Monday 25 November 2013

From the Deep - Small Bites of Fish - Misc. Bible

On From the Deep we've covered the Bible from Genesis through to the Book of Job, but along the way we missed a few tasty morsels, not enough for a meal in themselves, but each a small tasty bite of sea monster nonetheless. Today we cover some of those juicy tidbits.

Jeremiah 5:22
 22 Should you not fear me?’ declares the Lord.
    ‘Should you not tremble in my presence?
I made the sand a boundary for the sea,
    an everlasting barrier it cannot cross.
The waves may roll, but they cannot prevail;
    they may roar, but they cannot cross it.

כב) הַאוֹתִי לֹא־תִירָאוּ נְאֻם־יְקֹוָק אִם מִפָּנַי לֹא תָחִילוּ אֲשֶׁר־שַׂמְתִּי חוֹל גְּבוּל לַיָּם חָק־עוֹלָם וְלֹא יַעַבְרֶנְהוּ וַיִּתְגָּעֲשׁוּ וְלֹא יוּכָלוּ וְהָמוּ גַלָּיו וְלֹא יַעַבְרֻנְהוּ

Some of the mythic power of the sea monsters has been stripped from this image from Jeremiah 5, but remnants of it are still visible. God's power is manifest by his having contained the sea, bound it forever so that it cannot escape. The sea is described both literally, as having waves, and as roaring like a monster - the image is both naturalistic and mythological. Radak, one of the classic rabbinic commentators, says that the scene being described is Genesis 1 and the creation of dry land, but there is a rebelliousness to the sea here that is totally absent from the peaceful creation of Genesis 1.

More after the jump.

Psalm 77:17-20
17 The waters saw you, God,
    the waters saw you and writhed;
    the very depths were convulsed.
18 The clouds poured down water,
    the heavens resounded with thunder;
    your arrows flashed back and forth.
19 Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind,
    your lightning lit up the world;
    the earth trembled and quaked. 
20 Your path led through the sea,
    your way through the mighty waters,
    though your footprints were not seen.

יז) רָאוּךָ מַּיִם אֱלֹהִים רָאוּךָ מַּיִם יָחִילוּ אַף יִרְגְּזוּ תְהֹמוֹת: 
יח) זֹרְמוּ מַיִם עָבוֹת קוֹל נָתְנוּ שְׁחָקִים אַף־חֲצָצֶיךָ יִתְהַלָּכוּ:
יט) קוֹל רַעַמְךָ בַּגַּלְגַּל הֵאִירוּ בְרָקִים תֵּבֵל רָגְזָה וַתִּרְעַשׁ הָאָרֶץ: 
כ) בַּיָּם דַּרְכֶּךָ ושביליך וּשְׁבִילְךָ בְּמַיִם רַבִּים וְעִקְּבוֹתֶיךָ לֹא נֹדָעוּ: 

After you've been studying Leviathan texts for a while, sometimes the absence of monsters is as striking as the presence of them. So it is with Exodus 15 and the story of the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. With a sea being split in two by the power of God, it could easily lend itself to mythic language, as a repeat of the slaying of the primordial sea monster, but very little in the text hints to such a background.

Psalm 77 however, which retells the story of crossing the sea, is quite different. Here God is against the sea, and in the face of God the waters tremble, writhe and run away. To me this demonstrates just how multi-vocal the Bible truly is, with different books (and even different parts of the same book) regarding the same events from a very different perspective.

Psalm 89
 10 You rule over the surging sea;
    when its waves mount up, you still them.
11 You crushed Rahav like one of the slain;
    with your strong arm you scattered your enemies.

י) אַתָּה מוֹשֵׁל בְּגֵאוּת הַיָּם בְּשׂוֹא גַלָּיו אַתָּה תְשַׁבְּחֵם:
יא) אַתָּה דִכִּאתָ כֶחָלָל רָהַב בִּזְרוֹעַ עֻזְּךָ פִּזַּרְתָּ אוֹיְבֶיךָ: 

We discussed Rahav in Job 26, and Psalm 89 bears a resemblance to that passage, as well as to Isaiah 51. The psalm begins with a praise of God and God's faithfulness with the people of Israel. As part of the proof of God's faithfulness, the psalmist describes God's strength over the sea and how He crushed Rahav with His strong arm.

Proverbs 8:27-29
27 I was there when he set the heavens in place,
    when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep,
28 when he established the clouds above
    and fixed securely the fountains of the deep,
29 when he gave the sea its boundary
    so that the waters would not overstep his command,
and when he marked out the foundations of the earth.

כז) בַּהֲכִינוֹ שָׁמַיִם שָׁם אָנִי בְּחוּקוֹ חוּג עַל־פְּנֵי תְהוֹם: 
כח) בְּאַמְּצוֹ שְׁחָקִים מִמָּעַל בַּעֲזוֹז עִינוֹת תְּהוֹם:
כט) בְּשׂוּמוֹ לַיָּם חֻקּוֹ וּמַיִם לֹא יַעַבְרוּ־פִיו בְּחוּקוֹ מוֹסְדֵי אָרֶץ

As in Jeremiah 5, the mythological language here is muted, as the personified Wisdom describes how she was present at the creation of the world, when God drew boundaries over the water. The sea in Proverbs is stripped of almost all personality, with only the merest hint of threat that it might 'overstep His command', but the language used to describe the sea here, Yam and Tehom, are consistent with the mythological imagery we've seen elsewhere.

Job 9:13
8] He alone stretches out the heavens
    and treads on the waves of the sea.

ח נֹטֶה שָׁמַיִם לְבַדּוֹ וְדוֹרֵךְ עַל-בָּמֳתֵי-יָם: 

13] God does not restrain his anger;
    even the helpers of Rahav cowered at his feet.

יג אֱלוֹהַּ לֹא-יָשִׁיב אַפּוֹ (תַּחְתָּו) [תַּחְתָּיו] שָׁחֲחוּ עֹזְרֵי רָהַב:

The word translated here as 'waves' literally means 'heights' - interestingly, a similar expression is used for God treading on the heights of the earth (rather than the sea) in Amos 4 and Micah 1. God's power is manifest in His treading down the arrogant waves of Yam.

This chapter also offers a tantalising glimpse of the idea that the sea monster has 'helpers'. Whether this is referring to human beings, animals or other monstrous beings is unclear, but these could explain the plural usage of the word Tanin. Maybe the Taninim are the helpers of Rahav.

And that's it for the current run of 'From the Deep'. We've now covered all the major occurrences of sea monster imagery in the Jewish Bible, exploring notions of order and chaos, control and creativity. In the future I hope to get to post-Biblical material, but in the mean time may you always control your inner Leviathans.


  1. Thanks for this series of posts. I have enjoyed them and learnt from them.

    The word translated here as 'waves' literally means 'heights' - interestingly, a similar expression is used for God treading on the heights of the earth (rather than the sea) in Amos 4 and Micah 1

    An interesting parallel that occurs to me is Deuteronomy 33.29, where Moshe blesses the Israelites before his death, saying "your enemies shall come cringing before you, but you shall tread on their high places." The verse is somewhat obscure and the current edition of the JPS Bible translates as "tread on their backs" but bamoteimo suggests ritual high places to me and I think one commentary or translation (I can't remember which) translates as fortifications on strategic heights. Either way, it seems to me that the verse in Job might be deliberately paralleling it and/or subverting it, suggesting that we are God's agents in fighting chaos.

    1. Thanks Daniel! Love this idea very much, as I find the image extremely evocative. Glad you enjoyed.