Consider the water

Biblical episodes often occurred when water was around. An element capable of nourishing but also of destroying.

by Alessandro Zaccuri

Philosophy 21 October 2021

The Apostle Thomas is the most famous doubter in history, and not only in biblical history. For being so, he deserves the rebuke of Jesus, who before treating him harshly (“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” John 20:29) fulfills his request: Thomas sees what he wanted to see, and touches what he wanted to touch. Strictly speaking, his behavior is not even disbelief but rather distrust. Let’s try to recreate the setting. Jesus was captured, sentenced, and condemned to death, causing the disciples’ dismay. They have stayed confined ever since, waiting for the events to unfold. Their behavior is not very courageous, and after all, even before the ascent to Calvary, Peter himself had previously denied the Master, swearing that he did not know him. On Easter morning, the women went to the tomb, found it empty, and another woman, Mary Magdalene, ran to the apostles’ hiding place to announce the resurrection. John, the only evangelist to report the episode in which Thomas is the main character, does not specify their reaction. However, he does tell us how Jesus appeared to his disciples that same evening, passing “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were [that were] locked for fear of the Jews” (John 20:19). It was then, and only then that they were convinced. Thomas, as we know, missed this first appointment and, if we think about it, had a point demanding to check a miracle reported by a less than reliable source. Aren’t his friends as frightened as he is? Could they have been fooled or deceived?

Thomas didn’t see, and he wanted to see. He didn’t touch, and he wanted to touch. Of course, the time will come when, as Jesus says, neither touching nor seeing will be necessary, but for Thomas, that time had not yet come. Even assuming he was a doubting disciple, he was still not an unfaithful disciple. Actually, in some respects, he was the most faithful of all, the one who most profoundly understood how the extraordinary event of the resurrection related inexorably to the fate of the body. Hence his need to observe “the mark of the nails in his hands” and to push “his finger in the mark of the nails and his hand in his side” (John 20:25). And that is precisely what Jesus let him do: see and touch. “Do not doubt but believe” (20:27), he added, and Thomas obeyed him without hesitation, calling him “my Lord and my God” (20:28).

It would have been a different matter if, present at the appearance of Jesus, Thomas had demanded further proof, revealing a truly obstinate inclination to doubt. The apostle questions the unseen but remains open to the invisible. Generations and generations have come and gone in the belief that they would have done better in his place, whereas the Bible says that you can do worse. Thomas’ doubt is neither the only one nor the first in the Scriptures, in which there is no shortage of doubts on a grand scale, even attributable to those who should lead their people. In the Bible, in short, it is the founders who doubt the most and the most strongly.

Due to a strange combination of circumstances, their wavering often occurred when water was around, a necessary and insidious element, capable of nourishing but also of destroying, sometimes with the insistence of a drop, other times with the power of a wave. You cannot live without water, as those who cross the desert know well. You can drown in water, as those who go to sea know well. And these are precisely the situations in which biblical doubt manifested its full force, following a pattern that not by chance links the legislator Moses’ destiny to that of the apostle Peter.

You cannot live without water, as those who cross the desert know well. You can drown in water, as those who go to sea know well.

The desert, we mentioned. The exodus from Egypt had become a distant memory; for years, Israel’s people had been wandering in an arid steppe, tormented by hunger and exhausted by thirst. God delivered manna and made quails rain plentiful from the sky, so much so that in the end the Israelites were disgusted by all that meat. On the other hand, water sprung from the rock that Moses was later to question before the community gathered for the occasion. The divine instructions were unambiguous: Moses was to bring his staff with him, the same prodigious staff he had begun to use since he had asked to speak with the Pharaoh, but besides that he was to do nothing but speak, and the spring would have gushed forth at his command. This was not the first time God had kept his promises, which had been even more challenging than this one. To stick with water, how can we forget that the Lord dried up the Red Sea to allow Israel to escape? And wasn’t it him, again, the God of Armies, who suddenly closed that same sea to exterminate the Egyptians launched in pursuit on their chariots?

Moses would have had no reason to doubt. Unlike Thomas, he had already seen. After all those conversations on the mount and before the burning bush, the Almighty’s voice was now familiar to him. Inexplicably, however, something within him reared its head, like a force that awakens and distracts him from himself. Ultimately, this is the true nature of doubt: an uncertainty that opposes and deflects one’s will. At first, everything seemed to be going as it should. The people were summoned, Moses spoke, reprimanded and reassured: “Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” (Numbers 20:10). It was the promise of the Lord, impossible to doubt. Yet, despite everything, Moses doubts. He does not just speak but smites the rock (“twice” Num. 20:11). Indeed, water gushed forth from it as announced, but only because the Lord did not refrain from showing “his holiness” (20:13) in the presence of Israel. Moses’ behavior did not go unnoticed: “Because you did not trust in me,” God said to him and his brother Aaron, “therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” (Numbers 20:12). The Promised Land was eventually reached, but Moses, the liberator, did not cross its border.

It was a very harsh punishment, perhaps disproportionate to the failure that caused it. The key to the story probably lies in that “twice,” in that blow delivered and repeated. We cannot be sure, but perhaps a single strike would not have led to such a drastic measure. At most, Moses could have been accused of overzealousness, which led him to add a personal touch to the ritual that God had ordained. Nothing, however, explains the second blow other than his impatience arising from the suspicion that this time the miracle may not occur. Not surprisingly, Moses does not try to defend himself, nor does he justify himself. He knows that the Lord has spotted a cloud of doubt in his heart, and not even he, Moses, knows the reason for it. Meribah, the name of the place where the event took place, means “dispute”: like the dispute between God and his people, first of all, and between Moses and the doubt that assailed him. To some extent, the water of Meribah is also the water of doubt.


On the other hand, Peter was a fisherman and was familiar with the sea, which is as vast as a desert and far less solid than rock. For example, you can’t walk on the sea. Unless you are the Messiah announced by the Scriptures. The episode is mentioned by all the Gospels, except for Luke. The most complete version is in Matthew, which directly mentions Peter and his doubt, even more tenacious than the doubt that will later be attributed to Thomas. It happened on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had just multiplied loaves and fish for the crowd that had come to listen to him, and to which he was now saying farewell. In the meantime, the disciples had been sent to cross “to the other side” ahead of him (Mathew 14:22). He was to join them later. The boat had to deal with a headwind, which hampered the crossing. Shortly before dawn, Jesus came “walking towards them on the sea” (14:25), causing consternation among the disciples, who feared that they were being chased by “a ghost” (14:26). The Master invited them not to fear, and the story ends with this request in the other Gospels. But in Matthew, Peter came and tried to overdo it, a bit like Moses did in Meribah.“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” he said (14:28). Jesus humored him, foreshadowing the goodwill he later bestowed upon the wary Thomas. He called Peter to join him, but something did not go as it should have, once again. What followed is a three-verse drama: “Peter got out of the boat, started walking on water, and started off toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’. Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’” (20:29-31:00)

The sequence of events could not be more explicit nor more merciless. Peter was indeed walking on water, but all it took is for the wind to blow again for doubt to grasp the better part of him. The sea became the sea again, the rock vanished, the abyss opened wide. At this point, Jesus reached out his hand, touched him, and rescued him. Even his final rebuke, that “you of little faith” destined to become a proverbial expression, is part of the salvation plan because it warns Peter of the pitfall of doubt.

In the Bible, therefore, the founders doubt and suffer the consequences thereof. However, on second thought, the reader also experiences doubt. Moses and Peter were the first to go down the road that the Lord had shown them. They were doing something that had never been done before and were almost forced to believe in something that, until then, had seemed inconceivable: to be nourished by the desert and quenched by the rock, to walk on water as on dry land. Can they really be blamed for their hesitations? Could it not be, instead, that this hesitation is the sign of a humanness that faith doesn’t intend to erase and that is the very premise of faith itself? What can be believed – no questions asked – is obviously what is unbelievable; for everything else, we must settle for common evidence.

What can be believed – no questions asked – is obviously what is unbelievable; for everything else, we must settle for common evidence.

Actually, there is another story to tell, which does not come from the Bible, but from the heritage of the apocryphal Gospels. In the so-called Protoevangelium of James, the angel’s annunciation to Mary occurs in two stages, first with a voice that the girl hears echoing within herself as she is drawing water at the fountain in Nazareth, and then in her home, where the angel finally appears in all his glory. Like Thomas, Mary can’t trust what she hears either; she needs to see. But after seeing, she believes. Doubt, for her too, is a word written on water.