Thursday 18 July 2013

From the Deep - Leviathan in Jewish Tradition - Genesis 1

Arthur Rackam, 'Leviathan'
21] And God created the great taninim, and every living creature that creepeth, wherewith the waters swarmed, after its kind, and every winged fowl after its kind; and God saw that it was good. 

כא  וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-הַתַּנִּינִם הַגְּדֹלִים; וְאֵת כָּל-נֶפֶשׁ הַחַיָּה הָרֹמֶשֶׂת אֲשֶׁר שָׁרְצוּ הַמַּיִם לְמִינֵהֶם, וְאֵת כָּל-עוֹף כָּנָף לְמִינֵהוּ, וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים, כִּי-טוֹב.  

Welcome to the first blogpost of "From the Deep" a series of short thoughts and reflections on Leviathan in Jewish tradition, starting from the Bible and then spreading forward (and even backward) in history.

We begin, as all things do, with Genesis 1, in which God creates the world through speech over the course of 7 days.

On the fifth day, God made the birds, the fish, and the Taninim Hagedolim, the great sea monsters. In a way, Genesis 1 is unique and unusual for Biblical references to sea monsters, in that the taninim are mentioned as just a part of God's creation. There is no tension or friction between the divine and the monstrous, the taninim are simply created on the 5th day, just one more element of God's 'good' world. We will see other references that are not nearly as harmonious

It is unusual however that the taninim are listed separately, marked out as special by their unique place and indicated as 'gedolim', notably large or great.

The word tanin is of uncertain origin. However, in Ugaritic mythological texts that we have, found in the area near ancient Israel, reflecting the Canaanite mythology that is the background to the Bible, there are creatures referred to as tunannu. Often (but not exclusively) used in mythological contexts, the tunannu are connected to the sea monsters defeated by Anat or Baal.

Scholars suggest that the word tanin may be derived from the root TNN or TNH suggesting to howl or to stretch, indicating howling or stretching creatures. Alternatively the word might relate to smoke coiling up, in which case taninim might be those who coil like smoke (see the Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible for more on these topics).

But Genesis 1 is strikingly different from its near-Eastern context, in which creation occurs through combat with the primordial sea monsters - Marduk kills Tiamat, Baal slays Yam - a theme that is certainly present in the Biblical text as we shall see over the next few weeks.

Why are the sea monsters present in Genesis 1's creation story, and why are they picked out among the things God created?

It seems to me that Genesis 1 is reacting to its context, criticising views that say that God had to slay a monster to create the world. On the contrary, Genesis 1 tells us that God just needs to speak - language alone is sufficient for God to structure the cosmos.

The monsters are present, but they are far from being rivals to God, or enemies to be suppressed, for Genesis 1 they are a good part of God's creation. Everything that God creates is created for a reason, everything has its place - even the monstrous taninim.

Genesis 1 functions as counter-mythology, adapting elements from the more violent myths in the surrounding cultures, rewriting them into a new myth in which God reigns alone and supreme, unchallenged and unopposed.

Scholars argue that Genesis 1 is part of the Priestly source, and that it reached its final composition around the time of the first exile, in the 6th century BCE. This historical context stresses the value of such a counter-myth, helping to define the Jewish narrative, the Israelite mythology, against the huge cultural background of Babylon, with its stories of combat and destruction.

Genesis 1 is telling us that the forces of evil and chaos are merely part of God's world, that they are as 'good' and valuable as anything else God has made. Chaos is not merely an illusion, but it is subsumed within a larger structure, part of a larger truth in which the universe is controlled and ordered. God is in control of everything, and we just need to trust in God's cosmos, have faith in God's plan.

Next week on 'From the Deep' - Exodus 7: What exactly did Moses' staff become in front of Pharaoh?

'From the Deep' has been made possible by Nishma, a summer of learning in the JTS Beit Midrash. I've been burning the midnight oil to research Leviathan, and share with you the fruits of my labour.