Women, Wells, and Weddings

Aimee Byrd
Monday, October 7th 2019

Where does one go today to look for a wife? I guess there are some various options—the internet, the university, the church, or the local well (maybe not that last one not so much.) But in ancient Near Eastern society, we see that’s where all the good women could be found for marriage. Rebekah, Rachel, Zipporah—all well women. When a well pops up in the biblical narrative, the reader should be picking up what the Holy Spirit has been laying down: someone is about to get hitched. There are common literary patterns in each well betrothal. Robert Alter connects the dots for us:

What I would suggest is that when a biblical narrator came to the moment of his hero’s betrothal, both he and his audience were aware that the scene had to unfold in particular circumstances, according to a fixed order. If some of those circumstances were altered or suppressed, or if the scene were actually omitted, that communicated something to the audience as clearly as the withered arm of our twelfth sheriff would say something to a film audience. The betrothal type-scene, then, must take place with the future bridegroom, or his surrogate, having journeyed to a foreign land. There he encounters a girl–the term “na’arah” invariably occurs unless the maiden is identified as so-and-so’s daughter–or girls at a well. Someone, either the man or the girl, then draws water from the well; afterward, the girl or girls rush to bring home the news of the stranger’s arrival (the verbs “hurry” and “run” are given recurrent emphasis at this junction of the type-scene); finally, a betrothal is concluded between the stranger and the girl, and in the majority of instances, only after he has been invited to a meal.[1]

Alter also notes how wells symbolize a woman’s fertility, or female sexuality in general, referencing Proverbs 5:15-18.[2] Let’s go there for a minute.

Richard Whitekettle has worked to develop this womb/wellspring homology, showing that a woman’s body, in its structure and function, corresponds to the order of Levitical sacred space.[3] This is why we see all those weird purity laws associated with a woman’s menstruation and postpartum discharge in Leviticus (12; 15:19-32)—her womb represents fullness of life, the inner sanctum of the divine realm. When it overflows as unbounded water it is uninhabitable for life and a threat to sancta, rendering her ceremonially impure for the set times (yet another pattern of familiar numbers) of 7 or 40 days.

In this homology, there is another literary pattern we see in Scripture of “creation-uncreation-recreation” where unbounded water is confined, both with creation in Genesis 1, and the flood account in the second half of Genesis 7 and beginning of Genesis 8.[4] Literary patterns are everywhere, it seems, as we learn about the concept of woman. In the story of creation, we see an eschatological sequence where the second fills out and fructifies the first:[5]

  • Day and night is filled with the sun and moon for illumination.
  • The sky and sea are separated, and then filled with sea creatures and flying creatures.
  • The land is separated from the sea and filled with vegetation, animals, and man.

This pattern sets us up for the creation of the second human—woman. The original Levitical audience, knowing well the cultic necessities of sacrifice and cleansing to approach God, see in creation of woman fullness of life. She is a liturgical responder to Adam, fructifying his word. She is an eschatological marker, as Mark Garcia describes, the crown of creation week, in which Adam sees his telos (his aim and all of ours) as joining the collective bride of Christ. She is the glory of man, picturing what we are all called to be—a “habitation of liveliness.”[6] In all these ways, woman is telling the story behind the story of creation.[7] And we see what the groom sacrifices for his bride. As we are told in Genesis 2:24, man is to leave mother and father to cling to his wife. Adam, who was given the priestly vocation of guarding and keeping the garden temple, sacrifices his own body for creation of his bride. Our true Bridegroom, Jesus Christ, left fellowship with the Father in the heavenly realm to come for his bride, the church. The keeper of our souls (Psalm 121) sacrificed his own body for his bride. Fullness of life for God’s image bearers is to be united to Christ as his bride. The story is all taking shape.

This is also why we see such protective laws regarding women, and even how defilement of her is associated with violating the land or the tabernacle (i.e. Deut. 24:4). Right away we see that Adam fails to be a loving husband and priest in the holy garden temple. He fails to drive out the unclean thing from the temple and passively stands by as the serpent converses with the very embodiment of sacred space—his wife.[8] Again, the original audience will be in suspense as this is read to them. Eve herself has already filled out the story for us, adding “nor touch” to the command not to eat of the tree (which is parallel to the language in Lev. 11:8).[9] There is uncleanliness and death all over the place when she is deceived and both touches and eats. What will the high priest do now? The original audience knows there needs to be a sacrifice for sin. Will it be Adam? Will he offer himself in place of his bride?[10] There will be no offer of sacrifice from this high priest and husband. We know how this story ends.

All this builds up to another well scene, this time in the New Testament. In John 4, we have one of the longest dialogues in all four gospels. Most of the elements are there, and the ones that are altered are telling us something. Jesus travels from/to a foreign land: from Judea, to Samaria of all places. He sits at a well (Jacob’s well!), and there encounters his na’arah. Readers should already be picking up on this well betrothal narrative. But this isn’t the na’arah they would be expecting. First, we learn that she is a despised Samaritan. Later, we learn about her sexual history. Jesus pops the question, only it isn’t phrased like a question: “Give me a drink” (John 4:7b). Instead of drawing water, a theological conversation ensues. There are so many gems there and I only have space to touch on a few. Jesus answers the woman’s sarcasm about their identities by telling her about living water—the very thing her embodiment as a woman pictures. She says he doesn’t even have a bucket, but he knows “counsel in a person’s heart is deep water; but a person of understanding draws it out” (Prov. 20:5). That’s when he asks her to get her husband, so she can learn that although she is like that woman passed from husband to husband in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, such that her own body which is to represent sacred space has been defiled and has no real husband now, Jesus is the faithful husband/high priest. And unlike Adam, he is the perfect sacrifice and will lay down his life for his bride and lead her to the heart of the divine realm—the holy of holies. He is the bridegroom who says, “Come away, my beautiful one. For now winter is past; the rain has ended and gone away” (SoS 2:10b-11).

All these cultic/priestly connotations in the well conversation (if my stickler editor would just give me space to get to the picture of the mirrors and the laver and Exodus 38:8) of course lead her to ask about true worship. This defiled woman is learning that she is to be “a garden spring, a well of flowing water” (SoS 4:15 ab). The reader goes from John the Baptist talking about Jesus, saying, “He who has the bride is the groom” (John 3:29a), to this betrothal scene in John 4. Jesus reveals to the woman, “I, the one speaking to you, am he” (John 4:26). Do we not pause from our reading and look up in awe? The disciples enter the scene dumbfounded. And what does this woman do? She makes haste, leaving her water jar behind, to bring home the news of the Husband’s arrival. Like the bride in Revelation, she adds her voice to the Spirit’s saying, “‘Come!’” (John 4:29a, Rev. 22:17b). And they do. The living water is flowing. The well indeed depicted fecundity and life—even for the Samaritans. “Now many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of what the woman said” (John 4:39ab). And they invited him to stay. I’m sure they fed him, but we do not get the details of any feasting. Maybe this is so we can add our voices to the Spirit’s and the bride’s, in anticipation of the great feast that is to come.

“‘Come!’ Let anyone who hears, say, ‘Come!’ Let the one who is thirsty come. Let the one who desires take the water of life as a gift” (Rev. 22:17).

Aimee Byrd is the author of No Little Women (P&R 2016) and Why Can’t We Be Friends (P&R, 2018) and the forthcoming Recovering From Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Zondervan Academic 2020) and and cohost of The Mortification of Spin podcast. She lives in Maryland with her husband and three children and is a member of New Hope Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

[1] Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (NY: Basic Books, 2011), 61-62.

[2] Ibid., 62.

[3] See Richard Whitekettle, “Levitical Thought and the Feminine Reproductive Cycle: Wombs, Wellsprings, and the Primeval World,” Brill Vestus Testamentum Vol. 46, Issue 3 (1996), 376-391. He defines homology as “an acknowledged resemblance between two objects based on perceived similarities in structure and function.”

[4] Ibid., 389. Quoting from D.J.A. Clines, “Theme in Genesis 1-11,” CBQ 38 (1976), pp. 499-502.

[5] See Dr. Mark A. Garcia, Lecture 3.1, “Glory and the Second Human,” video lecture from Theological Anthropology course, Greystone Theological Institute, last accessed June, 10, 2019. Themes of woman as eschatological marker, liturgical responder, and dynamic fecundity in this article are built upon in the whole of his Theological Anthropology course.

[6] Ibid.

[7] See Richard Bauckham, Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002) for teaching on women functioning as gynocentric interruptions to androcentric biblical texts, revealing the story behind the story.

[8] See Garcia, Lecture 2.3, “The Levitical Woman,” Theological Anthropology.

[9] See P. Wayne Townsend, “Eve’s Answer to the Serpent: An Alternative Paradigm for Sin and Some Implications in Theology,” Calvin Theological Journal 33 (1998) : 399-420, Copyright © 1980 by Calvin Theological Seminary, last accessed Feb. 20, 2019,

[10] See L. Michael Morales, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus, ed. D.A. Carson, NSBT (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2015), 181-184.

Monday, October 7th 2019

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology