The sea saw them and fled, the Jordan turned back

Psalm 114:3 (113:3 LXX)

By Fr. Gregory, January 04, 2021

Icon of Theophany

A feature which stands out in the Theophany icon are two small figures in the waters at the bottom of the icon’s depiction. These figures are typically two small humanoid creatures who appear to be riding upon sea creatures. In some cases, these two figures have been replaced by the fallen archangel and the dragon.

Old Testament texts from the Vesperal Liturgy

Gn 1:1-13 In the beginning God made heaven and earth. The earth was invisible and unfinished; and darkness was over the deep. The Spirit of God was hovering [in HEBREW, to hover/brood like a bird] over the face of the water. DOVE

4Kingdoms 2:6-14 LXX / 2Kings 2:6-14 Now Elijah took his mantle, rolled it up, and struck the water. The water divided this way and that, and the two of them crossed on dry ground. […] He took Elijah’s mantle which had fallen upon him and struck the water, but it did not divide. Then he said, “Where is the Lord God of Elijah himself?” And he struck the water again, and it divided this way and that. So Elisha crossed over.

  1. The sea saw them and fled, the Jordan turned back. Alleluia. (Ps 113:3 LXX / 114.3)

Hymns for the Feast

“Jordan turned back when it received through Elisha the mantle of Elijah. How will it not sink into chaos and the deep, when it sees you naked in its streams?” – from a hymn for the Forefeast

Idiomelon 2. Mode 2. Verse: The sea saw them and fled, the Jordan turned back. (Ps 113:3 LXX / 114.3) The waters saw You, O God; the waters saw You and were afraid. Neither the Cherubim nor the Seraphim can look directly at Your glory. But they stand by You with fear and awe. The former hold and the latter glorify Your power. We join them, O Compassionate Lord, and proclaim Your praise, saying, “O God, who have appeared, have mercy on us.”

Icon of Theophany These figures are often identified as ‘pagan river gods’ in explanations of the icons and are connected with the dragons or serpents lurking in the waters referred to in the liturgical blessing of the waters, and often also depicted in the icon. These figures are the key to understanding the connection between the various liturgical motifs celebrated at Theophany.

Battles between gods, battles with elements which are controlled by spirits/gods. This is the approach which is taken in Genesis 1 regarding the creation of the world. Genesis 1:1-2 establishes the state of things before creation in a way which would have been familiar in the Ancient Near East. The earth is ‘formless and empty’, shrouded in darkness, and described as a watery abyss. Rather than a great battle ensuing, however, God merely speaks commands, and is immediately obeyed. He then at the end of each day passes judgment over every thing, declaring it good. This expresses a far greater superiority than simply winning a battle or killing a monstrous beast. The sea and the waters are things created by the God of Israel, and are completely subservient to him at their creation. While they may be worshipped or feared by some as gods, they are not in the same category of being as the true God, Yahweh (Deut 32:17). In Genesis 1:2, the Spirit of God is portrayed as a bird. The word used in Hebrew to describe his movement over the waters, usually translated in English as ‘hovering’ or ‘brooding’ is a word used to describe a mother bird brooding over her young. The presence of the Holy Spirit over the waters as a dove is a deliberate recalling of the original creation of the world. The first creation culminates, at its climax, in the creation of Adam (Gen 1:27). The new creation follows the reverse order and begins with the re-creation of man through the incarnation of Christ. In his ascent to power and related creation myths, Baal’s chief opponent is the god ‘Yam’, or ‘the Sea’, who reigns over the council of gods and represents primordial chaos. Yam’s henchman is ‘Nahar’, or ‘the River’. It is these two beings which are depicted in the waters at the bottom of the Theophany icon. As the nascent Israel makes its journey to Canaan, that journey is bookended by first the parting of the sea (Heb. Yam; Ex 14:21) and the parting of the river (Heb. Nahar; Josh 3:15-17). There is no battle required, because sea and river are the creations of Yahweh, the God of Israel, and so immediately obey his commands both to leave harmless his people, and to destroy his enemies (Ex 14:27). Yam and Nahar are therefore depicted in the Theophany icon as fleeing from Christ in fear and in the liturgical hymns and prayers the waters, referring to these beings, are depicted as turning back and separating as they did in Exodus and Joshua. The power of these hostile spiritual beings is crushed by Christ signaling, as it did in Joshua, the beginning of a new conquest which will end with Christ’s victory and enthronement over all creation.