Friday, January 14, 2011

Chaos and the Deep (Part 2 of 3)

The heavenly ocean and the earthly ocean  
Genesis 1:6 reads ‘And God said, ‘Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters (mayim), and let it divide the waters from the waters.’

It is difficult for us to think like an ancient human.  We are taught the water cycle at an early age.  We give our children books entitled ‘Why is the sky blue?’  But the Hebrews did not have access to the same knowledge we have today.  When they looked at the sky, they saw, just beyond the horizon, a vast blue, so far away that even the sun seemed to be contained by it.  At night they saw lights twinkling in the sky against a deep black.  There is only one thing on earth that is vast and blue: the ocean.  And where does rain come from?  The sky.  It only made sense that this blue sky was in fact a heavenly ocean.

And indeed that is the picture of the world given to us by the ancient Mesopotamians.  The earth was envisioned as a disc surrounded by the earthly ocean; covering the disk was a vast dome, and above the dome was the heavenly ocean from which the rains came. 

Those who read Genesis 1 as a scientific text run into a significant problem when they dig into the Hebraic understanding of the world, because it was very similar to that of the surrounding ancient cultures and is completely unlike our knowledge of the world today.  In Genesis 1:6, those mayim over which God’s winds were blowing, those heavenly chaotic waters, are separated (notice God never speaks them into existence, since they are there prior to day 1) to form two bodies of water, one on earth, which he calls yam (the seas), and one in the heavens.  To separate these waters he stretches a firmament or ceiling that would keep the heavenly waters above and the earthly waters below.  And he hung from that firmament the stars and sun and moon.

In Psalm 104 God sets his throne on this heavenly ocean.  In Psalm 24 God establishes the earth upon the yam (seas).  In Job 26:11 the heavenly canopy is founded on pillars, and in Jonah 2:6 the roots of the earth are described as being in the deep sea.  Furthermore, the heavenly ocean is given a direct role on the earth: clouds (the ‘water-skins of heaven’ according to Job 38:37) are filled with water by God (Job 37:11) and release their life-giving waters when full (Ecclesiastes 11:3); however, these rains were not caused by evaporation but came from the heavenly oceans (Psalm 104:13).  The clouds acted as vessels, taking water from above and releasing it below.

Thus the Hebraic view of the world was much like a tent, with the firmament being the tent itself, mounted on pillars, with starry candles to light the tent, and waters both within it, surrounding it, and at times passing through it.

If that makes you feel claustrophobic, it should.  Although God had tamed the chaotic tehowm, remnants of its disorder remained.  Notice that day 2 is never given God’s stamp of approval, unlike every other day – could this be due to the nature of the separated waters?  Proverbs 8:29 reads, ‘he gave the sea (yam) its boundary so the waters would not overstep his command.’  Psalm 104:9 reads ‘You set a boundary they [tehowm] cannot cross; never again will they cover the earth.’  One gets the sense from reading these verses that there was a fear that, if God were to turn his face away for only a moment, if he loosened his tight control over the oceans, chaos would spill over and leave creation once again formless and empty.  

I think it possible that Gibson is right when he declares that the Behemoth and Leviathan of Job are not, contrary to the Creationist interpretations, dinosaurs, and they are not just, contrary to most scholars, elaborate depictions of elephants and crocodiles.  They are the personification of chaos-come-again.  They are a message to Job that natural disasters will continue to strike, that innocent people will continue to suffer, so long as chaos keeps a foothold on creation.  And they are a reminder to Job that God has not forgotten about them, but is in control of them and will one day be finished with them.
At the end of the creation account, after order has been shaped from chaos, God rests.  The threat of chaos still exists, but its full power is kept under reign.  And then, one day, a new form of chaos emerges and poses an entirely different threat to creation.

Chaos and sin
‘Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field…’ (Gen 3:1)

In perfection, there is a tempter.  A serpent (nachash) speaks, a decision is made, and paradise is lost.  The serpent is cursed, but the damage has been done; creation is no longer the same.  Man, the steward of creation, and woman, his perfect helpmate, lose their ability to properly rule.  The ground is cursed because of it.  Enmity arises between man and woman.  Cain kills Abel.  Soon every person’s thought is constantly turned towards evil (Genesis 6:5).

Why a serpent?

We have already visited Isaiah 27:1, the passage about the ‘dragon that is in the sea’, aka tanniyn yam or Leviathan.  The middle of that passage reads ‘…shall punish leviathan that crooked serpent…’, i.e. that crooked nachash.  The sea serpent, the dweller of tehowm, the embodiment of Tiamat, in Genesis 3 pays Eve a visit.  The message is clear: chaos has found a new way to disrupt creation.

Unlike the former chaos, which threatened the physical order of the material world, in Genesis 3 we have the introduction of moral chaos.  This chaos threatened, not the existence of the material world, but the fragile relationships that governed its order. 

How could God deal with such moral chaos?  From such a seemingly innocent gesture as the eating of a fruit, chaos quickly spread to affect the very core of every human.  Against a foe more devious than original chaos, corrupting instead of destroying, how could God win?  In Genesis 7-9 we have the solution: save a remnant that is pure, and destroy moral chaos by destroying the world.  Start fresh.

And so God loosens his command on tehowm, and Hebraic fears are realized: chaos returns.

The Flood
‘And after the seven days the floodwaters came on the earth…’

In Genesis 7:10-11, we are given a glimpse into the horrors of tehowm unleashed: ‘On that day all the springs of the great deep (tehowm) burst forth, and the floodgates (‘arubbah – literally window, sluice) of the heavens were opened.  And rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.’  The world was covered in water, to the heights of the highest mountains (Genesis 7:19), and every living thing was destroyed (Genesis 7:23).

There were two sources of this chaos: the heavenly ocean, which gushed down through openings in the firmament, and the earthly tehowm, which released its waters from underground springs (see Judges 15:18-19, Ex 17:6, Nu 20:11, Isaiah 48:21, Ezekiel 31:4 for other references to these underground springs).  You will recognize these waters as the two oceans separated on day 2. 

And chaos once again reigned supreme.  You almost expect the author to record that the earth was formless and empty, with darkness over the deep and winds upon the waters.  But things are different this time.  Chaos may have had momentary control, but a remnant was saved, buoyed up on those chaotic waters by an ark.

The Flood account purposefully directs us back to the creation story so that we do not miss the point: God tried to deal with moral chaos by recreating the world.  The parallels between Genesis 1-3 and the Flood account are numerous, and include: the use of tehowm; the focus on a single key human player, Adam/Noah; the story of a sinful deed committed by the human player that centered around fruit (forbidden fruit/vineyard); a child chosen by God and a child rejected by God; subsequent genealogies; a series of moral principles given by God after (re)creation, etc.  These similarities are too numerous to be discounted, and should profoundly affect how we read and understand the Flood account.

The upshot of the Flood is that re-creation did not work.  Not even the chaos of tehowm could completely destroy this moral chaos, so long as a remnant were allowed to survive.  The moral chaos continued even in those as pure as Noah.  Either God would have to destroy everyone and enjoy a human-less creation, or he would have to find some other way.

Jesus’ authority over chaos
So far our reflections on tehowm have led us through some interesting rabbit holes, as we realize that the history of salvation is intertwined with this interesting phrase.  It is no surprise, then, that we see the concept of tehowm lurking behind some enigmatic New Testament passages.

Go back and read Matthew 8-9 and keep this notion of chaos in the back of your mind.  How it enriches the text!  In this passage, after healing numerous illnesses, some with a touch and some with only a word, Jesus falls asleep on a boat.  ‘Without warning, a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat… The disciples went and woke him, saying, ‘Lord, save us! We're going to drown!’  He replied, ‘You of little faith, why are you so afraid?’ Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.’

We tend to read that passage as if Jesus was simply showing his control over nature.  But compare Jesus’ authority over the wind and waters to God’s calming of the tehowm in Psalm 107.  Recall the chaos of the tehowm in Genesis 1 and 7-9, and recognize that Jesus is not merely exhibiting his control over nature.  He is exhibiting his control over those things that threaten the created order.  He is rebuking that very primordial chaos out of which creation was structured.  The Word of God has entered creation, and is bringing with Him order.  Immediately thereafter, he drives demons into a herd of pigs and sends them into that same chaos.  And then he forgives the sins of a paralytic.

We are left to ask, along with the disciples, ‘What kind of man is this?’  It is one with authority over Chaos.

The waters of baptism, tehowm and the Flood
One of the great promises of Christianity is that, thanks to the authority and power of Christ, we have been released from our bonds to sin.  Moral chaos no longer holds power over us.  We demonstrate this freedom through baptism.  I do not intend to get into debates over the purpose of baptism (Is it essential for salvation?  Is it ‘just’ an image?).  I intend only to relate it to the discussion we have had so far.

Look at these passages:

‘Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.’  (John 3:5)

‘Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?  Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.’ (Romans 6:3-4)

‘Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!’ (2 Corinthians 5:17)

‘…having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.’ (Colossians 2:12)

Why is it that entering water should symbolize death, and rising from the water rebirth?  We easily understand the significance of water as a cleansing agent, but it is only as water as tehowm that we can truly comprehend the significance of this gesture.  As Pope Benedict XVI points out in Jesus of Nazareth, when we enter the water, we enter into that primordial chaos that seeks to destroy.  We participate in the fullness of death by entering into that which seeks to swallow up even death, that chaos from which nothing can emerge.  And then we are lifted out of those floodwaters in an act of re-creation and re-birth.  Chaos swallows us like a Flood, but this time we emerge new, whole, and cleansed.  Jesus’ victory becomes our own.

Now we can make some sense out of Peter’s enigmatic words, ‘…when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also…’ (1 Peter 3:20-21).  The floodwaters, which destroyed all of creation, also supported and saved the passengers on the ark.  Likewise those waters seek to destroy us, to put us to death, but all that dies is our sinful nature as we are restored to life by the grace of God.

In Genesis 7, God chose to destroy the world with a Flood, to restore it to its original purity.  But this did not work.  Now each of us can choose to enter that Flood, and find perfect restoration.

It is surprising that an image that represented such terror should now be used for such good.  But such are the ways of God.

Tehowm and Paradise
There is one final use of the tehowm image that I would like to discuss, before getting into some consequences of tehowm for evangelical evolutionism.  There is a thread throughout scripture of subterranean waters being used at critical moments to quench the thirst of the needy.  In Judges 15:18-19 Samson, after winning a battle against the Philistines, pleaded to God for water.  God responded by opening a ‘hollow place’, and water poured out.  More famously, Moses on two separate occasions struck a rock with his staff, providing water for the people to drink (Ex 17:6, Nu 20:11).  This water is explicitly linked with tehowm in Deuteronomy 8:7 (‘For the Lord thy God bringeth thee into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths (‘ayin tehowm) that spring out of valleys and hills’) and Psalm 78:15 (‘He split open the rocks in the wilderness to give them plenty of water, as from a gushing spring (tehowm)’).

I am not suggesting that chaos is alluded to in these passages.  No, tehowm was not always an image of chaos.  Sometimes it just meant water.  The Hebrew people seem to have had a belief, much like Plato, in subterranean channels of water that were linked to the ocean.  This is possibly the meaning of Ecclesiastes 1:7, in which rivers flow into the oceans, the oceans never fill, and ‘to the place the streams come from, there they return again.’  Water moves underground from the ocean to the rivers, and returns, sweetened, to the oceans.  For a nation used to digging wells and finding water, this water cycle is completely logical.  Occasionally, God could take advantage of this to miraculously provide water for his people. 

It is this pleasing, life-saving aspect of tehowm, so different from the chaotic flood waters, that Ezekiel describes in 31:4.  He writes about a large, vibrant, life-giving tree that provided food for all nations.  Although its vibrant growth was due to the waters (tehowm) it had rooted itself in, its arrogance at its own power grew.  Due to its arrogance, God decided to uproot it.  In this case, the tree represented a political leader.

I cannot resist mentioning that verse in the context of this: ‘And the angel showed me a pure river with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, coursing down the center of the main street. On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month. The leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations.  No longer will anything be cursed. For the throne of God and of the Lamb will be there, and his servants will worship him’ (Rev 22:1-3).  There is really no connection between these passages besides the vibrantly growing trees – there is no suggestion that the river giving life to these trees is an extension of the tehowm image.  If anything, it is an allusion to Eden, with its many flowing rivers.  Yet I like to think that perhaps there is a hint of tehowm here as well, a tehowm subdued by God, no longer posing a threat to creation, and actively providing order and healing.

Part 1
Part 3

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