For a list of events related to biblical scholarship, see our online calendar.
View the Calendar >>
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive
The Return of the Chaos Monsters: A Biblical Myth
I have been told that screenwriters have a truism about how there are only six — or seven or eight or ten — basic stories. If there is such a list, it surely includes the following:
I want to add one more category to the list of perennially favorite stories that humans tell each other; it is the basis for, the backstory of, nearly every horror story or film: "the Return of the Chaos Monsters." This story is alluded to in the Bible. The best place I know to begin this story is with the Enuma Elish.
- "Fish out of Water" in all its rural/urban, high class/low class, masquerading variations (the theme of most comedies).
- "What Goes Up, Must Come Down," as a Titan falls from Olympian heights but becomes a human being in the process (the theme of most dramas that end on an uptick; again comedies, in the classical sense).
- "Whatsoever a Man Soweth that Shall He Also Reap" (the theme of most detective or crime narratives, and maybe most tragedies).
The Enuma Elish
In the Babylonian poem Enuma Elish — let us provisionally pretend that it dates to 1100 BCE, the time when Ephraimite bards were composing songs about a Divine Warrior who marched out from Sinai with an array of ancient Semitic special effects — it is explained that the reason we have a world that works, a world that is not like an outdated tourist attraction in Chattanooga, the Upside Down House, is that a long time ago a god of order, the "Black-headed" peoples' hero, Marduk, defeated the dragon of chaos.
We have a world that works because, in the very first Western, the good guys won, and there is now a cosmic sheriff in town who has locked up all the bad guys. Who are the bad guys in the Enuma Elish? There is Tiamat, a feminine personification of watery chaos, and Qingu, her warlord. In addition, Tiamat has a gang of hoodlums that follow her into battle. These hoodlums are referred to in Mesopotamian literature, within and beyond Enuma Elish, as "the Eleven." Let us call them "the Malificent Eleven."
The Malificent Eleven are monstrous hybrids of one form or another — fish-men, winged lions, bison-men, horned serpents — that is, variations on all the centaurs and griffins of ancient art and story, and all the gargoyles and hairy men of medieval legend, and all the Batmen and mutant teenagers in contemporary comic books.
The key detail from the narrative of the Enuma Elish for this analysis is that these chaos monsters whom Marduk, the god of order, defeats are not destroyed. Tiamat is dismembered and recycled. The Eleven are imprisoned and bound with chains. But they are not obliterated.
The recycling of Tiamat's carcass, the creation of cosmic and terrestrial structures out of her limbs and organs, suggests that chaos lies at the foundation of creation, that everything fixed might yet sway. The imprisonment, but not the obliteration of the chaos monsters, the Eleven, suggests that a healthy world consists of checked raw energy. But chaos cannot be erased because to do so would mean there is no possibility for change or new energy or drama or conflict: "No sand, no pearl."
We have then the foundation for another long serial in the matinee of history: the return of the chaos monsters. Because the griffins, centaurs, Godzillas, and Draculas get unearthed (or freed from their caves or released from their coffins), heroes have to spend the rest of the story getting them back into their cages.
Jon Levenson's Creation and the Persistence of Evil
Even though Tiamat and the chaos monsters do not appear in Gen 1, there is primordial chaos. The Bible begins midstream, the waters are there: the primeval cosmic soup, the ?tohu wavohu (Gen 1:2a). Creation begins when the ruakh elohim begins moving over tehom.
Eventually the chaos is bounded, and shaped into structures, into a cosmos. Tiamat in Genesis is not a personified serpent, but is instead tehom, the soupy cosmic abyss. The great sea dragons, the tanninim, are in Gen 1 — they show up on Day Five — but they are just another phylum within creation and are neither personified nor cast as opponents of order.
Jon Levenson in Creation and the Persistence of Evil writes that "the confinement of chaos rather than its elimination is the essence of creation." Creation in Gen 1 is not about making things out of nothing, it is about bringing definition and differentiation. The chaos was not obliterated. It was controlled, fenced in, held behind a firmament, and organized into structures — everything according to its kind.
A second observation of Levenson's is the biblical conjunction of creation and of covenant; namely, that humans assist in the stability of the created order through upholding these cosmic structures, through virtue. A third point follows closely from this, namely, that sin, trespass, inattention to the details, threaten to undo the structures of order. As Levenson writes of Genesis 6-9:
||Therein, humanity's injustice threatens to undo the work of creation, to cause the world to revert to the primordial aquatic state from which it had emerged. |
Awakening the Monster
If one wanted to translate the above formulation of Levenson into the idiom of personifying myth — and I do — it would be that "sin awakens the Chaos Monsters." I will not attempt to track this story, the Return of the Chaos Monsters, through the ages, but I will mention two contemporary examples.
When Janet Leigh's character embezzles money from her employer in the initial scene of "Psycho," she unwittingly awakens the monster, Norman Bates, who will later destroy her in a cascade of chaotic water. When in Dr. Seuss' fable a mother goes out shopping and leaves her two children alone in the house with explicit instructions not to let anyone enter, what happens when they violate her commandment and open the door to the Cat in the Hat? The violation leads to the emergence of the chaos monsters, Thing 1 and Thing 2, and the rest of the story is devoted to putting them back into their suitcase.
This story is as old as Pandora's Box (or, in the biblical version, the basket containing "Wickedness," Zech 5:7) and as contemporary as the latest slasher movie where teenagers engaging in premature sex fall prey to a serial killing sociopath on a remote lover's lane. The logic of this archetypal story is that sin awakens the chaos monsters and leads to the undoing of creation. Ethical structures and liturgical disciplines are among our defenses against chaos. By keeping the mitzvot, doing mishapt, and loving ?khesed, humans act as co-managers with God of chaos. Virtue keeps the cosmos structured. Virtue keeps the chaos monsters at bay.
So the song they taught us in Sunday School is true, after all: it's love, it's love, it's love that makes the world go 'round.
The best-known biblical snapshot of Creation Morning is contained in Gen 1. But if we enter the darkroom and develop some of the other biblical images of creation, texts such as Isa 27:1, 51:9-11; Ps 74:12-17, 89:10-15, we can see the profile of chaos monsters lurking in the background of Gen 1 (cf. Ps 24:1-2, 29:3-4, 10). The biblical text that is most explicit about the chaos monster at creation, the most revealing negative of Gen 1, appears in the opening statement in the legal case of Job versus the Creator for breach of contract. There Job says:
||"Let the day perish in which I was born,|
and the night that said, 'A man-child is conceived.'
That very day: let there be darkness (yehi khoshek)!
. . . Let the cursers of [that] day curse it,
those who are adept at awakening Livyatan (Job 3:3-4a, 8)
This passage presents a reverse image of creation: not yehi or, but yehi khoshek. Job asks for the tape of reality to rewind, first to the day he was born; next to the very night, forty weeks before, on which he was conceived; and finally, in so many words, to the deep darkness and gloom of Gen 1:2a, to the tohu wavohu, the formless void. In order to accomplish this negation, Job requires a specialist, someone skilled at arousing Leviathan, a flautist capable of charming the primordial serpent from its basket. Once the dragon, Leviathan, is lured out of its cave, all hell will break loose and creation will start to come undone.
Rewinding the Tape
Job 3 is the Bible's most vivid allusion to the Return of the Chaos Monsters until the Red Dragon after a thousand years escapes, Houdini-like, his fetters from the bottomless pit in Rev 20 for a final spree. But non-personifying versions of this backstory are scattered throughout the prophets. These texts describe the reversing of creation. In the moralistic jeremiads of the monotheistic prophets, creation starts to come undone and chaos is unleashed through human trespass.
Consider this poem in Jer 4, where the prophet describes what wayward Judahites have wrought:
||I saw the earth (haaretz) and, look!: wild and waste (tohu wavohu), and the sky (hashshamayim) and there was none of its light (or). |
We are now back before Day One.
||I saw the mountains and, look!: quaking, and all the valleys were quivering. |
This takes us back, in Isaac Watts's phrase, to the time "before the hills in order stood," to before Day Three when God separated the dry land from the seas.
||I saw and, look!: there was no humanity (adam), |
Day Six has become undone. In this prophetic text and in the Flood story of Genesis, human trespass leads to the undoing of creation (cf. Jer 12:4; Zeph 1:1-6; Isa 24:3-5, 18-20; Hos 4:1-3).
The Isaianic Apocalypse begins with a non-personified form of this backstory, but then keeps amping up the rhetorical intensity until the monster finally breaks free from the bonds of prophetic monotheism.
||Isa 24:4-6 begins:|
The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed torot, violated khoq,
broken the everlasting covenant (berit olam).
Therefore a curse devours the earth . . ..
Therefore the inhabitants of the earth dwindle,
and few people are left
The final phrase depicts the opposite of "being fruitful and multiplying." Then later in the same passage, the imagery of the Flood narrative returns in Isa 24:18b:
||For the celestial holes [of the raqia] have been opened,|
and now the substructures of the earth quake.
It is as if the unleashing of chaos, the inundation of the earth with the waters of the upper world, causes the foundation columns supporting the lower world to lose their footing, and the earth sways and quakes. Finally, this very sequence of passages ends with the chaos monsters fully personified in Isa 27:1 with its explicit reference to Livyatan.
In the liturgical cadences of Gen 1, the score of creation was composed up the scale one note at a time, and in the Flood story and these prophetic texts it is decomposed down the scale one note at a time.
Cause and Effect
I want to make a small point here: One of these texts that play on the idea of creation becoming undone includes the type of language often termed a "futility curse"; namely, Mic 6:11-15, where the prophet delineates the punishment due Judah for social injustice as:
||You will eat and not be satisfied . . .|
You will put away but not save . . .
You will sow but not reap.
The definition of an orderly world is one in which cause precedes effect. The essence of the covenant the biblical writers and audiences saw embodied in the natural world and claimed to have seen etched in stone on Mt. Sinai was ethical cause and effect. The logic of the above text in Mic 6 is that the undoing of creation involves the severing of cause and effect: "you will sow but not reap."
Conversely, Isa 65:17-23, which portrays a new act of creation, includes the image of this link between cause and effect being repaired.
||For, look! I am creating a new heavens and a new earth . . .|
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. . . .
They shall not labor for nothing.
A Full End
Psalm 46 was probably written in the aftermath of Sennacherib's siege of Jerusalem around 700 BCE. Something happened then that we still do not understand. The Assyrian army, on the verge of victory, retreated. It could have been a domestic crisis. It could have been a gastrointestinal crisis. To the psalmist, whatever the effect, the cause was clear. Though the Assyrian siegeworks and platforms and battering rams and miners and engineeers and archers and chariotry-corp camp outside our city walls, we will not fear (Ps 46:2). Though the Orcs beat their spears against the ground until the walls of Helm's Deep sway, we will not fear. Though everything that seemed stable and secure starts to come undone, as though the world was moving backward through creation, gradually losing definition and clarity, from Day Seven to Day Six to Day Five to Day Four — and now the earth starts swaying (Ps 46:2, 3) — no matter how long the night, there will be evening; there will be morning, the First Day, the Next Day. God will come to Zion's help when morning breaks (Ps 46:5).
If this psalm describes the experience of a people under siege as a reversal of cosmos, as a moving backward through creation week, from Day Six to Day Five and so on, until the very pillars of the earth give way and the whole thing begins to sway — the work of Day Two — then there is a place, according to Ps 46, where the Deity, like Moses' sister on the banks of the Nile, digs in, hityatztzev, and takes a stand. Day One will not be undone. There is a line that the Deity will not allow to be crossed. There will not be a "full end."
Gregory Mobley, Andover Newton Theological School
 John D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil (New York: HarperCollins, 1988) 17.
 Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil, 138-39.
 Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil, 10. The flood narrative of Gen 6-9 depicts the return of creation to chaos because of human violence (Gen 6:11, 7:11), followed by a new act of creation (Gen 8:1-2, 13, 15, 17), in terms that parallel the diction of Gen 1.
Comments on this article? email: email@example.com
Let us know if you would like your comments sent to the author or considered for publication as a letter to the editor. Please include your full name and, if you would like, your affiliation.
Citation: Gregory Mobley, " The Return of the Chaos Monsters: A Biblical Myth," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Feb 2007]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=623