#2. Did God create the heavens and earth from the formless deep OR did Yahweh create them from the slaying of the primaeval sea monster Leviathan/Rahab? (Gen 1:1-8 vs Ps 74:13-17, 89:11-13; Job 26:12-13)

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The two creation accounts that open the book of Genesis, the Priestly and Yahwist, are not the only creation stories found in the Bible. A much older mythic tale is preserved in passages from the Psalms, the book of Job, and the Prophets. In fact, there are remarkably few references in the Bible to the Priestly creation account (which perhaps attests to its late date of composition), while conversely, there are a number of passages that directly reference or allude to this more archaic Near Eastern myth—a myth which describes the creation of the heavens and the earth in terms of the creator deity, in the biblical sources Yahweh, slaying a primeval sea monster, variously represented as Leviathan or Rahab, as the first act of creation. Psalm 74:13-17 is one such example:

You [Yahweh] divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness. You cut openings for springs and torrents; you dried up ever-flowing streams. Yours is the day, yours is the night; you established the luminaries and the sun. You have fixed all the bounds of the earth; you made summer and winter.             

The language in this psalm subtly portrays an act of creation, especially the last two verses. After the slaying of Leviathan, the psalmist informs us that Yahweh then proceeds to create day and night, the heavenly bodies, and then the order of the seasons (cf. Job 38:4-11). The seven-headed sea serpent Leviathan does not necessarily symbolize the primeval chaotic waters prior to creation, but it is associated with them. More significantly, this particular theme finds parallels in mythological accounts of Israel’s ancient Near Eastern neighbors, where the creation of the cosmos from the slaying of a chaotic sea monster is a common Mesopotamian and Canaanite mythic theme. In the Enuma elish, for example, the sea goddess Tiamat, who is represented as a watery serpent, is slain by the god Marduk and it is from her slain body that the heavens and the earth are created. In the comparable account attributed to the Canaanite god Baal, we find Baal battling with the sea dragon Yum, and Greek mythology preserves the account of Zeus and Typhon. That this same mythic motive infused Israelite tradition and influenced several biblical authors in their depiction of Yahweh’s creative act as the slaying or taming of a primeval sea monster is undeniable, even if it is clear that the biblical authors have also transformed this ancient mythic lore into something new.

 By his power he stilled the sea and by his skill he crushed Rahab, by his wind the heavens were made clear, his hand pierced the fleeing serpent. (Job 26:12-13)

Like the gods Marduk and Baal, Yahweh is similarly depicted in these scattered biblical accounts creating the heavens and the earth from the slaying of a water serpent, which symbolizes the primordial chaotic waters. Moreover, this mythic theme is also used to present Yahweh’s “battle” with the Sea of Reeds as a victory and recreation (see #144). Finally, this mythic tradition gets re-interpreted in both Jewish and Christian eschatological literature. Yahweh’s first act of creation, the slaying of his primordial foe, the chaotic waters, now becomes the act that is also anticipated in the end days, where Yahweh or Christ must re-create the world from the slaying of their primordial foe (see: Is 27:1; Rev 12:3, 13:1, 17:3). 

4 thoughts on “#2. Did God create the heavens and earth from the formless deep OR did Yahweh create them from the slaying of the primaeval sea monster Leviathan/Rahab? (Gen 1:1-8 vs Ps 74:13-17, 89:11-13; Job 26:12-13)

  1. You didn’t mention the obvious connection to the Absu. I was wondering if and where references to the Absu appear in the bible? Also how they might be tied into flood stories.

  2. Wow. (How did I miss this one until now?) The account in Psalms 74 is particularly thought-provoking. I never made a connection between verses 13-14 and the creation acts described right afterwards because I wasn’t familiar with the Marduk/Tiamat account and similar myths. Very interesting….

    I’m still trying to wrap my head around the use of serpent imagery in the Bible without falling back on my childhood learnings, where the serpent is almost always Satan. Hard to believe that the pagan Tiamat might be found right in my very own Bible… although as I glance over Wikipedia’s article on Tiamat, it cautions that the original Tiamat may not have been a serpent, so I am still uncertain about this connection.

    P.S.: My NWT uses a unique translation, “stormer”, for “Rahab” in Job 26:12. Other Bibles seem to tend to use either “Rahab” or “the sea monster”, though KJV uses “the proud” (?!) and KJV2000 uses “the storm”.

    1. The biblical origins of Rahab are obscure. Its close proximity with the Hebrew tannin (variously ‘serpent’ ‘crocodile’) in Is 51:9 and other passages indicates that is was a creature of the sea, mostly likely parallel to the Babylonian Tiamat, Canaanite Yam, whom Baal battles. Interesting that the translations you mention try to demythologize the account by reducing the mythic creature to a ‘storm’ and thus drawing it further away from its literary context!

      That the biblical scribes were pulling from the mythic traditions of their ancient Near Eastern predecessors—this is what I mean by understanding these texts in their literary contexts—will become more transparent when we get to the crossing of the Sea of Reeds story, soon now that we’re in the book of Exodus. Passages like Is 59 personify the Sea as Rahab and thus read this ancient mythological struggle between a storm deity—Yahweh, Marduk, Baal—and the Sea—Rahab, Tiamat, Yam—into the crossing of the Sea of Reeds in Exodus. In fact, this mythology is more transparent here. The Enuma elish ends with the establishment of Marduk as the God of gods on his mountain, where he is also proclaimed king. Likewise, Exodus 15 presents Yahweh in the same manner!

      The Enuma elish, although seemingly a harmless piece of mythological lore was actually a very alluring piece of political propaganda. The story of how Marduk, and Marduk alone, was able to defeat the primaeval chaotic sea waters, Tiamat, create the earth and humans from her slain parts, and then lead a procession to his mountain where he was proclaimed God of the gods was politically used to legitimate and justify, as well as answer the questions of how and why, Babylon came to rule the rest of the known world—because its god, Marduk, subdued Tiamat and was proclaimed King! Scholars have noticed many parallels between the Babylonian Enuma elish and the Priestly creation account (appendix of #1). I would even say the same political message is also inherent in the Genesis account, albeit much less transparent. At any rate, reading these stories in their natural and rightful contexts displays how powerful they were as tools of promoting/legitimating political supremacy over one’s neighbors, real or implied, by creating narratives that displayed one’s national deity as creating the world, and thus legitimating that nation’s rule.

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