Let’s focus on the first three verses of Genesis 1. There is here, no absolute beginning, no sudden appearance of something from nothing. There is rather the beginning of a story, in which someone called ‘God’ already exists, as does what you and I call “the earth”, although not as we currently know it. It was “formless and desolate”, “engulfed in total darkness”, and hidden below a “raging ocean” whipped up by “an awesome wind”. We’re not told where that God, and chaotic ‘earth’, had come from. Perhaps they’d always been? In any case, what these verses are essentially about, is the imposition of order on chaos.
What specialists like Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell have explored, is the fact that underneath the bewildering variety of the world’s stories, there are some basic ideas, images and motifs that constantly and universally appear. In these verses in Genesis, we have a god, wind, water, darkness and storm. Let’s compare this with the much earlier Babylonian ‘creation epic’ called Enuma Elish. There we have Marduk, a god of ‘storms’ who, out of cloud-ridden ‘darkness’ unleashed the weapon of a fierce ‘wind’. His opponent was Tiamat, the monstrous ‘goddess’ of the salt ‘water’. She (Babylonia being patriarchal) represents primal chaos and confusion, whereas Marduk represents order and stability.
In the Babylonian myth, Tiamat’s husband was Apsu, god of the fresh waters. Disturbed by the din they made, he decided to kill the younger gods, who found this out, and killed him. Tiamat decided she would kill the younger gods in revenge. One of these, Marduk, opportunistically volunteered to fight her, provided he was made chief god. One of his weapons was an “evil wind” which forced her mouth wide open, through which Marduk fired an arrow that killed her. The myth concludes with the gods hosting a banquet to celebrate Marduk’s victory, and his status as the supreme god, who is now the guarantor of stability and order.
This story is obviously different from that in Genesis, and yet there are the same basic images of the turbulent watery deep and stormy wind, and the theme of the victory of order over chaos. In verse 2, there’s also a fascinating echo of that Babylonian monstrous goddess ‘Tiamat’. In Hebrew this is the related word תְּהוֹם ‘tehom’, but without the definite article. It’s not ‘the deep’, but simply “Deep” as in a proper noun, like the name of a goddess – just as in Ugaritic myth there is a god called “Sea”. The wind in the same verse is a translation of the רוּחַ אֱלהִֹרם ‘ruach elohim’, which can be translated either as “breath of god’ or “powerful wind’ – perhaps the editors were aiming for the best of both worlds.
There is no overt description here, of an actual battle between God and “Deep” or any explicit sea monster, but in Psalm 74, God is praised because, “With your mighty strength you divided the sea and smashed the heads of the sea monsters.” In Psalm 89. “You rule over the powerful sea; you calm its angry waves, (perhaps this is why there are Gospel stories about Jesus calming stormy seas) you crushed the monster Rahab and killed it”. At the end of time, “Yhwh will use his powerful and deadly sword to punish Leviathan, that wriggling, twisting dragon, and kill the monster that lives in the sea”. We can now, therefore, understand Revelation 21 when the writer says, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The first heaven and the first earth vanished, and there was no more sea.” Order will, from then on, forever have replaced chaos.
To my way of thinking, getting to know the Hebrew Bible’s links to the myths, legends and folktales of other peoples of the ancient near east in no way diminishes, but enriches, its importance and fascination.
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