The *imagery associated with chaos and death in the literature of the ancient world functions to inform human understanding of the realities of life under the principle of divine activity and design. Such texts are a reflex of cultural etiology—the search to understand and express primary causes and overarching structures in the divine and human realm. As such, these accounts grapple with the dark and difficult realities of human existence and interpret them as a subset of past and present struggles in the divine realm, often including the very process of creation. In the end, the portrayal of a divine act such as the ordering of chaos and the defeat of death acts as a pattern for understanding, preserving and transmitting religious and cultural traditions. Moreover, such stories work to express and codify societal order and codes of conduct as well as to vouchsafe for the efficacy of various religious rituals. Lastly, the study of the imagery of chaos and death in the OT has been both helped and hampered by the discovery of ancient Near Eastern texts having levels of similarity with various texts of the OT (particularly texts in *Job and *Psalms). These ancient Near Eastern texts can provide significant insight into the cognitive context of the biblical writer (and audience) and thus facilitate interpretive clarity and accuracy, but the search is riddled with irrational exuberance on the one hand and irrational avoidance on the other. With these possibilities and pitfalls in view, this article attempts to carefully navigate this search for meaning of chaos and death in the ancient Near East and the OT.

  1. Chaos
  2. Death as the Ultimate Expression of Chaos

1. Chaos.

1.1. Chaos in the Ancient Near East. The story of divine struggle against chaos (Chaoskampf) is commonly symbolized as a battle between a storm god (or a god whose fight is described via storm imagery) and a sea god/goddess (usually denoted via a primordial watery abyss along with a sea serpent/dragon). The narration of this battle between the storm god and the sea god/goddess is frequently found in the context of cosmogonical (stories that focus on the events and mechanics of creation) or cosmological (stories that focus on the meaning of creation) accounts. As with ancient flood accounts, Chaoskampf stories are attested in many cultures in the ancient Near East and beyond (e.g., Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Greece, Mari, Canaan, Syria, India, Egypt, Persia).

In a landmark study, Schöpfung und Chaos in Urzeit und Endzeit (1895), H. Gunkel attempted to show that the Babylonian myth Enuma Elish, chronicling Marduk’s defeat of the sea dragon Tiamat and subsequent creation of the world, was the backdrop for several OT texts involving the imagery of yhwh battling the sea and sea creatures such as Leviathan. This view received widespread support until the discovery and publication of the Ugaritic corpus, after which the OT’s references to yhwh’s control over the sea, sea monsters and so forth were proposed to actually reflect Syro-Canaanite mythological texts, particularly those concerning Baal’s battles with the sea and death. M. K. Wakeman’s God’s Battle with the Monster (1973), J. Day’s God’s Conflict with the Dragon and the Sea (1985) and C. Kloos’s Yhwh’s Combat with the Sea (1986) typify this adjusted approach to the topic of chaos. However, R. S. Watson’s recent Chaos Uncreated (2005) has challenged this adjusted approach by arguing that chaos imagery is found with too much variation in terminology, context and coordinated motifs to be able to be brought under a single unifying theme.

1.1.1. Mesopotamian Chaos Imagery. Mesopotamia has a long history of stories involving battles against dragon-like creatures of the primordial sea. For example, in a third millennium bc Sumerian text The Feats and Exploits of Ninurta, the Ninurta defeats a seven-headed serpent (as well as other multiheaded adversaries) and contains the (related) primeval waters of Kur before being awarded kingship by the pantheon (Kramer, 76–83). Similarly, Tishpak, the city god of Eshnunna (later associated with the Hurrian storm god Teshup), defeats a monstrous sea dragon in a storm context, a battle likely represented on three Old Akkadian cylinder seals depicting a snake-like dragon with seven heads (Wiggermann, 117–33). Also, an eighteenth-century bc text from Mari notes that the storm god Adad gave the king of Mari (Zimri-Lim) the weapons that he used in his battle against the sea. These noted, the most analyzed Mesopotamian text vis-à-vis the chaos motif is that of Enuma Elish (this title is a transliteration of the Akkadian words beginning the text, meaning, “When on high . . .”). This text (COS 1.111:390–402) opens with a primeval watery chaos consisting of the male and female procreative powers: the primordial freshwater father, Apsu, and the primordial saltwater mother, Tiamat (also portrayed as a serpentine sea dragon). As these waters mingle, the early generation of gods comes forth representing aspects of the newly differentiated cosmos. This progression, however, engenders conflict as the noise of the newer gods hinders the rest of Apsu. Thus, Apsu determines to destroy the lower gods, but his plan is found out by the “all-knowing” Ea (also known as Nudimmud), who casts a spell on Apsu and slays him. Ea then rests, and his son Marduk is born, while Tiamat plots her revenge along with a host of grotesque demons that she brings forth. With this threat at hand, a new champion is sought, and ultimately Marduk is chosen under the condition that he be granted the highest position in the divine assembly. During the battle, Tiamat opens her mouth to devour Marduk when Marduk uses the wind to prevent Tiamat from closing her mouth and then shoots an arrow into her inward parts, killing her. Afterward, Marduk begins to create the world, using half of Tiamat’s body as the firmament (waters) above and fixing a crossbar and posts to hold back these waters of heaven (cf. Gen 1:7–8). Marduk also kills Tiamat’s viceroy Kingu (Qingu) and from his blood makes humankind for the purpose of relieving the work of the lower gods. Afterward, the gods construct Esagila (terraced Marduk palace in Babylon) and give Marduk their fifty names (assigning him their authority), formalizing his supremacy.

1.1.2. Egyptian Chaos Imagery. Egyptian texts involving aspects of the chaos motif overlap with the political aspirations of ancient Egyptian political capitals. In addition, Egyptian accounts demonstrate a strong tendency to synthesize and incorporate earlier accounts (and deities) into later stories. From the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts of Heliopolis (City of the Sun) we learn that an endless ocean of water known as Nun existed in complete darkness before the creation of the cosmos. This watery abyss is often portrayed in temples as a sacred lake and was considered to continue to surround the heavenly lights. From the chaos waters of Nun arises the self-generating sun god Atum, who was understood as being coexistent with the waters of Nun. Atum subsequently differentiated a portion of the waters into the created realm with the balance of the chaos waters understood as an ever-present threat. Atum is often cast standing on a raised pyramid-shaped mound, a primordial hillock identified as Heliopolis. Atum was considered to be the life spring of all other deities (beginning with the foundational group of deities known as the Ennead, or Pesdjet) and perpetrator of Monad (the notion of totality and order). This Monad of Atum had both a constructive aspect, associated with the goddess Isis, and destructive aspect, associated with Seth, the god of chaos. The dynamics of the Monad also allowed for the integration of Atum with other aspects of the sun already in view by the time the Pyramid Texts were inscribed, most notably Re (Ra). In conjunction with the move of the capital to Memphis, the Memphite god Ptah was declared to have been the “First Principle,” thereby taking precedence over all other recognized gods (ANET, 4). Ptah is noted in the Shabaka Stone as having given life to the other gods of Egypt (including Atum of Heliopolis) by means of the desire of his heart together with the creative power of his word. In the cosmogonic account from the city of Hermopolis, the Ogdoad (eight primordial deities [four couples] made by the god Thoth [who was reconfigured to Atum-Re in the New Kingdom period]) represented the conceptualization (and personification) of the elements resident within the primeval chaos preceding creation, including the primordial waters, void, darkness and concealed dynamic force (see Hart, 20–24). These primeval elemental couples interacted with creative efficacy and produced a primeval hillock identified as the city of Hermopolis. Afterward, they create Atum and the Ennead of Heliopolis. Later, priests from Thebes adjusted the Hermopolis account to elevate Amun (the concealed dynamic force of the Ogdoad) as a transcendental deity who is above creation. Like Atum, Amun is later syncretized with Re.

1.1.3. Syro-Canaanite Chaos Imagery. A cache of cuneiform texts discovered on the north Syrian coast at the maritime city-state of Ugarit (Ras Shamra) includes six tablets commonly referred to as the Baal Cycle or Baal Myth (the original title is unknown). The Ugaritic Baal Cycle (KTU 1.1-1.6; COS 1.86:241–74) has three major sections: (1) the battle between the storm god Baal Hadad (usually referred to simply by his title Baal [lord]) and the sea god Yam(m/mu); (2) the building of a house (palace) for Baal; (3) Baal’s battle with Mot (death), ruler of the underworld. The specific sequence of these sections is subject to some dispute (see the summary in Smith, 2–25), partly because of the fragmentary condition of the tablets (Wyatt [1996, 21] estimates that no more than half of the original composition has survived). The Baal Cycle illustrates the drama behind a struggle among the sons of El for power and preeminence within the pantheon, most notably between Yamm and Baal. In addition to sea and river, Baal’s adversary Yamm is represented also by monsters associated with the sea, specifically the sea dragon Tunnan (cf. Heb tannîn [“dragon”]) and the seven-headed sea creature Lotan (cf. Heb liwyātān [“Leviathan”]), probably alternate names for the same creature (note their parallel usage in KTU 1.3.III.37–40; 1.83 [see Pitard, 279]). At first, Yamm is given permission from El to build a palace for himself, but as Yamm seeks to exert his authority (including seeking to have Baal handed over so that he could seize his gold), Baal resists and battle ensues. Yamm has the upper hand in battle until the craftsman god Kothar wa-Hasis (or Kothar) intervenes and provides Baal with two clubs, the second of which successfully takes out Yamm. It is in this context that Baal is called the “Rider of the Clouds” and described as having an “everlasting kingdom” and “eternal dominion.” After Baal’s defeat of the sea god, Astarte exclaims, “Yamm is indeed dead! Baal shall be king!” and work on Baal’s palace begins. This noted, in another tablet (KTU 1.3), Baal’s sister Anat also claims to have defeated the sea and its creatures.

1.2. Old Testament Chaos Imagery. As with the ancient Near Eastern texts noted above, the OT utilizes a variety of images from the realm of nature to portray what is chaotic and seemingly uncontrollable. In further similarity with numerous ancient Near Eastern Chaoskampf myths, these inimical forces are drawn from the aquatic realm—the deep powerful sea and its fearsome creatures. Conversely, as also attested in ancient Near Eastern texts, the imagery for the presence and activity of God is often mediated through that which accompanies the battering of the sea—storm imagery.

1.2.1. The Primordial Sea. The image of a raging personified cosmic deep (tĕhôm) is perhaps the most pervasive symbol of chaos in ancient mythological texts. The cognate of the Hebrew term tĕhôm occurs also in the Ugaritic corpus (thm/thmt) and designates the primordial cosmic waters in those texts (cf. KTU 1.100.1; 1.3.III.25). There may also be an indirect philological relationship between tĕhôm and the saltwater goddess Tiamat of the Enuma Elish account (see Tsumura, 45–52).

In addition to the tĕhôm, texts with a mythopoeic (mythopoetic) feel also speak of the waters (mayîm), river(s) (nāhār) and flood(s) (e.g., mabbûl, šibbōlet), as seen in Psalm 93:3; Nahum 1:4; Habakkuk 3:8–9 (cf. KTU 1.2). The primeval waters were understood as being located both above the firmament and beneath the earth, with the “windows of heaven” understood as the entry point for water (rain) from above. The understanding of the cosmic deep extends to the realm of God, as yhwh is described as sitting enthroned over the flood as king forever (Ps 29:10) and praised as the one who “lays the beams of his upper chambers in the waters” (Ps 104:3). This is reminiscent of the location of the throne of Ea in the midst of Apsu (the primeval fresh waters) in the Babylonian Enuma Elish. Such texts also bring to mind the placement of the palace of the Syro-Canaanite god El, which is described in the Baal Cycle as being located on a cosmic mountain that serves as the source of the primordial oceans/water springs (see KTU 1.3.V.6–7; 1.4.IV.21–22; 1.6.I.33–34). In addition, certain poetic texts personify the waters as follows:

The waters saw you, O God; the waters saw you and writhed, even the deeps trembled. (Ps 77:16)

The deep sounded forth its voice; it lifted its hands up high. (Hab 3:10 [cf. Job 28:14; Ps 93:3])

Deep cries out to deep at the sound of your waterfalls. (Ps 42:7)

In addition to these examples, the usage of the deep in the blessings of Jacob and Moses could be construed as personifying the tĕhôm (cf. Gen 49:25; Dt 33:13), and the absence of the article with “sea” in Job 9:8 and Psalm 78:13 has been noted as marking yām (“sea”) as a proper name (although the absence of the article is commonplace in poetry).

On the other hand, yhwh is described as the one who has created the sea and continues to control it, as in Psalm 95: “To him belongs the sea; for he made it as well as the dry land which his hands formed” (Ps 95:5 [cf. Ps 104:6, 9; 146:6]). yhwh is shown to have sovereign mastery over the sea (e.g., “he tramples down the waves of the sea” [Job 9:8]) and everything else in the created realm (see Curtis, 255). In short, “Whatever yhwh pleases, he does—in heaven, in earth, in the seas, and in all deeps” (Ps 135:6 [cf. Jer 31:35]). Waters are described as controlled by God, the boundaries of the sea are noted as specifically set by God (Prov 8:28–29), and the sea is described as kept in place by yhwh (even imprisoned [see Job 38:8–11]). Such descriptions, especially when heard in their cultural context and in light of the details of other ancient Near Eastern texts, underscore yhwh’s mastery over the seemingly uncontrollable seas and thus foster trust and faith in yhwh’s power. Lastly, it should not be missed that the controlling of the sea and walking on the water demonstrated by Jesus recapitulates the divine mastery over watery forces and consequently shows his divine nature and royal status (Mt 8:23–27; 14:22–34; cf. Job 26:12; Ps 65:7; 89:9 [see Wyatt 1998, 855]).

1.2.2. Chaos Monsters of the Primordial Sea. In addition to the motif of the inimical waters (tĕhôm/deep; yām/sea; mayîm/waters; nāhār/river) subjugated by yhwh, other texts intermix yhwh’s control over the waters with his mastery over aquatic opponent(s) having serpent- and dragon-like features. These creatures occasionally appear with the term for “snake,” providing a serpentine imagery for these monsters of the deep (as also seen in the various sea monsters attested in the various ancient Near Eastern stories noted above). It should be noted that the contextual proximity and interplay of these sea creatures with the oceanic deep makes it clear that they are either closely related to the image of the chaotic waters or perhaps even function as metaphorical synonyms. Attempts have been made to connect these creatures (as well as Behemoth [see Job 40:15–24]) with various animals (such as the crocodile and hippopotamus), but the imagery and descriptions used of these creatures make such identification untenable (if anything, prehistoric fish and dinosaurs would have the closest points of connection). Instead, these aquatic monsters probably are intended to have a mythological tone in line with the poetic intent of a given passage. This is consistent with the fact that a monstrous sea serpent was a common mythological symbol for chaos in the ancient Near East. Lastly, although the frequent parallel usage of these terms in the Bible and elsewhere (such as the Baal Cycle [see KTU 1.5.I.1]) implies that only one serpentine sea creature associated with the primordial deep is envisaged, the most common terms found in the OT (“Rahab,” “Leviathan,” “Tannin”) will be surveyed separately below.

The term Rahab (Heb rahab) appears six times in the OT and has no known cognates in other ancient Near Eastern languages. In two of these occurrences (Ps 87:4; Is 30:7) Rahab refers to Egypt (see 1.5 below). In the other four occurrences, however, Rahab seems to be a serpentine creature associated with the sea. For example, Job notes that God “with his power quieted the sea and with his understanding he crushed Rahab; with his wind [‘Spirit’?] the sky became clear; his hand pierced the fleeing serpent” (Job 26:12–13). Also, in a celebration of God’s mastery over the created realm Job notes that “the helpers of Rahab crouch down” beneath yhwh (Job 9:13). In like manner, the psalmist notes that God rules the swelling of the sea and stills the rising waves, and that he crushed Rahab “like a corpse” (Ps 89:8–10). Similarly, Isaiah notes that God “cut Rahab in pieces, pierced the dragon . . . the one who caused the sea to dry up, the waters of the great deep [tĕhôm]” (Is 51:9–10). As noted above, the parallel structure of these occurrences indicates a close relationship between Rahab and the sea (yām) in Job 26:12; Psalm 89:9–10; Isaiah 51:9–10; Rahab and the deep (tĕhôm) in Isaiah 51:9–10; Rahab and the gliding serpent in Job 26:13; as well as Rahab and the dragon (tannîn) in Isaiah 51:9.

Another OT sea creature that evokes much comparative discussion is Leviathan (Heb liwyātān). This term occurs six times in the OT (twice in Is 27:1) and has the Ugaritic cognate ltn (“Lotan” or “Litan”). As with Rahab, the usage of Leviathan is associated with the sea (see Job 41:1; Ps 104:26), including the image of yhwh dividing the sea and controlling the rivers with his strength (Ps 74:13–15). In addition, Leviathan is used in conjunction with the serpent (nāḥāš [Job 26:13; Is 27:1]), as well as the “dragon [tannîn] that lives in the sea” (see Is 27:1). The overlap of this imagery can be appreciated from the following texts:

You divided the sea by your strength; you broke the heads of the sea dragons [pl. of tannîn] upon the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the people of the wilderness. You cleaved open springs and brooks; you caused the mighty rivers to dry up. (Ps 74:13–15)

On that day yhwh will punish with his fierce, great and mighty sword Leviathan the gliding serpent, yes, Leviathan the twisting serpent; he will slay the dragon that lives in the sea. (Is 27:1)

In addition, Leviathan’s description as a “twisting” and “multiheaded serpent” that is associated with the sea and has been subjugated by God (see Job 41; Ps 73:13–14) is more than reminiscent of the “twisting” serpent with “seven heads” defeated by Baal (and Anat) in conjunction with their battle(s) against the sea god Yamm in the Ugaritic corpus:

Surely I smote Yamm [Sea], beloved of El; surely I made an end of Nahar [River], the mighty god; surely I choked Tunnan [Dragon] . . . I smote the twisting Lotan, the tyrant with seven heads. (KTU 1.3.III.37–40 [cf. KTU 1.5.I.1–4])

Yet, although this sea serpent is associated with the imagery of watery chaos and is subjugated by yhwh, it should not be missed that Leviathan is described as one of the creatures made by yhwh and dependant upon him for life (Ps 104:24–30). Lastly, the likely relationship between Leviathan and the creatures of the book of Revelation should be noted. These creatures—a “great red dragon having seven heads” that spews “water like a river from its mouth” (Rev 12:3, 15) and a beast from the sea having “seven heads” (Rev 13:1 [cf. Rev 17:3])—function as the personification of rebellion against divine order (i.e., chaos) and as such provide an ideal image for *Satan (cf. Rev 12:9; 20:2) in the unfolding of an overarching eschatological schema (see 1.6 below).

In addition to Rahab and Leviathan, another OT creature that seems to be some type of sea serpent or sea dragon is Tannin (Heb tannîn). This term occurs fourteen times in the OT and has the Ugaritic cognate tnn (tunnan/tannin). A number of these occurrences are found in OT books outside the focus on the present study, including God creating the “great sea monsters [tannînīm]” on day five in the Genesis creation account (Gen 1:21), Aaron’s staff becoming a Tannin in the midst of Pharaoh and his servants (Ex 7:9–12 [3x]), as a synonym for “snake” (Deut 32:33; Ps 91:13), and as a symbolic designation for the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar (Jer 51:34) as well as the Egyptian Pharaoh (Ezek 29:3; 32:2). The inimical nature of the Tannin (and the sea) is implied in Job’s question to God, “Am I the sea, or the sea dragon [tannîn] that you have set a guard over me?” (Job 7:12). Other instances of Tannin tap into the Chaoskampf motif, such as God’s piercing Tannin and cutting up Rahab in the ancient past (Is 51:9), God’s breaking of the heads of Tannin in the waters and dividing the sea (Ps 74:13 [see above]), and God’s slaying of the Tannin that lives in the sea on the day Leviathan is vanquished (Is 27:1 [see above]). A similar reference to the deity subduing the “water monster” occurs in the Egyptian Instructions to Merikare (COS 1.35:61–66). Similarly, recall that in the Baal Cycle Anat’s claims of defeating Yamm included victory against Tunnan, cognate to tannîn (KTU 1.3.III.40 [see above]). Given the stress of God’s creation of and control over Tannin, the psalmist exhorts the Tannin and the deep (tĕhôm) itself to praise yhwh (Ps 148:7). These examples also show the parallel usage of Tannin with Leviathan, Rahab and the deep (tĕhôm). Lastly, we note that yhwh is portrayed as a fire-breathing dragon in Ps 18:8 in the rescuing of his people, a description similar to the smoke- and fire-snorting Leviathan in Job 41:18–21 (see ANEP, 671, 691). A “good dragon” image is also found in the Ugaritic corpus (KTU 1.83.5–7), and Baal is described as being enthroned “like the flood dragon” (RS 24.245).