The water cycle

H2O goes with the flow

water-cycle

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Every living organism relies on water to survive, and the distribution and movement of water (known as the water or hydrologic cycle) is taught from primary school through to university.

This pattern of water movement is well understood. Water evaporates, condenses in the clouds, and then returns to the earth as precipitation (rain or snow). Some soaks into the ground (infiltration) and is stored as soil water and groundwater. From there, it is transpired back into the atmosphere by plants. Some becomes stream flow, eventually making its way back into lakes or the ocean. An obvious enough process, but did we always understand it?

Historical beliefs

The ancient Greeks had quite different ideas about the water cycle. Thales of Miletus (late 7th–early 6th Century BC) believed streams and rivers emerged from a vast subterranean freshwater lake, connected to the surface of the world by chasms. Water then flowed out via surface springs into the rivers of the world.

In the 4th century BC, Aristotle described the water cycle more accurately, but like Thales, remained convinced that subterranean water was the main source of stream flow. He wrote that it was absurd “if one were to suppose that rivers drew all their water from the sources we see (for most rivers do flow from springs).”1

Referring to Thales, Plato, and Aristotle, Dooge writes, “A common error in all their thinking was the firm conviction that rainfall was not sufficient to provide the flow of springs and rivers.”2 This mistake was perpetuated well into the following centuries. Leonardo da Vinci (writing just after AD 1500) pondered on the underground mechanisms that would lift water into the mountains. And Galileo (around AD 1600) said that he was personally frustrated because he couldn’t understand the source of stream flow.

A correct understanding of the water cycle didn’t emerge until late in the 17th century. In 1674, Pierre Perrault published his research on the water cycle.3 “He presented a study of a substantial section of the Seine River, beginning at its source, northwest of the city of Dijon. Using numerical estimates, he demonstrated that the river runoff annually amounted to only one-sixth of the volume of water falling over the drainage basin as rain or snow in a year.”4

In determining this, a more complete understanding of the hydrologic cycle finally emerged.

What the Bible says

Because water is a necessary component of life, it is not surprising that the Bible has a lot to say on its distribution and movement. Though the purpose of these ‘water cycle’ verses was to illustrate God’s Kingdom, nevertheless they contain some powerful hydrologic concepts that were well beyond the thinking of natural philosophers and scholars of the day.

One of the oldest books of the Bible, that of Job, provides a clear description of many aspects of the water cycle. These include evaporation, condensation and precipitation (Job 36:27–28), and the formation of clouds (Job 26:8). Other books provide additional insights, including verses about evaporation (Psalm 135:7), precipitation (Psalm 104:13), infiltration (Isaiah 55:10), the release of groundwater through springs (Genesis 16:7; Psalm 104:10), dew and rainwater (Deuteronomy 32:2), floods in desert streams (Isaiah 44:3–4), as well as cloud movement and the ongoing nature of such (Ecclesiastes 1:6–7).

But the Bible goes well beyond a list of the components of the water cycle. In addition to these concepts, the Bible notes that they are linked by laws and that the process is cyclic. These are two concepts that were not well understood by early scholars.

In Job 38:33, God questions Job about his ability to enact natural laws. God is a rational being and here He exhibits this rationality by creating laws or decrees for what we now know to be the pathways of the hydrologic cycle. Indeed this belief in the rationality of God provided the very foundation for the Scientific Revolution.

“The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full, to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.” (Ecclesiastes 1:6–7)

Embedded in these verses are the concepts of a cycle and of a water balance, which is based on the conservation of matter.

Biblical Accuracy

The Bible does not present uncertainty, inaccuracy, or contradiction with its description of hydrologic processes. Within the Bible the water cycle is not described as underground waters sucked up into the mountains, to flow forth as springs that feed the rivers of the world. Instead the Bible paints a flawless picture of the dynamics and components of this system thousands of years before the first ‘scientific’ measurement confirmed that this was so.

Reflections

A correct scientific understanding of the hydrologic cycle was a long time coming, but a divine explanation of this most critical life-support system was provided to us in the Bible. Over two thousand years of scientific debate, observation and measurement have now confirmed what God revealed (albeit in passing comments and analogies) in His inspired Word.

References and notes

  1. Aristotle, Meteorology, Book 1, Part 13, 350 BC, Tr. E.W. Webster. Return to text.
  2. Dooge, J.C.I., Background to modern hydrology; Paper presented to: The Basis of Civilization: Water Science? Eds. Rodda, J.C., and Ubertini, L., IAHS Publication 246, 2004. Return to text.
  3. Perrault, P., De l’origine des fontaines (On the Origin of Springs), 1674. Return to text.
  4. Pierre Perrault, Encyclopaedia Britannica online; britannica.com. Return to text.
Aristotle, Meteorology, Book 1, Part 13, 350 BC, Tr. E.W. Webster.
Dooge, J.C.I., Background to modern hydrology; Paper presented to: The Basis of Civilization: Water Science? Eds. Rodda, J.C., and Ubertini, L., IAHS Publication 246, 2004.
Perrault, P., De l’origine des fontaines (On the Origin of Springs), 1674.
Pierre Perrault, Encyclopaedia Britannica online; britannica.com.

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Readers’ comments
Geoff C W., Australia, 13 November 2017
Slightly off topic, but if your opening statement is true, that all living organisms rely on water to survive, how do evolutionists (or pre-evolutionists) explain the survival of the first living organism, which is supposed to have appeared in a chemical soup? It must have been very thirsty!
J. K., United States, 13 November 2017
Also relevant to the water cycle is Jeremiah 10:13; ‘When He uttereth his voice, there is a multitude of waters in the heavens, and he causeth the vapours to ascend from the ends of the earth;” Praying for you cmi
Willem D., Netherlands, 13 November 2017
Interesting article, thanks! Personally, I don't like to draw scientific conclusions from poetic texts in the Bible, but it's quite amazing the statements about the water cycle are consistent with reality. Well, actually, it's not that amazing once you realise the words were inspired by the One who created it all; of course the statements are correct! What stood out for me was that this might be another example of how worldviews determine theories. I think the ancient Greeks did have the mathematical tools to do the same kind of calculations Pierre Perrault did. It just didn't occur to them, because to them, our reality is only a shadow of the real, ideal reality and doing calculations on an imperfect shadow doesn't tell us anything about the real world. So they just didn't. A biblical worldview on the other hand, makes you see the world as a consistent and logical place, because it's created by a perfectly good, consistent and logical God Who isn't out there to deceive us. In such a world, it does make sense to do some calculations on real things, like Pierre Perrault did, because it does tell us something about reality. In this case, it tells us that the water cycle is an amazing (but not magical) phenomenon, that could only have been invented by an amazingly wise and powerful Creator. He's the Greatest, always has been, always will be! :)
Zach C., Canada, 13 November 2017
Your assertion that the Bible proposes explains the water cycle "well beyond" others is bolstered by weak evidence. Job 36 equates God with evaporation. Is God heat? Psalm 135, does the earth have an end? There is no storehouse of wind. Isaiah 55 actually cuts short the water cycle stating the water does not return to the sky. The Bible does not paint a flawless picture of the dynamics of the water cycle. That's anachronistic. Furthermore the books you cite from scripture talk about pillars that uphold heaven and waters above the earth. How can we read the Bible in a meaningful way without co-opting it to fit a rationalistic positivist epistemological framework? Is the intent of the biblical author to portray a "correct" understanding?
Tas Walker responds
When I checked your claims against the Scriptures you cited they did not match up. Job 36:27–29 does not equate God with evaporation but describes the way God has set up the physical world. Psalm 135 does not say that God is heat. You have misread it. And you have misread Isaiah 55 too. Verses 10–12 compare the water to God's word. It says the rain will not return to heaven WITHOUT watering the earth. As the rain accomplishes its work so God's Word does not return void, or empty. But it does return. His Word can do amazing things in your life too if you will open your heart to it.
Jayme C., Canada, 14 November 2017
Ron, Thanks so much for this article very interesting. As a hydrogeologist I spend much of my time thinking and talking about the water cycle. It's good to be reminded God's truth was written there long ago in the Bible for use to re-discover. Jayme Campbell