Yahweh, Creation, and the Cosmic Battle
What is the biblical view of creation? We typically look to Genesis 1-2 to answer this question, but other Old Testament passages have something to say about this, too. Israel’s understanding of creation shows how indebted they were to current notions in the ancient world.
One of the ways the Old Testament describes creation is through a conflict between Yahweh and the sea (or “waters” or one of the sea monsters, Leviathan or Rahab). Sea is a symbol of chaos, and so Yahweh’s victory in the conflict establishes order. He is the creator, the supreme power. Israel’s proper response is awe and praise.
The Israelites were not alone in thinking this way. The “cosmic battle” motif is prominent in other creation texts from the ancient Near East. For example, in the famous Babylonian creation story Enuma Elish, the god Marduk defeats the goddess Tiamat, who represents the sea. He then cuts her carcass in half and makes sky and earth from the pieces. Thus he becomes head god of the Babylonians, which results in praise and homage. Likewise, in another creation story, the Canaanite god Baal defeats the sea god Yam (Hebrew yam means sea) with similar results.
The Israelites clearly connected with this way of describing creation. Some examples are the following:
- Psalm 104:7: “at your rebuke the waters fled.” This is not talking about low tide at the beach. Without raising a hand, the waters scampered away and were defeated.
- Psalm 89:9-10: Yahweh rules “over the surging sea (yam)” and “crushed Rahab.”
- Job 9:13: the “cohorts of Rahab cowered” at Yahweh’s feet.
- Psalm 74:13-14: Yahweh “split open sea (yam)…broke the heads of the monster in the waters…crushed the heads of Leviathan.”
- Psalm 77:16, when the waters saw God coming, they went into a panic attack: they “writhed and convulsed.”
It is clear that Israel’s understanding of creation included a “cosmic battle” where Yahweh is victorious over the sea. But some are not convinced, because Psalms and Job are “just poetry.” Poetry tends to use colorful metaphors and images, so some claim that Psalms or Job don’t tell us what Israel “really” thought about creation. “Sure, some psalms talk about Leviathan and Rahab and the sea going into a panic attack, but that is ‘just poetry.’ If you want the straight scoop, go to Genesis 1-3. No cosmic battle there. Just sober history.”
It’s not quite as neat as that.
First, wholly apart from the cosmic battle motif, Genesis 1-3 has problems of its own for literalists. There, too, Israel’s stories indisputably bear the marks of ancient Near Eastern influence. But leaving that larger issue to the side, the cosmic battle motif is very much in the background of Genesis 1, even if it is muted.
God “splits the waters in two” in vv. 6-7, and so separates the waters above and below. In v. 9 he divides the waters below to form the land. Also, in 1:2 God hovers over “the deep,” which is tehom in Hebrew and is similar to the word Tiamat in Enuma Elish. In fact, Genesis 1:21 even mentions that God created the “great sea monsters” (another Hebrew word tanninim, taken from Canaanite mythology).
There is no actual battle in Genesis 1. The “deep” and the waters are not gods but inanimate objects. The sea monsters are not foes but created by God. But that does not mean that Genesis 1 escapes the cultural influence as we saw above. Rather, scholars understand the cosmic battle to be muted in Genesis 1 to emphasize God’s unquestioned supremacy.
Second, “poetry” is not some lesser form of literature that tolerates nonsense. The Israelites did not think, “Well, it is just poetry so we can say some whacky things we would never dare say in narrative.” The opposite is the case. The Psalms were used in worship. The presence of the cosmic battle motif in Psalms actually tells us how important this notion was to them for praising the Lord. He is worthy of praise in part because of the defeat of his ancient “foes.” That is how the Israelites understood it.
Third, the cosmic battle motif is not just in poetic texts. For example, Ezekiel’s prophecies against Egypt use this motif. Pharaoh (Hophra, 589-570 B.C.) will fare no better than the ancient sea monster (Ezekiel 29:3-5; 32:2-8; there is a lot of other creation imagery in these passages).
Likewise, the entire Exodus narrative is one big “cosmic battle” scene, something Isaiah brings out as well (the topic of my next post). In fact, if you look at the context of the last two psalms cited above (74 and 77), you will see cosmic battle language describing the splitting of the Red Sea. Deliverance from Egypt was another cosmic battle victory for Yahweh. This motif gets a lot of mileage in the Old Testament.
The cosmic battle motif is just one angle from which to glimpse the “biblical view of creation.” I do not believe that the cosmos was created by Yahweh beating up the sea or slicing up sea monsters, nor should anyone else. But this is how the Israelites talked about creation in a number of places.
When it comes to the science/faith discussion, the presence of the cosmic battle motif in the Old Testament should send us a strong signal: don’t expect the Old Testament to inform, let alone guide the scientific investigation of origins. If we approach the Old Testament expecting from it a “literal,” “historical,” “accurate” account of creation, we will (1) misrepresent reality in the name of faith, and (2) miss the theology that the biblical authors were so intent on putting there.
The more we grasp Israel’s understanding of creation, the less likely we will be to expect from the Old Testament things it was never intended to deliver. We will learn to ask their questions first before we ask ours. This is the proper way to respect Scripture as God’s word.