Tiamat and the Atonement
One of the oldest creation myths is that of the Enuma Elish, in which the Babylonian God, Marduk, fights the sea serpent, Tiamat (this type of divine battle is called a theomacy). In this story, Tiamat represents chaos. The god, Marduk, fights and wins Tiamat and out of her body parts creates the universe. Although the Genesis creation myth does not have Jehovah, nor anyone from the divine council fighting a sea monster to bring about creation, it does mention a sea monster in an interesting way:
“God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarmed after their kind, and every winged bird after its kind; and God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:21 NASB)
So, the God of the Hebrew Bible (as represented in this verse) didn’t fight the sea monsters, he created them. Thus showing his supremacy over the old Babylonian gods1. Although no one fights Tiamat in any of the Genesis creation accounts, she does make an appearance. Tiamat does show up in the Priestly account of creation (Genesis 1:1-2:4b). In Genesis, the “waters of the deep” (Genesis 1:2) or tehom is a Hebrew cognate with the Akkadian tiamat. The Spirit of God “hovers over” the waters of the deep” (tehom). Again, showing God’s supremacy (in this creation account) over Tiamat.
The sea monster does show up again in the Hebrew Bible, but the sea monster is presented differently:
“In that day the LORD with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, even leviathan that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea: (Isaiah 27:1, KJV)
God asks Job:
1Canst thou draw out leviathan with a fishhook? Or press down his tongue with a cord?
2Canst thou put a rope into his nose? Or pierce his jaw through with a hook?
3Will he make many supplications unto thee? Or will he speak soft words unto thee?
4Will he make a covenant with thee, That thou shouldest take him for a servant for ever?
5Wilt thou play with him as with a bird? Or wilt thou bind him for thy maidens?
6Will the bands of fishermen make traffic of him? Will they part him among the merchants?
7Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons, Or his head with fish-spears?
8Lay thy hand upon him; Remember the battle, and do so no more (Job 41:1-8, ASV).
The Psalmist writes:
“Thou brakest the heads of leviathan in pieces, and gavest him to be meat to the people inhabiting the wilderness” (Psalm 74;14, KJV)
So, in these other verses we see the sea serpent, Leviathan, being represented very much in the way we find in the Babylonian creation myth. God fights the sea monster and thus conquers chaos.
Creation myths are important for the religious person. With Babylon, as the old year was ending and the new year beginning, the poem of Enuma Elish was recited. Not only was there a ritual recitation, but a reactualization of the combat between Marduk and the marine monster Tiamat. The reactualization of creation myths “imply starting time over again at its beginning, that is, restoration of the primordial time, the ‘pure’ time, that existed at the moment of Creation.”2
In our Mormon worship, we also have a creation myth which we reactualize every time we go through an Endowment Ceremony. In this unique form of LDS worship, we see the Divine Council organizing out of chaos. There is something there, if we look hard, a creation story within the creation story. In this story-within-the-story, the serpent makes an appearance:
So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,
“Cursed are you above all livestock
and all wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
and you will eat dust
all the days of your life.
And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Genesis 3:14,15, NIV)
But perhaps it was St. Paul’s letter to the Romans (perhaps ambiguously) which first showed that the one crushing the serpent’s head was/is Jesus Christ:
The God of peace will shortly crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you (Romans 16:20)
St. Irenaeus (late second century AD – 202 AD) also gave the following interpretation (perhaps he being the earliest Church Father to do so):
“For this end did He put enmity between the serpent and the woman and her seed, they keeping it up mutually: He, the sole of whose foot should be bitten, having power also to tread upon the enemy’s head; but the other biting, killing, and impeding the steps of man, until the seed did come appointed to tread down his head, – which was born of Mary, of whom the prophet speaks: ‘Thou shalt tread upon the asp and the basilisk; thou shalt trample down the lion and the dragon (Psalm 91:13).'”3
Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386)wrote:
“According to Job, the dragon Behemoth was in the Waters and received the Jordan into his jaws. Now, since the heads of the dragon must be broken, Jesus, having gone down into the Waters, bound the Strong One, so that we should have the power to walk on scorpions and snakes.”4
Cyril also wrote:
“Just as Noah had confronted the Sea of Death in which sinful humanity had been destroyed, and emerged from it, so the newly baptized man descends into the baptismal piscina to confront the water Dragon in a supreme combat from which he emerges victorious”5
The Atonement of Jesus Christ is, in fact, a creation story. Jesus Christ crushed the skull of the serpent. As Mircea Eliade wrote, pertaining to the theomacy found in the Enuma Elish:
“To behead it [the primordial serpent] is an act of creation.”6
Through our reenacting the creation myth found in Genesis, The Book of Abraham, and The Book of Moses, we, in a way, reenact the atonement. Through our eating of the Sacramental symbols of the Lord’s Supper, every week, we reenact the atonement.
“For religious man, on the contrary, profane temporal duration can be periodically arrested; for certain rituals have the power to interrupt it by periods of a sacred time that is nonhistorical (in the sense that it does not belong to the historical present). Just as a church constitutes a break in a plane in the profane space of a modern city, the service celebrated inside it marks a break in profane temporal duration. It is no longer today’s historical time that is present – the time that is experienced, for example, in the adjacent streets – but the time in which the historical existence of Jesus Christ occurred, the time sanctified by his preaching, by his passion, death, and resurrection. But we must add that this example does not reveal all the difference between sacred and profane time; Christianity radically changed the experience and the concept of liturgical time, and this is due to the fact that Christianity affirms the historicity of the person of Christ. The Christian liturgy unfolds in a historical time sanctified by the incarnation of the Son of God.”7
Every week and every time we worship in our temples and worship together at church, we are stepping out of profane time and into sacred time. It is in this sacred time of partaking the Lord’s Supper and participating in temple worship that we create and organize out of chaos. It is in this sacred time that the historical Jesus enters our own creation story – as we become at-one with God. The sacred remains active through symbolism. A religious symbol conveys its message even if it is no longer consciously understood in every part. For a symbol speaks to the whole human being and not only to the intelligence.8 In our new creation story, we reenact it with our bodies: immersing ourselves in the water of baptism; putting the eucharistic bread into our mouth; standing and making covenants with God and our community in our temples. This new creation story cannot be done without Christ. The atonement helps free us to move into a new relationship with God and our own divinity.
Symbols are pregnant with messages. Christianity did not destroy the pre-Christian symbols; it simply added value to them. It could even be said that the aquatic monster and the serpent in the Garden of Eden awaited the fulfillment of their deepest meanings through the new values attributed by Jesus of Nazareth and his historical and infinite atonement.9
It is our creation story, our wrestling with our Tiamat, in which we, with Jesus, perform our on theomacy.
1 I owe this insight to Dr. David Bokovoy, Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis-Deuteronomy
3St. Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, Chapter 23, Number 7 20. Thanks to Jared Anderson for pointing out the scripture in Romans and to Jared Mooney and Allen Hansen for finding the St. Irenaeus quotes for me. Irenaeus also said:
“Christ has therefore, in His work of recapitulation, summed up all things, both waging war against our enemy, and crushing him who had at the beginning led us away captives in Adam, and trampled upon his head, as thou can perceive in Genesis that God said to the serpent, ‘And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; He shall be on the watch for thy head, and thou on the watch for his heel.’ For from that time, He who should be born of a woman, namely from the Virgin, after the likeness of Adam, was preached as keeping watch for the head of the serpent. This is the seed of which the apostle says in the Letter to the Galatians, ‘that the law of works was established until the seed should come to whom the promise was made (Galatians 3:19).’ This fact is exhibited in a still clearer light in the same Epistle where he thus speaks: ‘But when the fullness of time was come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman (Galatians 4:4).’ For indeed the enemy would not have been fairly vanquished, unless it had been a man born of a woman who conquered him. For it was by means of a woman that he got the advantage over man at first, setting himself up as man’s opponent. And therefore does the Lord profess Himself to be the Son of man, comprising in Himself that original man out of whom the woman was fashioned, in order that , as our species went down to death through a vanquished man, so we may ascend to life again through a victorious one; and as through a man death received the palm of victory against us, so again by a man we may receive the palm against death.”
– St. Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, Book V, 21, 1 21
4 Mircea Eliade,The Sacred and the Profane, The Nature of Religion: The significance of religious myth, symbolism, and ritual within life and culture, pg. 133
5 ibid, pg. 134
6 ibid, pg. 55
7 ibid, pg 71, 72
8 ibid, pg. 129
9 ibid, pg. 137