In the ancient civilizations of the Near East there were strange stories about the place of chaos in the beginning of all things – and the chaos is specifically located in water. It seems odd to me that people who largely lived in arid countries should imagine the world beginning as a watery chaos – but that is certainly what they did.
The Egyptians imagined the world’s beginning as a watery chaos (the god, Nun). It is from this watery thing that the god, Atum, generates himself and then creates the other gods. The Babylonian creation story, the Enuma Elish, said that before there were any other gods, and before the heaven and earth were set in place, there were only Apsu (the freshwater ocean) and Tiamat (the saltwater ocean). The god Marduk slayed Tiamat (who was also a chaos creature) and from her created the heavens and the earth.
All of this, of course, seems quite foreign to the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is a sample, however, of the cultures in the midst of which their faith was revealed. It also provides a backdrop that shows how unique and striking the creation story in Genesis truly is.
There are echoes of these cosmic battles embedded in various places in the Scriptures:
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
Hidden from our modern eyes but visible in the Hebrew is the “Tiamat” monster. It is within the word for “without form” (tohu) and “deep” (tehom). But in our Hebrew account, there is no slaying of a monster, no polytheistic struggle. Rather, there is God (Elohim) who simply speaks, and accomplishes the creation. There is a watery chaos, now raised up into a theological account of extreme sophistication. It is a repudiation of the surrounding culture-myths – but it is still rendered in a language that knows that culture.
In St. John’s gospel, there is something similar. He opens with reference to the Logos, a concept completely familiar to earlier Greek philosophy. But where philosophy sees an abstraction, St. John proclaims the particular: this Logos “became flesh and dwelt among us.” He takes the language and ideas of a surrounding culture and transforms them into the stuff of true revelation. In many ways, this is very much a part of the Incarnation.
Every year around Christmas time, we begin to hear noises about Christmas trees having “pagan origins.” And there are many who rush to the defense of the poor trees. I yawn. My ancestors worshipped trees, and I daresay their later Christian descendants were glad to see the Church baptizing the trees as well as people. There simply is no “pristine” matter from which the faith starts fresh. God always speaks and reveals Himself in terms that can be assimilated. He does not destroy culture, but fulfills it. The Christmas tree is a stark reminder that the Child born on that day has a rendezvous with a Tree, and that there is no getting around it. There is a Tree at the heart of our faith, even as there was at the heart of the Garden.
CS Lewis once opined that pagan mythology consisted of “good dreams sent by God to prepare for the coming of Christ.” Such myths can also carry deep darkness and confusion – but such is the nature of a world that is broken. God does not offer us redemption by destroying a broken world. He does not erase or eradicate the cultures of mankind. It is only a darkened theology that imagines every production of the human imagination to be worthy only of the dung heap. That sort of destructive view belongs to the scions of Calvin and the iconoclasm of Wahabis: it is not the work of God.
The Egyptian and Mesopotamian images that found their way into the Scriptures reflect an instinct about a primal struggle. Order and well-being are not givens: they are the result of an intervention. Both the Psalms and Isaiah take some of these images up into poetic praise:
O LORD God of hosts, Who is mighty like You, O LORD?
Your faithfulness also surrounds You.
You rule the raging of the sea;
When its waves rise, You still them.
You have broken Rahab in pieces, as one who is slain;
You have scattered Your enemies with Your mighty arm.
The heavens are Yours, the earth also is Yours;
The world and all its fullness, You have founded them. (Ps. 89:8-11)
Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the LORD! Awake as in the ancient days, In the generations of old.
Are You not the arm that cut Rahab apart, And wounded the serpent?
Are You not the One who dried up the sea, The waters of the great deep;
That made the depths of the sea a road For the redeemed to cross over?
So the ransomed of the LORD shall return,
And come to Zion with singing,
With everlasting joy on their heads.
They shall obtain joy and gladness;
Sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isa. 51:9-11)
Reading along without a commentary, it would be easy to assume that Rahab is a country or a ruler. However, it is the name of an ancient chaos sea-monster. But in the Psalms and Isaiah, this pagan sea-monster is vanquished and subdued by the God of Israel. It is not meant as a literal account. The imagery has been taken up to express God’s dominion over all things and His victory over chaos. Israel, brought into the Promised Land, is God’s ordering of the world, a restoration of “Eden,” in a manner of speaking (Ez. 36:35).
All of this imagery is taken up in the Christian faith in the Church’s meditations on the Baptism of Christ. The Western tradition (Catholic and Protestant) has long neglected this feast, only giving it attention in the past 50 years or so. In the East, the Baptism of Christ (Theophany) follows Christmas by 12 days, the same day that the West honors the visit of the Magi. A major reason for the West’s neglect of this feast, I suspect, is its strangeness to the later atonement theories that became popular. Jesus has no sin to be washed away; He is guilty of nothing. His Baptism thus stands as a contradiction to later Western accounts of the sacrament.
But in the Eastern Church, the Baptism of Christ takes up these Old Testament references of struggle with the watery chaos. Christ’s entry into the waters is understood as a foreshadowing of His entrance into Hades. It is a defeat of the hostile powers. The same theme runs throughout the sacrament of Baptism itself. The destruction of the demons is easily the strongest theme within that service:
Because of the tender compassion of Your mercy, O Master, You could not endure to behold mankind oppressed by the Devil; but You came and saved us. We confess Your grace. We proclaim Your mercy. We do not conceal Your gracious acts. You have delivered the generation of our mortal nature. By Your birth You sanctified a Virgin’s womb. All creation magnifies You, for You have revealed Yourself. For You, O our God, have revealed Yourself upon the earth, and have dwelled among men. You hallowed the streams of Jordan, sending down upon them from heaven Your Holy Spirit, and crushed the heads of the demons [“dragons” in some translations] who lurked there.
The poetry of Psalm 74 becomes part of the Baptismal service, and thus a Paschal hymn:
For God is my King of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth.
You divided the sea by Your strength:
You crushed the heads of the dragons in the waters.
You broke the heads of leviathan [another sea monster] in pieces,
and gave him to be food to the people inhabiting the wilderness.
You cleaved the fountain and the flood:
You dried up mighty rivers.
The day is Yours, the night also is Yours:
You have prepared the light and the sun. (Ps. 74:12-16)
For those who are unfamiliar with Pascha and Baptism in an “Eastern key,” this language can seem quite odd. It is the dominant image of salvation within the Eastern Church. The great hymn of Pascha, repeated seemingly hundreds of times in that season, is, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death.” It is not a hymn of payment, or punishment, but of going into the strongman’s kingdom, binding him and setting free those who are held captive. The heads of the dragons are crushed, the heads of leviathan are broken in pieces, Rahab has been cut apart.
I have seen false comparisons between East and West, where the West is credited with an emphasis on the Cross and the East with an ephasis on the Resurrection. It is a comparison that only a Westerner would make. Within the East, the Cross and the Resurrection are not separated – they are a single action devastating the adversary, leading captivity captive and setting all of the captives free. This is the Lord’s Passover.
Dragons and chaos beware.