By Thomas Goodman
Gifted Bible Teachers will use analogies and illustrations drawn from their students’ lives. Some churches will even use a clip from a popular movie to drive home a Bible lesson, while acknowledging that the film in its entirety may not accurately portray God’s character or the biblical lifestyle.
This teaching tool is actually quite ancient. The biblical writers sometimes drew from the titles and exploits of the gods of Israel’s neighbors to illustrate the glory of the true God.When the Israelites were attracted to the beliefs and practices of the surrounding culture, the biblical writers showed that the true God better deserved the titles and far exceeded the exploits of the gods in the stories of Israel’s neighbors.
Neighboring Stories of Chaos and Control
In his 1895 German-language book Creation and Chaos Hermann Gunkel coined the term Chaoskampf to describe the motif of a god battling against chaos. He believed that the motif in the Babylonian creation account was the source of similar imagery in the Old Testament. In the myth, the god Marduk defeated the goddess Tiamat and posted guards to keep her destructive waters at bay. In a culture that believed the earth was in the center of great waters—above it and below it as well as around it—a god who could make these waters life-giving instead of destructive was the hero of the story.
But further discoveries have proven that the fight-against-chaos concept is not limited to Babylon. In fact, after examining the cosmic conflict lore of seven civilizations, Mary Wakeman concluded that they are all essentially “about the same thing.”1. Mary Wakeman, God’s Battle with the Monster: A Study in Biblical Imagery (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1973), 4-6; As Bernhard Anderson says, “No longer can we view the Bible solely from a Babylonian perspective, for the Chaoskampf is a more ubiquitous motif, indeed one that is not only ancient Near Eastern in the broad sense but one that touches the depths of a mythical apprehension of reality found in ‘archaic’ societies.” B. W. Anderson, “Introduction: Mythopoetic and Theological Dimensions of Biblical Creation Faith,” Creation in the Old Testament (Philadephia: Fortress, 1984), 2.1
The Israelites would have had interaction with Canaanite religious stories earlier and more frequently than Babylonian stories. Among the Canaanites, the fight is against Yam, the region’s (and the Hebrews’) word for “sea.” The hero is Baal, the storm god. In one drawing found at the archaeological site of Ugarit, Baal is pictured as standing erect, a lightning flash like a spear in hand, and beneath his feet are turbulent waves that represent the sea he has vanquished.2 In the Canaanite story, with the defeated waters no longer a threat, Baal used them to provide life to the earth.3
The True God’s Conquest of the Menacing Sea
Knowing that these convictions were held by the cultures surrounding Israel, some might find it striking how often the Bible refers to the fact that God has the waters in subjection. In the Book of Psalms alone, as many as 26 psalms use this image.4 For example, Psalm 29 compares God’s voice to successive claps of thunder; verse 3 exclaims His sovereign voice over the waters. Likewise, in Psalm 93:3-4, the poet expressed his confidence in God’s sovereign control over the seas. In Psalm 74:13-15 (NIV) the poet explicitly celebrated God’s victory over Leviathan, the many-headed serpentine monster that assisted Yam.5 Again Psalm 89:9-10 makes reference to God’s rule over the sea and His victory over another Canaanite sea monster, Rahab.6
The image of God’s battle against the chaotic force of the sea is outside the Psalms as well. For example, in Proverbs 8 the personified “Wisdom” says in verse 29 (NLT): “I was there when he set the limits of the seas, so they would not spread beyond their boundaries.”7
The images of a divine battle against the raging sea were employed in a variety of settings—celebrating what God had done in the past (particularly in the creation and the exodus), appealing to God for help in the present, and promising God’s people a future where evil would be destroyed forever.
Past: For example, Psalm 104 uses the conflict-over-chaos motif to celebrate what God did in creating the world.8 When the poet declared that God “makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind” in verse 3 (NIV), he used the same imagery to describe the Lord that Canaanites used to describe Baal, “the Rider in the Clouds.”9 And, just as the Canaanites taught of Baal, the poet spoke of God taming the menacing waters (vv. 6-9) so that He might use them to bless His creatures (vv. 6b-13):
“The waters stood above the mountains. But at your rebuke the waters fled, at the sound of your thunder they took to flight; they flowed over the mountains, they went down into the valleys, to the place you assigned for them. You set a boundary they cannot cross; never again will they cover the earth. He makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains. They give water to all the beasts of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst. The birds of the air nest by the waters; they sing among the branches. He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work (NIV).
In addition to employing these images in celebrating God’s activity in creation, the images also celebrated the crossing of the sea in the exodus story. So, the poet said God “rebuked” the sea so that His people could escape Pharaoh in Psalm 106:9, the people are called on to give thanks to the God who “divided the Red Sea asunder” in Psalm 136:13 (NIV; compare Ps.74:13), and the poet said the waters “writhed” and “convulsed” at the sight of God in Psalm 77:16 (NIV).10 In Isaiah 51:9-10, the poet explicitly compared the exodus victory to God’s victory over the sea monster Rahab.
Present: In addition, the conflict-over-chaos images were used to celebrate the fact that Jerusalem (for example, Ps. 46:1-3) and its king (for example, Ps. 89) would be able to withstand the threats of enemies. Furthermore, cries to be delivered from personal crises appeal to the God who conquered the chaos of the seas (compare Pss. 69 and 144). In verse 7 of Psalm 144, the poet compared the threat of waters to the threat of enemies (NLT): “Reach down from heaven and rescue me; deliver me from deep waters, from the power of my enemies.”
Future: Finally, writers used the conflict-with-chaos imagery when describing God’s final and decisive battle against evil in the future. For example, in Isaiah 27:1 we read that in the future God will slay Leviathan, “the monster of the sea” (v. 3), and John’s vision of a new Jerusalem with no more crying or pain included the observation that “there was no longer any sea” (Rev. 21:1-4, NIV).
Poetical or Polemical?
So the motif of conquest over a chaotic sea that is found in many Near Eastern cultures is also used widely in the Bible. Since God’s character and intent in the biblical stories are vastly different from the way the surrounding cultures described their hero-gods, what would motivate the biblical writers to employ the images of divine warfare and provision used by the neighboring cultures?
The biblical writers were reminding the Israelites who were attracted to compromise with the surrounding culture that the true God better deserved the titles and far exceeded the exploits of the gods in the stories of Israel’s neighbors. Like gifted teachers of any generation, the biblical writers painted the glory of God with borrowed colors.
1. Mary Wakeman, God’s Battle with the Monster: A Study in Biblical Imagery (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1973), 4-6; As Bernhard Anderson says, “No longer can we view the Bible solely from a Babylonian perspective, for the Chaoskampf is a more ubiquitous motif, indeed one that is not only ancient Near Eastern in the broad sense but one that touches the depths of a mythical apprehension of reality found in ‘archaic’ societies.” B. W. Anderson, “Introduction: Mythopoetic and Theological Dimensions of Biblical Creation Faith,” Creation in the Old Testament (Philadephia: Fortress, 1984), 2.
2. N. C. Habel, Yahweh Versus Baal: A Conflict of Religious Cultures (New York: Bookman, 1964), 73-74. For further information on Baal and the sea, see Fritz Stolze, “Sea” in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, eds. Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst (New York: E. J. Brill, 1995), 1390-1402, esp. 1396.
3. Habel, Yahweh Versus Baal, 53.
4. A. W. H. Curtis cites the following psalms as containing reference to God’s rule over the waters (He places question marks by the psalms that have only probable reference to this subject): 18?, 24, 29, 32?, 33, 42?, 46?, 65, 66, 69, 74, 77, 78, 89, 93, 95, 96, 98, 104, 106, 107, 114, 124?, 135, 136, 148. A.H.W. Curtis, “The ‘Subjugation of the Waters’ Motif in the Psalms: Imagery or Polemic?” Journal of Semitic Studies 23 (1978): 245-56, page 255.
5. Stolze, 1398.
6. A reference to God’s victory over Rahab is also found in Job 26:12-13.
7. God’s victory over the sea is also in Exodus 15:8-10; Nahum 1:4; Habakkuk 3:8; Jeremiah 5:22; 31:35; Isaiah 51:15; 27:1; Job 26:8-14; 38:8-11; and 41:1.
8. Anderson called Psalm 104 “one of the most important and exquisite creation texts in the OT. There are numerous affinities between Genesis 1 and Psalm 104, such as linguistic parallels and similarity in the sequence of events of creation.” Anderson, 11.
9. Habel, 81. See also Psalm 68:4, where we are told to “extol him who rides on the clouds” (NIV).
10. Speaking of Psalm 77, A. W. H. Curtis said: “Yahweh’s historical intervention on behalf of his people is expressed in terms of the cosmic theophany of the storm god, who strikes fear into the chaotic waters who stand in opposition to him. It is hard to imagine how the hearer could fail to think of the great mythological battles of the storm god against the sea monster, when he was confronted with this vivid description.” Curtis, “The ‘Subjugation of the Waters’ Motif, Journal of Semitic Studies, 249.
Thomas Goodman is pastor, Hillcrest Baptist Church, Austin, Texas.
This article originally appeared in the Fall, 2004 issue of Biblical Illustrator.