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Yahweh, Creation, and the Cosmic Battle

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February 2, 2010 Tags: Creation & Origins
Yahweh, Creation, and the Cosmic Battle

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

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.

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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Pete Enns - #4138

February 8th 2010

Norm, I would say that it is through the cultural that we understand the theological intent.

Jon - #4142

February 9th 2010

This adds nothing to the conversation, but I just wanted to thank you all for keeping your comments waaayyyy more civil and thoughtful than most of the comments tend to be on this blog. 

It’s especially pleasing since I suspect the issues about evolution and origins wouldn’t matter to most people if they had an understanding of scripture similar to what Enns is promoting.

Norm - #4179

February 9th 2010

Dr. Enns,

Thanks for the reply again. I really feel a little intimidated even addressing you with your extensive knowledge base but oh well let me stick my foot in my mouth. 

It seems that in the environment of the Jews we have something of a theological cultural mishmash. There are the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Herodians and finally the remnant Christians coming out of them along with the believing Gentiles. 

It’s obvious that not all of these seemed to be instep with the scriptures according to Jesus and the Apostles so trying to sort them out culturally seems somewhat problematic although they would all have similarities. It also seems that all of them would read the scriptures from a different perspective.

I would appreciate any thoughts on this if you have the opportunity.

John Mulholland - #4479

February 14th 2010

Prof. Enns,
I am sure that I am not alone in being a naive reader of the Old Testament, esp. Genesis.  For the longest time, I took Genesis 1-2 at face value - they are the beginning of the story, so someone back then wrote this material.  Well now I know enough to understand that this is not the case, that in fact all of Geneis was written long after the events, after the Israelites became an established people sometime after their escape from Egypt.

What is the current best guess on when Geneis was wriitten?  This might help all of us who are mere neophytes at best to more ably interact with ideas about the influence of ancient near eastern [ ANE ] myths and beliefs, and the theological goals of the author/s of Genesis and other early OT books as they sought to help the people of Israel understand the ways of JHWH.

Pete Enns - #4552

February 15th 2010

John, There is some flux about some issues re: the Pentateuch in general and Genesis in particular, but the general consensus is that the Genesis we have did not reach its final form until at least the exilic period and perhaps later. The reasons for this are too involved for a blog comment, but they involve a matrix of issues that include things like Hebrew grammar. More specifically, the first creation account (Gen 1) reflects a set of concerns that biblical scholars after more than 200 years of research assign to a so-called “priestly” author writing in light of the Babylonian Exile. The bottom line is that biblical scholars are quite consistent in seeing how Gen 1 was written for purposes of Israel’s self-defintion among national crisis—hence the polemic dimension of Gen 1. The primeval history as a whole is an exercise in self-defnition, where the Adam story, for example, is a “proto-history” of Israel. Having said that, i realize I answered one question and raised 50 more so I’ll stop. 

John Mulholland - #4565

February 16th 2010

Prof. Enns,
Thank you for that very helpful comment, including actually its brevity. 

Again, I admit to long held naivete -  the Bible virtually fell out of the sky fully formed, and then a little later,  that people went off to a monastery somewhere in the Holy Land, wrote their book, went home, and that book was automatically added to the Biblical canon.  I have grown up a little from such views, but not by very much.  Some Jewish friends, for example, seem to have a dramatically different understanding of the development of the Bible.

Help me understand a little about interactions WITHIN Jewish culture and belief,  as the Bible takes shape.  Speak a little to the pt that Norm made above about the “mishmash”  of Pharisees, Saducees, Essenees, Herodians and whatever others there are.  What part did they and the differences they represent play in the development of the Bible, not just in its reading and interpretation?  Or were their differences of only small importance in the face of the opposition of the nations and groups that were a frequent threat to the Israelites?  In short, what part would such differences WITHIN Judaism have played in the development of Genesis and other themes of the Bible?

zalos - #6029

March 7th 2010

Hello, I’m having a lot of difficulties in understanding the goal of Creation? I’m new to the Christian faith and I hear in church that “God created us in order to worship Him”. But this implies God not being the ultimate perfect Being, because He needed something. Can somebody please elaborate? Thanks.

BK - #6123

March 8th 2010

I am so glad to see this discussion and the high quality of many of the contributions. It is wonderful that these issues are being treated more thoroughly from the hermeneutical view point, at the layman’s level. However, as we engage in ever so stimulating discussions on these matters of faith, science and biblical interpretation, we must also remember facts like the following:

-  Forty-two million adult Americans can’t read.
-  Fifty million adult Americans are limited to a 4th or 5th grade reading level or can only recognize a  few printed words.

It is truly a marvel that the message of the Scriptures can surmount all our often feeble and always limited attempts at interpretation and effect such a profound work on whosoever will. This phenomenon, it seems to me, is in the same category as the human/divine nature of the Scripture that Dr. Enns illustrates in I&I. “We have this treasure in earthen vessels.” As important and interesting as our hermeneutical adventures are, when it comes to the divine reasons that the Scriptures were given, we are all in the same boat with the modern non-reader and the ancient writer of Scripture “hampered” by a lack of wonderful knowledge that our science provides.

Libby Boulter - #6993

March 16th 2010

Hi Pete,
Thanks for this.  I had forgotten why Biblical scholars think there’s a cosmic battle background to Gen 1-2, so I’m glad to have this info.

Just two minor comments/questions.
1) I don’t know what the usage/background of the Hebrew word tehom is, but Tiamat is the absolute state of the run of the mill Akkadian word for sea, tâmtu.  (Forgive me if I’m stating the obvious.)  And out of all the Mesopotamian myths out there, the goddess Tiamat occurs only in Enuma Elish, which many (most?) Assyriologists date these days to the 12th c. BC—quite late for Mesopotamia.  Does the word tehom occur in the Bible only in cosmic battle scenes?

2) From what I remember of the biblical view of the world, couldn’t the “splitting” in Genesis just refer to the fact that there are waters above and below, and they had to get that way somehow, without necessarily implying violence?

So, I agree there must have been some cosmic battle against the sea motif in at least 3 places in the ANE, and I think the other verses you cited are evidence of that, but is it certain that there’s reference to a cosmic battle, muted or not, in the Genesis story?

Big Mike - #8629

April 4th 2010

Dear Pete and Libby

Where did you both get the ridiculous idea; that Tiamat is a goddess? Certainly not from the Enuma Elish as the author went to great pains to show that Tiamat was NOT a goddess.

Bryan Hodge - #12063

May 2nd 2010

I’m just now making my way through the very insightful posts and comments, but wanted to address this point:

“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.”

The only cosmogony, in my slowly fading ability to recollect of course,  in the ancient Near East that evidences the chaoskampf motif is Ee. There are tons of cosmogonies, but that is the only one with this idea that I can remember (unless you include theogonies like the Dunnu Theogony). It is possible that Gen 1 is interacting with it, but not definitively so. All cosmogonies have splitting of chaotic waters, the formation of some sort of barrier to hold them back, the luminaries, etc. I addressed this in my MA thesis at Trinity. The question of tehom/tiamat was addressed by Tsumura in his dissertation and later publications as well. I think chaoskampf for the Hebrew Bible starts in Gen 3. Chapters 1-2 seem to be completely absent of the idea. I’m specifically speaking, of course, of the cosmic battle between conflicting beings. The idea that God overcomes chaos through His ordering the universe is evident from Gen 1ff.

Evan - #15012

May 25th 2010

Pete, I might just be grasping at straws here, but do you think this has any connection with the “Christus Victor” view of the atonement? Could the early Christians be working from the same motif as the one suggested above? I think there could be some connection, at least.

theronrr - #60921

May 10th 2011

The problem with referencing scripture is one can go back and read it with in context. For example Enns quotes Psalm 77:16 as part of the reference to the account of creation. Yet if you read the whole Psalm 77 or just the last verse one would see it references the parting of the Red Sea.

There also was presented the assumption that the Hebrew got their idea of creation from the Canaanite mythology. Instead, there should be the idea of the Canaanite creating their myth on the bases of the account of creation.

If we take the idea that perfection was the beginning and rebellion brought pagan worship which mimic, but missed the mark of original worship as directed by the Creator, then it should not surprise anyone to see the pagan worship having a likeness to the Hebrew worship. But if you assume the Hebrew views are not from God but from the myths of the surrounding tribes, then you must also conclude that you cannot trust any of scripture for it is merely the ideas of different man. Therefore you would also have to conclude that there is neither original sin nor a need for a savior or a time of judgment. In other words, live your life as you wish. Then who would want to be a Christian (Christ like)?  What is the Point?  It would not matter!

But if Enns is wrong (which I am absolutely sure of) then it all matters for there was original sin which required a need for a savior for there is coming a day of judgment.

Psalms 1:1-2 puts it best.

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