Chaos and Order

An Introduction to Biblical Theology of Good/Evil

As many of you know I have allowed my curiosity to run rampant through the Scriptures in search of understanding the deepness and vastness of the age old paradigm that is “Good vs Evil” and thankfully my journey starts and has been halted at Genesis 1.

The irony, as many of you will know, is that my main focus of study has been Genesis 1 for over a decade. No, I did not pick this topic because Genesis 1 is my favorite thing to study, because I am not sure that it is my favorite study. However, the story of Good and Evil (or as you will see.. Chaos…Order..) begins here or at least for the Christian it begins here. It’s no secret that my entire view of Genesis (and many other scholars) can be somewhat summarized as “God’s polemic against Pagan gods by showing them that He controls chaos and order”. Though, many scholars before myself and before Gunkel focused on the Chaos motif it was Gunkels book Schöpfung und Chaos in Urzdt und Endz that broadened the concept.

Ancient Near Eastern Views

As we’ve shown in previous works the ANE idea of chaos/order is long stretched throughout history. Their entire origin accounts revolve around the defeat of chaos or the rise of chaos. In the cognitive environment of the Ancient Near East, the gods become involved in conflict under a variety of circumstances and at various levels: among themselves on an individual or corporate level, with entities or nonentities representing threat, or with humans (1). The first Chaoskampf subcategory is comprised of those texts in which macrocosmic order is being initially established (cosmogony). The classic piece of literature is Enuma Elish, but it must be recognized that this is nearly the only piece of ancient literature with this feature. This category represents the second of three types of theomachy represented in Enuma Elish. Here Tiamat, the personified Sea, is the enemy, and cosmogony results. The only other example I have been able to locate in ancient literature was in the single line in die Egyptian Instruction of Merikare: "He [Re] made sky and earth for their sake; he subdued the water monster (2).

ANE is filled with chaos (on the macrocosmic) attempting to fight over Order or Order fighting to withstand Chaos that embody single entities. Examples include a couple of little known Akkadian tales (Nergal/Labbu; Tishpak/Lion-Serpent ) as well as the more famous Akkadian tale of Ninurta and Anzu. Even though cosmic order is threatened by the beasts who serve as adversaries, the eventual victory over them does not result in cosmogony, thus Chaoskampf without cosmogony.

Walton categorized different variations as God of the Cosmos, Lord of the Cosmos, Divine Warrior motif, and many more. They are plentiful thorough varying Ancient Near Eastern texts, writings and findings. The concepts of Order/Chaos can be found in almost every origin account along with the majority of (g)od origin stories.

Ancient cultures had kingship rituals in order that their gods continue to allow order in their world, they even went so far as to sacrifice varying animals to the god of chaos (apophis) so that he would relent his chaos and not cause strife with the gods of justice (or order). We can see this line being drawn out even further in ANE kings who would go to war to preserve order and eliminate the possibility of chaos.

In Egypt, the key term to describe order was maat, which encapsulates the ideas of truth and cosmic balance. Maat included not only personal interactions and ethics (such as employing honest weights in the marketplace), but also universal order. A primary duty of Pharaoh was guarding maat; failure to do so would bring chaos. Thutmose III went to war in Canaan because the people there were fighting each other; he would bring order to this chaos by defeating them in battle.[1] (Naturally, he does not highlight how they all banded together to fight against him at Megiddo!) When Pharaoh conquered other lands, maat was established there. Because of his victories, Ramses II claimed that travelers were safe in foreign lands: “Thereafter, if a man or woman went out on business to Syria, they could even reach the Hatti-land without fear haunting their minds, because of (the magnitude of) the victories of His Majesty.”

Chaos and Order in the Old Testament

As I previously mentioned, the beginning chapters of the Bible bring us to the questions we have on Chaos and Order and why it was prevalent. Knowing what we know about ANE and their fight against Chaos in hopes of maintaining Order; we can see that YHWH in the Old Testament is doing something entirely different in Genesis than in other ANE scripts. We see God not toiling over Chaos or Order but rather controlling, creating and manipulating both in order to create His world. He has no struggle, unlike the other gods of the time, He simply says and chaos is and order does.

Some, like myself, theorize that Chaos is a necessary by product in creation because creation assumes order or a level of order. Therefore, with order comes chaos and with chaos comes order. Harvard Jewish scholar Jon Levenson sees two different forms of chaos in the Old Testament: (a) inert matter lacking order and so requiring differentiation (e.g. potter and clay metaphor, Gen. 2:7-9) and (b) chaos as a living being with its own will and personality that is at cross purposes with God and must be overcome before God can create the cosmos. This borrowed imagery comes from the creation myths of Israel’s neighbors. Genesis 1 can be understood in the context of (a). However there are a number of creation references within the Wisdom literature (e.g. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, and Psalms) that are articulated in terms of (b).

So, we do get the varying motif’s of God’s chaos/order as Walton previously suggests. We see God not at war with Chaos in the cosmic sense but rather, possibly, Chaos breeds what we now know as “the Satan” who is at odds with God. Chaos is always looking to upheave Order and in doing so finds its way into the Heavenly realm in which we obtain pictures of “the Satan”. However, as noted in our paper on the Satan, in the Old Testament, it simply is not the Satan we have in the New Testament further leading us to believe that Old Testament “adversary” is the cosmic chaos coming out of it’s suppression.

We have chaos defined as cosmic, pre-existing, the adversary, the sea monster, the primordial sea, and many other entities. the (Babylonian) Tiamat and (Ugaritic) Yam imagery in the context of creation, for example Psalms 74:13-14. In the first usage, it is clear that God does not eradicate the sea (or waters) but allows them to function within boundaries or limits. The latter portrayal is also present in Job, where there is also often explicit reference to Leviathan/Rahab (Job 26:8-13; Job 38:8-11). While God’s power is very evident in these texts, there is still a persistence to the presence of the sea and/or its monsters. The sea may be confined, but it is not tamed. In Psalms 104:24-26, Leviathan is not only part of creation (see Gen. 1:21) but was also formed, or made, for “sport”! Only God can confront these creatures (Job 40:1941:10-11) that no human (or other gods, Job 41:925) can tame.

Focusing on this moment, this creation of the Sea Monster which in ANE cultures was visualized as the greatest monster, the greatest chaos, the greatest opposition to their world - God toys with their origin accounts by stating He created it to hunt and for game. He, again, showcases that He is not at war with anything but rather is fully in control of the entire realm.

This portrayal of chaos as a turbulent sea, or personified as a monster that no one other than God can tame, is very different from uniform disorder or static randomness. The texts support the view that God has sovereignly chosen not to eliminate chaos (see Revelation), as, presumably, this would not lead to the kind of cosmos that God intended. As Reddish puts it: In summary, a morally neutral chaos has a creative place within God’s dynamic world, with both the potential for good and bad for creatures. This element of disharmony is an integral and essential part of a world that is in the process of ‘becoming.’ Volcanoes are needed to replenish our atmosphere in order to sustain life; this requires a planet with active geology. The Earth has plate tectonics with earthquakes and tsunamis. Our sun-heated atmosphere sustains life, but it also gives hurricanes, tornadoes, and cyclones. These messy, disorderly natural disasters have a role to play in our dynamic world. Order and chaos are inseparable; the violence of physical processes and the birth-death-decay cycle are features of God’s good world. Yet these events also have the capacity to bring suffering to humans and animals—even for righteous people, such as Job.[6] While untamed chaos has a God-ordained place within creation, God nevertheless declares all this as “very good” (Gen. 1:2131).

So to conclude this brief introduction, what we have is a fantastic portrait of YHWH who is not at odds with Chaos in the sense that He must defeat it in order for their to be victory but rather He, in His sovereign choice, decrees that Chaos must exist for a time and uses Chaos (as defined as evil, destruction, waywardness, etc) to bring about His purpose and plan for His world.

We will dive much deeper into every aspect of this as we begin our argument that the normative picture of “Good vs Evil” is rooted in the Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern concepts of Chaos and Order. We will see that “evil” exists, but Chaos can look like Order and Order can look like Chaos, which makes defining evil more descriptive and defining good more tangible.

Come back next week to read Chapter 1.