Battling the Serpent

doré_destruction_of_leviathan

I love the movie Pacific Rim. For those who haven’t seen it, it’s about people in colossal robots fighting giant monsters from another dimension called Kaiju (the Japanese name for the monsters in all of those old movies like Godzilla and Mothra). Over the course of the movie you learn that a dimensional tear opened deep in the ocean that allowed these monsters to wreak havoc across the Earth, usually attacking coastal cities. In the end it’s up to the brave warriors piloting their mighty Jaegers (German for “Hunter”) to beat the beasts back, seal the Breach, and bring peace and hope back to the world. While I like just about anything with giant robots in it, Pacific Rim is amazing because it is a modern reflection of one of the most ancient stories that have touched the hearts of humans since times immemorial—the battle against chaos.

In the ancient world, human beings regularly encountered two forces of nature that even those of us living in the modern world would consider untamable—the Storm and the Sea. Standing on the shores of the vast Sea, staring into the nothingness that lay beyond the horizon as waves twist and turn and crash, one could almost see the very end of existence. For sailors, the Sea, filled with salt water—water that brought death—was a dangerous and chaotic place where your very lives were held in the hands of the gods. The Storm, on the other hand, was the great provider—the bringer of the waters of life. Without water to drink and rains to water crops, Death would soon come to call. It was for these very ancient and primal reasons, that many cultures developed a tale of the storm-god battling a monstrous sea serpent—what one today might call a dragon—many of which could rival any modern Kaiju.

One of the most well-known tales is the Babylonian creation story, Enuma Elish (c.1700 BC). In this great epic, the chief storm-god of Babylon, Marduk, battles and defeats the monstrous Tiamat, the goddess of the primordial Sea waters (she also happens to be his great-great-great-grandmother). Out of revenge for the death of her husband, Apsu (god of freshwaters), Tiamat declares war on the other gods and spawns an army of monsters that include dragons, sea serpents, and scorpion men. Her endgame is to send the world back into a state of primordial chaos—the way it was before she and her husband gave birth to their children. (Today, though, I’m sure many would argue that children represent chaos.) Eventually Marduk steps up to the challenge, defeats all the monsters, kills Tiamat, rips her primordial cosmic water-body in half, and creates the present world from the carcass of his dead grandmother. (Kind of makes Genesis 1 sound extremely sophisticated by comparison, doesn’t it?). The Assyrian version of the story is essentially the same, but replaces Marduk with Ashur, the patron god of Assyria.

The same basic story—of a storm-god fighting a chaos dragon—is present across the Fertile Crescent and the ancient Mediterranean world. The Hittites (an ancient European people-group that lived in modern Turkey) told tales of their storm-god, Teshub/Tarhunt, doing battle with the great dragon, Illuyanka. Egypt, a river civilization that did not rely on storms to water their crops, developed a different version of the cosmic battle. In this tale it’s the sun god, Ra, who does battle with the cosmic serpent Apophis every night as the monster tries to devour the sun-disk (this story is illustrated beautifully in the movie Gods of Egypt). Centuries later, the Greeks would pen their own version of the cosmic combat myth (with so many similarities to Enuma Elish it’s borderline plagiarism) in which the mighty storm-god, Zeus, defeats the forces of the monstrous Titans; the decisive battle being against the serpent-titan, Typhon (whom he imprisons under volcano). The battle between the chaos-serpent and the storm-god survived in myth and legend through the long ages in various forms, even making its way into Norse tales of the mighty Thor battling the world-serpent, Jörmungandr, at Ragnarok (the Norse “End of Days”).

So what’s the point of all of this? What does any of this mythology have to do with the Bible?

Quite a lot, actually.

There is one chaos-battle myth in particular that is crucial for understanding the religious world in which the ancient Israelites lived and how many people viewed God in those days. That is the story of the Canaanite storm-god, Baal (which means “the Lord”), and his battles against Yam (“the Sea”).

Discovered at the ancient city of Ugarit (a port city on the Syrian coast that was destroyed c. 1300 BC), Baal’s epic tells the story of the storm-god’s battle against Yam and his minion, the sea serpent Lotan. A particular praise after his victory reads,

“You killed Lotan, the Fleeing Serpent,
Finished off the Twisting Serpent,
The seven-headed monster,
The heavens withered and weakened,
Like the folds of your robe…”

(Baal, tablet 5, column 1, lines 1-5)

The evidence that the story of Baal’s victory influenced how the Israelites thought about God can be found in a few places in Scripture. For example,

Yet God my King is from of old,
working salvation in the midst of the earth.
You divided the sea by your might;
you broke the heads of the sea monster on the waters.
You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.
You split open springs and brooks;
you dried up ever-flowing streams.
Yours is the day, yours also the night;
you have established the heavenly lights and the sun.
You have fixed all the boundaries of the earth;
you have made summer and winter.

(Psalm 74:12-17, ESV)

Here we find a poetic account of Creation a bit different from Genesis 1, in which God is celebrated for defeating sea serpents as a precursor to his creative acts, which are reckoned as bringing salvation.  I should also note that the Hebrew word Leviathan is essentially the same word as the Ugaritic Lotan. (Ugaritic and Hebrew are cousin-languages. In this case, Medieval rabbis did some creative vowel pointing). In Psalm 104 and the Book of Job, Leviathan seems to be the name of an actual giant sea creature known to inhabit the oceans. The prophet Isaiah envisioned God crushing his cosmic enemy, Leviathan, after the Resurrection in the Last Days (Isaiah 27:1). In other places in Scripture, God’s Sea-Chaos enemy is called Rahab (Psalm 89:10, Job 26:12, Isaiah 30:7, and Isaiah 51:9). It’s interesting that both names are used in the Book of Isaiah, and neither instance refers to Creation; although Isaiah 27 might be trying to invoke a sense of the New Creation in the Last Days. Isaiah’s use of Rahab is in reference to God’s victory at the Red Sea following the Exodus events. The prophet uses popular mythic language of his day to celebrate God’s victory over Pharaoh, the Sea, and all they represented—chaos, slavery, and death.

Even though God, the prophets, and the scribes who penned the scriptures didn’t like it, and many people who read the Bible today don’t want to admit it, the majority of ancient Israelites (before 586 BC anyway) were polytheistic and worshiped the gods and goddesses of the Canaanites. We also don’t like to admit that much of Canaan wasn’t exactly conquered by the Israelites (see Judges 1:27-36, 2:1-5). The Bible and archaeology both attest to the fact that the cultural lines between Canaanite and Israelite were virtually non-existent, and blurry at best. With that in mind, it shouldn’t surprise us to find these mythic influences within the pages of Scripture. This isn’t a bad thing; in fact, it’s quite amazing. It demonstrates that God was willing, even in ancient times, to meet people where they were and speak to them using images and metaphors they were familiar with. In modern times we take for granted the fact that a great many of us have the ability to read and write. This was most certainly not the case in ancient times. In those days, people couldn’t just spend a half an hour a day reading their scriptures in order to gain a better understanding of their gods. They needed big stories, big ideas, and sometimes even big images to help them contemplate the divine. Sometimes it took an allegory of God defeating a sea monster to help people have hope that he had a plan for them in the face of death and destruction—chaos.

It is this very notion that inspired much of the Book of Revelation.

And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.

(Revelation 12:9-10, ESV)

I would argue that this reference to “that ancient serpent” is not talking about the crafty snake in the Garden of Eden found in Genesis 3, but rather, the cosmic seprent—the agent of chaos and death—that is the great enemy of life, order, and the gods that represented those concepts. In this Christian allegory, the heroic divinity that ascends into the heavens to wage war against chaos is not Baal, not Zeus, and certainly not the self-styled “Son of God,” the Roman Emperor. Those who understand the “mystery” know the truth—it was Jesus Christ who ascended into the heavens and defeated the forces of Chaos, casting the Dragon and his minions out of the heavenly places. And just as in Psalm 74, this victory brought salvation to all the Earth and inaugurated the New Creation. With all that we’ve read so far, is it any surprise that the Dragon calls forth his most powerful minion from the depths of the Sea?

leviathan_liber_floridus

(Antéchrist assis sur le Léviathan (Antichrist sitting on the Leviathan), Liber Floridus. 1120 AD.)

Whether it’s the formless and void primordial waters, the combined forces of Pharaoh and the Sea, or Satan and his minions of death, destruction, and deceit, as all those poetic allegories attest, God defeats his enemies and establishes his people.

Amen to that.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s