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Exodus and the Cosmic Battle (Again)

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February 16, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation
Exodus and the Cosmic Battle (Again)

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. You can read more about what we believe here.

In my previous two posts, we have seen that Israel describes the act of creation as a cosmic battle. You find this in Psalms, Job, prophetic books, and echoes of it in Genesis 1.

Last week we began looking at how this theme is also present in the exodus story, the story that recounts Israel’s origins as a nation. Israel’s beginnings are a cosmic battle story, as well. In this post, we will continue with the book of Exodus by looking at two more elements that echo the cosmic battle: (1) the plagues are a reintroduction of chaos into the created order, and (2) the crossing of the Red Sea.

1. Plagues Reintroduce Chaos.

As we have seen, the plagues describe a battle scene between Yahweh and the gods. But there is another side to this coin. The plagues are also a reintroduction of chaos into the created order. Once you are in tuned to the cosmic battle motif in the Old Testament in general, you can see how that theme provides the theological “oomph” of the plague narrative.

To see more clearly the plagues as a reintroduction of chaos, we need to step back and be reminded of the flood story. This is not off-topic; it all hangs together.

The flood is not a really bad spell of rain. It is God reintroducing chaos. God established order by sheer force, keeping the waters separate and allowing land to appear (Genesis 1:6-10). When God opens up the windows above and the springs below (Genesis 7:11), his is allowing the “waters of chaos” to come crashing back in on an ordered world. God releases his grip, so to speak, and the world returns to its “pre-ordered” chaotic state.

Establishing order means separating the elements of creation and putting them where they belong. When we see the elements of creation overstepping their boundaries, we know something big is happening. The flood is the first example.

The plagues are the second example. These are not just inconvenient ecological disturbances or random acts of divine muscle flexing. They are pockets of chaos crashing in on the Egyptians.

Look back at the creation language we saw in Exodus 1:7, that the Israelites were to “be fruitful and multiply.” The Israelites were fulfilling their “creation mandate” to fill the earth, what the creator-God blessed them to do. This is what Pharaoh was intent to put a stop to (1:9-10).

So, think of the plagues as payback. Pharaoh sets himself up against the creator Yahweh, and Yahweh says, “I can play that game, too.” It is fitting for Yahweh to respond to Pharaoh by unleashing chaos against him: water turns to blood; frogs leap out of the water and invade the land; dust turns to gnats and blanket the land, as do swarms of flies; soot from furnaces turn to boils; thunder and lightning come out of a clear sky; the sun darkens. The created order is being undone.

There is more. Yahweh reintroduces chaos selectively. He makes a distinction between the Israelites and the Egyptians (e.g., Exodus 7:22-23; 9:4, 26). The Israelites remain in a habitable place. They are safe amid the chaos.

Another thing: Yahweh is not just able to reintroduce chaos at will. And he is not only able to shield the Israelites from it. He shows his absolute might by being able to re-establish order by making the plagues stop. This is extremely important. Notice the exchange between Moses and the magicians of Pharaoh’s court in the first two plagues. Even the magicians can introduce a little chaos (they turn water to blood [7:22] and multiply frogs [8:7]).

But their power was limited. They are only able to reproduce the first two plagues. And more importantly, the real limitation of their power is that they were not able to make the chaos stop. Here is where Yahweh really makes an impression. In the plague of hail, Pharaoh learns that “the earth is Yahweh’s” because Yahweh can make the hail stop (9:29). With the plague frogs, he even gives Pharaoh the choice of when he would remove them (8:9). Only the true and mighty God can re-establish order.

These ideas are continued in the Red Sea episode.

2. Red Sea.

The parting of the Red Sea is not about Yahweh swooping in and flexing his muscles—like Dudley Do-Right showing up in the nick of time to untie Penelope from the train tracks. It is the final stage of the cosmic battle in Exodus.

The entire narrative up to this point has been a series of mini-battles between Yahweh and the gods of Egypt. Yahweh has been reintroducing chaos all over the place and re-establishing order. And all along he has been keeping the Israelites safe and sticking it to the Egyptians. Indeed, Yahweh prolonged the agony for the very purpose of showing the Egyptians—and the entire world—who is boss (9:15-16). The plagues have been one long, deliberate movement toward a climax, the last stage of the battle—the parting of the Red Sea.

And here is where some of the elements we have seen above and in earlier posts tie together. In a word, in the exodus, Yahweh once again conquers the “sea.” He is “creating” a new people out of another “cosmic battle.”

Note that the waters of the Red Sea are divided (14:16, 21). And this allows the dry land to appear (14:21). This is an echo of the cosmic battle motif in Genesis 1, where dry land appears once the waters have been moved to the side (the Hebrew word for dry land, yabbashah, occurs here and in Genesis 1:9). “Creating” dry land amid the water describes both creation and exodus. Here again we have a “habitable” place for the people of God, a place where they are kept safe from the chaos.

Some ancient Jewish interpreters even described the bottom of the sea as an “herb-bearing plain” (Wisdom of Solomon 19:7). A Targum (Aramaic paraphrase of the Hebrew Old Testament) describes it as filled with “sweet springs…edible trees, herbs, and fruit.” These descriptions call on the imagery of the habitable land in Genesis 1:11 (vegetation, seed-bearing plants and fruit-bearing trees; see also Genesis 2:9). The parting of the Red Sea is another act of “creation.”

God’s people are kept safe from chaos, but what happens to the enemies of God’s people? For them, the chaotic sea, held at bay by the power of God, comes crashing back in on the Egyptians. Just as in the plagues, a distinction is made where the people of God are safe in the created order, but the enemies of God suffer the forces of chaos.

It is also important that we hear an echo of the flood story here (which, as we’ve seen, is itself an echo of Genesis 1). In both the exodus and the flood, those who are opposed to God are drowned, while God’s people are kept safe. Moses and the Israelites are like Noah and his family.

If you need some convincing on this point, think about this. In Exodus 2, Moses’ mother saves him from Pharaoh’s edict to drown the male infants (another watery fate). She puts him in a reed basket and floats him down the Nile. Note that the basket is lined with tar and pitch (2:3), just like the ark (Genesis 6:14). And there’s more. The Hebrew word for “basket” in Exodus 2:3 occurs only in one other place in the Bible. Guess where: in Genesis 6:14 where it refers to the ark. Moses is floating to safety from a watery threat in an “ark.” (I trust bells are going off right about now.) What happened to Noah, would later happen to Moses, and then again to Israel at the Red Sea. The exodus story is another “rescue from water” story like the flood.

I realize there is a lot of information here, but these themes are wonderfully interconnected from Genesis through Exodus: cosmic battle, separation of elements, and deliverance from watery fate. Creation, flood, and exodus are almost versions of the same story: the victory of Yahweh and the salvation of his people.

The Red Sea is the final battle in Exodus, but there is one more scene we need to look at: Mt Sinai. This scene takes up nearly the entire second half of the book. This is what all of this has been leading to, and it is the final echo of creation and the cosmic battle in Exodus.

Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.

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Charles - #4597

February 16th 2010

Who is the author?

Craig Robinson - #4599

February 16th 2010

Supporting Evidence:
1) Within the Pentateuch and besides Gen 1, the Hebrew word for “dry ground” only appears in regard to the Red Sea, and in Ex 4:9 where Moses spills water from the Nile on dry ground and it becomes blood. Also when Joshua cross the Jordan, the term appears again - Josh 4:22.
2) Not only is there an allusion to the separating of the “sea” from the “dry ground,” there is also an allusion to day one of creation in Ex 14:19-20 where the Israelites were in the “light” all “night” long and the Egyptians were in the “dark” all “night” long. So the Egyptians ended up in the “darkness” and the “sea.” Pulling together the two separations makes the allusion to creation even more clear imo.

Pete Enns - #4607

February 16th 2010

Very good points, Craig. The theological/literary depth and subtlety of these books is a constant source of wonder.

Charles: do you mean the author of this post? That would be me.

Ben Vandergugten - #4642

February 16th 2010

Is there possibly a polemic against Ra in the crossing of the Yam Suph? (I first heard of this from Rikk E. Watts.) According to an Egyptian myth, the sun god Ra traveled in the sky on his boat during the day and then descend into the primordial waters of the underworld at night. He would be threatened by the monstrous serpent Apep or Apophis. Defeating the serpent, he would rise again in the morning.

I ask this because Yahweh travels with Israel through the Yam Suph all through the night. At daybreak, Moses stretches his hand over the sea, and Pharaoh and his army drown. Yahweh and his first-born son Israel rise victorious at sunrise, whereas Pharaoh is destroyed. This seems to parallel the journey of Ra, but with Yahweh as the victorious God.

I have tried to study this more deeply myself, but have found Egyptian mythology to be confusingly diverse.  Ra’s daily journey was conceptualized in differing ways. He was also considered to be reborn from the sky god Nut every morning. And of course later he became Amun-Ra. I haven’t decided whether drawing these specific connections is enlightening or distracting. But I think the general motifs of creation and cosmic battle are evident in the text.

Edward T. Babinski - #4646

February 16th 2010

I agree with Enns that Genesis 1 and Exodus and other books in the Pentateuch demonstrate “interconnected themes.” And that implies the authors of such stories probably wrote them long after the alleged events in them ever took place. Because it takes an established priesthood and established scribes of an established kingdom to compose stories involving such interconnected themes. (There are other reasons besides that to believe Moses never wrote the Pentateuch. But I doubt BIOLOGOS is ever going to delve quite that deeply into the question of the probable history of the composition of the Hebrew Scriptures.)

In a similar fashion one might compare the earliest three Gospels with the last written Gospel, John, that features the longest deepest theological prologue of all the Gospels, and plenty of theological interpretation concerning who Jesus was (beginning with a parallel to GENESIS 1, “In the beginning was the Word…”) Thus, the last Gospel appears to be the product of longer theological reflection. (Though that also raises questions concerning whether it may be more true to the author’s theological beliefs ABOUT Jesus, but less true to the words of the historical Jesus that appeared in the earlier three Gospels.)

Bob R. - #4709

February 17th 2010

So, is the chaos/creation story over? What of the chaos in Haiti? Where is the selectivity? The Black Plague? Was that God acting in cosmic battle character? It seems to me that if we want to use the cosmic battle motif to explain what the ancients thought God was doing at any given point in time, we are still bound with the task of coming up with our own view of what he was doing and what he is doing. If Joseph Campbell were still around, he would probably agree with portions of Peter’s hypothesis, but he would probably also say that mythology is just a way for humans to get at what is ultimately not understandable.

Here’s a question stated in multiple form: Was God really involved in a cosmic battle? Isn’t the Biblical story of Satan & his angels just a mythological extension of the cosmic battle that Peter describes? How does all of this impact what we Evangelicals so proudly display as “inspired” certainties?

Norm Voss - #4717

February 17th 2010


It seems to me that the Exodus and OT typology is pointing primarily to the messianic coming and is focused on that one event as the climatic conclusion leaving us with life through Christ. I’m not sure biblically or prophetically we can establish future application to physical events past the messianic fulfillment.  Of course we are always able to see similarities individually and collectively that may fit these historic patterns but the typology has already been established and fulfilled.

Bob R. - #4737

February 17th 2010

I agree that what you say is the standard way of looking at things from the general Evangelical point of view. What I was trying to point out is that if we are going to rely upon Peter’s hypothesis, then, clearly, mythological elements were the basis of the ancients’ understanding of creation. I am trying to separate out in my own thinking how typology and certain allegorical views of scripture become anything more than mythology with respect to certainty and reality.

The ultimate devil’s advocate question is: Is the empty tomb anything more than a mythological conclusion to the mythological cosmic battle? How can we establish that Enns’ hypothesis of the parting of the sea as part of the cosmic battle mythology of the ancient world is also part of an actual historical context? How do we distinguish historicity from myth if the supposed historical event is wrapped in mythology?

N. Altman - #4868

February 19th 2010

Bob Vandergugten #4642

I have been reading “The History of Ancient Egypt;” by Erik Hornung. The author of the text indicates that early on the Pharaohs took on Horus names (personifying themselves as the god Horus) but later it became very popular to take on Ra names, because Ra worship begins to replace Horus worship as the dominate religious theme of the people. So the polemic might against the idea of Pharaoh as representative of Ra. Rather than returning from his journey victorious, he loses the battle he is supposed to win, just as his god (whom he personifies) loses the battle against YHVH.

Pax Christi…Nick

N. Altman - #4869

February 19th 2010

In response to…Bob R. #4737

I might suggest that all history, including what we currently do, is wrapped in a kind of myth!

A mythology is a set of inferences drawn from various sources which explain some phenomenon about the world we see around us. Pre-Aristotelian mythology generally didn’t ask the same questions as it did after Aristotle. Modern scientific inquiry is only involved in the How questions - How did life arise, how did Nero rule, How does cancer function, etc. Ancient myth usual just naively assumed the how, and asked questions of why. Why is death happening, why do we die, why did God do X, etc…

Furthermore, it must be remembered that George Washington is wrapped in myth, as are Lincoln and Jefferson - and yet we can still recover valuable things, true things, from these men. History is our best reconstruction of events (its a a form of myth, braodly speaking) as is science - in a sense. Its a myth that only asks questions of how, and ignores ultimate meanings or connections.

Bob R. - #4902

February 19th 2010

N. Altman,
I think we may be using the term “myth” in different ways. Your usage with respect to George Washington, for example, suggests that “the cherry tree” incident which never occurred is mythology. I would choose the word “legend” or perhaps even “folk tale.” The cherry tree story is a cute little story but is in no way a “wrapper” for Washington’s life. It could also be described as patently false. (It is certainly not a “wrapper” in the same way that Enns is suggesting by his references to creation and the cosmic battle.)

Mythology in the classic sense involves the “Gods” and the supernatural, and usually describes some understood-as-true account of the cosmos and how it came to it’s present form. As time progresses, mythology is recognized for what it is - simply a story for how & why things occurred as they did. No serious attempt is made by literary people to somehow establish its credibility.

Nick Altman - #4917

February 19th 2010

Bob R.

I suppose I am using a more philosophical definition of myth, although it doesn’t seem to differ much from yours, other than perhaps in scope. I would say mythology involves ultimate reality, and mythology is a story which explains some ultimate reality. In many ways philosophical systems which are complete (Leibniz, Hume, Berkeley, etc..) are myth. They are just more complicated myths.

As for old George, I agree the cherry tree story is more of a legend, but the myth of the man persists. Was he really that honest, did he really act as a patriot, etc. Lincoln is even more so, and what about figures as MLK jr. Mother Teresa, Ghandi, Joan of Arc, etc. We tend to have constructs in our minds about these folk which don’t fit reality exactly, but none-the-less encapsulate some truth about the people and their character/history. I would argue this is a kind of mythological history. It is true history, but its encrusted with myth. The OT to me seems to operate in a very similar way.

Pax Christi…Nick

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