Monday 30 September 2013

From the Deep - Here Be Dragons! - Habakkuk 3

Habakkuk 3: 8, 15
8] Was your wrath against the rivers (neharim), O Lord?
    Was your anger against the rivers,
    or your indignation against the sea
when you rode on your horses,
    on your chariot of salvation?

15] You trampled the sea with your horses,
    the surging of mighty waters.

ח  הֲבִנְהָרִים, חָרָה יְהוָה--אִם בַּנְּהָרִים אַפֶּךָ, אִם-בַּיָּם עֶבְרָתֶךָ:  כִּי תִרְכַּב עַל-סוּסֶיךָ, מַרְכְּבֹתֶיךָ יְשׁוּעָה

טו  דָּרַכְתָּ בַיָּם, סוּסֶיךָ; חֹמֶר, מַיִם רַבִּים

Welcome back to From the Deep, your weekly look into the primordial chaos monsters of the Bible and Jewish tradition.

This week we're moving on to a new prophet, the little read minor prophet of Habakkuk. The third and final chapter of this book is described in the first verse in a similar manner to a psalm "a prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, on the Shigionot", and it uses the word "sela" a word used elsewhere only in the book of psalms.

The third chapter describes God marching to war with pestilence and fire around God's feet. But who God fighting against? According to verse 8 it seems to be the Rivers / the Sea.

Where does this image come from and what does it mean for us?

The Canaanite epic Baal Cycle, which describes the ascension of the storm god Baal to the throne, has as Baal's main opponent Yam (which in Hebrew means sea), and also refers to him as "Judge Nahar", Judge River (and note that Hab 3 above uses an usual plural for the word river, Neharim as opposed to the more usual Neharot, suggesting something unusual about these rivers). Yam, who is associated with the deeps and chaos, must be slain for Baal to rule. Thus the mythic parallel between rivers and seas is found in a closely related culture.

Why does this connection exist?

While seas and rivers have some obvious shared attributes, while the sea is boundless, storm-tossed and endless, the word nahar refers to constant rivers (unlike wadis that only appear when it rains), that seem more controlled, and might be fordable or bridgeable.

Yet beyond this difference rivers and seas are important as forming natural borders and boundaries, marking off kingdoms and territories. Like the Mediterranean, the River Jordan symbolised the edge of the Holy Land - crossing it in Joshua 3 marks the point when the Israelites really entered the land.

And beyond the seas, beyond the rivers, as it used to say on the old maps, there be dragons!

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, English Professor and something of an expert on monsters, wrote a famous essay 'Monster Culture (Seven Theses)', and his fifth thesis is that the Monster Polices the Border of the Possible (I hinted at his 2nd thesis, the Monster Always Escapes, two weeks ago in the title of From the Deep on Isaiah 27).

Monsters are usually characterised as actually living on the edges of society, in the sewers, in the woods, in the graveyards, in the mountains, but more than that, Cohen argues that monsters tend to exist to police those cultural borders, to encourage people to stay at home, to maintain the status quo and discourage the curious.

Other biblical monsters may live at the borders (giants, for example, or the cherub at the gate of the garden of Eden) but the chaos monsters goes one step further. The chaos monsters don't just live in the borders, they are the borders.

Yam is the sea as it is the name of God's foe, the same with Nahar and rivers.

And what does God do with these borders? God tramples and destroys them.

Okay, I know that Judaism has a lot of rules. After a month of festivals, and three out of four being 3 days without being able to use electricity or travel, I am ready for a few days without quite so many restrictions. I know that the God of the Bible makes boundaries and divisions (just look at how God creates in Genesis 1, or the law of Shatnez).

Yet God is also the one that tramples the rivers, destroys the seas. At the same time as God creates rules and restrictions, there is something divine that calls for divisions to be wiped away, to recognise that all divisions are ultimately only a part of the human world, not at the root of all things.

Interesting then that Habakkuk 3 should have been taken as the haftarah for the second day of Shavuot, the festival where we celebrate the receiving of the torah with all its laws. Habakkuk reminds us that while in this world I may be separate from you, and each us have our own desires, fears and emotions, ultimately these distinctions do not exist.

If we reach high enough, we can see the unity that underlies all creation.

Next week on 'From the Deep' - Ezekiel 29 - Historical Monsters.

'From the Deep' has been made possible by Nishma, a summer of learning in the JTS Beit Midrash.


  1. I am enjoying these posts, although I don't usually know enough to comment.

    Re: divisions, you might note that God divides humanity into a multitude of nations early on in Bereshit, only for the later prophets to predict the reformation of humanity into a single society in the Messianic age, although Isaiah 19 might indicate that national distinctions will exist, but will no longer be a cause of strife.

    I think the sense of balance in Isaiah 19 is the key: I like being different, being an individual, both personally and as a Jew, and don't want that eroded into monochrome conformity. At the same time, I don't want that individuality to be a source of endless argument and division.

    1. Thanks Daniel! That's exactly the kind of idea I was talking about - I'll have to look more into Is 19. Thanks for reading along.