The Torah does not say much about immersion and the mikveh, but it appears to have become an essential part of Jewish religious life by Temple times. Leviticus 12 v5 talks of washing for purification for women, and Leviticus 14 v8-9 of purification for leprosy. Exodus 29 v4-5 gives instruction for consecrating the priests,
"Then bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and wash them with water. Take the garments and dress Aaron with the tunic, the robe of the ephod, ........"
; Also Exodus 30 v20 on entering the Mishkan
"Whenever they enter the Tent of Meeting, they shall wash with water so that they will not die."
A search on the word "bathe" will produce many verses, such as Leviticus 15 v 13
" `When a man is cleansed from his discharge, he is to count off seven days for his ceremonial cleansing; he must wash his clothes and bathe himself with fresh water, and he will be clean
Immersion is not mentioned, but the context of these commands is of the moving Mishkan / Tabernacle in the wilderness; where immersion in a Mikveh was presumably impractical.
In Jerusalem, you can see the Mikvot outside the Temple, where immersion was practiced.
This Mikveh can be found on the south side of the Temple Mount, just outside the Hulda Gate, where it was part of the Temple facility for immersion before entering with a sacrifice, or whatever.
Here you can see steps with remains of a dividing wall. The worshipper would descend one side, immerse himself and ascend the other side.
Naaman, who was not a Jew was told to immerse himself seven times in the Jordan for his cleansing from leprosy. ( 2 Kings 5 v14) Was the prophet spelling out to this foreigner, what Jews all understood as normal religious practice?
The above throws some light on the ministry of Yochanan ha Matbil, John the Baptist, who was perhaps the last of the Old Testament immersers. ( Read Matthew ch3, Mark ch1, Luke ch3 and John ch1.) Incidentally, the baptism of John was by immersion, not sprinkling as depicted by Renaissance artists like Per Dela Francesca, as Mark 1 records Jesus coming up out of the water. (David Stern uses Immersion throughout his translation, rather than using a Greek word for Immersion.)
In using the title Yochanan ha Matbil, Dwight Prior points out that John did not put people under the water in the same manner as most Christians today; John was the one who caused people to immerse themselves through his preaching. A Jewish person being immersed would wade into the water and then just crouch down below the surface. That way, no contact from the immerser prevented the water from reaching their whole body. See the picture above and imagine the candidate going down one side of the steps, immersing himself (herself) and coming back up the other side.
The immersion of Jesus / Yeshua
Qder el Yahud - most probable site of Jesus' baptism by John
Qder el Yahud - most probable site of Jesus' baptism by John
Also, probably, the site of Jordan crossings during the Exodus and by Elijah & Elisha. The river is, today, diminished by water extraction.
The birth of Yochanan is recorded in Luke ch1, where we note that his father was a priest ministering in the Temple. So John was of the priestly line as well as being a child of special promise of God, as the one who would prepare the way for Messiah after the manner of Elijah. It is believed that John should have been High Priest at the time when he commenced his ministry in the Jordan wilderness, but the priesthood had become corrupt and had been bought by men with wealth and influence.
Jesus submitted to immersion by John, in spite of John's reservations, " to fulfil all righteousness". ( Matt 3 v15) John was, as the legitimate high priest, initiating Jesus who he had identified as "the Lamb of God" into the priesthood. He was not immersing him for repentance for sin.
After immersing Jesus, seeing the Spirit descend on him as a dove and hearing the voice from heaven, John was happy to recede into the background.
How did Baptism transfer across into the Christian practice?
Baptism (Immersion ) was instituted or continued by Yeshua himself in one of His last commands to His followers. This was for Jews and Gentiles who came to believe in the risen Jesus and join the early church. ( see Matt 28 v18-20
"Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."
Remember, in all these verses, a full translation to English would have the word Immersing or immersed instead of the Greek, baptizing or baptized.
In Acts 8 v14-16 we read,
"When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus."
Baptism/immersion was obviously normal practice, but not the final thing needed.
In Acts 22 v14-16 it is said to Paul,
"`The God of our fathers has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. You will be his witness to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.'"
Paul said, in Romans 6 v2-6
"We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. "
And for the life connection read what Paul said in Galatians 3 v26-27
"You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ."
Baptism by total immersion is practiced by Baptists and other evangelical denominations, but the connection to Jewish practice is not generally appreciated.
Paul spells out the deeper spiritual significance of immersion in Romans 6 v3-11; how baptism is about death and burial.
Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin-- because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Baptism at Elisha's spring - Jericho. Picture by Jane Denbo
This picture shows a baptism at Elisha's Spring in Jericho. The candidate had become a Christian a while before, and wished to be baptized as a public declaration about what Jesus had done for her. She went down under the water, as in dying with Christ, and came up to newness of life in him. This ritual does not bring about cleansing from sin, the blood of Yeshua accomplished that, but it is a pictorial demonstration / witness of what has happened.
The fact that "Baptism" actually means immersion is very significant, and this comes out in the Complete Jewish Bible translation of Matthew 28 v19 and Mark 1. Here the word talks of new believers being "immersed into the reality of the Father, the Son and the Ruach ha Kodesh" (Holy Spirit) Ponder on that!
The Greek word transliterated into English as Baptism or Baptize is "Baptizo", meaning to immerse. But David Stern (JNTC p373, on Romans 6 v3-6) adds that the word refers to a process in which the thing that is immersed takes on the qualities of the substance into which it is immersed. He uses the example of cloth into a dye solution. This is why being immersed into the Messiah is equated with being united with Him.
David Baron - (The Visions and Prophecies of Zechariah) points out that the "fountain" (Hebrew Maqor ) of Zechariah 13 v1 is not the modern picture of a fountain but of a dug out cistern or pool or spring where water is gathered - that is the description of a Mikveh where priests are immersed for cleansing or consecration. He also points out that that fountain for cleansing has existed since Yeshua died on the tree, but it will be opened to the House of David when the Holy Spirit applies it; as He has for every individual who is brought to faith by having the spirit of Grace and supplication poured on him or her (Zech 12 v10).
((Zech 13 v1)
On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.)
See also Jewish New Testament Commentary on Acts ch1.