Tuesday, October 18, 2016

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Leviathan


At various times the biblical writers interacted directly with their ancient culture. This was true, for instance, when Paul quoted from the “Hymn to Zeus” (Ac. 17:28) “But you [Zeus] are not dead: you live and abide forever, for in you we live and move and have our being.” In the same passage, Paul also quoted a half-line from the Cretan poet Aratus, which says, “Let us begin with Zeus…for we are also his offspring.” It should be apparent, of course, that Paul does not do this because he is a worshipper of Zeus, but rather, because he wanted a point of contact with his audience, and because, however off the mark he believed Greco-Roman religion to be, it was not always wrong on every point. To paraphrase Cervantes, “All truth is God’s truth.”

This contact with the surrounding culture is perhaps even more thorough-going in the use of mythology in apocalyptic imagery. There were certain stock images in antiquity with which everyone was familiar. Using such imagery immediately employed a known concept which would have been instinctively understood by the earliest listeners. A good example is the imagery of the seven-headed dragon in the Book of Revelation, the creature with a wounded head (Rv. 13:1ff.). This imagery of Yahweh in conflict with a dragon-like creature appears in various places in the Old Testament (e.g., Job 9:13; 26:12-13; Ps. 74:13-14; 89:10; Is. 27:1), and it seems to have been a stock image, for it is found in the literature of Sumer, Babylon, Phoenicia, Canaan and Egypt. Indeed, a visual depiction of the seven-headed monster appears as early as 2600 BC from Sumer incised in a small piece of shell. In this small carving, as in the Book of Revelation, it is fascinating to observe that one of the seven heads of the beast is wounded. One finds this same imagery in ancient literature:

“Because you smote Leviathan, the twisting serpent, (and) made an end of the crooked serpent, the tyrant with seven heads, the skies will become hot (and) will shine.”

                                    Keilalphabetischen Texte aus Ugarit 1.5.I.1

“Surely I lifted up the dragon…[and] smote the crooked serpent, the tyrant with the seven heads.”

                                    Keilalphabetischen Texte aus Ugarit 1.3.III.40-42


In Mesopotamian literature, the defeat of this Leviathan is credited to Anat or Baal in the ancient past. In the Bible, of course, it is credited to Yahweh, not only in the past, but also in “that day”, which is to say, “the day of the LORD”. In the Bible, Leviathan, the threatening monster, seems to be an alternative way of describing Satan himself, the great opposer of God and the prosecutor of God’s people.

Familiarity with the use of such stock images enhances ones understanding and appreciation of the biblical writers and their messages. I suppose some might find it surprising that the Bible contains such references, but this should come as no great surprise. The biblical writers were interested in clear communication, and often, this meant moving from the known to the unknown using elements that already were part of the cultural “working vocabulary” of their audience.

1 comment:

  1. Dan, this is truly an excellent insight. Interaction with stock cultural imagery – symbols that were part of the shared cultural psyche understood by all – is the key to interpreting many of the Psalms, the book of Job, and most of Jewish apocalyptic literature, whether biblical or otherwise.

    To take the Bible seriously is to be able to distinguish the literal from the symbolic and to understand when the biblical writers are engaging in “conversation” with ideas that are not their own. Taking the Bible seriously means actually listening to what it is saying and perceiving the rhetorical devices by which it presents its message. Such an approach is necessary for taking a truly conservative position in biblical interpretation and affirming the Bible’s continuing authority.

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