By Ronald Rahaman
I love to learn how the authors of the Hebrew Bible wrote it. Priests and prophets had the task of describing the indescribable mysteries of God. But those same priests and prophets were also cantors, bards, and storytellers. Even when the Old Testament was new, they could draw from centuries of stories to help the rest of us visualize what they knew about God.
So, for example, they put a bunch of dragons in the Book of Job. There is one dragon, the Leviathan, who gets a lot of attention. There are other dragons who get mentioned in passing. There are more dragons who got obscured in translation. There might’ve been a dragon named Job, too.
The creation stories of several ancient Near Eastern religions feature a struggle of gods against primordial chaos. Modern scholars call this motif the Chaoskampf. The chaos was embodied in the sea itself and an associated serpent-like dragon, which modern scholars call the “chaos dragon”. Modern scholars have all the fun.
In stories from Babylonian and Canaanite religions, the Chaoskampf is a literal battle. For example, the Canaanite god Baal fought Yam the sea god and the Leviathan to establish his kingship. Referring to Baal’s enemy Yam:
Now your enemy, Baal, Now your enemy you will smite, now you will smite your foe. You will take your everlasting kingdom, your dominion forever and ever […] The club swooped from Baal’s hand, [like] an eagle from his fingers. It struck the crown of Prince Yam, between the eyes of Judge River. Yam collapsed, he fell to earth; his joints quivered, his form crumpled.
And so on in that fashion. Baal’s battle against the Leviathan involves a fair amount of smiting, too.
In our stories from Genesis, a Chaoskampf seems non-existent. The primordial sea is reshaped by God, but it doesn’t put up much of a fight:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. […] And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so
Unlike the authors of Baal’s stories, the authors of Genesis weren’t concerned with a lengthy battle to establish God’s kingship. God made the imperative, and it was so.
Or Maybe the Sea Did Put Up a Fight
Genesis is only one of many Creation stories in the Bible. Lots of the Psalms praise the act Creation, because Creation is pretty great. And since the Psalms cover a thousand years of oral tradition, lots of vivid narratives snuck in there. Some dragons snuck in there, too.
For example, in Psalm 74, God defeated the chaos dragons while separating the primordial sea. Smashing the skulls of the chaos dragons was a very important part of Creation, described in the same passages as the creation of the sun, stars and seasons.
Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the earth. You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness. You cut openings for springs and torrents; you dried up ever-flowing streams. Yours is the day, yours also the night; you established the luminaries and the sun. You have fixed all the bounds of the earth; you made summer and winter.
Other Psalms – including 89, 104, 65, and 93 – also describe God’s victory over the defiant primordial sea.
But Psalm 74 is especially interesting since it’s a prayer for deliverance against enemies, such as the very real enemies that destroyed Solomon’s Temple and the Hebrews’ way of life. Likewise, God’s work of Creation is described as a king fighting a battle. It’s a vivid way to relate divine prehistory to the very real trials that faced the Hebrews of that time. The unforgiving chaos of the Exile provides a powerful glimpse into the chaos of Creation.
Job Puts Up a Fight, Too
The Book of Job contains by far the longest description of a chaos dragon. God spends a whole chapter describing the Leviathan, and God makes sure we know how the score was settled. Throughout the book, though, there are many other references to God’s battle against the sea and the chaos dragons. In fact, God’s victory in the Chaoskampf is an important thematic element for the entire book.
The Chaoskampf is referenced in Job 5:12, 9:8, 26:12, 38:10, and several other places. It’s variously referenced as a battle against the sea, a twisting serpent (likely the Leviathan, since the name “Leviathan” is derived from Hebrew word for “twisting”), or Rahab (in this context, a sea monster). For example, in Job 9:12, Job describes how he cannot hope to oppose God, and he references God’s victory over the sea:
If one wished to contend with him, one could not answer him once in a thousand. He is wise in heart, and mighty in strength —who has resisted him, and succeeded?— he who removes mountains, and they do not know it, when he overturns them in his anger; who shakes the earth out of its place, and its pillars tremble; who commands the sun, and it does not rise; who seals up the stars; who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the Sea who made the Bear and Orion, the Pleiades and the chambers of the south; who does great things beyond understanding, and marvelous things without number.
Furthermore, my NRSV has a little footnote says that “trampled the waves of the Sea” could also be translated as “trampled the back of the sea dragon.” The dragons are everywhere.
What’s amazing to me is how Job compares himself to a chaos dragon and portrays them both as outmatched opponents of God. Job 9:12, from above, suggests the comparison, and in other places, it’s not subtle. At all. Here’s Job 7:11 – 12:
Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit I will complain in the bitterness of my soul. Am I the Sea, or the Dragon, that you set a guard over me?
Throughout the book, Job sees himself as an opponent fighting against God, and here he compares himself (maybe a little vaingloriously) to God’s primeval opponents from the Chaoskampf. And furthermore, he makes the comparison with the full awareness that the chaos dragons were defeated. It’s an admission that he won’t be successful against God, either.
Who Has Resisted Him and Suceeded?
I think Job has some of the most vivid prose in the Bible, and I love revisiting it. However, I feel pretty guilty about enjoying it. Dostoevsky said he was moved to tears and an “unhealthy rapture” by one of his re-readings of Job. Meanwhile I’m scarfing down Ben and Jerry’s and flipping through footnotes.
It certainly is difficult to accept God’s treatment of Job and the faltering of Job’s faith. The fact that he compares his hardships to a slain dragon’s is just another illustration of his defeatism. And perhaps the comparison can illustrate his internal chaos, too. Job stokes his tumult with every argument against his friends. His friends offer reassurance and a way to reset his internal narrative, but Job keeps feeding his turmoil. And I do believe that this kind of confused anger is something that has to be fed, and something irresistible in us wants to keep feeding it.
I think the hope in this story is Job’s way out of his internal tumult, more so than the reparations for his material and bodily harms. His anger is the chaos dragon that existed before God separated the Earth from the sky and still rears its heads in all our struggles. God had the power to defeat and transform it in the beginning. When chaos stirs in ourselves, God has the power to defeat that, too. We can be re-created when God fights the Chaoskampf in us.
- John Day. God’s Conflict with the Dragon and the Sea.
- The New Oxford Annotated Bible