Yahweh, Creation, and the Cosmic Battle
The more we grasp Israel’s understanding of creation, the less likely we will be to expect from Scripture things it was never intended to deliver. We will learn to ask their questions before our own.
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.
In the previous section, we looked at the “cosmic battle” motif in the Old Testament. This is where Yahweh is involved in some epic struggle at creation with “sea” (or the waters or the sea monsters Rahab or Leviathan). That battle is seen clearly in several Psalms and in Job. It is also reflected in other portions of the Old Testament, like Ezekiel and Genesis 1.
I also mentioned that both Psalm 74 and 77 (to give two examples) use cosmic battle language to describe the exodus. That brings us to today’s post. The Israelites thought of the exodus from Egypt as another cosmic battle—sort of a reenactment. The “back then” creation battle is taking place here and now—against Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt.
I don’t want us to get lost in the details, and I don’t want anyone to think that discussing the exodus is off-topic for BioLogos. So let me take a step back and explain why it is important.
At BioLogos we are trying to encourage fruitful conversations between faith and science, and especially those between Christianity and evolution. It is obviously important to spend a lot of time discussing the scientific data. But it is also important to deal with the biblical data.
Because our expectations about the Bible affect how we handle the scientific data. Intelligent Design and Young Earth Creationism are very different movements, but they share a root theological problem. They expect from the Bible things that the Bible does not deliver, namely something like “scientific” information.
That is why we are spending some time looking what the Bible delivers about creation. We need to hear what the Bible really has to say. Then we can adjust our expectations in light of the biblical evidence.
I have chosen the “cosmic battle” motif in the Bible simply as a way of getting at this larger issue of the biblical view of creation. It is only one angle, not the only angle. In the weeks and months to come we will explore different angles. But for now, we will continue to focus on the cosmic battle in the Old Testament and today we will begin to look at the book of Exodus.
Got it? Good.
The exodus was the formative experience for ancient Israelites—it is what made them a nation. Creation language permeates the exodus story. This is because the biblical writer understood the exodus as another “act of creation,” which even included a “cosmic battle.”
We see the creation theme already in Exodus 1:6. The Israelites arrived in Egypt and were “fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous” (1:7). That is creation language (Genesis 1:28). We also see God’s people “increasing and multiplying” throughout Genesis (e.g., 8:17; 17:2; 26:4; 28:14). Multiplying is God’s command at creation, and it is what God’s people do—even in Egypt.
This is how the book of Exodus starts and this is why Pharaoh enslaved the Israelites. He wasn’t grumpy or anti-Semitic. He was afraid. He enslaved the Israelites because there were too many of them (Exodus 1:9).
The very beginning of the book lays out for us the conflict of the entire book. Yahweh says “multiply,” and Pharaoh says “no.” And it will help to understand that in Egyptian religion, Pharaoh was an earthly representative of the Egyptian high god—god incarnate, so to speak.
The conflict in Exodus is a divine struggle, between Yahweh and Pharaoh. And the question is: which “god” do the Israelites belong to, Pharaoh or Yahweh? This is why Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh. They are there to claim ownership of the Israelites for Yahweh: “Let my people go so that they might worship me in the desert” (7:16) But Pharaoh did not want to let them go. They were his slave force. They were there to serve him.
In Hebrew, the word for worship and serve is the same: `avad. This is another way of describing the conflict in Exodus: whom will Israel `avad? Will they `avad Pharaoh by being enslaved to him or will they `avad Yahweh by worshipping him on Mt. Sinai? By trying to reduce the number of Israelites and then refusing to let them go, Pharaoh is putting himself in direct conflict with Israel’s God.
This is where the plagues come in. They are not a random hissy fit. Rather, they are a sustained attack on Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt. It is Yahweh saying to Pharaoh, “Fine. If you want to set yourself up as my enemy, let’s do battle. I’ll take you on and all of your gods, too.” And he takes his time about it, over ten plagues and destruction of the Egyptian army in the sea. The plagues are a drawn out “cosmic battle.” This is what indicated in Exodus 12:12. Yahweh is about to kill the firstborn of Egypt in the tenth plague. In doing so, Yahweh says “I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt.” The tenth plague, the killing of the firstborn, is a battle scene.
This “battle of the gods” characterizes the entire plague narrative. It begins already in the first plague. The Nile was the source of Egypt’s life and was also divinized by the Egyptians. Turning it to blood is not just yucky and inconvenient. It is the first defeat of the Egyptian pantheon. Another example is the plague of frogs. Frogs come out of the Nile and multiply like rabbits. Why frogs? The Egyptian goddess of fertility was depicted with the head of a frog. Yahweh controls this goddess and turns her against the Egyptians. The goddess is a puppet on a string. Another example is the ninth plague, the plague of darkness. This is a direct affront to the sun god Ra, the high god, and the father of Pharaoh. Yahweh can make it dark and light as he pleases. Ra is another plaything for Yahweh, the true God.
The plagues are not just a random series of weird cosmic and ecological disturbances. They show Israel’s God, the God of slaves, marching into the home turf of the superpower of the day, and, basically, beating up their gods.
This may sound silly to us, but this is how the Israelites understood the supremacy of their God in an ancient polytheistic world. As Psalm 95 puts it “Yahweh is the great God, the great king above all gods” (v. 3). This supremacy is one reason why the Israelites declared Yahweh as worthy of worship. He redeemed them from Egypt by putting Pharaoh and the gods in their place. And this was to be a reminder to them not to follow the Canaanite gods once settled in the land.
The exodus from Egypt is the cosmic battle revisited. If we miss this cosmic battle we will have an impoverished understanding of the theology of Exodus. The biblical depiction of creation is not remotely about contemporary scientific issue. It cannot be “harmonized” with modern cosmology or biology because is telling a different story. The plagues are a window onto a rich, truly biblical theology of creation. We will look at other aspects of this theology in Exodus in my next post.
In the previous two sections, 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.
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 section, 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.
In the last several sections, we have seen that Yahweh waged a battle to get the Israelites out of Egypt. Now there is one more stage of this story we need to look at: the whole reason why Yahweh went to battle in the first place. This is where Mt. Sinai comes in.
The exodus story is not about a bunch of slaves “set free” to go their own way and do as they please. Remember the tug of war between Yahweh and Pharaoh. Pharaoh wanted the Israelites to “serve” him as slaves. Yahweh, on the other hand, wanted to lay claim on his people and deliver them so they can “serve” him. Israel’s life of service began at Mt. Sinai.
The plague narrative hints at this. Moses told Pharaoh to let the Israelites go so that they could “worship” God and hold a “feast” to him in the desert (see Exodus 5:1 and 7:16). What is meant here is not a party somewhere in the desert. The goal of the exodus was to get to God’s holy mountain where they worship and hold a feast (Exodus 24). This is already announced in 3:12 when Yahweh first appears to Moses in the burning bush: “When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”
Yahweh defeated the powers of Egypt in order to get the people to Mt. Sinai. Why? What’s so important about Mt. Sinai? Two things: law and tabernacle; behavior and worship. These are the parts a lot of us skip over in our daily Bible reading—pages of tedious and irrelevant laws and even more about a tabernacle with odd furnishings.
But, nearly half of the book of Exodus takes place on Mt. Sinai. Why all the stress?
Here the topic of creation is important. Even though the cosmic battle is over, we have not left the creation theme. Think of the exodus as God “creating” a people for himself out of a cosmic battle. After that act of creation, he gives them two things the people of Yahweh need if they are to be called his people, if they are going to serve him.
The law is God’s pattern of conduct for this newly created people. The tabernacle is God’s pattern of worship. In other words, this newly created people of God is to live like he wants them to and worship him as he deserves. If these things do not happen, the cosmic battle that brought them to Mt. Sinai will be for nothing. Yahweh went into battle for them to save them—for a purpose.
Let’s focus on the tabernacle for a moment. For centuries readers of Exodus have seen that the tabernacle is described in a way that makes one think of Genesis 1.
- The tabernacle instructions (Exodus 25-31) are given in six segments, each beginning with “Yahweh said to Moses” (25:1; 30:11, 17, 22, 34; 31:1). “Speaking” these six “creative” words to Moses parallels the six creative words of Genesis 1 (vv. 3, 6, 9, 14, 20, 22).
- The seventh word creative word in Exodus 31:12 introduces the Sabbath command. As in Genesis 1, we see a seven-fold creative act culminating in rest.
- In Exodus 39: 32 we read that the work was “completed.” This is the same Hebrew word used in Genesis 2:2 to refer to the completion of God’s creative work.
- In Exodus 39:43 we read that Moses “inspected the work and saw” that they had completed the work according to plan. Likewise in Genesis 1 God inspects his creative work and “sees” (same Hebrew word) that it was good.
- Just as Moses “blessed” the people after completing the work (Exodus 39:43), God “blessed” (same Hebrew word) his creation in Genesis 1:22, 28; 2:3.
- In Exodus 40:33 we read that Moses “finished the work,” which parallels how God “finished his work” (same Hebrew vocabulary) on the seventh day (Genesis 2:2).
Further, the structure itself has creation overtones. The very fact that it is to be built according to exact specifications, no less than a heavenly “pattern” (Exodus 25:9) speaks to the “ordered” nature of the tabernacle as well as to its “heavenly” identity. The tabernacle is an earthly representation of God’s heavenly temple. Commentators regularly also note that the lampstand (Exodus 25:31-40) represents a tree and so likely symbolizes the tree of life, not only found in the creation story but a common ancient Near Eastern motif. The curtains of the tabernacle are blue, purple, and scarlet linen with cherubim woven into them (Exodus 26:1). This is not just a nice design. Rather, when you walk into the tabernacle and look around, you are to think of the heavenly place the tabernacle symbolizes.
All of this means that the tabernacle is more than a really nice tent. It is a micro-cosmos. It is a smaller version of what God did in Genesis 1. It is a “world” that symbolizes created order. It is a “sacred space” separate from the surrounding “chaos”.
And this is where Israel’s God dwells. Like Marduk in Enuma Elish or Ugaritic Baal, conflict ends in the building of a residence suitable for the high god. The tabernacle is the resting place of the victorious Yahweh. It is not an afterthought. It had to be built in response to the cosmic battle.
Now for the law. It is very important that we resist a common Christian misconception of the law. It is not a list of rules to be followed so that the Israelites can prove themselves worthy of Yahweh—like “earning their salvation.” God saved them because they already were his people—he kept an ancient promise to the Patriarchs (Exodus 2:24-25). Note, too, how the Ten Commandments begin, “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). Yahweh declares that he is their God and the law follows. The law is given to a people already redeemed.
So what then is the purpose of the law if not for Israel to prove itself worthy? It is the code of conduct for this newly created people of God. God “creates” a new people and now gives them the stipulations to follow to cultivate true fellowship with the God who saved them. It is God saying, “I have fought a battle on your behalf, made you a new people. Now, this is how a people like you are to conduct themselves, toward me and toward others. Follow these commands and you will be blessed—and the world will take notice.”
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