The Waters of Chaos and the Cosmic Mountain

As I prepare the final post explaining why this is not an apologetics site, it seemed appropriate to shave this bit of it off and leave it here by itself.

In the ancient near east, cosmology, cosmogony, temple building, sacral kingship, and the war against chaos are all tied together. One might validly question whether these metaphors lead to the perennial identification of enemies to war against; alternatively, one might validly ask about whether the figures in this myth don’t honestly give expression to the fact that any achieved stability is temporary, has a remainder that cannot be included, and contains the shadow of what can and inevitably will undo it.

There is a myth in the Jewish tradition, seemingly quite old, in which God makes the world by throwing a stone (the “foundation stone”) into the primordial waters of chaos in order to tame them, stabilize them, and create; from the stone, a single landmass emerges from the tamed waters, peaking at the center in a mountain, the cosmic mountain. In other Semitic versions of this myth, a temple is built by the creator god atop the cosmic mountain, a place for him to dwell; in the Jewish version of this, the “foundation stone” seems to have been the foundation of the temple as well as the world.

There are variations on this story, some involving the taming of a sea monster of various names (these having Canaanitic roots), but the basic elements of this appear in bits and pieces throughout the Hebrew Bible, as well as both Rabbinic and early Christian literature. In the basic story known from other ancient near eastern myths, the creator god goes to war against the watery forces of chaos, and secures victory. We see this in the Enuma Elish, but also in Psalm 74, where the psalmist sings

you divided the sea by your strength; / you broke the heads of the sea serpents in the waters.  

You broke the heads of Leviathan in pieces, / and gave him as food to the people inhabiting the wilderness.

You broke open the fountain and the flood; / you dried up mighty rivers.

The sea god Yamm and the sea dragon Rahab receives a similar treatment in Job 25:12-13.

Through His power He subdued Yamm, / and in His cunning He smashed Rahab.

With His wind He bagged the Waters. / His hand cut down the elusive Serpent. [1]

Rahab appears again in Psalm 89:9-10. [2] See also Psalm 29, where God “sits enthroned over the flood”. By the time Psalm 104 was composed, the Leviathan is made “for sport”, as a plaything for God (one of Jon Levenson’s students dubbed it “God’s rubber ducky“). There are boundaries put on the chaos waters after this struggle, which boundaries secure order, and allow for land to arise and be protected from the threat of water (Job 38). Throughout the Hebrew Bible, however, even when the powers of evil seem so small compared to the power of God, the serpentine Tiamat / Leviathan / Rahab or the power of the sea-god Yamm are “never completely eliminated from the scene, [and are …] always lurking somewhere in the distance, ready to rear another of its ugly heads if given the chance.” [3] Defeating these forces of chaos, the creator god –whether the biblical God, the god Marduk, or Ba’al, &c.— stabilizes the chaotic waters, and builds his temple atop the cosmic mountain, which is the climax of creation and order. (Within the Genesis 1 story of the seven-day creation, these mythological elements are muted, and the theme of creation through differentiation takes the melodic line. The undifferentiated waters before the divine speech, which speech creates separations, is tamed and brought to order through the world-forming commandments: in Genesis 1, the commandments clearly act as retaining walls against this chaotic and undifferentiated water-above-and-below, and the temple cap-stoning the creation seems to be the Sabbath, rather than a building.)

In the Hebrew Bible, Jerusalem, “the navel of the earth” (Ezekiel 38:12, τὸν ὀμφαλὸν τῆς γῆς in the LXX [Lancelot C. L. Brenton, The Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and English (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998), 1031]), is at the top of this cosmic mountain; as we mentioned, at the center and foundation of the Jerusalem temple is the foundation stone, which God himself is said to place, as the builder (see Isaiah 28:16). From the temple, the waters of chaos are tamed, and bring forth life-giving streams. There are echoes of this in developed Rabbinic tradition [4], and in the 1st-3rd century B.C. Letter of Aristeas. [5] (See the footnotes for those texts.) (There is a parallel city beneath the sea, the city of the dead: see Ezekiel 26:19-20. The deathly wicked are thought by the biblical authors to have their true citizenship there, apart from the city and temple of life atop the cosmic mountain, where God dwells.)

In the Hebrew bible, in general, the regent of God participates in this power, and tames the waters of chaos. This should be clear in the case of Moses, who is “sent as a god to Pharaoh” (Exodus 7:1), who parts the sea by this invested power, and who ascends Sinai to return with his face shining with divine glory. There are other cases, however, such as David (God’s “son”) and his line in the Psalter, where the enemies of the king are assimilated to the sea monster and the primordial waters of chaos, and the king’s power is effectively theurgic:

Of old thou didst speak in a vision  / to thy faithful one, and say: || “I have set the crown upon one who is mighty, / I have exalted one chosen from the people. || I have found David, my servant; / with my holy oil I have anointed him; || so that my hand shall ever abide with him, / my arm also shall strengthen him. || […] || My faithfulness and my steadfast love shall be with him, / and in my name shall his horn be exalted. || I will set his hand on the sea / and his right hand on the rivers. || He shall cry to me, ‘Thou art my Father, / my God, and the Rock of my salvation.’ || And I will make him the first-born, / the highest of the kings of the earth. (Psalm 89:18ff, RSV, verses separated by “||”)

These texts are in the background of the narratives of Jesus’ calming of the stormy sea in the Synoptic Gospels. Within the Rabbinic tradition, this power is eventually democratized to the entirety of the people of God, even a single Jewish boy:

Rabbi Tanhuma said: It happened that a pagan ship made a voyage on the Great Sea [the Mediterranean] and on it was one Jewish child. While at sea a great storm on the sea arose against them, and then each one stood and began to raise his hands and call out to his god. But the child did nothing. Seeing that he did nothing they said to the Jewish boy, “My son, stand up! Call on your god! For we have heard that he answers you, if you cry out to him and he is strong.” Thereupon the child stood up and with his whole heart he cried out [to God] and the sea was silent. [6]

In the Hebrew Bible, the temple is the climax of creation and history, as can be seen in the hymn in Exodus 15:13, 17 (LXX), where God brings the Israelites to a mountain and a sanctuary that he himself has made. Pharaoh, however, is assimilated to the figure of the sea monster — and appropriately drowned in the sea. The wickedness of the inhabitants of the world are drowned as the ordering power of God retreats after the retaining walls of the primeval commandments are eroded through sin in the Noah story, and the waters of chaos are no longer held back — in the Noah story, like (human wickedness) goes to like (watery chaos and death). The Hebrew Bible treats the Jerusalem temple mount as the climax of order and life, and as opposed to the chaos waters, which are a type for death and “Hades” or “She’ol” (the place of the dead). It is no surprise that Moses receives his blueprint for the tabernacle from atop a mountain. Jacob’s pillow is assimilated to this foundation stone of the temple. A form of this myth appears in Job 38: “Where were you when I founded earth? […] In what were its sockets sunk, or who laid its cornerstone?” [Robert Alter, The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: A Translation with Commentary (New York, NY: Norton, 2010), 158-159]. In the Rabbinic tradition there are explicit stories about this, such as in the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 54b):

AND IT WAS CALLED SHETHIYAH [“Foundation” (Stone)]: A Tanna taught: [It was so called] because from it the world was founded. We were taught in accord with the view that the world was started [created] from Zion on. For it was taught: R. Eliezer says: The world was created from its centre […] R. Isaac the Smith said: The Holy One, blessed be He, cast a stone into the ocean, from which the world then was founded as it is said: Whereupon were the foundations thereof fastened, or who laid the corner-stone thereof? But the Sages said: The world was [started] created from Zion, as it is said: […] God, God, the Lord [hath spoken], whereupon it reads on: Out of Zion, the perfection of the world, that means from Zion was the beauty of the world perfected. (See here; retrieved 5/26/16 @9:34PM)

These traditions, or traditions like them, seem to be operative in the mythological imagery of the sequence of Psalm 85:10-14, but especially vv.11-12, in which “truth” appears to be connected to the point at which the cosmic mountain rises –seemingly erotically– to meet a justice from heaven:

Kindness and truth have met, / justice and peace have kissed. || Truth from the earth will spring up, / as justice from the heavens looks down. (Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (New York, NY: Norton, 2007), 301-302)

Throughout the Hebrew Bible (and in the New Testament), ordinary wickedness can be likened to a return to the waters of chaos (“When your eyes see a strange woman, then your mouth will speak perversely. And you will lie as in the heart of the sea and like a navigator in a large wave.” [Proverbs 23:33-34, NETS]). Similarly, as we saw in the Noah story, the wicked can be treated as properly belonging in the sea (so Pharaoh and his troops returned to the sea; so the request of the Psalmist: “Plunge them into the depths, O Lord, and divide their tongues, for I have seen iniquity and gainsaying in the city” concerning the wicked who infest Jerusalem; the herd of swine that runs into the sea in Mark’s Gospel that were types, at least in part, of the foreign Roman legion soldiers infesting Jerusalem, &c.). For the world-order to return to chaos, however, the cosmic mountain would need to return to the sea; an ostensibly false order can be said to suffer this if and when it is overthrown, such as the false order of “Babylon” in Revelation 18:21ff.:

Then a strong angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying, “So will Babylon, the great city, be thrown down with violence, and will not be found any longer. […]” (NASB)

This is also what lies behind the passage in Mark 11:23 about ‘faith moving mountains into the sea’ — the passage is not a narcissistic exhortation to think of oneself as having titanic magical powers, but is rather in large part a judgment against the Jerusalem temple as being a corrupted cosmic mountain, not full of light and life, but infested with injustice and death and chaos — like the waters of chaos from the primordial sea.


[1] Robert Alter, The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 2010), 108.

[2] “Thou dost rule the raging of the sea; / when its waves rise, thou stillest them. || Thou didst crush Rahab like a carcass, / thou didst scatter thy enemies with thy mighty arm.” [RSV]

[3] Bernard F. Batto, In the Beginning: Essays on Creation Motifs in the Ancient Near East and the Bible (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2013), 220.

[4] R. Hisda said to a certain Rabbi who was arranging his Aggadas before him, ‘Have you heard in correspondence to what David composed his fifteen Songs of Ascent?’ — ‘Thus’, the other replied, ‘said R. Johanan: When David dug the Pits the Deep rose up and threatened to submerge the world, and David thereupon uttered the fifteen Songs of Ascent and caused its waves to subside’. But if so, [asked R. Hisda,] ought it not to be Songs of Descent, instead of Ascent? — ‘Since you have reminded me’, the other replied ‘[I may say that] it was stated thus: When David dug the Pits, the Deep arose and threatened to submerge the world. “Is there anyone”, David enquired, “who knows whether it is permitted to inscribe the Name upon a sherd, and cast it into the Deep that its waves should subside?” There was none who answered a word. Said David, “Whoever knows the answer and does not speak, may he be suffocated”. Whereupon Ahitophel adduced an a fortiori argument to himself: “If, for the purpose of establishing harmony between man and wife, the Torah said, ‘Let My name that was written in sanctity be blotted out by the water’, how much more so may it be done in order to establish peace in the world!” He, therefore, said to him, “It is permitted!” [David] thereupon inscribed the Name upon a sherd, cast it into the Deep and it subsided sixteen thousand cubits. When he saw that it had subsided to such a great extent, he said, “The nearer it is to the earth, the better the earth can be kept watered” and he uttered the fifteen Songs of Ascent and the Deep reascended fifteen thousand cubits and remained one thousand cubits [below the surface]’.’ [b. Sukkah 53, slightly edited to remove insertions, retrieved here @ 11:38PM EST on 6/18/16]

[5] C. T. R. Hayward, The Jewish Temple: A Non-Biblical Sourcebook (New York, NY: Routledge, 1996), 27-30. ” [83] For when we arrived at the places we saw the city lying in the middle of the whole of Judaea, on a mountain of considerable height. [84] On the summit was built the Temple, having a preeminent position. […] [89] And there is an endless supply of water, as if indeed a strongly flowing natural spring were issuing forth from within [the Temple]; and in addition there exist marvellous and indescribable reservoirs underground –as they showed me– for five stades around the foundation of the Temple; and each of them has numberless channels such that the streams join up together with each other from different sides. […] [99] […] I am certain that everyone who comes near to the sight of the things described above [which include the temple rituals, not included here] will come to astonishment and indescribable wonder, and will be stirred in mind by the holy quality which pertains to each detail.”

[6] Berachoth 9, Jerusalem Talmud. Cited in Wendy Cotter, Miracles in Greco-Roman Antiquity: A Sourcebook for the Study of New Testament Miracle Stories (New York, NY: Routledge, 1999), 142.

8 thoughts on “The Waters of Chaos and the Cosmic Mountain

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  5. What I find interesting is that order in science is the opposite of entropy. Entropy seems to increase with time and gravity is the curvature of space/time. This would mean gravity is a form of entropy. Black holes are technically infinite (bottomless) pits of space/time (similar to the Jewish concept of Sheol). The opposite of a black hole in space time is a white hole. Can’t enter a white hole unless you travel faster than the speed of light and anything with entropy can’t go faster than the speed of light. So to get into a white hole you have to be cleansed of entropy. This is similar to the idea that Christ must absorb your sin in order for any of us to follow Him into Heaven. Entropy may be a result of sin but the most fascinating coincidence, in my opinion, is that a white hole is theoretically a mountain of space/time. El Shaddai is a name of God that comes from the Akkadian word shaddu which of course means mountain. What if the cosmic mountain of God is the white hole that created the Big Bang?

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