6

Psalms 74:13-17 recounts a series of victories of Y-H-V-H. The first couplet documents victories in battle against both the Canaanite chaos sea snake [1] and the sea monster Leviathan [2]:

אַתָּ֤ה פוֹרַ֣רְתָּ בְעׇזְּךָ֣ יָ֑ם שִׁבַּ֖רְתָּ רָאשֵׁ֥י תַ֝נִּינִ֗ים עַל־הַמָּֽיִם׃

13 You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters. (NSRV)

אַתָּ֣ה רִ֭צַּצְתָּ רָאשֵׁ֣י לִוְיָתָ֑ן תִּתְּנֶ֥נּוּ מַ֝אֲכָ֗ל לְעָ֣ם לְצִיִּֽים׃

14 You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.

Then turns to acts of creating day/night, waters, stars, and seasons:

אַתָּ֣ה בָ֭קַעְתָּ מַעְיָ֣ן וָנָ֑חַל אַתָּ֥ה ה֝וֹבַ֗שְׁתָּ נַהֲר֥וֹת אֵיתָֽן׃

15 You cut openings for springs and torrents; you dried up ever-flowing streams.

לְךָ֣ י֭וֹם אַף־לְךָ֥ לָ֑יְלָה אַתָּ֥ה הֲ֝כִינ֗וֹתָ מָא֥וֹר וָשָֽׁמֶשׁ׃

16 Yours is the day, yours also the night; you established the luminaries and the sun.

אַתָּ֣ה הִ֭צַּבְתָּ כׇּל־גְּבוּל֣וֹת אָ֑רֶץ קַ֥יִץ וָ֝חֹ֗רֶף אַתָּ֥ה יְצַרְתָּֽם׃

17 You have fixed all the bounds of the earth; you made summer and winter.

What is the connection between the victories against primordial monsters and the creation account portrayed here? Why does one follow the other? What sources is this drawing from (textual or otherwise)?

  1. Heider, George C. (1999), "Tannîn", Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, 2nd ed.

  2. Grønbæk, Jakob H., “Baal’s Battle With Yam — a Canaanite Creation Fight”, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament

3 Answers 3

3

Sumerian creation myth and the myths of many related cultures and cultures descendant from it (Like the Akkadians; see the Epic of Atra-hasis and Babylonians) were based off of the Enûma Eliš. Most of them had some kind of serpent/dragon motif. In the creation story of the Enûma Eliš, Marduk is selected as a champion to defend the people and slays Tiamut and Apsû - two primordial dragons or serpents and then Marduk then creates the world out of the remains of these slain gods.

Similarly, there is also a serpent motif in Egyptian mythology in the Creation myth of Atem with the god Ra emerged from an egg and travelling in a boat known as the Bark across the sky. The bark then crossed into the underworld at sunset (Hence Ra as the sun-god). During the night, just before dawn as the Bark would pass the mountain of Bahkhu in the underworld, Apep, a serpent, would attack the Bark and Ra would have to fend him off.

These were the cultures and myths Israel was surrounded by an immersed in. As such, Psalms 74 is making the claim that that champion that slayed these dragons and created the world is really Y-H-V-H. The god that they worship is a false idol, and these tales are really about the God if Israel, who is the Champion of the Hebrews.

It is a corrective polemic to these competing creation narratives, and it appears that the first chapter of Genesis shares many of the same features of Babylonian creation myths.

The battle with the serpents is followed by the creation of springs and stars, the cornerstones of the earth, and so forth because they are inherently connected with and part of these creation myths within the cultures of the Levant's creation stories, and the first three chapters of Genesis itself (though that is not obvious to modern readers since they are divorced from this cultural context).

1
  • 3
    + 1 ... I will add something in a separate answer about the Canaanite version of this archetypal battle. Mar 29 at 2:20
2

The Sumerian and other legends are addressed in @James Shewey's answer. I would like to add something about the Canaanite myth mentioned in the OP's footnote 2. In this story, Ba'al defeats the sea god Yam, represented in the monster Lotan (the Canaanite version of Leviathan). In the Israelite version, Leviathan is generally portrayed as the creation a sovereign God (especially in the Book of Job), but in Psalm 74 the monster appears as a primordial enemy or competitor, similar the Lotan and Yam. Some scholars see this as a vestige of a Bible's polytheistic forebears, while others understand the Israelite version to represent the inspired truth which polytheistic versions blindly groped at.

The following is from the article on Yam in the New World Encyclopedia:

Yam (sea) and his secondary title Nahar (river) bear definite similarities with the older Mesopotamian deities Tiamat and Apsu, the primordial gods of salt water and fresh water, respectively. In the Babylonian epic Enuma Elish, Tiamat and her tyrannical henchman Kingu are defeated and slain by the storm god Marduk, who then becomes the supreme ruler and king of the gods, much as Yam is defeated by Baal, who ascends to the kingship of the Canaanite gods.

The battle between Yam and Baal also resembles the conflict in Hurrian and Hittite mythology between the sky God Teshub (or Tarhunt) and the serpent Illuyanka. In another Hittite myth, when the sea-dragon Hedammu threatens the earth and its creatures with his assaults, the goddess Ishtar pretends to offer herself to him.

...Psalm 74:14 preserves a tradition which reflects the Hebrew deity Yahweh's acting in Baal's role, by defeating the sea monster Leviathan (Lotan): "It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan and gave him as food to the creatures of the desert."

In the Canaanite version I do not see a creation story so much as a cycle. Ba'al, a storm deity like Marduk, conquers Yam and Lotan, but is conquered in turn by Mot, the god of the desert-dryness and death. After this Ba'al is rescued by the intervention of Anat, his sister, who sacrifices herself to achieve his resurrection. The myth describes an eternal cycle of death and resurrection, which manifests itself in the seasons. As far as I can see from the source, the myth does not involve a creation story.


ADDENDUM: We get an echo of the story of Ba'al's death and resurrection in the account of Elijah's battle the prophets of Ba'al. (1 Kings 18) In the myth of Ba'al the deity is dismembered and resurrected, bringing rain and fertility back to the earth. The prophets of Ba'al lacerated themselves in a kind of sympathetic magic designed to propitiate the deity and thus end the drought that Elijah had predicted.

1
  • Thank you for this - it is a fantastic addendum. I wish I could up-vote it more than once. Mar 30 at 4:09
2

All these are echoes and prophecies of the final Redemption to come, per Tikkunei Zohar #21:

At that time, all the Chayot will rise up with song, and their "wings spread up to him" in happiness, all of them running to and fro in song, and in dispatchment to him, behold it's the scripture, "And the Chayot running to and fro like the appearance of the lightning," to give tidings to Israel,

בההוא זמנא כל חיוון יתערון בנגונא, וכנפיהם פרודות מלמעלה לקבלא ליה בחדוה, וכלהון יהון רצין ושבין בנגונא, ושליחותא לגביה, הדא הוא דכתיב והחיות רצוא ושוב כמראה הבזק, לבשרא לישראל,

And at that time, "Praise the LORD from the Earth, dragons and depths" etc. - everything from top to bottom, down to the smallest gnat, they all will praise Him, for "the Earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD, like water covers the sea." At that time will be fulfilled the scripture (Zeph. 3), "For then I will reverse for the nations a clear language, they all calling on the name of the LORD" etc.

ובההוא זמנא הללו את ה' מן הארץ תנינים וכל תהומות וגומר, כלהו לעילא ולתתא כל מה דאתברי עד יתוש זעירא, כלהו משבחין ליה, כי מלאה הארץ דעה את ה' כמים לים מכסים, בההוא זמנא יתקיים קרא, (צפניה ג') כי אז אהפוך אל עמים שפה ברורה לקרא כלם בשם ה' וגומר:

In summary regardless of direct connection, the mention of the serpent and all creation breaking out in praise and song are all related to the future ultimate redemption when the joy will be full.

2
  • As it’s currently written, your answer is unclear. Please edit to add additional details that will help others understand how this addresses the question asked. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Mar 29 at 2:48
  • 1
    I took the liberty of formatting the quotations for clarity. Your answer reminds me that some Jews include fish on the Passover plate to celebrate the victory you refer to. (not sure that it's kosher to eat Leviathan though!) Mar 30 at 15:55

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.