Good question--is Genesis merely a rip-off of other ANE lit?

[Series Index: gilgymess.html // Last update: to this piece Dec 2, 2005]

Part10: Residual cosmogonic materials (gilgy08.html)

This is the only article in the series which deals with material not in Genesis. If you remember, the original question seemed to focus on Genesis, but various scholars sometimes see cosmogonic material/references outside of Genesis. It is this claim which will be examined here.

We will have to narrow the field somewhat, since some authors tend to see cosmogonies wherever Storm, Sea, or Dragon imagery is used in the bible (e.g, Gunkel and followers); and some see it wherever the emergence of Israel or temple ordinances are mentioned (e.g. Clifford)!

For example, Clifford can argue [OT:CAANEB, 174]:

A glance at Akkadian cosmogonies shows how traditionally Near Eastern the Isaian account is: divine control of cosmic waters, building of a temple-city or temple, creation of a king and human beings to build and tend the temple, and creation of necessities for the care and feeding of the gods— trees, rushes and clay for bricks, animals for sacrifices. The appointment of a king during creation in 45:1-7 also has biblical parallels: "You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of earth your possession" (Ps 2:7-8); "I place his hand on the Sea, on the Rivers [same word as here] his right hand . . . Yes, I make him my firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth" (Ps 89:25, 27).... To Second Isaiah, the building of Jerusalem and the temple and the appointment of a king are part of the act of creation.” [!!!]

The reader might remember in our earlier discussions how many/most scholars either do not see those Akkadian cosmogonies as even being cosmogonies, or do not consider the temple-service elements to be core cosmogonic elements. This means that Clifford's assignment of this Isianic passage to 'cosmogony' is questionable, and is certainly beyond the meaning we have been concerned with in this series.

So, to focus on a (slightly) more rigorous delineation of these passages, we should note a couple of factors:

First of all, the passages in which some scholars see 'cosmogony lurking behind the metaphors' are all poetic (i.e., psalms or poetic passages in the prophetic literature). Tsumura's discussion in [OT:CAD]--which this article is mainly dependent on--lists these: Psalm 18, Psalm 29, Psalm 46, and Habakkuk 3.

Secondly, most of those who see cosmogonic references in the 'waters'-type words see these as Canaanite/Ugaritic gods/forces. The dependency is from the bible to Ugarit, and not from the Bible to Mesopotamia.

Third, there is a notable genre problem, which should give great pause in making connections. Craigie's observation twenty years ago is still pretty much on target:

Ugaritic has provided no prophetic poetry. It has left us no unambiguous examples of psalmody, with the exception of those passages which might be identified as originally hymnic, but have survived only through integration within different and larger literary forms (myth or legend), and it has no extensive examples of literary narrative prose. This observation is important, for it means that virtually all Hebrew-Ugaritic comparative studies involve the comparison of different literary forms.” [cited in [OT:CAD:146f]]

Fourth. Normally, these references to YHWH's relation to Sea, Flood, Water, Water-monsters (typically seen to be 'battle' terminology, but we will see this is not certain at all) are seen to be cases of Chaoskampf, which we saw was not involved in Genesis at all.

We have already noted in the earlier article on Canaanite influence, that Chaoskampf themes are of little relevance to our study, but let me just repeat/insert the relevant material from the earlier piece, for convenience to the reader:


(quoting from gilgy07b.html):

“Although we will deal with non-Genesis material in the next piece (“Residual Cosmogonic literary data”), let me at least describe HOW the scholars make this leap from 'battle only' to 'battle = cosmogony'. The logic goes something like this:

  1. Some ANE cosmogonic texts, such as Enuma Elish, describe creation in cosmic-battle images (the theory of Chaoskampf, order out of chaos). Battle-event and Creation-event are explicitly and narratively linked in the text itself.

  2. Some biblical texts (outside of Genesis) are assumed to describe creation in cosmic-battle images too. Under this understanding of those texts, Battle-event and Creation-event are explicitly linked in the text itself, also.

  3. (Assumption: therefore, the cosmogonic interpretation of the Chaoskampf-as-creation 'myth' was shared throughout the ANE, including Ugarit).

  4. The Ugaritic Baal Cycle records only the Battle-event.

  5. (Assumption: the Baal Cycle is an accurate/adequate expression/version of this Chaoskampf-as-creation myth, with all the implied aspects.)

  6. Therefore, the Baal Cycle Battle-event implies a Creation-event (cosmogony).

But notice how 'fragile' this argument is: the assumptions are contradicted by the textual data in several MAJOR ways

One. If you look over the list of ANE texts we have covered in this series, not even a majority of non-Ugaritic ANE cosmogonies are Chaoskampf-as-creation in nature! (such much for the 'sharing' assumption). The pattern is just not uniform/ubiquitous enough:

Accordingly, it is probably wise to limit the meaning of 'creation' to El's activities in ancient Ugarit and to distinguish Chaoskampf myths with a creation motif, such as Enuma elish, from Chaoskampf myths without a creation motif, such as the Baal cycle. In fact, even in Mesopotamia, there are myths of divine combat that have no essential connection with creation. Conversely, as H. W. F Saggs puts it, 'in Mesopotamian thought cosmic creation did not of necessity involve a divine combat.'” [OT:CAD, 145]

Two. There is independent literary/historical evidence that Ugarit was not even influenced by Syro-Babylonian myth at all:

Having announced in the title of my paper that I wanted to demonstrate Aspects of the Babylonian impact on Ugaritic Literature and Religion, I now come to a negative result: so far as we can see, we can detect no direct influence of the Syro-Babylonian literature on the Ugaritian. This also applies to the supposed adoption of gods from the Babylonian into the Ugaritian pantheon: here gods with Sumero-Babylonian names do indeed often occur outside the lists of gods and sacrifices, but they are in their functions less Mesopotamian than Ugaritian..This negative result was basically to be expected, since we established above that the rulers of Ugarit and their responsible subjects admitted cuneiform culture for the first time about the middle of the 14 th century.

I have prefaced my paper Aspects of the Babylonian impact on Ugaritic Literature and Religion with some general thoughts about Ugarit's late opening up to cuneiform culture. Until then Ugarit belonged to the world of alphabetic learning in the Levant. It was surely as a result of the political upheaval due to the Hittite takeover of the north Syrian inlands that Ugarit had to change over from the alphabetical culture to cuneiform culture thus giving way to a vivid symbiosis...I found it necessary to start with these considerations because I wanted to show that the tradition of Syro-Babylonian literature in Ugarit itself seems not have had a long tradition and therefore could not have developed independently.

Works of the Syro-Babylonian tradition dating from the second half of the 2nd Millennium BCE exercised no particular influence on Ugarit's literature and religion, as the genuine Ugaritian myths, epics and cultic religious texts show. Because of their short presence in the city they were simply too far outside of the intellectual and religious life of Ugarit.” [HI:URC, pp40,45]

Three. Even if the biblical texts can be so interpreted, it is a non sequitur to argue from them to Ugarit:

At any rate, only El and Asherah are explicitly said to create (bny, qny) in the Ugaritic texts. The fact that in the Bible Yahweh's victories over Sea (e.g., Ps 74:13-17) and the sterile desert (e.g., Deut 32:6-14 and Isa 43:16-21; 51:9-11) are genuine cosmogonies is no argument that the Ugaritic victories of Baal are cosmogonic also. The Bible borrows language belonging both to the storm god Baal and the patriarch El for its portrait of Yahweh. Since Yahweh is the sole deity, his victories over Sea and Death can be cosmogonic, without implying that Baal's victories are. In polytheistic Ugarit, the two gods have different functions.” [OT:CAANEB, p.124]

Four. Although we will examine the data in detail in the next piece in the series, it is only an assumption at this point that the non-Genesis biblical materials are either (a) mythological, rather than metaphorical; or (b) Chaoskampf-as-creation in nature at all:

The biblical poetic texts that are claimed to have been influenced by the Chaoskampf-motif of the ancient Near East (e.g., Pss 18, 29, 46; Hab 3) in fact use the language of storms and floods metaphorically and have nothing to do with primordial combat. Some of these poetic texts have the theme of destruction rather than of creation.” [OT:CAD, 196]


Five. Even if our passages refer to the Baal-versus-Sea myths from Ugarit, this means nothing--since Baal is not a creator (that was El's job in Ugaritic mythology), and these 'battles' are not creation events!

What, then, is the relationship between Hebrew creation stories and the Ugaritic Chaoskampf myth? In this Canaanite version of the Chaoskampf myth, the storm-god Baal fights with the sea-god Yam and his associates, such as the dragon and serpent. Since Gunkel, it has been claimed that expressions in the poetic texts of the Bible such as "mighty waters" (e.g., Hab 3:15), Leviathan (Pss 74:14, 104:26; Isa 27:1), Rahab (Ps 89:10, Isa 51:9, etc.) and "monster" (Ps 74:13) refer to Baal's adversaries. ... There are some similarities between the Babylonian myth Enuma elish and the Ugaritic myths of the Baal cycle, because both deal with the combat between the storm-god and the sea-god and his associates. But there are also significant differences between them: the Ugaritic sea-god Yam (masc.) is etymologically related to Heb. yam, not to Akk. Tiamat (fem.). And, most significantly, Baal never created anything. Thus, the Canaanite Chaoskampf myth has nothing to do with the creation of the universe or even of a part of it.” [OT:CAD:143f]

The close relationship between the combat myths in these two cultures does not mean, however, that they were identical. There is in fact a striking difference in the larger contexts in which the stories occur. In Psalm 74, the battle with the sea is followed by the creation of the universe, while at Ugarit there does not appear to be a connection between the battle and creation. Baal is not the creator god, and thus his battle with Yamm is portrayed, not as a prelude to creation, but as a struggle for domination in the council of the gods. El, the supreme ruler of the pantheon, is the creator of the universe. So the combat myth has a separate existence in the Ugaritic texts. Baal's victory is succeeded by the story of building Baal's palace. In Israel, on the other hand, Yahweh/El is the creator god, as well as the god of storm. So in Psalm 74 we find the description of the cosmic battle followed by references to God's creation of the world. Many scholars have argued that because there is a clear connection between the combat myth and creation in the biblical text (as well as in the Mesopotamian creation story, the Enuma elish), the Baal/Yamm myth must also be cosmogonic in nature. But this is a case where the assumption of parallelism goes too far. Without clear evidence for a connection between the Baal/Yamm myth and creation, there is no reason to assume its existence, just because such a connection occurs elsewhere. Different cultures developed their own understandings of the universe and different roles for their gods. At Ugarit the combat myth was central to the notion of rank among the gods, but since Baal was not the creator god, there was no need to link the myth with creation.” [OT:MAB:262f]

Sixth. Too much of the arguments focus on isolated phrases, words, and images--requiring too much 'extrapolation' and leading often to contradiction:

It may be helpful to note the fact that scholars have seen a reflection of two or three different versions of the Baal myth in Hab 3. For example, Hab 3:8-10 and 15 has been said to reflect one version of the Baal myth, the "Baal-Yam myth," while Hab 3:5 has been taken as reflecting another version, the "Baal-Tnn myth," which is preserved only on a rather broken tablet. And those who accept Albright's emendation of the text in v. 13 consider a third version, the "Baal-Mot myth," to be the background of Hab 3.31 Therefore, what scholars have actually practiced when comparing Ugaritic texts and Hab 3 is not really a comparison of two literary wholes from different cultures but an ad hoc comparison of several fragments of Ugaritic myths and a part of the Old Testament prophetic literature. ... In studies comparing Ugaritic mythology and Old Testament literature in general, too much emphasis has been put on similarity or the 'fact' of sameness in form... It is virtually only in the poetic texts that the 'similar' materials appear, and they usually constitute just a group of words or phrases, never sentences or discourses.” [OT:CAD:148f]

Seventh. These isolated words and phrases are used metaphorically (instead of 'mythically' or 'cosmogonically') all over the ANE, and therefore there is ZERO REASON to assume that the Hebrews were using them mythically (especially in light of the dissonance of the Genesis materials with ANE myths!). Tsumura goes through these images and gives cases for ANE literature for each one. I will give some of these (taken from [OT:CAD:184-195]), in the outline given there.

A. War and Storm Imageries

War described as Storm and Flood

Storm described as War

“Thus in many literary contexts neither storm imagery nor war imagery has anything to do with the Chaoskampf theme or the creation theme; they are simply metaphors describing an actual war or storm. References to the storms, floods, or seas in poetic texts of the Bible such as Ps46.31 and Hab 3.32 also have no relationship with either the creation theme or the Chaoskampf theme. Rather, they refer to the destructive feature of storm and war; hence, the motif in such biblical texts is destruction, not creation”[OT:CAD:187]

B. Destruction Motif

Devastation Caused by Flood

The Deluge as God's Agent for Destruction (often personified as “Deluge”, abubu)

Sea as God's Enemy to be Destroyed (sea is associated with 'fright' and 'terror' in Meso-x)

“In the Chaoskampf myths, it is the sea deity and his/her associates who are destined to be destroyed. In the same manner, the "sea" is used to represent the object of Yahweh's destruction in the Bible. For example, the "sea" and the "mighty waters" of vv. 8 and 15 in Hab 3 stand for Yahweh's enemies, who are destined to be destroyed. In other words, Yahweh is described as a king" fighting with enemies symbolized by destructive waters such as the "sea" and "mighty waters" (Hab 3:15), which are often personified and symbolized as Rahab (Ps 89:10, Isa 51:9), Leviathan (Ps 74:14, Isa 27:1), or dragons (Ps 74:13), and so on. These enemies of God are treated as those who are to be destroyed by the God Yahweh. Because no cosmic dualism is allowed in biblical theology, Yahweh's enemies have no chance of victory over him. ... Many scholars, following H. Gunkel, have combined the Chaoskampf theme and the creation theme and have seen this compound theme in many ancient Near Eastern myths as well as in Gen 1:2.49 Hence, they have identified the enemies with the uncreated "chaos" water, the enemy of the creator in primordial time, such as Tiamat in the Babylonian "creation" story of Enuma elish. But such a combination of these two themes appears only in Enuma elish out of all the ancient Near Eastern literature discovered thus far. The Ugaritic Baal myth is a Chaoskampf myth, but there is no creation involved. On the other hand, Gen 1 gives no hint of battle in its description of the creation of the universe. ... The images of "destructive" waters in the biblical poetic passages should be explained as the conflict without creation type, in which enemies are destined to be destroyed by Yahweh, the God of history, who is "enthroned in the heavens" (Pss 2:4, 29:10, etc.), whether they refer to the historical enemies of Israel (e.g., Exod 15:6, 9) or to spiritual ones (e.g., Isa 27). Often it is difficult to distinguish whether the enemies are historical or spiritual.” [OT:CAD:189f]

C. Personification and Metaphor

ANE: Deluge (abubu--above)

Bible: Rahab (Ps 89.9-10: “you rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them. You crushed Rahab like a carcass; you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm”)

“Here the two verses constitute two, two-line parallelisms that express God's mighty rule over his enemies, symbolized by the sea and Rahab. The expression "the raging of the sea" in the first line of v. 9 is balanced by "when its waves rise" in the second line. In v. 10, it is clear from the parallelistic structure that Yahweh's "enemies" are personified as Rahab. ... The expression "you crushed Rahab" is restated as "you scattered your enemies" in the second line of parallelism. Similar parallel expressions, "to cut Rahab in pieces" II "to pierce the dragon," and "to still the Sea " II "to strike down Rahab" also appear in Isa 51:9 and in Job 26:12 ... These biblical texts may refer to a mythological scene where a dragon was destroyed, similar to the Ugaritic mythological texts KTU 1.3 III 37–IV 3 and 1.5 I 1-3, which mention Baal's defeat of his enemy Yam and his associates, such as the dragon Tnn and the serpent Ltn. These events, like those in Isa 51:9, are taken as having already happened in very ancient time even from the perspective of Late Bronze Age Ugarit, but, as noted above, they have nothing to do with cosmic origins. ... Similarly, in these biblical passages there is no allusion to the "creation" of the heaven and the earth as in the case of Enuma elish. The name Rahab, still unattested in any extrabiblical text, is another indication of the diversity of the dragon myths in Canaan. The biblical authors of the Iron Age could use these already-antiquated expressions to describe metaphorically Yahweh's destructive actions toward his enemies. Furthermore, these metaphorical expressions seem to have already become idiomatic or nearly idiomatic when the authors used them, as the following text seems to suggest: “For Egypt's help is worthless and empty, therefore I have called her, 'Rahab who sits still'" (Isa 30:7, NRSV) [OT:CAD:191f]

Bible: Leviathan (Job 3.8, 'Let those curse it who curse the Sea, those who are skilled to rouse of Leviathan', “As with the case of Rahab, the term 'Levianthan' is simply a personification...and the word pair 'Sea' - 'Leviathan' had become almost a literary cliche in the Hebrew language.”)

Tsumura discusses the 'dragon' images of the ANE in this context:

“Expressions similar to "to crush Rahab" // "to scatter the enemies" are used also for the destruction of Leviathan, the personification of the sea dragon. However, the, expression "crushed the heads of Leviathan" in Ps 74:14 is slightly distinct from those used for Rahab, "to cut Rahab in pieces" // "to pierce the dragon," and "to still the Sea" // "to strike down Rahab," as cited above. Only with the cases of Leviathan are the "heads" (pl.) mentioned. For example, Ps 74:13-14 reads: “(13) You made the sea flee by your might; you smashed the heads of the dragons in the waters. (14) You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.” In this context, Yahweh's saving act (see v. 12: "salvations") of destroying his enemies, the sea and its associates, is described with highly metaphorical expressions. While the sea is forced to flee, the sea dragons and their representative, Leviathan, are smashed/crushed on their heads. Greenfield takes the fleeing and being smashed as contrastive: thus, "The Sea is subdued and forced to flee, but his henchmen Tannin and Liwyatan are destroyed." However, both expressions are probably metaphors for the same action, that is, the calming down of "the roaring of the sea" (as in Ps 65:8), for the withdrawal of the sea is brought about as a result of the destruction of the sea dragon's heads, that is, the cessation of surges. ... The heads of the dragons/Leviathan are to be compared with the seven-headed serpent/dragon in ancient Near Eastern mythology, such as in Ugaritic myths. KTU 1.5:I:1-3 reads: “When you smite Lotan, the fleeing serpent, finish off the twisting serpent, the close-coiling one with seven heads.' (D. Pardee in CS, 1.265)”

“Another text, Isa 27:1, is in the same literary tradition, though the author uses the metaphor in an eschatological context: On that day the LORD with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea. (Isa 27:1, NRSV) Such stories of fights with dragons were well known from the prehistoric era both in Mesopotamia and in Syria–Palestine.

“While the extrabiblical evidence for such dragon stories is still unavailable in southern Canaan due to the perishable nature of the writing materials (e.g., papyrus), northern Syria and Anatolia provide evidence of them. The evidence that the Canaanite Chaoskampf traditions were known in Anatolia is available from two mythological fragments that may belong to the Baal cycle. One text, KUB 33, 108, even alludes to the victory of the storm-god over the Sea. These are certainly indications that the Chaoskampf traditions were widespread before the Late Bronze Age in eastern Mediterranean lands, because myths were presumably well known orally before they were written down—that is, during the prehistoric era.

“Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that many people knew about the Chaoskampf myths and understood what the expressions "to smash the heads of the dragons" and "to crush the heads of Leviathan" meant and to what they referred, even if they knew only fragments of myths or had different versions [Footnote here: “The biblical authors used these expressions as metaphor rather than as polemic, as J Day and others advocate” MyNote: To support this, one need only note that polemic would have had YHWH defeating Baal instead of the same opponents that Baal vanquished. There is no 'polemical superiority' if you can 'beat up' the same enemy your rival did (a 'me, too' victory!)--you have to 'beat up' the rival!]. Just as the Ugaritic Baal cycle had nothing to do with the creation theme, the psalmist had no intention of bringing this theme into his poem. The idea here is Yahweh's complete destruction of his enemies, both historical and spiritual, symbolized by the "sea" and the "waters." By such destructive action against his enemies, Yahweh accomplished his salvation; passages such as Ps 74:13-14 have nothing to do with the creation motif, despite J. Day's assumption. It is a totally distinct motif from Enuma elish, in which the dead corpse of Tiamat is divided by Marduk to "create" the heaven and the earth.

“In Ps 104:26 and Job 41:1, the term "Leviathan" is simply a poetic metaphor for huge sea creatures. 'There go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.' (Ps 104:26, NRSV). 'Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook, or press down its tongue with a cord?' (Job 41:1[40:25], NRSV)

“The fact is that the ancient Israelites were well aware that they were dealing with metaphors. As noted by D. Pardee, the Ugaritians also clearly distinguished between a window of Baal's palace and a rift in the clouds and yet used the former term metaphorically for the latter in KTU 1.4 vii 25-37.63.

“Thus, storm, flood, or sea imagery is used in various ways in the ancient Near Eastern literature, including the Old Testament. It can be used metaphorically to describe a devastating force, as that of a human army or a divine being. The "Deluge" appears in Akkadian as one of the weapons in the divine arsenal. In the Bible, the deluge is described only in natural terms as rain and water, but it is clearly Yahweh's weapon.

“Sea waters also appear as the enemy of a god, usually the storm-god, in the Chaoskampf myths of the ancient Near East. In the Bible, there are references to fights with monsters such as Rahab and the sea dragon Leviathan, but they are used as metaphors. Most of these contexts could be paraphrased "just as you crushed your enemies of old, crush them now," similar to contexts that refer to historical events. There is no connection, though, between these sea-storm images and the creation motif, either in the ancient Near Eastern literatures (except Enuma elish) or in the Bible.” [OT:CAD:193]

Eighth. It is of major importance to recognize that EVEN IF Leviathan, Rahab, Sea, whatever are 'mythic figures, shared with the Canaanites' that this still has nothing to do with cosmogony--our subject here! We have already seen that these figures are battle-themed, not cosmogonic-themed items. And EVEN IF these figures show up in non-Hebrew mythic contexts, this fact does NOT support a borrowing notion--they appear as 'stock in trade' figures EVERYWHERE (e.g., do you KNOW of a culture without a literary image of 'fighting a dragon'?!). This is a good bit like the Flood story, which is present in all cultures--there are dragons, sea monsters, evil beasts in every culture, with a surprising degree of 'similar traits'. Hence, the presence of one of these figures in Israel and simultaneously in Canaan no more means Israel borrowed from Canaan than that he presence of the 'shepherd seeking lost sheep' motif in both the biblical Good Shepard stories and in Little Bo Peep means that “Mother Goose” borrowed from the bible...(smile... but not my comparison; it showed up in BAR, a letter responding to some myth-seeing by Batto). So, it's no big deal to find 'monsters' in the bible--even if there are monsters in Canaan--because there are 'monsters' everywhere. So, conservative/moderate commentators on these names (and the passages in which they occur) do not shy away from allowing some level of identification with 'generic', pan-cultural, mythic-foe images. For example,

“Continuing the theme of human inability to capture and control the most imposing creatures, Yahweh draws Job's attention to Leviathan, often identified as the crocodile. Crocodiles were numerous in Egypt, and there is evidence of crocodiles in Israel, e.g., along the coastal streams such as the Yarkon and the Kishon. According to Strabo (6.27), a town north of Caesarea bore the name Crocodilopolis. ... Another view interprets Leviathan as a serpentine sea monster, the embodiment of the chaotic forces of evil. In the OT Yahweh defeated the sea monster in the deliverance of his people from Egypt (cf. Ps. 74:14), and he will defeat Leviathan again in the final apocalyptic battle (Isa. 27:1). In Ugaritic literature this same creature, known as Lotan, is a sea monster hostile to Baal. In fierce combat Baal, the ruling deity, defeated this creature, described as a twisting serpent or a seven-headed dragon. The poetic description reveals that the author skillfully weaves into the portrait of an earthly serpentine animal the features of a mythical dragon. The implication of Yahweh's questioning is that Job could not master this earthly creature, let alone its cosmic counterpart.” [NICOT, Job]


“It is not unusual, of course, to find imagery used in the Bible, especially in biblical poetry. But when that imagery seems to make use of mythological allusions, as does Psalm 74, we may wonder what it means. Is the Bible implying the reality of the mythological world? Or perhaps the imagery was already remote in time and function from its original connotations, so that the psalmist used it as casually as we use mythological names for the days of the week and for certain holidays, such as Easter.

In Psalm 74 the psalmist is attempting to convince God that he should intervene on behalf of his city Jerusalem, just as he had done in his victory over evil—perhaps, as some think, at the creation of the universe.

As he makes his appeal, the poet adopts language parallel to that used in mythical texts from Ugarit (a Canaanite language whose vocabulary and spelling are similar to those of Hebrew). Heavily influenced by the Ugaritic mythological parallels, many modern scholars assume that the allusion to splitting (or “dividing”) the sea refers to some primordial powers. But actually it could well refer to the division of the Red Sea (or better, “Reed Sea”) at the exodus. The name for “sea” is yām in Hebrew and Ugaritic, and thus the real and the mythological share the same word. Only context and usage can determine the difference.

Given the context of Psalm 74, with its references to multiple heads and to Leviathan, it may well be that the poet has borrowed the terms from their Canaanite and mythological background without in any way endorsing the myth. If God could part the waters at the exodus, think of what he could do for Israel in this time of need! This is the psalmist’s point.

In verse 13, God also is said to have “broke[n] the heads of Tannim,” another name for “sea[monster]” (yām). According to the Ugaritic text 67:3 (approximately 1400 b.c.), this monster had seven heads. Earlier Mesopotamian cylinder seals depict seven-headed dragons being attacked by the gods of that land.

God also “crushed the heads of Leviathan” (Ps 74:14). Leviathan appears only six times in the Old Testament, often as a figure for Egypt. In Ugaritic this monster was known under the name of Lotan, but it appears here in Psalm 74:13–14 with other beasts such as Yam and Tannin (Tannim).

If Leviathan must be made to correspond with a known creature, then the large aquatic animal known as the crocodile (Job 41) would probably be correct. Leviathan swims in God’s great and wide sea (Ps 104:25–26). He has a scaly hide (Job 41:7, 15–17) and fearsome teeth (Job 41:14). But whether the multiheaded Leviathan of Psalm 74 is one of the mythological creatures or a name from old myths for the contemporary crocodile is difficult to say. If the imagery is not from pagan sources, then the references to the “heads of Leviathan” may well be a historical allusion, an image for the corpses of the Egyptian troops that washed ashore after the Reed Sea closed over them.

I lean toward the view that these are words that originally had mythological associations but in their biblical context have been purged of all such overtones. They now function as words of hyperbolic force to suggest the kinds of powers that God is capable of dealing with, and they particularly remind us of God’s marvelous deliverance at the exodus and the Reed Sea. The Bible makes reference to these images from the dead world of myth without giving the slightest hint of approval to this mythology, and without implying that the authors believed in it.” [HSOB, at Ps 74]

Ninth. Tsumura has already pointed out that these figures are not really references/borrowings from Canaanite myth, since they are more obviously simple metaphors and personifications. But this can also be seen by the OTHER uses of these metaphors, for things UNRELATED TO Chaoskampf-type motifs. When these images can easily be identified with historical (and not allegedly cosmogonic mythic figures), it becomes harder to maintain they that are derived from Ugarit. The proof remains upon the would-be 'borrowing advocate' to show a passage was NOT simple metaphor or personification. Consider some of this data, starting with “dragons”:

“Some interpreters distinguish two layers of meaning in the respective OT passages, namely, an older stratum in which tannîn is a mythical chaos monster and a later one in which it is a creature among creatures (Gunkel, Schöpfung, p. 120). New evidence no longer supports such a twofold distinction. Tannîn appears only once parallel to Rahab (Isa. 51:9), and only twice parallel to Leviathan (Ps. 74:13; Isa. 27:1). Its appearance with the article (Isa. 27:1 [Ezk. 29:3; 32:2, emended]) and in plural form (Gen. 1:21; Dt. 32:33; Ps. 74:13; Ex. 7:12) suggests that it is never used as a proper noun (in poetic passages the absence of the article is no safe guide), but always as a generic term. Thus tannîn, unlike Rahab and Leviathan, is properly a generic term and not a personal name.

“In eight of the fourteen tannîn passages, this term refers to an animal such as a serpent or snake (Ex. 7:9f, 12 [in 4:3 and 7:15 the “serpents” produced from Aaron’s rod are nāḥāš, the regular OT generic word for “serpent, snake”]; Dt. 32:33, where “poison of serpents” is in synonymous parallelism to “venom of asps [peṯānîm]”; Ps. 91:13, where “serpent” is in synonymous parallelism to “adder [peṯen]”; also Ps. 58:5 [MT 6]; Prov. 23:32), crocodile, or another mighty river creature (Ezk. 29:3; 32:2; Jer. 51:34). Two tannîn passages are found in clearly “non-mythological” contexts. In Ps. 148:7 the tannînîm are created beings called to praise Yahweh, as is all creation. Gen. 1:21 speaks of the creation of the tannînim, here a generic designation of large aquatic creatures contrasted with the small aquatic creatures (cf. Ps. 104:25f). The choice of the term tannîn in connection with the term bārā’, “create,” which emphasizes God’s effortless creation of the large aquatic creatures, exhibits a conscious polemic against the pagan battle myth with its notion of creation in terms of a struggle (cf. the Canaanite myth of Baal and Anat from Ugarit [DOTT, pp. 129f; ANET, p. 137] and the Marduk-Tiâmat conflict of the Babylonian Tiâmat myth [ANET, pp. 66f; Heidel, pp. 102–114]).

“Often a special and separate tradition is seen in four texts (Job 7:12; Ps. 74:13; Isa. 27:1; 51:9) in which the generic animal designation tannîn is believed to take on extrabiblical mythical meanings. Significantly, there is no close ancient Near Eastern parallel to the relationship of “sea” (yām) and tannîn in Job 7:12, where tannîn seems to refer to a natural aquatic creature with its habitat in the sea and is as little mythical as Leviathan in 40:1–41:3 (Ruprecht, pp. 222, 230). In Isa. 51:9 tannîn appears parallel to Rahab, an OT poetic name (Job 9:13; 26:12; Ps. 89:10 [MT 11]; Isa. 30:7; 51:9f) that has no extrabiblical parallel. Some scholars consider Rahab to be a mythical monster (Gunkel, etal); but this is to read into it from ancient Near Eastern mythology and is difficult to maintain since Rahab is often employed as a poetic synonym for Egypt (Isa. 30:7; Ps. 87:4; 89:10 [MT 11]; Job 9:13; cf. Ezk. 29:3). It is not unlikely that tannîn in Isa. 51:9 is but an aquatic creature (cf. Job 26:12) used metaphorically of Egypt.

“In both Isa. 27:1 and Ps. 74:13f tannîn is associated with Leviathan, a name parallel to the mythical seven-headed serpent Lotan in the Râs Shamrah texts (UT ’nt: iii.34–39; DOTT, pp. 129f; cf. UT, 67:i:1–3; 9:17; 75:i:8?) and the multi-headed dragon of Mesopotamian cylinder seals (ANEP, nos 691, 671). It is often assumed that Leviathan in these two texts reflects a direct indebtedness to the Canaanite myth, which refers in the same context to the personified antagonistic Dragon (Tannîn). However, the OT tannîn is neither personified nor a name in any passage. In Job 41:1 and Ps. 104:25–29 Leviathan is just another real creature, as is tannîn in most OT passages — a sure indication that the Israelites did not associate with these terms any clear concept of a mythical monster (G. Fohrer, Jesaja [2nd ed 1967], II, 35). (In Job 41:1 [MT 40:25] the RSV mg reads “the crocodile” for Heb liweyāṯān.) The context of Isa. 27:1 confirms tannîn and Leviathan as metaphorical and symbolic designations for real enemies of Yahweh, including such historical entities as Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. Ps. 74:13 speaks of the heads of the tannînîm, ” plural according to the MT and therefore not identical with the “heads of Leviathan” (v 14); each tannîn apparently has only one head. This poetic metaphor refers figuratively and symbolically to the destruction of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea at the Exodus.” [ISBE, s.v. 'dragon'/tannin]


“Since the outcome of the cosmic battle is assured, God’s enemies on earth may be likened to the dragon. Nebuchadnezzar has consumed Jerusalem with his monstrous appetite (Jer 51:34). Pharaoh, surrounded by the Nile delta, is “the great dragon that lies in the midst of his streams,” thrashing futilely against God (Ezek 29:3; cf. Is 30:7). The roiling sea was evidence of the struggles of the sea serpent. Job complains that he is confined as if he were a sea monster (Job 7:12). [Dictionary of biblical imagery, s.v. “mythical animals”]


“LEVIATHAN is a transliteration of a Heb. word which occurs in only five passages in the OT. It is generally thought to be from a root lāwâ, cf. Arab. lawā, ‘bend’, ‘twist’. Its literal meaning would then be ‘wreathed’, i.e. ‘gathering itself in folds’. Some scholars have suggested that it may be a foreign loan-word, possibly of Bab. origin. The context of its use in the OT indicates some form of aquatic monster. In Ps. 104:26 it is clearly of the sea and is generally thought to be the whale, although the dolphin has been suggested. It is used twice symbolically in Is. 27:1, referring to the empires of Assyria (the ‘fleeing’ serpent is the swift-flowing Tigris) and Babylonia (the ‘twisting’ serpent is the Euphrates). In Ps. 74:14 it occurs in reference to Pharaoh and the Exodus in parallel with the ‘sea or river monster’. This word occurs again in Ezk. 29:3–5 symbolically of Pharaoh and the Egyptians, where the description of its scales and jaws makes it clear that the crocodile is intended. ... Leviathan is referred to twice in Job. In 3:8 it is generally held to be the dragon which, according to popular ancient mythology, was supposed to cause eclipses by wrapping its coils around the sun. The longest description of Leviathan occupies Jb. 41:1–34, and most scholars agree that here the creature is the crocodile. Some have objected that the crocodile would not have been described as unapproachable and that there is no reference in the OT to crocodiles in Palestine. However, the author probably had in mind the crocodile of the Nile, and the description of the creature’s invincibility is rhetorical. [New Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Leviathan']


“A widely attested theme of the pagan creation myths concerns the draconic monster that threatens the creator god, who at last overcomes the monster in the act of creation (cf. Wakeman, Heidel). But in Ps. 104:26ff the great sea “monster” of the myths is made to he God’s pet (see M. Dahood, Psalms, III [AB, 1970], 45, for this rendering so reminiscent of Job 41), who waits submissively for God’s life-sustaining provision.[ISBE, s.v. “Leviathan”; Note: How 'Canaanite' could this image be???!” (smile)]


Leviathan. Sea monster mentioned several times in the Bible (Jb 3:8; 41:1; Pss 74:14; 104:26; Is 27:1). It may refer to any of the larger marine animals such as large jellyfish, whales, or sharks, or to a large reptile like the crocodile. Some biblical scholars think Leviathan may refer to animals now extinct, such as ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs (marine reptiles similar to dinosaurs). The scriptural term might also refer to certain dinosaurs that spent part of their lives half-submerged in shallow lakes and oceans. Other scholars believe that most of the references are to the crocodile.[Baker Ency of the Bible, s.v. “leviathan”]


“Leviathan” probably means “coiled one” from לוה like Arab lwy “coil,” “wind” (T. H. Gaster, “Leviathan,” IDB 3:116) and is like Ug. ltn. It also appears in Pss 74:14; 104:26; Job 41:1 and in 2 Esdr 6:52; 2 Bar 29:3–8. Here in Isaiah, Leviathan is described as “the hard, great, strong one … a fleeing serpent, a twisting snake … the monster which is in the sea.”... In another context the word might be explained by the mythical implications of the Ba˓al myth in which Leviathan is killed. But Job’s use transparently refers the name to a great sea creature with no mythic or supernatural overtones (cf. Gaster, IDB 3:116). The context here in Isaiah calls for a historical identification. On pp. 298–99 above, the arch structure of this Act was shown to balance the reference to the sea on which Tyre’s sailors work (23:11–12a) with Leviathan (27:1). The name Rahab, also usually applied to a great mythological dragon, is applied to Egypt by name in 30:7. The same thing is done here. Leviathan is a symbol for Tyre. God’s promise to “decide the fate” (פקד) of Tyre (23:17) is fulfilled in this passage when God “decides the fate” of Leviathan (27:1).” [WBC, at Is 27.1; Note: Leviathan = Tyre, not some Canaanite deity...]


“The identifications of behemoth and leviathan with the hippopotamus and the crocodile respectively are now commonly accepted: the only modern competing theory is that which, reviving in a fresh form ancient Jewish interpretations (En. 60:7–9. 24, Apoc. Bar. 29:4, 4 Es. 6:49–52: see also references, s.v. לויתן in Levy, NHWB) sees in these beasts mythical monsters described partly on the basis of mythological tradition, partly by means of traits derived from the hippopotamus and the crocodile (Che. EBi. 2483): see Che. Job and Solomon, 56, and Behemoth and Leviathan, in EBi.; Toy, Judaism and Christianity, 162 f.; Gu. Schöpfung u. Chaos, 57, 61 ff.; and for a full and keen criticism of the theory, Bu. The supposed mythical traits are found mainly in the interrogative passage (41:1–11 (40:25–41:3)), though not exclusively, for Che. and Gu. find such also in 40:19. 24, 41:25 (17), 31–34 (23–26), and especially in the fact that both animals, though this so far as the hippopotamus is concerned rests precariously on 40:24, are represented as beyond the power of men to capture, whereas the ancient Egyptians hunted and captured both the crocodile and the hippopotamus. Yet this point cannot be pressed too far, for, as Bu. (on 40:25) has pointed out, the Egyptians themselves could speak rhetorically of the animals as unapproachable: so in a hymn of victory Amon-Re says of Thothmes: “The lands of Mitanni tremble under fear of thee: I have caused them to see thy majesty as a crocodile, lord of fear in the water, unapproachable” (Breasted, Egyptian Records, ii. 659). .” [ICC, Job]

When the vast majority of incidences of a word refer either to something literal or to something “non-mythologically metaphorical”, it needs substantial evidence/argument to warrant a conclusion that it is referring to something 'primordial'. This is especially the case when this 'primordial' thing is identified in context with specific people (e.g., Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar) or nations (e.g., Assyria, Egypt)! [Myth-loving scholars try to explain this away as being Israel's 'historicizing of the myth', but this begs the question--they must ASSUME without textual data (which is historical in intent and texture in the actual text) that there is a 'myth' hiding behind there somewhere. This sounds a little like the oldest philosophies: all matter is actually water, but it just doesn't look wet when it is manifested as fire!


Additional Note: Jan/2006: A major new treatment--wonderfully rigorous--of the theme of Chaos in the Hebrew bible appeared in late 2005: Chaos Uncreated: A Reassessment of the Theme of Chaos in the Hebrew Bible, by Rebecca S Watson. WalterDeGruyter:2005.

Although much of her analysis is suitable here, let me just cite the conclusion reached relative to the Psalmic material: "The most significant conclusions resulting from this investigation are twofold. First, the terminology of 'chaos' should be abandoned in relation to the texts here considered, since it obscures the diverse spheres of imagery and reference displayed within them. Second, even the specific content ascribed to the motif of 'chaos' has been shown to be inappropriate." (p.264) and our earlier conclusions about the non-cosmogonic nature of Rahab/Leviathan are also reached here: "The apparent dissociation of Leviathan from the theme of 'Chaoskampf' which emerges from this analysis is thus in accord with the conclusions reached in respect of Rahab and (as designated through various thenimology) the waters." (p.367) Again, this material is neither cosmogonic, nor borrowed...




Okay, where does this leave us?

This is a little different from our previous cases, but again here we don't see any strong evidence for 'literary dependence' or even 'mythic dependence'. The usage is perfectly understandable a metaphors, stock-idioms, and personifications. And the data likewise contradicts the identification of these figures with primordial, mythic, divine, enemies of God.

glenn, December 2/2005

The Christian ThinkTank...[] (Reference Abbreviations)