By the Water Ye Keep the Commandment

Book of Moses Essay #17

Moses 6:60, 64

By BMC Team with Jeffrey M. Bradshaw and Matthew L. Bowen

In Moses 6:60, Enoch declares the word of the Lord about the essential place of baptism in the suite of saving ordinances. In v. 64, he illustrates his point by describing the baptism of Adam. In this article, we will discuss the antiquity of water symbolism in rituals of rebirth, showing that in many ancient traditions, as in the Book of Moses, they are believed to go back to Adam.

Nevertheless, we will not attempt to summarize the varied and controversial histories of the water rituals of purification, penitence, and proselytism in Jewish and Christian traditions.1
Suffice it to say that no credible scholar today doubts that immersion was practiced by Jews for various religious purposes in pre-Christian times, nor would deny that immersion was the standard form of baptism in the early Christian church.

With respect to traditions concerning the antiquity of baptism, we note in passing that not only the Book of Moses but also several Islamic, Christian, Mandaean, and Manichaean accounts speak of the baptism of Adam and Eve.2

Some scholars, including Stephen D. Ricks3 and David J. Larsen,4 have argued that the water symbolism of baptism is better understood when it is compared and contrasted with separate rituals in ancient Israel wherein the king was washed and anointed, both prior to his initiation and also at regular renewals of his right to rule. For example, Larsen writes:5

We learn from the Bible that the … king was washed and purified, likely at the spring of Gihon.6 He was anointed on the head with a perfumed olive oil that was kept in a horn in the sanctuary.7 He was clothed in robes and also wore a priestly apron (ephod8), sash,9 and diadem/headdress.10 Finally, the king was consecrated a priest “after the order of Melchizedek.”11

Relevant context for understanding these practices also can be found in the religious literature of ancient Mesopotamia. For example, in the story of Atrahasis we can trace the basic conception that water, spirit, and blood—the latter derived from the body of a slain deity—were the life-giving elements used by the gods in the creation of humankind.12

Figure 2. Impression of Seal of Gudea, Tello, Iraq, ca. 2150 BCE.

In the seal of Gudea shown above, the bareheaded and nearly-naked Gudea is introduced by a mediating deity to a seated god. The mediating god presents a vase featuring a seedling and flowing water to the seated god. Water flows from the seated god himself into flowing vases, no doubt anticipating the sprouting of seedlings that have yet to appear. The scene suggested is one of rebirth and transformation: drawing on the phraseology of the Gospel of John we might conjecture that having been “born of water,”13 the king, in likeness both of the sprout within the flowing vase and the god to which he is being introduced, is also to become a “well of water springing up into everlasting life.”14 A sculpture of Gudea attests to just such an interpretation, where Gudea himself is shown, with his head now covered, holding a vase of flowing water in likeness of the seated god.

A comparative analysis of the full set of rituals of kingship at Mari in Old Babylon and in the Old Testament15 concluded that none of the major themes of Mesopotamian kingship ritual, including the roles that water plays in those rites,16 should be unfamiliar to students of the Bible.

Similar rites of water purification17 with similar functions existed as part of the ritual architecture of ancient Egyptian temples (cf. the nouns š, “lake, pool”18 and mr, “canal”; “artificial lake”19). For example, the temple at Karnak boasts an enormous artificial, sacred lake in which the temple priests—i.e., of the class termed wʿb—“purif[ied] themselves.”20 Egyptian wʿb as an adjective means “pure”  and as an intransitive verb means to “purify o[ne]self” or “bathe” and as a transitive verb to “cleanse or purify” something.  As a noun, wʿb denoted “purification” or “purity.”21 The derived causative verb swʿb denoted, “cleanse, purify,” but also to “consecrate temple servants.”24

The waters of the sacred lake or pool in which the wʿb-priests purified themselves symbolized the primeval waters from which the primordial hillock emerged in the creation.25 The Egyptian ideogram ʿb used to write wʿb was the “combination of [a foot hieroglyph] with a vase from which water flows.”26 In other words, it was a foot with water running over it. James P. Allen suggests that the wʿb was originally a lay priest and that the term originally represented the notion of “cleaner” (i.e., purifier).27 In terms of both architectural placement and ritual design, it is not difficult to see an antecedent to the tabernacle’s bronze laver and the brazen sea in Solomon’s temple in such sacred lakes (see further below).

Indeed, as John Walton correctly observes, “the ideology of the temple is not noticeably different in Israel than it is in the ancient Near East. The difference is in the God, not in the way the temple functions in relation to the God.”28

Figure 3. David Calabro, Floor Plan of the Temple of Solomon, with Suggested Locations of the Ritual in Moses 2–6.

David Calabro has explored the possibility that a text with an outline similar to the book of Moses may have been used in Solomon’s Temple to instruct and guide initiates through specific areas where instruction was given and rituals were performed. Of relevance to the present discussion is the connection he suggested between the text of Moses 6 and the “molten sea”29 that stood in front of the temple. After discussing several clues supporting his thesis from the Book of Moses, Calabro concluded:30

While there is no evidence that the temple laver was used as a baptismal font, it was definitely large enough to suggest such a use, and Joseph Smith’s specifications for a baptismal font modeled after the Solomonic laver for the Nauvoo temple show that he understood it in this connection.

Figure 4. Viktor Vasnetsov (1848–1926), The Baptism of Saint Prince Vladimir, 1890. “Attendants hold Vladimir’s golden royal robes, which he has removed, and the simple white baptismal robe, which he will put on.”

It is evident that two distinct sorts of water ordinances—namely baptism by immersion (“preparatory to the reception of the Holy Ghost”31) “in order to enter the kingdom of God”32 and washing (“preparatory to the anointing with holy oil … in the man[ner] [of] Moses and Aaron”33) as part of priestly or kingly initiation—became confused in the first centuries after Christ, making it difficult to be sure which one is meant when Christian scripture or tradition mentions the use of water in religious ritual.34 Indeed, as religious practices evolved, rituals resembling the washing, anointing, and clothing of Israelite priests35 were sometimes performed as part of “baptism.”

Figure 5. Early Christian Painting of a Baptism, Saint Calixte Catacomb, 3rd century.

Some baptismal traditions describe how the candidate was “stripped of the garments inherited from Adam and vested with the token of those garments he or she shall enjoy at the resurrection.”36 In other traditions, the baptismal candidates stood barefoot on animal skins while they prayed, symbolizing the taking off of the garments of skin they had inherited from Adam37 as well as figuratively enacting the putting of the serpent, the representative of death and sin, under one’s heel. Thus the serpent, his head crushed by the heel of the penitent relying on the mercies of Christ’s atonement, was by a single act renounced, defeated, and banished.


This Essay has provided a small sampling of the antiquity of water symbolism in rituals of rebirth. The Book of Moses and the teachings of the temple are clear that such rites go back to Adam and Eve.

Perhaps it is appropriate that significant glimpses of baptism in earliest antiquity come to us through Moses [mōšeh], whose Egyptian name signifies “[the god is] begotten” and whose name was understood by Hebrew-speaking Israelites as “drawer” or “puller.” The biblical text explains Moses’ name in terms of his being “pulled [mĕšîtihû, ‘I drew him’] … from the water[s]” of the river by the daughter of Pharaoh and thereby becoming “her son” (Exodus 2:10), a rebirth image that recalls birth and being drawn out of amniotic fluid, like the image of baptism. But the vowelling of his name as a Hebrew pseudo-active participle—“drawer” or “puller”38 from the verb mšh/mšy—anticipates Moses’ future role as the one who would “draw” or “pull” Israel through the waters of the Re[e]d Sea (cf. especially Moses 1:25). Or, as Paul put it, “[all the Israelites were] baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Corinthians 10:2).39

This article is adapted and expanded from Bradshaw, Jeffrey M., and Matthew L. Bowen. “‘By the Blood Ye Are Sanctified’: The Symbolic, Salvific, Interrelated, Additive, Retrospective, and Anticipatory Nature of the Ordinances of Spiritual Rebirth in John 3 and Moses 6.” In Sacred Time, Sacred Space, and Sacred Meaning (Proceedings of the Third Interpreter Foundation Matthew B. Brown Memorial Conference, 5 November 2016), edited by Stephen D. Ricks and Jeffrey M. Bradshaw. The Temple on Mount Zion 4, 43–237. Orem and Salt Lake City, UT: The Interpreter Foundation and Eborn Books, 2020, pp. 61–66.

Further Reading

Bradshaw, Jeffrey M., and David J. Larsen. Enoch, Noah, and the Tower of Babel. In God’s Image and Likeness 2. Salt Lake City, UT: The Interpreter Foundation and Eborn Books, 2014, pp. 79–82.

Bradshaw, Jeffrey M., and Matthew L. Bowen. “‘By the Blood Ye Are Sanctified’: The Symbolic, Salvific, Interrelated, Additive, Retrospective, and Anticipatory Nature of the Ordinances of Spiritual Rebirth in John 3 and Moses 6.” In Sacred Time, Sacred Space, and Sacred Meaning (Proceedings of the Third Interpreter Foundation Matthew B. Brown Memorial Conference, 5 November 2016), edited by Stephen D. Ricks and Jeffrey M. Bradshaw. The Temple on Mount Zion 4, 43–237. Orem and Salt Lake City, UT: The Interpreter Foundation and Eborn Books, 2020, pp. 58–84.

Christofferson, D. Todd. “Born again.” Ensign, May 2008, 76–79.

Draper, Richard D., S. Kent Brown, and Michael D. Rhodes. The Pearl of Great Price: A Verse-by-Verse Commentary. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2005, pp. 101–105.

Nibley, Hugh W. Enoch the Prophet. The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley 2. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1986, pp. 144.

Nibley, Hugh W. 1986. Teachings of the Pearl of Great Price. Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), Brigham Young University, 2004, pp. 278–281.


al-Kisa’i, Muhammad ibn Abd Allah. ca. 1000-1100. Tales of the Prophets (Qisas al-anbiya). Translated by Wheeler M. Thackston, Jr. Great Books of the Islamic World, ed. Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Chicago, IL: KAZI Publications, 1997.

Allen, James P. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Anderson, Gary A. The Genesis of Perfection: Adam and Eve in Jewish and Christian Imagination. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.

Bowen, Matthew L. “‘Most desirable above all things’: Mary and Mormon.” In Name as Key-Word: Collected Essays on Onomastic Wordplay and the Temple in Mormon Scripture, edited by Matthew L. Bowen, 17-47. Orem and Salt Lake City, UT: The Interpreter Foundation and Eborn Books, 2018.

Bradshaw, Jeffrey M., and Ronan J. Head. “The investiture panel at Mari and rituals of divine kingship in the ancient Near East.” Studies in the Bible and Antiquity 4 (2012): 1-42.

Bradshaw, Jeffrey M. Creation, Fall, and the Story of Adam and Eve. 2014 Updated ed. In God’s Image and Likeness 1. Salt Lake City, UT: Eborn Books, 2014.

Calabro, David. “Joseph Smith and the architecture of Genesis.” In The Temple: Ancient and Restored. Proceedings of the 2014 Temple on Mount Zion Symposium, edited by Stephen D. Ricks and Donald W. Parry. Temple on Mount Zion 3, 165-81. Orem and Salt Lake City, UT: The Interpreter Foundation and Eborn Books, 2016. (accessed October 27, 2014).

Canby, Jeanny Vorys. 2001. The “Ur-Nammu” Stela. University Museum Monograph 110. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Museum, 2006.

Drower, E. S., ed. The Canonical Prayerbook of the Mandaeans. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1959. (accessed September 11, 2007).

Ephrem the Syrian. ca. 350-363. “Hymns for the feast of the Epiphany.” In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. 14 vols. Vol. 13, 263-89. New York City, NY: The Christian Literature Company, 1898. Reprint, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004.

Faulkner, Raymond O. 1962. A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian. Oxford, England: Griffith Institute, Ashmolean Museum, 1991. (accessed March 18, 2020).

Gardiner, Alan H. 1927. Egyptian Grammar. 3rd ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Gee, John. The Requirements of Ritual Purification in Ancient Egypt (Ph.D. Dissertation. Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global [304459147]). New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1998.

Givens, Terryl L. When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2010.

History of Baptism. In Wikipedia. (accessed September 11, 2016).

Hoffmeier, James K. “Moses.” In The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Vol. 3, 415-40. Grand Rapids, MI: EEerdmans, 1980.

Howard, J. K. New Testament Baptism. London, England: Pickering and Inglis, 1970. (accessed September 11, 2016).

Hultgren, Arland J. “Baptism in the New Testament: Origins, formulas, and metaphors.” Word and World 14, no. 1 (1994): 6-11. (accessed September 11, 2016).

Hundley, Michael B. Gods in Dwellings: Temples and the Divine Presence in the Ancient Near East. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013.

Kohler, Kaufmann, and Samuel Krauss. 1906. Baptism. In Jewish Encyclopedia. (accessed September 11, 2016).

Larsen, David J. “Ascending into the hill of the Lord: What the Psalms can tell us about the rituals of the First Temple.” In Ancient Temple Worship: Proceedings of the Expound Symposium, 14 May 2011, edited by Matthew B. Brown, Jeffrey M. Bradshaw, Stephen D. Ricks and John S. Thompson. Temple on Mount Zion 1, 171-88. Orem and Salt Lake City, UT: The Interpreter Foundation and Eborn Books, 2014.

Lundquist, John M. “The common temple ideology of the ancient Near East.” In The Temple in Antiquity, edited by Truman G. Madsen, 53-76. Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1984.

Malan, Solomon Caesar, ed. The Book of Adam and Eve: Also Called The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan: A Book of the Early Eastern Church. Translated from the Ethiopic, with Notes from the Kufale, Talmud, Midrashim, and Other Eastern Works. London, England: Williams and Norgate, 1882. Reprint, San Diego, CA: The Book Tree, 2005.

Moseley, Ron. The Jewish Background of Christian Baptism. In Arkansas Institute of Holy Land Studies. (accessed August 23, 2016).

O’Connor, Michael P. “The human characters’ names in the Ugaritic poems: Onomastic eccentricity in Bronze-Age West Semitic and the name Daniel in particular.” In Biblical Hebrew in Its Northwest Semitic Setting: Typological and Historical Perspectives, edited by Steven E. Fassberg and Avi Hurvitz, 269-84. Jerusalem, Israel and Winona Lake, IN: The Hebrew University Magnes Press and Eisenbrauns, 2006. (accessed April 14, 2020).

Pinkus, Assaf. “The impact of the Black Death on the sculptural programs of the pilgrimage church St. Theobald in Thann: New perception of the Genesis Story.” Assaph: Studies in Art History 6 (2001): 161-76.

Reynolds, Noel B. “Understanding Christian baptism through the Book of Mormon.” BYU Studies 51, no. 2 (2012): 3-37.,%20Understanding%20Christian%20Baptism%20through%20the%20Book%20of%20Mormon,%202012.pdf. (accessed February 28, 2017).

Ricks, Stephen D. “The coronation of kings.” In Reexamining the Book of Mormon, edited by John W. Welch, 124-26. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1992.

Ricks, Stephen D., and John J. Sroka. “King, coronation, and temple: Enthronement ceremonies in history.” In Temples of the Ancient World, edited by Donald W. Parry, 236-71. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1994.

Ricks, Stephen D. “Kingship, coronation, and covenant in Mosiah 1-6.” In King Benjamin’s Speech: ‘That Ye May Learn Wisdom’, edited by John W. Welch and Stephen D. Ricks, 233-75. Provo, UT: FARMS, 1998.

Smith, Joseph, Jr. The Words of Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1980. (accessed February 6, 2016).

Smith, Joseph, Jr., Andrew F. Ehat, and Lyndon W. Cook. The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph, 1980. (accessed April 25, 2020).

Tvedtnes, John A. “Early Christian and Jewish Rituals Related to Temple Practices.” Presented at the FAIR Conference 1999. (accessed September 8).

Walton, John H. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006.

Wilkins, Ryan T. “The influence of Israelite temple rites and early Christian esoteric rites on the development of Christian baptism (Paper 2908).” Master’s Thesis, Brigham Young University, 2011.

Notes on Figures

Figure 1. From Pinkus, Impact, p. 5. Permission previously granted by the author.

Figure 2. Image reproduced in V. Canby, Ur-Nammu, Plate 14a. http:// (accessed January 31, 2017). No known copyright restrictions. This work may be in the public domain in the United States.

Figure 3. Calabro, Joseph Smith and the Architecture, p. 172, Figure 1.

Figure 4. Sketch for the fresco of St. Vladimir’s Cathedral, Kiev, Ukraine. commons/8/8b/Vasnetsov_Bapt_Vladimir.jpg (accessed September 11, 2016). No known copyright restrictions. This work may be in the public domain in the United States.

Figure 5. commons/0/0a/Baptism_-_Saint_Calixte.jpg (accessed September 11, 2016). No known copyright restrictions. This work may be in the public domain in the United States.



1 For a sampling of readily available online sources with discussions on the topic, see, e.g., History of Baptism, History of Baptism; R. Moseley, The Jewish Background of Christian Baptism; J. K. Howard, New Testament Baptism, pp. 12–34; A. J. Hultgren, Baptism; K. Kohler et al., Baptism. For a good overview of baptismal symbolism, theories, and practices from a Latter-day Saint point of view, see N. B. Reynolds, Understanding Christian Baptism, especially pp. 15–31.

2 See, e.g., Ephrem the Syrian, Epiphany, 12:1, 4, p. 282; S. C. Malan, Adam and Eve, 1:1, pp. 1–2; 1:32–33, pp. 34–36; M. i. A. A. al-Kisa’i, Tales, p. 61; E. S. Drower, Prayerbook, p. 30. Cf. J. M. Bradshaw, God’s Image 1, Endnotes 5–23, 5–24, pp. 435–436, Endnote B-16, p. 907.

3 E.g., S. D. Ricks, Coronation; S. D. Ricks, Kingship; S. D. Ricks et al., King.

4 E.g., D. J. Larsen, Ascending, pp. 181–182. See also J. M. Bradshaw et al., Investiture Panel.

5 D. J. Larsen, Ascending, pp. 181–182.

6 1 Kings 1:33, 38.

7 1 Kings 1:34, 39; Psalm 89:20; Psalm 23:5.

8 See 1 Chronicles 15:27.

9 Isaiah 22:21; “girdle” in the King James Bible.

10 See Ezekiel 21:26.

11 Psalm 110:4.

12 See lines 205–234. See also the related discussion in T. L. Givens, When Souls, pp. 9–12, citing J. Bottéro, Mesopotamia.

13 John 3:5.

14 John 4:14. Cf. Revelation 22:1: “And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb.”

15 . J. M. Bradshaw et al., Investiture Panel.

16 See ibid., especially pp. 29–30.

17 For a thoroughgoing treatment of Egyptian concepts of ritual purification and the connection of purification rites to temples, including rites involving water, see J. Gee, Requirements

18 R. O. Faulkner, Concise Dictionary, p. 260.

19 Ibid., p. 111.

20 M. B. Hundley, Gods in Dwellings, p. 39.

21 R. O. Faulkner, Concise Dictionary, p. 57.

22 Ibid., p. 57.

23 Ibid., p. 57.

24 Ibid., p. 216.

25 J. M. Lundquist, Common Temple Ideology.

26 A. H. Gardiner, Grammar, p. 458.

27 J. P. Allen, Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs, p. 58.

28 J. H. Walton, Ancient, p. 129.

29 1 Kings 7:23. See also vv. 24–26, 44.

30 D. Calabro, Joseph Smith and the Architecture, p. 172.

31 J. Smith, Jr., Words, Wilford Woodruff Journal, 20 March 1842, p. 107.

32 J. Smith, Jr. et al., Words, 27 June 1839, p. 3.

33 J. Smith, Jr., Words, Willard Richards Pocket Companion, 27 June 1839, p. 3.

34 E.g., Hebrews 6:2. See also John A. Tvedtnes, who wrote: “In early Christianity, following the apostasy, temple initiation eventually merged with the baptismal initiation, which included both washing and anointing with oil, along with donning of white clothing and sometimes the reception of a new name” (J. A. Tvedtnes, Rituals). See also R. T. Wilkins, Influence of Israelite Temple Rites., pp. 91–96.

35 Exodus 40:12–13.

36 G. A. Anderson, Perfection, p. 130.

37 Ibid., pp. 130–131.

38 See, e.g., J. K. Hoffmeier, Moses, p. 417; M. P. O’Connor, Human Characters’ Names, pp. 270–271, especially notes 7–8.

39 M. L. Bowen, Most Desirable, pp. 23–24. Cf. 2 Samuel 22:17/Psalm 18:17 [MT 16], “he drew me [pulled me] out of many waters.”