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.