow, and IE wouldn’t open at all when I clicked a heading.
I’ll check it out. When it has done this before it usually corrected within an hour. Thanks again for your help.
Jared, Generally I agree that it is a very good idea to wait until prophecy is being fulfilled to interpret. (Not to mention safe!) In the case of Ezekiel 47, I would suggest that it was easy for me to interpret these symbols because it is being fulfilled right now.
Your example of Isaiah 29 is well taken; however Genesis 41 just proves my point. Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream symbolically, not literally. The fat and lean cows were symbols of productive and lean years. Joseph would have been in big trouble if he hadn’t had the ability to interpret things figuratively.
While I agree that this can be both a literal and symbolic meaning, I’d like to look at the “Water coming from the temple” part. If I am not mistaken, it seems that Hezekiah’s Tunnel has recently been found by archaeologists. I believe this could be the waters of the temple spoken of. (And BiV, perhaps we should really consider an online Sunday School class with you and Hawkgrrl!)
I’m just now getting to this. I love the idea of considering a figurative interpretation of this. It seems to me that we cling to literal interpretation just like Jesus’ apostles did, and in doing so, they frequently missed the point. Thanks for the reminder, BiV! Another great insight!
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Throwing water on most everyone’s figurative interpretation of an event which is to occur literally, but I see the figurative substituted for the literal all of the time—and I believe, quite wrongly so.
Was Jesus (the Messiah) born only symbolically in Bethlehem? Did only spiritual waters drown the people at the time of Noah? Was the ‘Tower of Babel’ only an intellectual construct? Did Lehi and his family only leave Jerusalem figuratively? Did Joseph Smith see the Father and the Son in the grove only symbolically? Jesus’ Second Coming, will there only be figurative fire to burn and kill all of the wicked remaining on the earth?
Sure, there is much that is symbollic and figurative in the scriptures. Was Adam made of the “dust of the ground”? Kinduv. Just like every baby that is born is made of the “elements of the earth”. Was Eve made from his rib? She was meant, as his wife, to be at his side (and not of his head, to rule over him, nor of his feet, to be walked on him). But the creation of Adam as given in the scriptures is largely euphemistic or symbollic, and not literal.
Is Jesus the Father of mankind? Yes and no. Spiritually speaking, he is. He accomplished the atonement whereby we can be brought back (alive) into the presence of the Father. He was self-resurrected, making our resurrection sure, again, being our ‘Father’ in bringing us to life, even if it is ‘back to life (reuniting the spirit and the body). He even created (under the command and direction of the Father) the earth, and all that is in it, which sustains us. He (Jesus) is the Father also, as the BoM explains, in that his will was swallowed in the will of the Father, making him (Jesus) BOTH the Father and the Son.
But is Jesus the Father of our spirits? No. He is our brother, though I oldest brother.
Many things in the scriptures are to be understood literally and others figuratively. And many things are to be understood, or give us understanding, in both ways!
“…he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken”
(New Testament | Luke 24:25)
From several accounts given in the gospels, it seems that many of Christ’s disciples, even his own apostles, did not believe things literally enough (and some, perhaps not at all)!
Is there great and rich symbolism to be taken from the scriptures? Absolutely! Does that mean that that which is symbolic is not literal! Occasionally. But, for the most part, that is what divides true disciples of Christ from ‘traditional believers’. Euphemistic fulfillment seems so poetic, and often less threatening.
However, if the scriptures teach one thing at all—it is that the Lord says what he means and means what he says—mostly, quite literally! (And literal fulfillment in no way steals away any of the rich symbolic and figurative meaning. It rather makes it that much greater and fuller).
Thank you for your information about healing the Dead Sea waters. I will study up on this futher as I am very interested in this region of Israel and surrounding areas of the Middle East. The dead Sea is healing in itself ,and offers over 20 life giving minerals for man. Truely life giving waters. Keep up the studies.
I have found, both historically and in my own life, that both literal and figurative readings of scripture are valid. The literal fulfillment of prophecy is a powerful reminder that the promises of God do not fall to the ground unfulfilled and build my faith. The figurative types and shadows expand my mind as I think of future multiple fulfillment of prophecy.
An example, Jesus speaks of the Temple at Jerusalem being rebuilt. He also compared it’s destruction to his own death and predicted that he would rebuild in three days what the enemy had thrown down. The literal resurrection of Christ is at the root of all that we believe in the Church.
But there are types and shadows of our own death and resurrection, the scattering and gathering of Israel, both literally and figuratively. And the promised building and rebuilding of temples. Think of the reconstructed Nauvoo Temple. It is as apt a type and shadow of resurrection as I can think of. The temple died when the spirit left with the church. It was burned, toppled by a tornado and taken apart stone by stone and used in other construction, just as a dead body decomposes. Then the spirit entered into the Church and the temple was once again raised up, the new building resembles the old in many a particular, but contains features that would have been undreamed of in Joseph and Brigham’s days. Air conditioning, central heating, audio/visual systems, reinforced steel construction, etc. One could say truthfully that it is a glorified and perfected temple, in the likeness of the old.
Good content, I will be back to read more
I just saw this article, and it made me think of the prophesy, even though I too have always read it symblolically rather than literally, but it looks like it might get literally healed too, which just means both interpretations would be correct. http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20091125/sc_afp/mideastenvironmentwaterjordan
Literalists and symbolists will enjoy reviewing the information about the MedDead.org project that envisions the literal healing of the dead sea by the construction of a canal from the Med Sea. Readers might follow the progress of Ted Beckett’s project there. He is a fascinating man who envisions exactly what Ezekiel outlines in Ch 47. This project is so interesting in light of this discussion.
To answer your question, metaphorical explanations are a dime a dozen. For this reason apostasy pops up because the clear meaning is confused in a jumble of “I think it means this” rather than “The Lord can do all things, and prophecies are given to us so that we can recognize His work when he performs it.”
I’m not saying that often the correct meanings are metaphorical, but items like this are clearly literal as well. My interest here was directed because of recent events, specifically, that divers have found freshwater vents (sustaining life) in the Dead Sea. Pump in enough freshwater, and both the volume of the water persists and the salinity drops. This discovery tells me that the literal meaning of Ez 47 is not so far-fetched after all. We are free to speculate, as Rich does above, about other man-made events helping to fulfill the literal cleansing of the waters, and indeed, all these things work together as “small things” by which God does “great things.” Still, water from the temple this isn’t quite. But the potential is certainly there.
I might add these ideas: http://mormonmysticism.blogspot.com/2011/06/ezekiel-47-and-lehis-vision-of-tree-of.html
When Jesus returns the mount of olives will be split in two, bible says it will shift to north and part will shift south, this will allow the river to flow to dead sea, fish hatcheries are all along the west side if the dead sea these fish will be washed into the dead sea, waters healed.
This is an interesting project that realizes some of the Ezekiel vision theme
Most prophecy is clearly literal and symbolic both. The seminary student manual addresses this wonderfully…
Ezekiel 47 (https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/old-testament-seminary-student-study-guide-obs/the-book-of-ezekiel/ezekiel-47-the-healing-waters-of-the-temple?lang=eng).
The Healing Waters of the Temple
Ezekiel 47 gives Ezekiel’s vision of how water will yet flow from underneath the temple in Jerusalem and flow to the east, becoming larger and larger until it becomes a river of water. The river will flow into the Dead Sea and make it “alive” again with fish and vegetation. The Prophet Joseph Smith said: “Judah must return, Jerusalem must be rebuilt, and the temple, and water come out from under the temple, and the waters of the Dead Sea be healed. It will take some time to rebuild the walls of the city and the temple, … and all this must be done before the Son of Man will make His appearance” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 286).
This event is also symbolic of the spiritual renewal and rebirth that comes to individuals and families as they participate in the sacred, uplifting, and empowering ordinances of the temple that come from the source of “living waters,” even Jesus Christ.