Sunday, August 10, 2008

Tehom and Tiamat: The Concept of Chaos in ANE Cosmology

What's One Crocodile Tooth More or Less

I was looking back through some of my projects from school the other day and I came across a paper that I wrote for an Old Testament backgrounds class. The concept is a fascinating one, and the sources in Ancient Near East cosmologies are interesting for sure. One of the challenges Christian apologists are confronted with is the dating of these documents. Many claim, for example, that because the Enuma Elish predates the writing of the Genesis account, Genesis borrows from the Babylonian account and is nothing more than legend. Dating, however, does nothing to prove this point. It is the stories and themes contained within the texts and the contexts within which they are written that mean more than the dating. Some of those issues are addressed in this paper. There are certainly some similarities between the accounts, but the differences between them far exceed those similarities. In reality, the similarities point to a source in reality that is shared by these accounts. Genesis records the events of creation according to those who walked with God, while Enuma Elish records a pagan peoples' attempt to understand those same events through a pantheistic worldview. We can have great confidence in the truth of God's Word despite attempts to discredit it. God's Word will always remain firm, and in the end, God Himself will be the one to vindicate it before all men. In the meantime, here is my paper:


Genesis 1:2 describes the earth following the initial creation event of 1:1 as being “formless and void”, and adds that “darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.”1 The word translated “the deep” is the Hebrew word tehom, which fundamentally means “flood.” 2 Some, however, have claimed that it ought to be understood as being synonymous with concept associated with Tiamat, the Babylonian name for the goddess representing chaos. 3 According to this view, the writer of Genesis borrowed from Babylonian cosmology the concept of a personified chaos who is opposed to God’s creative efforts. 4 On the other hand, many scholars do not see Babylonian motifs in the Genesis creation account, which brings up the question of whether or not the author of Genesis borrowed the concept of conflict between God and chaos in the composition of his cosmology. The answer to this question is typically sought in three different areas. First is the use of the word tehom and its connection to Tiamat. Next is the thematic similarity between Genesis and the Babylonian account known as Enuma Elish. The final area of investigation is the nature of cosmology as well as the context in which the creation account is found.

One of the primary arguments that is used in favor of a mythological “borrowing” on the part of the author of Genesis is the close connection between the words tehom and Tiamat. This trend began at the end of the 19th century with the work of Hermann Gunkel, who claimed that the Hebrew word is a direct derivation of the Babylonian. As a result, Gunkel also argued for a purely mythical interpretation of the Biblical text. 5 The connection between the words, however, is not one of simple dependence. Morphologically it is impossible to demonstrate tehom to be adapted directly to Hebrew as a loan word. 6 This does not, however, rule out the etymological connection that exists between the two words. It is most probable that both words were derived from a common Canaanite root, but the similarity between the words is by no means proof that one mythology is dependent on the other. 7

Those who argue that the author of Genesis borrowed themes from pagan mythology appeal not only to the similarity of the words tehom and Tiamat, but also to a number of similarities that can be found in the cosmological accounts in which they are used. The Babylonian creation account known as Enuma Elish tells of how Tiamat raged against the gods by creating “monster-serpents,” “roaring dragons” and the like for the purpose of waging war to avenge the death of her husband at the hand of the other gods. 8 Although these themes are not explicitly stated in Genesis 1, the creation Psalms are frequently cited as evidence that the idea was present in the Jewish cosmology. 9 One specific example where this is found is Psalm 74:13-14, which states “You divided the sea by Your strength; You broke the heads of the sea monsters in the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; You gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.” The problem with this comparison is that these passages do not elaborate on any tension that exists between God and chaos, rather, they merely show God to be triumphant over His enemies. The lack of real conflict is a significant departure from the Babylonian text, in which the gods are deeply troubled by the rebellion of Tiamat. 10

Another comparison has been made between the account of Genesis 1 and that of Enuma Elish regarding the means by which chaos is controlled. The Babylonian account tells of the god Marduk’s victory over Tiamat through the use of “the Evil Wind.” 11 Genesis 1:2 may also describe God’s triumph over the deep by means of a wind. They typical translation of verse 2 says “the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters,” but it could equally be translated “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (NRSV). It is perhaps the wind, then, that suppresses the rebellion of chaos, thereby allowing God’s creative acts to be completed. 12

A third element of similarity between the two cosmologies is the action of separating the waters into upper and lower halves. In Enuma Elish, Marduk completes his victory over Tiamat by splitting her “like a shellfish into two parts,” with one half creating the sea and the other the firmament. 13 The parallel in Genesis is found on the second day of creation in Genesis 1:6-7. “Then God said, "Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters." God made the expanse, and separated the waters which were below the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse; and it was so.” The division of the waters is, according to some, the “only substantial similarity” between the two accounts, 14 but it is also significant to note that Genesis gives no indication of a connection between the creative act and the vanquishing of a foe. 15

The final area of investigation into the question of whether or not the author of Genesis incorporated elements of pagan cosmology into his own account of the creation must address the context in which the account is found. The general purpose for writing cosmologies is addressed in several different ways. One understanding of their purpose relates directly to the issue at hand. That understanding is that all creation accounts are fundamentally an attempt to show how the gods created order out of chaos and maintain control over chaos and evil, which continually seek to undo the created order. 16 This definition, however, seems to be motivated by the question of the relationship between tehom and Tiamat, and is perhaps too narrow. In more generic terms, the ancients used mythology to explain the origins of the natural world, to define the relationships between men and gods, and to reflect the culture’s values and worldview. 17

It is very important to take into account the culture that developed each worldview. Palmer credits the lingering effects of Abraham’s youthful pagan worship with the incorporation of Babylonian mythological themes into the Jewish cosmology, 18 but there is far too much emphasis throughout Scripture on the uniqueness of God to accept this position (cf. Exodus 8:10, Deuteronomy 6:4). The fact that there is no personification of tehom in Genesis is significant to this discussion as well. 19 Unlike the Babylonians, it was not the intent of writer of Genesis to show a hierarchy of gods or metaphysical beings, but to show how the one God created all things and subjects all things to His will.

The word tehom is used eight times throughout the Pentateuch, and reviewing these uses reveals that the concept is devoid of personification or power of any kind. The first occurrence is in Genesis 1:2 as noted above. The second and third occurrences are found in Genesis 7:11 and 8:2, where they are clearly subject to God and used by Him to exact His justice. The next instance of tehom is found in Genesis 49:25. Here Jacob is blessing Joseph with promises of blessings from God. The promised blessings include “blessings of heaven above, Blessings of the deep that lies beneath, Blessings of the breasts and of the womb.” This use is also found in Deuteronomy 8:7 and 33:13 in similar contexts of blessing. Finally, tehom is found in Exodus 15:5 and 8, both describing the crossing of the Sea of Reeds and the subsequent destruction of Pharaoh’s army, according to God’s wrath, in “the deeps.” Clearly the Pentateuch does not present the idea of tehom as an entity opposed to the Creator.

It is clear that there is no need to see in Genesis 1 the influence of Babylonian mythological conflict. In fact, “to suggest that there is in Genesis 1:2 the remnant of a latent conflict between a chaos monster and a creator god is to read into it from mythology.” 20 The linguistic argument is primarily influenced the work of Gunkel, whose argument has been shown to be indefensible. Therefore it does not support the idea that tehom is simply a synonym for Tiamat. 21 The similarities between the accounts in Genesis and Enuma Elish do not support such a view either, but they cannot be disregarded completely. In this case, the similarities between the two accounts reveal the differences, rather than the similarities, between the Babylonian and Jewish worldviews. The fact that Genesis contains echoes of the Babylonian account, while retaining none of the conflict and resulting hierarchy among gods that motivated the pagan cosmology, speaks volumes about the purpose of Genesis. The author of Genesis presents to his readers anti-mythical teaching in his presentation of creation. 22 The worldview he presents is governed by the existence of one God who has created and controls all things, using even the most unruly of elements for His purposes both in judgment and in blessing.

1 Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE, Copyright 1960, 1962, 1968, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
2 Ernst Jenni, “Tehom, Flood,” Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, 3 vols., ed. Mark E. Biddle, (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997), 3:1410.
3 Smyth A. Palmer, Babylonian Influence on the Bible and Popular Beliefs: “Tehom and Tiamat,” “Hades and Satan”. (London: Strand, 1897), 6.
4 Ibid, 17.
5 Jenni, 1413.
6 David Toshio Tsumura, The Earth and the Waters in Genesis 1 and 2. (Worcester, Great Britain: Billing and Sons Ltd, 1989), 46.
7 Ibid, 47.
8 James B. Pritchard, “The Creation Epic,” Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, trans. E.A. Speiser. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969), 62.
9 Bruce K. Waltke, “The Creation Account in Genesis 1:1-3. Part 1: Introduction to Biblical Cosmogony,” Bibliotheca Sacra 132, no. 255 (1975): 32.
10 Pritchard, 63.
11 Ibid, 67.
12 Palmer, 8.
13 Pritchard, 67.
14 John H. Walton, Ancient Israelite Literature in its Cultural Context: A Survey of Parallels Between Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Texts, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), 26.
15 Ibid, 35.
16 Leland Ryken, ed. “Cosmology,” Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 1998), 169.
17 John H. Walton, “Genesis,” The NIV Application Commentary, ed. Terry Muck (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 27.
18 Palmer, 2.
19 Walton, “Genesis”, 73.
20 G.F. Hasel, “The Polemic Nature of Genesis Cosmology,” Evangelical Quarterly 46, no. 2 (1974): 84.
21 Jenni, 1413.
22 Hasel, 85.


Anonymous said...

I think it's wrong to assume that the Biblical authors borrowed from the Enuma Elish. Much as how you admit that Tehom and Taimat might have the same etymological root, the creation stories may have the same mythological root.

Dan said...

I agree, using the word "borrowed" is kind of sketchy. Plus, when you study a variety of creation stories (most completely unrelated) you see many of the same concepts, eventually leading to an existential argument.)

I think its safer to say that the writer(s) of the Bible, in an attempt to strengthen the argument of monotheism, eluded to Tiamat so that the reader of its time could pick up the, more likely, play on words. Also I think it recapitulates the cyclical nature of destruction (God destroys the older (polytheist) ideas of creation, creating a new set)

Katie said...

I don't discount the possibility that they both hail from a common root, perhaps in an older civilization that we know even less about today.

However I feel it is important to note that according to Sumerian mythology, Nammu split into two parts: Tiamat and Apsu. Nammu represented many of the same things that Tiamat has come to represent. And the Sumerians' regard for Nammu was very different than the Babylonians' regard for Tiamat. In fact the Hebraic disregard for Tehom more closely matches that of the Babylonians, towards Tiamat.

But the Enuma Elish elucidates many points that have elements in common with the Bible: the younger generation toppling an older one, infanticide, vilification of one's enemies to name a few.

Thanks for sharing the article.

Alice C. Linsley said...

The two stories have little in common. The closest narratives to the Genesis creation and flood stories are found in Africa, which is where Abraham's ancestors came from. Nimrod built a kingdom in Mespotamia, but he was a Kushite, the son of Kush.

Te-hom is related to the Egyptian word Te-hut, the god of wisdom. Te-hom is the opposite, the bringer of chaos. Don't believe everything you were taught in seimary. I earned a Master of Divinity degreee from a prestigious eastern mainline seminary and most of what I learned there about the Old Testament has proven useless. The professors were too influenced by rabbinic interpretations and talmudic writings. Let Genesis speak for itself without forcing an interpretation on it and you will be amazed what you will find there - even Jesus Christ Himself!

Anonymous said...

You're all wrong.
Sitchin is right.

Anonymous said...

nicely said Alice. I treat the entire bible from first word to last as a single expressive poem, it's beautiful. Treat it like a car repair manual well then we end up with 38,000 different allegorical interpretations, with each interpretation "Magically" having the bible match with the translators view, all 38,000 of them. Apparently Metaphor is impossible to fully grasp by most. oh well apparently we are still growing thumbs.

AngelfromNaples said...

And what about the fact that Abram is from Ur, the sumeric town of the goddess of the moon Ningal, few kms from Eridu, the first town with temples. Another name of that god is Jah (the moon also for Egypt) and the akkadian version is Sin from which Sinai.

The battle of Marduk with the dragon Tiamat is similar to the battle of Michael with Satan. Tiamat is rapresented as a dragon, but It's a rewriting of an ancient sumeric myth that was at the origin of our civilization. Also the Old Testament demonizes the female principle as the Babylonian Myth of Marduk do. Ah, Marduk means "solar calf"... like Jesus, isn't it?

Before Babylon there was Sumer civilizazion, our real fathers. Iraq!