Theophany and River Gods

The Orthodox Church has always taught that the background against which the scriptures and scriptural events are rightly understood is preserved within Holy Tradition.  Holy Tradition is the life of the Holy Spirit within the church, but how precisely this functions is often misunderstood.  Sometimes it is thought to be some sort of secret additional knowledge, beyond the scriptures or the public proclamation of the church passed down orally.  This sort of idea, however, is roundly condemned by the Fathers in their contest against Gnosticism.  What separates Christianity from Gnosticism, they argue, is that Christianity has always publicly proclaimed the same faith delivered once and for all to the saints.  A prime example of how tradition ‘works’ can be seen in the icon and related liturgics for the Feast of Holy Theophany.

A feature which stands out in the Theophany icon are two small figures in the waters at the bottom of the icon’s depiction.  These figures are typically two small humanoid creatures who appear to be riding upon sea creatures.  In some cases, these two figures have been replaced by the fallen archangel and the dragon.  Why this replacement sometimes happens will become clear in the further explanation of the icon.  These figures are often identified as ‘pagan river gods’ in explanations of the icons and are connected with the dragons or serpents lurking in the waters referred to in the liturgical blessing of the waters, and often also depicted in the icon.  These figures are the key to understanding the connection between the various liturgical motifs celebrated at Theophany.

Much of the Hebrew Bible is written in such a way as to serve as a polemic against the pagan beliefs of surrounding cultures.  When the beliefs of those other cultures are understood, the Biblical text can often be seen to be directly co-opting and critiquing those beliefs to assert the superiority of Yahweh, the God of Israel, to any other spiritual being worshipped in the world.  This begins in the very first chapter of the book of Genesis.  The primary motif in Ancient Near Eastern creation narratives is what is commonly called Chaoskampf.  The gods are depicted as having, in primordial time, had some great contest with a monstrous chaos creature, the slaying of which led to the creation of the earth and its population.  In Canaanite and Mesopotamian literature, this creature is associated with the sea, the abyss, or the waters in general as representing chaos and destruction.  In other parts of the Hebrew Bible, the language attributed by the Canaanites to Baal or the Babylonians to Marduk in defeating chaos is instead ascribed to Yahweh, the God of Israel, to demonstrate his superiority (cf. Ps 74, 89, 93; Job 26:12-13; Is 51:9-10).

What is more common, however, as an approach in the Hebrew Bible is to depict Yahweh commanding these other powers and them being forced to obey (cf. Is 40:26; 45:12).  This is the approach which is taken in Genesis 1 regarding the creation of the world.  Genesis 1:1-2 establishes the state of things before creation in a way which would have been familiar in the Ancient Near East.  The earth is ‘formless and empty’, shrouded in darkness, and described as a watery abyss.  Rather than a great battle ensuing, however, God merely speaks commands, and is immediately obeyed.  He then at the end of each day passes judgment over every thing, declaring it good.  This expresses a far greater superiority than simply winning a battle or killing a monstrous beast.  The sea and the waters are things created by the God of Israel, and are completely subservient to him at their creation.  While they may be worshipped or feared by some as gods, they are not in the same category of being as the true God, Yahweh (Deut 32:17).

In Genesis 1:2, the Spirit of God is portrayed as a bird.  The word used in Hebrew to describe his movement over the waters, usually translated in English as ‘hovering’ or ‘brooding’ is a word used to describe a mother bird brooding over her young.  The presence of the Holy Spirit over the waters as a dove is a deliberate recalling of the original creation of the world.  The first creation culminates, at its climax, in the creation of Adam (Gen 1:27).  The new creation follows the reverse order and begins with the re-creation of man through the incarnation of Christ.  This is the first main liturgical theme of Theophany: the re-creation and setting free of Adam by Christ in the waters of the Jordan.  It should be remembered that the celebration of Theophany in the East preceded the celebration of the Feast of the Nativity by nearly three centuries and it was Theophany which functioned as the celebration of the incarnation of Christ.

Similar themes to those of Genesis 1 are found in the story of the Exodus, in particular the plagues upon Egypt culminating in the Passover.  Over the course of a series of days, Yahweh the God of Israel strikes the Nile, the crops and livestock, the health of the people themselves, and ultimately the sun and the Egyptian gods associated with them without even the faint hint of a response or a counterattack (Ex 7:14-10:29).  Finally he strikes the divine Pharaoh himself, slaying his firstborn son (Ex 12:29-30).  After the completion of the plagues, God states that he has executed judgment on ‘all the gods of Egypt’ (Ex 12:12).  The Passover is the freedom of Israel from slavery and the beginning of the journey to take the land of Canaan.  In preparation for the conquest of Canaan come events which represent a direct attack upon the Canaanite gods in parallel to what was done in Egypt.

The ‘Baal Cycle’ is the name given to the epic poems describing the ascent of the Canaanite god Baal to ascendancy within the Canaanite pantheon.  The city of Ugarit fell around 1200 BC and remained buried and unknown until its rediscovery and subsequent excavation in 1928.  Because of this, the literature found there, including the Baal Cycle, gives a snapshot of Canaanite religion in the era of the Exodus and conquest of Canaan.  In his ascent to power and related creation myths, Baal’s chief opponent is the god ‘Yam’, or ‘the Sea’, who reigns over the council of gods and represents primordial chaos.  Yam’s henchman is ‘Nahar’, or ‘the River’.  It is these two beings which are depicted in the waters at the bottom of the Theophany icon.  As the nascent Israel makes its journey to Canaan, that journey is bookended by first the parting of the sea (Heb. Yam; Ex 14:21) and the parting of the river (Heb. Nahar; Josh 3:15-17).  There is no battle required, because sea and river are the creations of Yahweh, the God of Israel, and so immediately obey his commands both to leave harmless his people, and to destroy his enemies (Ex 14:27).  Yam and Nahar are therefore depicted in the Theophany icon as fleeing from Christ in fear and in the liturgical hymns and prayers the waters, referring to these beings, are depicted as turning back and separating as they did in Exodus and Joshua.  The power of these hostile spiritual beings is crushed by Christ signaling, as it did in Joshua, the beginning of a new conquest which will end with Christ’s victory and enthronement over all creation.

The final great theme of Theophany is that of the Theophany itself, the appearance or revelation of God.  The first clear representation of the Holy Trinity in the Torah occurs at the banks of the sea before its parting before the Israelites.  Yahweh, the God of Israel, has spoken to Moses several times, sometimes directly, sometimes in the person of the Angel of the Lord.  He has sent the Angel to lead Israel through the wilderness, as later described in Exodus 20:20-23 (see Jude 5).  He has also sent his Presence before them in the form of a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day (Ex 13:21).  At the edge of the sea, Moses hears the voice of Yahweh promising his protection from the Egyptians (Ex 14:15-18) as he himself will fight the Egyptians for Israel.  After this statement, the Angel and the pillar both move from the front of Israel’s camp to its rear, placing themselves between the Egyptian army and the Israelites and preventing the Egyptians from attacking (Ex 14:19).

The Baal Cycle describes a revolution as Baal rebels against the high god, overthrows him, and establishes his own throne as the leader of the divine council.  The Prophet Isaiah reads this as a false telling of the fall of the Devil in which the Devil is supposed to have been successful in his rebellion.  For this reason, Baal was widely associated with the Devil in Second Temple Judaism, including a version of one of Baal’s titles, ‘Beelzebub’, becoming a name for the Devil.  According to Baal’s worshippers, the result of his successful rebellion was that El now reigned as the high god, with his son Baal leading the divine council of gods.  Israel, by contrast, held Yahweh as God Most High and his divine council to be composed of angelic beings created by him.  The role of leader of the divine council was also filled by Yahweh, but by a second hypostasis of Yahweh, described in both the Hebrew scriptures and other Second Temple Jewish writings as the Angel of the Lord already discussed, the Word of God (cf. Ps 82 and Jn 10:34-35), and as his divine Son (Heb 1:1-4).  At Christ’s baptism, the voice of his Father proclaims publicly Christ’s identity as this second person, the second hypostasis of Yahweh, the God of Israel.  The angels of the divine council appear in the Theophany icon bowing to him in deference.

While the birth of Christ is narrated in only two of the Gospels, the event of Christ’s baptism occurs in all four and represents the starting point of the narratives of St. Mark and St. John.  Theophany is also one of, if not the, earliest Christian feast after the celebration of Pascha.  This is because the proclamation of Christ as the second hypostasis of the Holy Trinity, of his incarnation as the beginning of the new creation through the re-creation of humanity, and the beginning of the defeat of the evil powers which will culminate in his resurrection from the dead is the very heart of the Christian proclamation as a whole.  While Ugarit and its library lay buried in the dirt for 3,000 years, the background and concepts necessary to properly understand the event of Christ’s baptism as described in scripture was maintained within the iconographic and liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church.  The discovery of these scriptural backgrounds does not require the church to re-evaluate her teachings, but rather reveals to us the connective tissue and origins of the tradition which we have already received.

About Fr. Stephen De Young

The V. Rev. Dr. Stephen De Young is Pastor of Archangel Gabriel Orthodox Church in Lafayette, Louisiana. He holds Master's degrees in theology, philosophy, humanities, and social sciences, and a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Amridge University. Fr. Stephen is also the host of the Whole Counsel of God podcast from Ancient Faith and author of four books, the Religion of the Apostles, God is a Man of War, the Whole Counsel of God, and Apocrypha. He co-hosts the live call-in show and podcast Lord of Spirits with Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick.


  1. This is very helpful, Fr Stephen. The Baptism of Christ is something about which the tradition in which I was raised (ironically, Baptist) has always been notoriously skittish. My family and I are preparing to begin our journey to the Church this coming Sunday on Holy Theophany, so I’ve been reading up on the hymnography and iconography of the feast, so this was helpful and timely.

    I’m very interested in the OT symbolism, of which I’m becoming increasingly aware, of the waters as chaos/death/disintegration of being. In that sense, Christ’s declaration of lordship over them, his passing through them in his Baptism, seems to prefigure his entering down into death to destroy it. In that sense, it makes complete and utter sense that in order to “put on Christ” we must participate in His victory by passing through the baptismal waters, with everything that experiencing the chaos/death/disintegration of the “old man” implies.

  2. Excellent commentary! Connected imagery of the Holy Spirit in Genesis and Christ’s baptism makes the Creation / New Creation so obvious once explained.

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