Tiamat and The Deep

Several years ago, I was introduced to what’s called “Ancient Near East Literature”. This term covers a wide variety of documents from the ancient Mesopotamian region that discuss various stories of the ancient gods, creation stories, flood narratives, and the like. One of the particular stories that I enjoy is that of the Egyptian goddess Nut and her husband Geb. Nut was the goddess of the heavens, and Geb was the god of the earth (and also, serpents). Nut and Geb, as husband and wife often are, were lovers. Unfortunately, when you bring the earth and the sky together in an act of consummation, chaos tends to happen. Since the other gods got tired onut_gebf stuff being flattened every time Geb and Nut got crazy, they decided to place Shu, the god
of the air, between them. Shu’s job was to tickle Nut’s lady-bits to keep her extended away from Geb for eternity. In this way, the heavens and the earth were fixed in their place, the heavens held up by the air and his helpers, and the earth reclining in eager expectation of consummation with his wife. Maybe some husbands or wives can relate.

tiamat_watersThe Enuma Elish is also interesting. It is the Babylonian creation epic which establishes the primacy of Marduk over the primordial gods of the waters, Apsu and Tiamat. Both of these gods, but especially Tiamat, were considered powerful and capricious, gods of darkness and disorder and chaos – the gods of the angry waters. They were not to be trifled with, and ruled creation from the deep past. Due to a series of events, some of the gods united against Tiamat (after destroying Apsu with magic) and elected Marduk as their leader. Marduk grew powerful and went to war against Tiamat, ultimately destroying her and using her body to create the earth and the sky, and organized the motions of the heavenly bodies, of light, and of the sea. In that way, creation was established and order created from disorder.

Until recently, scholars saw a link between the Enuma Elish and the creation story of Genesis. In Genesis 1, the English words “the deep” are the Hebrew word “tahom”, which some linked to the Akkadian word “tamtu”, which is linked to the Sumerian word for Tiamat; in other words, “the deep” and “Tiamat” are cognates. The hypothesis was that the Genesis account is a polemic against the Babylonian creation myth, particularly the primacy and supremacy of Marduk among the gods. More recently, this connection has been questioned as unlikely. I believe that the modern scholars are probably correct that Tiamat and tahom aren’t directly related. The deep, I believe, is much more closely related to things that have no purpose – things that exist, but have no reason for this existence.

But one thing remains – the creation story in Genesis 1 shares many features with the creation stories of the surrounding cultures, but with some interesting twists that serve as polemics against other myths. In every ancient near east (ANE for short) creation story with which I am familiar, including Genesis, chaos or purposelessness is a preexisting condition of creation. And in every ANE creation story with which I am familiar, a deity or deities emerge to control the chaos and give order and purpose to creation. But here is where things differ in the Genesis account. In the Egyptian texts, ordering and controlling the otherwise out-of-control love-fest between Geb and Nut involved lots of physical work and continual intervention by Shu and the other gods. In the Babylonian texts, Tiamat and the coalition of gods under Marduk waged a physical war against each other that was only won through physical prowess (with a little magic thrown in). The gods in ancient times worried about things, which forced them into action. But in the Genesis account, “elohim” (God) merely sent his spirit to hover over the face of the deep – these primordial waters without purpose or form – and spoke order and purpose into creation. God’s power was of a different and radical sort. God didn’t go to war. He didn’t get annoyed like a testy parent. He didn’t permanently summon other gods to the mundane labor of ensuring creation stayed in the proper order. He spoke, and it was good. The Hebrew God is being established as superior to the gods whose muscle must be used to establish creation. Real Gods- real kings- speak, and it is done.

But that doesn’t mean that chaos and formlessness and lack of purpose cease to exist. Unlike other ANE creation stories, the Genesis account doesn’t imply that God slew chaos or that he eliminated purposelessness, but rather that he brought it under his control. As we see in the flood account, the chaos of the primordial waters still exist and can be brought against the earth to reestablish chaos. And like other ANE creation stories, the Genesis account also doesn’t imply that God made creation from nothing, but formed the formless materials already in creation to make good, beautiful things.

The organization and purpose of this blog is formed by this idea – of Tiamat, the forces of chaos; and the deep, representing formlessness and purposelessness – being brought into order and purpose by a God who non-anxiously brings light to the darkness of the watery deep, through the power of his word. Human lives are marked by the echo of this chaos and purposelessness. We struggle against the chaotic sea, navigating relationships and job searches and educational choices. We worry about the economy, and our health, and religion. Anxiety measures out our interaction with politics, or the state of the nation, or future hardships we might imagine. But God controls the chaos, he transcends the struggle, and he dispels anxiety. Form from the formless, purpose from the purposeless. A place for us in the swirling midst of chaos.


Call to Worship: Reformation Sunday

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

The Lord says, ‘Be still and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.’

The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”

–Psalm 46:1-3, 10-11


600px-crs-6_first_stage_booster_landing_attemptWhen SpaceX announced that they were going to create a reusable rocket to save costs, those who understood such things were impressed. When they said that the reusable rocket was going to land itself on a self-piloted floating platform (called  a drone ship) in the middle of the ocean, people rolled their eyes. It’s not that it’s impossible to land a topsy turvy rocket on a bobbing platform, it’s that it’s really, really hard. So hard that it’s almost not worth it.

But, SpaceX chose to do it anyway. So, they started with the easy stuff – having a rocket land itself on dry land. After they got that down, they started working on having the rocket lareusable-rocket-explosionnd itself on a floating platform. The rocket crashed and exploded. So they tried again. And again. And again. Eventually, they got on a winning streak, landing 3 consecutive rockets on their drone ship, and one on land. And then they had another explosion; a “rapid, unscheduled disassembly”, as Elon Musk calls it.

Failing and learning is part of the process of doing things right, and of pushing the envelope of what’s possible. When President Kennedy commissioned the space program, nobody even knew if humans could survive in space, much less how to get them there safely. Now, space flight is so routine that we don’t even think about launches and returns. It’s not that space flight isn’t great – it’s that it’s routine. And that’s part of the way of things. It’s not that modern smartphones aren’t great, it’s that they’re commonplace. It’s not that the invention of fire, or the wheel, or written language isn’t a game-changer, it’s that it has become mundane.

The SpaceX project to create affordable, reliable space travel is an effort to take old, mundane (but nevertheless amazing) things and breathe new life into them. They are taking what we think of as “boring” space travel, and doing great things with it. It’s not just work for the sake of work. They’re not just making a new model of Honda Civic, they are making a self-driving rocket, picked up by a self-driving boat.

The world doesn’t need more stuff. Its needs more great stuff. It needs stuff that breathes new life into the greatness that already exists and brings it into the contemporary. The Church doesn’t just need more writers, more speakers, more people doing stuff. It just simply needs more great stuff. It needs the wind of life to blow through the great corridors of the past, but which have now become mundane. This blog is an attempt at doing the old anew, of pushing the boundaries of old Christian life into contemporary Christian life. Of rethinking stuff so that we can make great stuff.

Part of that process is painful. Things will crash and burn and there will be some failures. Even after some successes there will be failures. There will be some new things, some invention, but there will also be reuse and re-purposing of old things. God has put us in this time and in this place to reach for him – to grope for him. Let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that the ways in which people reached for God in the past will suffice for how we must grope for him in the present. Certainly, there are lessons to be learned from the past, which can ground and sober us, but there are also paths to be blazed now, a line of fire into the sky.

Every day is the launch, and the landing.


Falcon 9 rocket successful landing on the drone ship