To an ancient Near-Eastern person, the sea was considered extremely dangerous, chaotic, and even otherworldly. The sea is untamable, unpredictable, and wild. Sea creatures themselves were symbolic portrayals of the place in which they lived: the sea. This is why we see the symbol of the sea and a great sea beast/monster/dragon repeated in the religious texts of the ancient Near East. To those people, there was no better representation of death and chaos.[i] We even see this idea turn up in the Bible.
What we are about to look at is considered common knowledge in theological and scholarly circles but, for some reason, is relatively unknown in the mainstream Church. I believe a big part of this is due to a common, hyperliteral approach to the Bible found in many churches today, a topic we will look at in further detail later in this series. There are many reasons why this developed over time. One example is the popularity of reading the Bible as if it were written to twenty-first century Americans. The Bible is for everybody, of course, but like all ancient texts, it was written to the culture of the time.
We currently are at least two thousand years and half a world removed from the ancient Jewish culture in which much of the Bible was written. The best way to understand and interpret the Bible is to put yourself in the ancient writer’s shoes. What was going on at the time of the writing? What was the writer dealing with in terms of competing theologies? What was the cultural environment like at that time? By asking these questions and looking at the text through ancient Near-Eastern eyes, we can gain a wealth of correct and intelligently honest understanding of the Scriptures.
This brings us back to the idea of a polemic. As stated briefly earlier, a polemic is a type of theological jab at a different religion or belief. These show up all over the texts in the Bible. The idea was not always to give a literal account of something, but to attribute credit to the true God of Israel, YHWH. For example, in the Baal Cycle, we find the term “Rider on the Clouds” attributed to Baal. Yet, throughout the Bible, YHWH is referred to in the same way.[ii] Even Jesus Christ referred to Himself in this manner.[iii] The point is not to describe the oddity of God riding on clouds for some reason. The point is to state that Baal is not the one in charge; YHWH/Jesus is. It is a deliberate swipe at the belief that Baal has everlasting dominion by taking his title and attributing it to the true God, YHWH. This is only one example of a polemic in the Bible. There are many more.
Some of the most interesting polemics can be found in the Creation accounts of the Bible. The idea of polemics will also help explain some different descriptions between these accounts. For example, we can compare Genesis 1:1–3 with Psalm 74:12–7. First, Genesis 1:1–3 states:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. (ESV)
Next, Psalm 74:12–17 states:
Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth. You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the sea monsters on the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness. You split open springs and brooks; you dried up ever-flowing streams. Yours is the day, yours also the night; you have established the heavenly lights and the sun. You have fixed all the boundaries of the earth; you have made summer and winter. (ESV)
Here, we have two very different-sounding accounts. In Genesis, we learn that God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was without form and void, there was darkness over the face of the deep, the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters, and that God began His creation by creating light.
The account in Genesis establishes the conflict between God and primordial chaos, represented by the sea and a sea monster, in the very second verse of the Bible. The word translated “deep” is the Hebrew tehom. That’s a cognate—same word, different language—to the Akkadian têmtum, which in turn is a variant form of Tiamat, the Sumerian name for the chaos monster of the sea.
Why did the Spirit of God hover over the waters? Although there is no record here of the conflict between YHWH and “the deep,” it seems as though the intent is to restrain something—chaos itself.
Psalm 74 is a bit different. We learn that God is from old, working salvation in the midst of the earth (which again, at the beginning would have been only water). Then we learn God divides the seas (which, in Genesis, occurs in Genesis 1:6) and breaks the heads of the sea monsters, along with crushing the heads of Leviathan. Later, we learn that God establishes the heavenly lights and the sun (which, in Genesis, doesn’t occur until the fourth day, described in Genesis 1:14–19).
It is generally believed among biblical scholars that Psalm 74 and Genesis 1 are likely polemics of the Baal Cycle. That is to say, they are attempts to take credit away from Baal for subduing chaos (Leviathan) and giving proper credit to YHWH for this and for creation itself. It is known from tablets found in Syria over the last 150 years that the Semites of western Mesopotamia, the Amorites and Canaanites, believed that it was their storm-god Baal who had subdued the chaos monster.
Thus says Adad, I brought you back to the throne of your father, I brought you back. The weapons with which I fought Tiamat I gave to you. With the oil of my bitter victory I anointed you, and no one before you could stand.[iv]
Adad is the actual name of the west Semitic storm god we know in the Bible as Baal. (“Baal” is actually a title: “lord”). The excerpt above is from a letter from Adad through his prophet, Abiya, to the king of Mari, Zimrī-Līm. The god was apparently reminding Zimrī-Līm that the king had been restored to power by his divine favor, which included sending to Zimrī-Līm the clubs he’d used to defeat Tiamat!
Another tablet found at Mari, which was located on the Euphrates River near the modern border between Syria and Iraq, confirms that the clubs had been sent from Aleppo, which was known as the “city of Adad,” to the temple of Dagan (the earlier spelling of the Philistine god Dagon) at the town of Terqa, south of Mari.
While that’s a fascinating bit of history—think about that: the divine clubs of Baal were literal, physical objects!—the point here is that Zimrī-Līm ruled at the same time as Hammurabi the Great of Babylon, which is about the time scholars believe the Enuma Elish was composed, and at least four hundred years before the Baal Cycle. So it appears that even between Baal and Marduk there was some competition over who actually defeated the monstrous god of chaos.
We must remember, ancient Near-Eastern people would not have the type of scientific, literal, and material point of view we currently have today in the Western world. Rather, their view would have been more symbolic. This doesn’t mean it is any less real or true; it is merely a different way of looking at the world. When we look at the sea, we think of ocean currents and marine biology. When they looked at it, they thought of Leviathan/Tiamat/Litanu, chaos, and death. Therefore, what we have in Genesis 1 and Psalm 74 is not a scientific description of how everything was created, but a symbolic polemic describing who gets the credit for creating everything. According to the Bible, it’s not Baal. It’s not Marduk. It is YHWH.
One might wonder: If it is a polemic, where is the battle? It is true, we do not see an epic battle in Genesis 1. We do see a description of a defeat in Psalm 74, but it is still quite different when compared against the Baal Cycle. The idea being conveyed here by the biblical writers is that when YHWH of Israel started creation, these chaotic forces were already held in check. There was no need for a battle. Leviathan was already bound, because the one true God doesn’t need to have a fight. This would have been considered a slap in the face to Canaanite religion and the inferior god Baal. It is saying YHWH is the God who is truly in control and always has been. YHWH, not Baal, restricts chaos. If a Canaanite living at that time were to read the Genesis account of Creation, he would understand instantly what the text was doing. It’s busting down Baal and lifting up YHWH as supreme.
We see this same sort of thing in Psalm 89:9–11, which reads:
You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them. You crushed Rahab like a carcass; you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm. The heavens are yours; the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it, you have founded them. (ESV)
We also see this idea repeated as an apocalyptic idea in Isaiah 27:1, which reads:
In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea. (ESV)
In Psalm 89, “Rahab” is a name for Egypt, but is also equated with the sea beast Leviathan. In Isaiah 27, we read of a time in the future when chaos is not simply subdued, but is done away with forever. Consider what John N. Oswalt’s commentary on the book of Isaiah says about this:
Most scholars today are in agreement that while the exodus events are in the center of the writer’s thinking, they are not by any means all that is there. Rahab is clearly a term for Egypt (cf. 30:7; and Ps. 87:4, where Rahab and Babylon are paired); so also the monster (or “dragon”) is a term for Pharaoh (Ezek. 29:3). But it is also clear that those terms are not limited to those historical referents. As is known from Ugaritic studies, the twisting monster is a figure in the struggles of Baal with the god of the sea, Yam, as is “Leviathan,” which is equated with the monster in Isa. 27:1. Given these facts, and the evidence that the myth of the struggle of the gods with the sea monster was known in one form or another all over the ancient Near East, one has reason to believe that Isaiah is here, as in 27:1, utilizing this acquaintance among the people for his own purposes. It is important to note that the allusions to Near Eastern myths in the Bible all occur after 750 B.C., long after the basic antimythic character of biblical faith had been established. Thus there is an appeal here neither to some current Hebrew myth nor to some original one, now dead. Rather, just as a contemporary poet might allude to the Iliad or the Odyssey, utilizing imagery familiar to his hearers but that is hardly part of their belief system, so Isaiah uses the imagery of the well-known stories of creation to make his point. It was not Baal or Marduk or Ashur who had any claim to being the Creator—it was the Lord alone.[v]
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Order from Chaos
The idea coming out of comparing Psalm 74 with Genesis 1 is, by the time the actual creation starts, Leviathan/chaos is already subdued. This would seem to indicate in the text, at least in the mind of the writers of these passages, that a lot more is going on with Genesis 1:1–3 than what we are typically taught in Sunday school. We learn in the very first verse that God created the heavens and the earth. However, what was that process like? What were the conditions? How long did it take? We are not told specifically, but we are given clues if we think of this as a polemic on ancient Canaanite religion.
Whether taken as literal or symbolic, the texts indicate a Creation story unlike anything we are ever taught in the Church, but one biblical scholars are very familiar with. The sea represents chaos, yet as we see in Genesis 1:2, chaos is already subdued by the Spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters. The battle is over before it really began. Whether Leviathan is meant to be understood as a literal sea beast in a spiritual existence or as a symbol for the very real chaos of nature is unknown. Perhaps it is both. In any event, the text allows us a little more freedom in understanding creation than what we may have previously been taught.
There are other interesting things to pull from this idea as well. We find out in the book of Genesis that, once the water is still and chaos subdued, God starts to create order from disorder. This idea, order from disorder, is common throughout ancient Near-Eastern religious texts, yet the writer of Genesis gives proper credit to YHWH, the God of Israel. To the writer of Genesis, the other, lesser gods have tried to usurp YHWH’s accomplishments and attributes, so he wishes to set the record straight.
The main reason for reiterating this point is that there are members of occult/pagan circles today who follow doctrines related to “order out of chaos,” “as above, so below,” and others. Since, in our culture today, those are recognized as doctrines followed outside of Christianity, it is worth repeating the point of polemics here. It seems the writer of Genesis was dealing with a similar issue in his day, so to set the record straight, he gives credit to YHWH for these matters instead of allowing the lesser gods to usurp and defile them.
Leviathan and Behemoth in the End Time
The end time, according to the Bible, is in part about the complete removal of chaos when all the world will become like it was in the Garden of Eden. In Revelation 21:1–4, we read:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
In verse 1, it is said that “the sea was so more.” This is because the sea is a representation of chaos and, at this point, chaos has been completely eradicated. Throughout the rest of the passage, we see the conditions of the Garden of Eden from back in Genesis reinstated. God will dwell on the Earth with man. There will be no death, mourning, crying, or pain. Chaos will be gone and everything will be perfect.
Of course, in order to get to this point, some things need to happen first. In the ancient Jewish understanding, chaos was subdued and restrained, but not eliminated yet. YHWH actively restrains chaos, as He is the only one capable of doing so, but chaos still exists. Though YHWH restrains chaos, there is always a danger. What if God releases His grip? What if chaos is let loose upon the Earth? What if the seven-headed Leviathan is allowed to roam free?
Before we can answer these questions, we must first discuss Behemoth. The most famous biblical passage describing Behemoth is in the book of Job. In the ESV, Job 40:19 tells us that Behemoth was the first of the works of God. The book of Job also tells us that God is the only one who can approach Behemoth. Extrabiblical texts describe Behemoth as well. First Enoch 60:7–9 tells us that Leviathan is a female monster dwelling in the watery abyss, which is comparable to Tiamat, while Behemoth is a male monster dwelling in a hidden desert of Dundayin, east of Eden. In 4 Esdras 6:49–52, we read that Leviathan and Behemoth were created on the fifth day, but were then separated. Leviathan was given a watery domain and Behemoth was given a home on land until such a time when God uses them for food for His chosen. Second Baruch 29:4 adds a details to this, saying it will be in the Messianic Age when Leviathan and Behemoth come forth from their respective habitats to be served as food for the remnant children of God.
The main point behind the symbol of Behemoth is to say that chaos doesn’t only reside at sea; it exists on land, too. Sea-chaos is described with Leviathan, while land-chaos is described with Behemoth. We see this even further in the thirteenth chapter of the book of Revelation. Reading the full chapter in this context, certain things begin to make more sense:
And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard; its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority. One of its heads seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed, and the whole earth marveled as they followed the beast. And they worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” And the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain. If anyone has an ear, let him hear: If anyone is to be taken captive, to captivity he goes; if anyone is to be slain with the sword, with the sword must he be slain. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints. Then I saw another beast rising out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence, and makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound was healed. It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people, and by the signs that it is allowed to work in the presence of the beast it deceives those who dwell on earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived. And it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain. Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.
Here we have one beast rising from the sea and a second rising from out of the earth. These are the two symbols of chaos given in Scripture, except now they are unrestrained. This passage, as well as others throughout the apocalyptic books and passages within the Bible, describes what happens when God decides to let chaos loose. After chaos is let loose for a time, Jesus Himself returns, vanquishes the enemy, and later, a perfect, Edenic perfection is restored throughout all of creation.
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Back to Aliens and Waterworlds
This brings us back to the original point in taking this theological detour. If ancient creation accounts are really just describing an extraterrestrial influence of the origin of human beings, where do we see room for that in light of the information contained here? Even if there is room for it, the supposed alien gods do not seem to be friendly with humankind. However, if the beings commonly described as today’s extraterrestrials are, in fact, these old gods, suddenly things begin to make more sense. Maybe it’s not aliens posing as gods in the past, but gods posing as aliens now. This view seems more compatible not only with the scriptural text of the ancient Near East, but also with modern-day abduction reports and UFO phenomena. Could this explain why these entities have a fondness for large bodies of water, leading some UFO researchers to believe alien bases exist underwater. Could this also explain the deep underground bases said to be inhabited with alien civilizations wielding super-advanced technology? Could this be evidence that these beings possess a modern understanding of Leviathan and Behemoth? Could this be why waterworld exoplanets seem to have the highest-percentage chance of harboring extraterrestrial life?
At the same time, however, does this mean, from a purely biblical, theological point of view, that there is no chance extraterrestrial life can exist? Given all this information, is there still room for intelligent life on other planets to be a possibility and still be compatible with the Bible? It may seem, given what we looked at so far throughout this series, that the answer is obvious, but it may not be as obvious as we might initially think. Most who accept the information in this series might be inclined to close the door completely on the possibility of extraterrestrial life. However, as we will see a later, there are other factors to consider, making this a far more complex issue than it would seem in the surface. The possibility does exist, yet in a way likely most would not expect. Maybe, up until now, we have been looking at this issue all wrong. It could be we were only considering a portion of the entire question. Perhaps there is more to this story than what we thought.
UP NEXT: Are Evangelicals and Extraterrestrials Compatible?
[i] For more information on this, refer to the Chaos to Restoration Lecture Series by Dr. Michael S. Heiser at https://youtu.be/xUspLJjSjqo?list=PL52EgTwZYdvWlIxnSQphmeI8dDgE1mNde.
[ii] Psalm 68:4 and Daniel 7:13, for example.
[iii] Mark 14:61–62.
[iv] “A Prophetic Letter of Adad to Zimrī-Līm” (A.1968). English translations in J. J. M. Roberts, The Bible and the Ancient Near East. Collected Essays (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2002), ch. 14, pp. 157–253, “The Mari Prophetic Texts in Transliteration and English Translation,” and in M. Nissinen, Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East, with contributions by C. L. Seow and R. K. Ritner (ed. P. Machinist; Writings from the Ancient World, 12; Atlanta, GA., Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), pp. 21–22 (A. 1968).
[v] John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 341–42.