Friday, January 14, 2011

Chaos and the Deep (Part 1 of 3)

‘Go, and speed; Havoc, and spoil, and ruin, are my gain.’
- Chaos to Satan, Paradise Lost, Milton

‘…darkness [was] upon the face of the deep…’ (Gen 1:2)

How are we to read Genesis 1?  Some evangelicals argue that a plain, literal reading of Genesis is the only truly Christian way to understand it – anything less invalidates the very authority of Christ.  Genesis 1, they argue, was revealed to us as a guide to the how of the Creative process.  Yet the very opening of Genesis delivers a fairly decisive blow to this notion, with the enigmatic phrasing of ‘the deep’ and ‘the waters’.  It is the purpose of this article to plumb the depths of this mysterious image used throughout scripture, and in the process to challenge some long-cherished beliefs of evangelical Christianity.

Chaos in rhyme
If you read Genesis one in Hebrew, you will be immediately struck by two rhyming words: tohuw and bohuw.  They are in the context of ‘Now the earth was formless (tohuw) and empty (bohuw).’  These two words set up the entire framework for the rest of the chapter, in which days 1-3 reveal the formation of the Earth’s structures out of this tohuw-ness, and days 4-6 reveal the filling of these bohuw forms.  Bohuw is used only two other times in the Old Testament, once to basically repeat this Genesis 1 phrase (Jer 4:23) and the second to depict the loneliest image in the entire bible (Isaiah 34:11): ‘he shall stretch out upon it the line of confusion, and the stones of emptiness (bohuw).’  The ‘it’ in this verse is the land after God has laid it to waste.  The only word that Isaiah could use to describe this post-apocalyptic landscape is the same phrase used for a pre-creation emptiness.  That is one powerful word.

Tohuw is used twenty times, to denote wild and desolate wilderness (Deut 32:10, Job 12:24, 26:7, Psa 107:40), fruitless endeavours (1 Sam 12:21, Job 6:18) and chaos or confusion (Isa 24:10, 34:11, 41:29).  Together, these rhyming words convey an image of a desolate world laid barren by chaos. 

What can overcome such chaos?  What can bring order, giving form to the formless and filling that which is empty?  Only the Word of God.

And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.

Uncreated water?
What does chaos have to do with these mysterious phrases ‘the deep’ and ‘the waters’?  I wanted to mention tohuw and bohuw so you could get a glimpse into the word-picture the writer of Genesis was trying to convey.  There is a lot of debate over the nature of ‘the deep’, and I thought it would be helpful to keep the notion of chaos in the back of our minds.  Because I am going to argue that ‘the deep’ is, in fact, the embodiment of this chaos.  It is mentioned immediately after tohuw and bohuw, and is linked in the rest of scripture to the vast, mysterious, and raging oceans.

‘…darkness [was] upon the face of the deep (tehowm).  And the Spirit (ruwach) of God moved upon the face of the waters (mayim).’ (Gen 1:2b)

Have you ever stopped to consider this verse?  Where did these waters come from?  The literalists must do one of two things: they must either state that God created these waters prior to day one, or they must state that water pre-existed creation.  And, indeed, much effort has been spent in arguing that the phrase ‘God created the heavens and the earth’ is specifically referring to God’s creation of the formless and empty world (and thus the waters as well).  Not everyone agrees, however, believing the ‘heavens and earth’ to be an introduction to what unfolds on days one through six. 

But perhaps there is another way.  Perhaps the literalists are asking the wrong questions by treating Genesis 1 as an historic or scientific text.  Perhaps they should start digging into the cultural context to get some deeper insights.

The ancient Hebrews had connections with two of the world’s most powerful nations: Abraham originated from the land of the Babylonians, and his descendants were enslaved in Egypt.   These superpowers had their own unique takes on the creation of the world – interestingly, both chose to begin their accounts with water.  In the Egyptian account, the god Nun, a body of primordial water, births Atum, who rests on a hillock in the midst of Nun and shapes the other gods by, ahem, masturbating.  In the Babylonian account, Apsu (freshwater) and Tiamat (the ocean) mingle their waters together (you can guess what that means) to produce the next generation of gods. 

But the Hebrew God lies above the waters, and speaks the world into being.

One difference between the Hebraic account of Genesis and that of the Egyptians and the Babylonians is that, for the Hebrews, water is just water.  The Spirit of God hovers over the waters, but is not himself water.  God is not embodied in nature. 

It would seem that this is the point of the ‘uncreated waters’.  It was not meant to cause literalists to do interpretative gymnastics in order to rescue the scriptural account from scientific inaccuracies; rather, it was intended to cause the Hebrews to reflect on how their God was different from the deities of the other nations.

Now that we have introduced Babylonian mythology, we can quickly get to the heart of the mysterious ‘deep’.

But first, a chaotic parentheses
There is a clever word play going on in the phrase ‘Spirit of God’.  The Bible is full of such word plays, enabling the reader to get a multitude of meanings from a single image (see, for example, the Logos of John 1).  ‘Spirit of God’ is the phrase ruwach ‘elohiym, literally translated as breath or wind and often denoting that which makes living creatures live.  In Genesis 8:1, the Flood account, we have a similar phrase, ‘’elohiym ‘abar ruwach’.  It is this God-caused wind which drives the Flood waters away.  In numerous other passages the wind of God is seen as a force interacting with waters (see especially the parting of the Red Sea - Exodus 14:21, 15:8 – and Jonah 1:4).  In Psalm 107 we get a description of some sailors cast about at sea, staggering ‘like drunken men’ as the ocean unleashes its full fury on them:

Others went out on the sea in ships; they were merchants on the mighty waters. 
They saw the works of the Lord, his wonderful deeds in the deep.  For he spoke and stirred up a tempest (ruwach) that lifted high the waves.  They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths (tehowm); in their peril their courage melted away.  They reeled and staggered like drunken men; they were at their wits’ end.  Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress.  He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed.  They were glad when it grew calm, and he guided them to their desired haven.

This storm is caused by ruwach.  Whenever we get ruwach paired with waters, we get powerful waves.  In other words, we get chaos.

So there are two different ways to understand the Spirit of God hovering over the waters.  First, we have God in contradistinction to the waters, divine versus natural.  We have this divinity ‘hovering’, denoting restlessness in anticipation of creation, ready to unleash his winds to drive back the waters and expose the land, a counterpoint to the God of rest on day 7.  Secondly, we have the ‘wind of God’ blowing across the waters, stirring them up into a chaotic activity, with the formless and desolate land nearby, and darkness pervading the deep.

It is no accident that the deep (tehowm) is the same word used in Psalm 107 for the oceans stirred by God.  Tehowm, the deep, is, like the waters over which God’s breath is blowing, an image of chaos.  Indeed, mayim (waters) and tehowm (deep) are often used interchangeably (ex. Psalm 77:16), such that the darkness over the deep and the winds over the water are an example of the common Hebrew poetic device of using the same image, reworded.

But the stormy seas are not the only image of chaos that tehowm conjures up.

The deep and the sea monster
The Old Testament has multiple allusions to fierce sea serpents.  Psalm 89 and Isaiah 51 mention God’s battle with the sea serpent Rahab.  Job 41 eloquently describes the leviathan as a fire-snorting crocodile-like beast that only God can contend with.  In Psalm 74, God is described as breaking the head of the leviathan, and in Isaiah 27 the prophet declares that ‘in that day the Lord with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent…and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea.’  The day that Isaiah is talking about is the day of judgment; the leviathan is a personification of the evil that the world has collected through the iniquity of humans.  The phrase used for ‘dragon that is in the sea’ is tanniyn yam.  Both of these words are found in Genesis 1, where tanniyn is often (and incorrectly) translated as ‘whale’ (Gen 1:21) and yam is the sea God forms from those outer waters and names in Genesis 1:10

The creature that represents chaos and defiance towards God in the Psalms and Isaiah is, in Genesis 1, swimming peacefully in a perfect creation.

Where am I going with this?

Tiamat, the Babylonian mother of all the gods, the ocean that mingled with freshwater, was sometimes depicted in Babylonian drawings as a dragon.  In the Babylonian creation myth (called the Enuma Elish), she is a large-mouthed and fierce monster who wages war on the other gods with her legion of demonic creatures.  Eventually she is killed by Marduk and her body separated like a shellfish to form the world and the sky.  She was a sea monster.  She was the ocean.  She was the god of Chaos, a threat to the divine realm, the material out of which the structures of the world were made.

In Genesis 1 we have allusions to the following: water (which Tiamat was), separation (like Tiamat’s body), chaos (which Tiamat represented) and sea monsters (like Tiamat’s depictions).  In the rest of scripture we have images of God battling a sea monster, much like Marduk battled Tiamat.  And then there is tehowm, the deep, which has eerily similar grammatical roots to the word tiamat.  Furthermore, like Tiamat, tehowm represents that dark, deep and mysterious primordial ocean, the same ocean which God names yam and in which the sea monsters reside.

All of this was noticed by the German Protestant Old Testament scholar Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932), who went so far as to suggest that in scripture we find hints of a primitive form of Hebraic worship that was quite similar to that of the Babylonians (ie polytheistic), and that tehowm, the deep, is a holdover from that time.  In other words, tehowm was another god worshipped by early Hebrews, hidden in the Genesis text.

This, obviously, sparked a huge debate.  Assyriologist Alexander Heidel, in The Babylonian Genesis, attempted to refute Gunkel’s argument.  He did not agree that two words with the same roots needed to have the same meaning, as seen in the German word ‘selig’ (blessed) and the English word ‘silly’.

Clearly Gunkel took his reasoning too far, but Heidel was guilty of ignoring the similarities.  As I’ve already mentioned, the word-picture in the opening of Genesis is one of chaos and seems to intentionally bring to mind the Babylonian creation account.  Throughout Genesis 1, in fact, we see allusions to other creation myths, with the express purpose of contrasting the Hebraic God to the other gods of other ancient peoples.  By acknowledging similarities between Tiamat and tehowm, we are not saying that the Hebrews had worshipped some form of Tiamat, or believed that God had fought some chaotic sea monster; instead, we are doing our best to pay attention to what these images are telling us.  They are purposefully bringing to mind the idea of chaos, in as many forms as possible, so that God’s peaceful and orderly creative act can be seen as all the more magnificent.

Order out of chaos
As I have already shown, there are some significant similarities between Tiamat and tehowm, not the least of which is the root of their name.  We can now see that Genesis 1:2 contains four images, tohuw, bohuw, the darkness of tehowm and the winds of mayim, that are all linked to the greater image of Chaos (indeed, this is made even more apparent in the Septuagint, where tehowm is translated as abyssos – the bottomless pit of Revelation).  The Earth was in chaos, being formless and empty, and surrounding the Earth was the vast, chaotic waters, the dark deep, in which monsters lurked and in which a steady wind blew.  The Spirit of God hovered over this chaos in restless anticipation of what was to come.  But how could God possibly shape creation from this chaos?

The answer is that he spoke.  Language, the great organizer, calmed the chaos. 

People often wonder about the seven days of creation and how to best read them.  I suggest they pay attention to the structure of these days, as the interpretation of the days is a consequence of this structure.

Let’s use tohuw and bohuw as a guide to the seven days:

Day 0 à  Restlessness/Chaos

     Formlessness (tohuw)                                  Emptiness (bohuw)

Day 1 à  Separate light/darkness                  à       Day 4 à Sun/moon/stars
Day 2 à  Separate waters, sky                     à       Day 5 à Fish/birds
Day 3 à  Separate land/plants from water      à       Day 6 à Land animals/humans

         Formed                                                        Filled

Day 7 à  Rest/Order

As already mentioned, tohuw relates to days 1-3, as the three major realms (light, sky/waters and land) are given form out of formlessness.  Bohuw relates to days 4-6, as these newly-formed structures are populated with beings.  And there is structure across these categories: on day 4 the realm of light created on day 1 is filled with bodies that exist in the realm of light; on day 5 fish and birds are created to fill day 2’s water and sky; on day 6 the land animals and humans are created to fill day 3’s land.  The end of creation is summarized by the word ‘rest’. 

We could have discovered this structure without delving into tehowm and chaos, but then the point of the passage would have been lost.  We were meant to understand that chaos at one time reigned supreme.  We were meant to feel fear as we wondered how God could possibly cope with such a formidable opponent.  We were meant to reflect on the Babylonian creation account, and wonder if God would have to slay chaos like Marduk had slain Tiamat.  What monsters might chaos spawn to confront God?  And then, at the height of this fear, as darkness and winds surround the seed of the Earth, God speaks, and chaos grows calm.  There are no heavenly wars.  There is no bloodshed.  There is just the power of an incomprehensible God treating chaos as no real threat.  Our only response can be to laugh as we see the dreaded tanniyn of the tehowm frolicking in the waters with all of God’s other created creatures.

There is nothing to fear.

And yet, in the midst of this perfection, chaos still lurks.

Part 2
Part 3


Jordan said...

Stunningly written, Matthew. This really gets 'it', and articulates it powerfully. I'm jealous and admiring of this essay.

Beachscriber said...

Matthew, I've been thinking about this and I think you make the point about the real value of the scriptures very well but I wonder if perhaps your idea of chaos isn't also a misplaced or neglected historicism. Would the writers of old had the same idea of order and chaos which we have given the influence of modern science's chaos theory and artists like Jackson Pollock? We tend to think of chaos as arbitrariness and meaninglessness and I somehow wonder if they would have seen it the same way. In fact, I can't help going so far as to wonder if chaos is the correct characterisation at all. I'd be more inclined to think of it as living in covenant and its antithesis, whatever that is.

What do you think?


Matthew said...

Hi, thanks for the thoughtful comment. Its a good point, and the history of the concept is something I lack knowledge on. I do know that Chaos was personified by Milton in Paradise Lost (1667). Its been a while since I read it, but I remember being struck by Chaos' anger over the intrusion of order into its domain. A.B. Chambers has a paper from 1963 on the historical ideas that went into Milton's Chaos (its called 'Chaos and Paradise Lost') - unfortunately I only have access to it at the school, and I'm not there right now. It might be informative. The image that I keep coming back to for Chaos is the image of the thrashing sea shown in Psalm 107. I think the fear of the dark, thrashing, wind-swept waters is the same image alluded to in Genesis 1:2, and I think that that destructive force, the Flood waters of Genesis 9, are the image of Chaos we are being given. I don't know if I can define it more concretely than that. Chaos as the great unorganizer, the primordial nothing, the destructive power, the anti-creation. I keep thinking of Tiamat yawning open her cavernous mouth in an effort to destroy Marduk, and Marduk organizing the cosmos from her body. As for covenant and its antithesis, covenant would seem to be where all creation heads. Day seven, the sabbath shalom, is the pinnacle and crown of creation, the pinnacle of order. Chaos as anti-creation would therefore have to be the antithesis of covenant as well. That is very interesting, I had not made that connection until you brought it up. Thoughts?

Matthew said...

To answer your initial objection, I think there is a gut-level knowledge of chaos versus order. We see something rotting away to nothing and know that that is in opposition to a birth. We know the difference between a built house and a ruined house. We know how much effort it takes to pile up rocks, and how little effort to send them crashing down. The very distinction between good and evil seems to carry with it some concept of order and chaos. I don't think we need knowledge of entropy or chaos theory or deep philosophical reflection to know that something is going on, and I think we see that reflected both in the Babylonian Enuma Elish and the Genesis Flood account and the Fall. So, to answer your question, I don't think we need to read a modern mathematics-laden definition of chaos into this passage; but chaos as the opposite of creation screams to me from this text. Again, thoughts?

Beachscriber said...

The main theme of the Bible is Covenant. Everything hangs on those bones. It is an explicit theme. You don't need read anything into any imagery. That's how I see the bible and I see it as speaking more about stuff like in covenant and out of covenant, breaking covenant, bondage, freedom, obedience and disobedience rather than order and disorder which are vaguer and less helpful concepts, not really mentioned in the bible. I don't mean to write off the notion of chaos entirely. I just think it is eclipsed by far more useful and specific concepts which are explicit in the bible and I don't see it as very useful in addressing the human condition.

To come at this from another angle, when I look at the universe, at nature, I don't see chaos. I see ecology, balance, entropy and enthalpy, etc. Decay and death are normal aspects of the way things are made. Decay can be a beautiful thing. I love the smell of a compost heap. While I am sorry for Japan and Indonesia, I still think of a tsunami as part of the amazing way the planet works. While I can see how one could read the picture you paint as of chaos vs creation, I can't see how "formless and void" necessarily implies the negative state of chaos. In and of themselves, order and disorder or not necessarily good or bad. It depends what you need from the situation. I like my paperwork to be orderly but I like my shredder to impose disorder. Obedience and disobedience, are another story - value-laden, clear and useful concepts.

But setting this little objection aside, I must say I like the way you think and am very impressed with how thorough and informed you are. I'm more of a philosopher, gravitate towards the abstract.


Beachscriber said...

One more thing, my own way of balancing creation and evolution turns on this idea: if you have an acorn, you have an oak tree. Whatever the world becomes is a function of what it was to start with; a flowering of the original seed.In this view of things, we don't begin with chaos, but with simplicity.

This is still a germinating idea. What do you think?

Matthew said...

Hi Beachscriber! This entire notion of chaos is definitely a germinating idea for me as well. It was largely developed as I wrote a paper on the Hebraic view of the oceans for a history of marine sciences class, of all things. I think I would disagree with you in one area: the Bible is full of themes; I'm not sure that we can identify a main theme at the cost of the others. I don't intend to make chaos a driving theme in scripture; it is surely minor. Perhaps there is even a better word to use than chaos, although I'm not sure what it is. That said, just because it is minor does not make it unimportant. As an image, it adds deep significance to the Genesis Flood, Job, and the concept of baptism.

I have a difficult time with the natural evil inherent through evolution. I have difficulty with the wastefulness of it. Although yes, mutualism and integration and altruism are way more important than generally realized, there are still real lives ruined by famine and parasitism and the like. Complexity could only evolve through such strife. Yes, we are the ones imposing the value-laden terms of 'natural evil' onto how nature acts, but there must be a reason for that. We, as beings made in the image of God, recognize that there is something off about the evolutionary process, something almost less than worthy of God. I have followed this image of chaos because I think that it is a real image in Scripture, and because I hoped that it might lead to some way of explaining natural evil. And I think I am getting ever closer. Jurgen Moltmann, in God in Creation, has an interesting idea about creation's necessary imperfection, that seems to dovetail nicely with my own ideas. I may post about it in the future.

At any rate, I am thankful for your interest! Challenges to anything I write are always welcome; I am very much fallible! (I am also, unfortunately, rather stubborn, so it may take time for a challenge to really penetrate my thick skull :)

I wonder if you've read Augustine's thoughts on germinal causes in creation? It might help with your own hypothesis.