Redemptive Creation: Psalm 74 as a Witness to Tradition in Transmission

The history behind much of the biblical text has only become clear to scholars in recent centuries as archaeological research has unearthed literature hitherto forgotten that now has proven vital to understanding the origins of many aspects of the biblical text. Research has also highlighted the tension and intertextuality of the Bible’s oldest writings, as well as the many ways in which the interplay between Judah and the larger Ancient Near Eastern world defined the unique trajectory of the Jewish people and its sacred literature. After analyzing the context and history that produced the Bible, several elements stand out. First among them is the shock of national tragedy. One could propose that the Tanakh’s final redaction ought to be viewed teleologically, with all of Israel’s history leading up to and flowing out from the invasion of Babylon and the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE.  And why did the national tragedy of the invasion so thoroughly galvanize the people of Judah? Perhaps other considerations were at play in the minds of the people. Were they chosen? Had the national deity worshipped in Jerusalem rejected them? Had they stepped too far in the wrong direction, either worshipping too many gods, or not quite enough? These tensions are played out through the biblical text, and lead one to contemplate another important aspect of biblical literature that research and discovery had shed light upon – the relationship of the Bible and its authors to the experience of the Ancient Near East.

The Bible contains many obscure and difficult subjects and passages. These passages have fueled the imagination for millennia, but it has not been until relatively recently that scholars have been able to identify many such passages as a part of a continuum, a stream of imagery and thought that traces itself back to the earliest forms of written communication. As evidenced by such passages as Psalm 74, Isaiah 26-27, Numbers 22-24, etc., the Bible’s writers and compilers draw on rich traditions from a Levantine and Mesopotamian background that is retouched and composited into the sacred history of the Jewish people. Many aspects of the ANE’s polytheistic culture leave their mark on the Bible in ways that the Bible’s redactors and their literary offspring use to point to the supremacy of the God of Israel.

In Psalm 74, these two overarching influences are recast as a plea to the God of Judah for redemption and justice. The psalm comprises of a tri-partite structure. In the first section of the psalm (vv1-11), the reader is confronted with a baleful description of the tragedy that has befallen. Strangely absent, however, is specific language concerning Judah or Jerusalem, or even the singular Jerusalem temple. There are no confessions of guilt, nor is there any attempt to explain why God has allowed for the place in Psalm 74 to be laid to waste. The second section, vv12-17, recounts primeval conflicts and creation. It displays the motif of chaoskampf  in later biblical literature, with clear allusions to both the more conventional aspects of creation, and more obscure references, especially pertaining to the defeat of the Leviathan as a principal act of creation. In the third and final portion of the Psalm (vv18-23), the writer/compiler draws readers to the climactic point – a plead for God to once more show himself faithful as from old, and accomplish great works under the threat of chaos and catastrophe. The psalmist asks for justice and mercy, for the evildoers and oppressors of their people to be pushed back, and as if to sweeten the offer, he reminds God of those who have mocked Him, and how if He allows His people to be so thoroughly crushed now, He would simply be proving those blaspheme His name correct.

The text of Psalm 74 draws readers to three things: tragedy, (mythic) history and entreaty. Psalm 74 does not sit as a lone example of this formula in the Bible, either, however. The literary type for such an entreaty has parallels in the ANE. Unique in these tripartite psalms is Psalm 74, wherein the second section of the tripartite psalm goes into a digression about cosmic myth of the battle between order and chaos – or as said by eminent form critic Hermann Gunkel, chaoskampf. Psalm 74’s Chaoskampf motif causes the psalm to stand out and be all the more fascinating. It stands alone in the tripartite psalms in its recalling of the chaoskampg, and it ties in with only a handful of other biblical passages in focusing on these stories of cosmic violence and creation.

The chaoskampf  motif is a popular theme in Ancient Near Eastern literature. Outside of the Bible, it appears frequently in creation stories, and is in many ways the definitive feature of creation stories both within and around the Semitic world. In Babylon, for example, the Enuma Elish tells the story of a god associated with water, Tiamat, and the war she wages with her consort, Kingu, in an effort to put the gods under their command and thrall. Under the leadership of Marduk, the gods rise up against Tiamat and destroy her and her army of demons. Kingu’s corpse is used to create humanity, who in turn serve the gods in a manner similar to how Tiamat envisioned the gods would serve her and her retinue.

One sees in the heroes of the Enuma Elish themes that parallel the chaoskammpf passage in Psalm 74. The primitive “titan” figure of Tiamat embodies both chaos and creative force. Her association with the sea even results in the Semitic tri-lateral root for depths, ṬMT. The gods, Marduk mightiest among them, must do battle with her in order to preserve creation and liberty. Many critics have noted the possibility of a Western Semitic origin for the Enuma Elish, as the earliest extant copies of the myth date back to the Amorite Dynasty in the Second Millennium BCE. They also note that Eastern Mesopotamia had no particular way to come up with a mythological significance for the sea on its own. Most of Eastern Mesopotamia was a large tract of swamps long before they reached the Persian Gulf. The chaos embodied by the sea, its depths, its storms and its wonder would have been more likely to derive from elsewhere.

Scholars have noted several holes to this theory, but it remains a tantalizing clue about the origins of chaoskampf  in the ANE. Another text that comes directly from the Western Semitic world, and which undoubtedly sheds light on the lightmotif in Psalm 74 is the Baal Cycle from Ugarit. Within it, we find direct reference to some of the very acts that the psalmist boasts of God as accomplishing:

Did I not destroy the beloved of ’El, Yamm?

Did I not destroy the river of ’El, Rabbim?

Did I not muzzle Dragon? I netted(?) him.

I smote the crooked serpent,

Šilyaṭ of the seven heads.       

 

Also, in the same epic, we have report of either Baal or Anat having smote Lôtān, that is, the Ugaritic cognate to Psalm 74’s Leviathan. These parallels follow much about the biblical usage of such imagery, and specifically such usage in Psalm 74. The creatures recalled are all enemies of the chief god involved in the battle, in this case Baal. There is mention of the dragons/sea creatures (tannin), and along with Yamm, Lôtān and Šilyaṭ are also associated with the ocean and chaos.

The theme of sea monsters and God caught in conflict spills into a significant amount of biblical texts. The creation account in Genesis 1 seems to allude to the theme of God and the sea in roundabout ways, discussing the separation of the waters and the creatures of the sea. The tantalizing reference to tannîn in 1:21 potentially lampshades the polytheistic traditions that Genesis 1 seems crafted to dismiss. Many may have indeed felt anxiety about the notion that God, as sole creator and author of the universe, may have wrestled with other titanic or godlike figures as an integral part of the creation. Like many passages in the Torah, however, these difficult texts were not completely omitted, but instead subverted or covered in misleading imagery in order to soften the theological blow of such implications. The creation accounts of Genesis are not necessarily the earliest recorded Israelite cosmogonic myths in the Hebrew Bible, however.

Exodus 15, “The Song of Miriam,” or “The Song of the Sea,” indicates an early tradition that harkens back to the imagery of the creation epics of Ugarit and Mesopotamia. Specifically, verses 7-8 ring of a mythological context, and echoes both the Baal Cycle and Psalm 74 in proclaiming God’s triumph over the sea, the depths (temôt > tiamat) , and the rivers. Many scholars have proposed that Exodus 15 betrays a recast creation myth, with the armies of Pharaoh replacing the titanic pantheon, or even characters such as Yamm, Leviathan, Rachab and Tiamat. Another interpretation is that this poem demonstrates Yahweh’s early conflation with the Ugaritic and Canaanite ‘El. In the Ugaritic narrative, ‘El is presented as Yamm and Leviathan’s master; they are described as his “pets.” The idea of Yamm or “the sea” obeying Yahweh’s command illustrates another point of connection between understanding Yahweh and ‘El as both a singular entity as well as supreme over all creation.

To a degree, at least, Psalm 114 seems to conflate the events of the Exodus with God’s power over primordial chaos and creation, speaking in provocative terms about God’s power over various aspects of nature, most notably the sea. The parallelism in Psalm 114 also echoes parallelism in Exodus 15, which in effect demonstrates the Exodus account as a sort of second creation.

Psalm 114 is joined with Psalm 89 and Isaiah 10, among other texts, in referencing the act of defeating the sea and the Exodus as singular events. A context of judgment is nearby in both texts as well. Psalm 89 declares God’s power and righteousness, speaking of his salvific activity in the Exodus in terms that venerate the Lord for His mighty acts and promises, particularly for establishing the covenant and the Davidic kingship. There is certainly a context of judgment against the unrighteous both alluded to in verses 9-14, and stated plainly vv30-34, but the judgment in question is against the house of Israel. Isaiah 10 speaks differently, however, speaking of punishment directed towards those who have oppressed Judah, and using imagery explicitly related to the Exodus to speak of another time of judgment, another time of great redemption wherein the Jewish people will be redeemed through great miracles and their enemies crushed through the same.

The catastrophic imagery of Isaiah explicitly relates to Leviathan, in parallel to both Psalm 74 and the chaoskampf myths of Ugarit. Isaiah 27 points to a time when Leviathan, the coiling serpent, will be destroyed. The text leading up to Isaiah 27:1 speaks of a time of punishment and visitation. It seems from these contexts that there was a consciousness about the acts of salvation played out in the Exodus and the acts of creation wherein God stilled the seas and defeated the sea monsters. Psalm 74 sits at a nexus of these traditions, where the creation imagery is also explicitly referenced in a process of pleading for God to deliver from oppression and enemies.

Isaiah 51 parallels Psalm 74 almost exactly in responding to the context of a great disaster that has already befallen God’s people, and either pleading or promising God’s intervention. Isaiah 51 features Rahab as the chief creature of primordial chaos, however, and not Leviathan, though both creatures arguably feature in the defeated bestiary of the Baal Cycle. Where Psalm 74, however, presents the reader with a pleading for redemption and rescue after a great destruction, Isaiah 51 turns to promising such a redemption. The language of Isaiah 51 also echoes Psalm 107 in speaking of “the redeemed of the Lord” and boasting of God’s salvific activity.

These verses all demonstrate a pivotal point in the literature of Israel during the exile, where the creation accounts began to find themselves retooled at the hands of Judaean scribes. The miraculous power of the creation, as Gunkel notes, is a frequent subject of psalms and hymns, and pleads for mercy and grace. The prophets and the psalmic redactors of this era begin to look backward towards the initial creation, wherein God made light from darkness, put order into chaos, in essence, “wrestled Leviathan, and smashed his seven heads.” This flows into other stories of the Torah, especially the Exodus account, the “second creation.” The effect of the national crisis comes to a head, with pleading turning into promises. Herein is where this author proposes that Psalm 74 is best understood – as a compilation of texts wherein God is asked for redemption and salvation at the hand of unjust conquerors. The devastation wrought by the unnamed invaders hearkens to the terrors of chaos, the sea and the night. The evocation of creation and chaoskampf imagery is in a way intended to remind God that He must act. Implied in all of this is that God has also acted before, using the sea and the chaos surrounding the time of redemption as a way to redeem and free the chosen people with whom God has made a covenant, as referenced in Psalm 74:19-21. In essence, Psalm 74 represents a medial state, a developmental form of literature that recasts the creation into a tale of redemption. It is a stepping stone towards another form of literature that already appears late in the Bible – the apocalypse.

Themes hinted at in Psalm 74 become explicit and writ large in apocalyptic literature. In Daniel 7, for instance, the imagery of four beasts from the sea defeated by “one like a son of man” seems to have clear connections to a re-stylized creation motif, especially considering the dual aspects of the sea – still representing chaos and disorder after all these years – and the one like a son of man descending from the clouds seems to hearken back to the imagery of the Baal cycle, where Baal, as a storm god, rides upon the clouds to make war with the sea and its creatures. Daniel 7 allegorizes Judea at a time of crisis, most likely the wars caused by the Seleucids and the Ptolemys over control of the Levant. The destruction and terror have moved on from the Babylonians to the Greeks. Still, the yearning for national redemption persists, and the vision of God as sovereign over the world and creation inspires the writer of Daniel to render this account of primordial battle as a sign of hope. The pleading of Psalm 74 gives way to the story that shows these pleas are being heard.

Another familiar theme form the sea that connects creation with apocalyptic hope comes from Genesis 6-9, where God uses the sea to bring judgment upon a world that has grown so wicked that God “repents” of having made humanity. The seaborne imagery and the story of Noah both inspired many future apocalyptic writers, notably the writers of the Book of Enoch. Much of the Enochic literature that is ultimately compiled into the full, pseudepigraphic volume follows a similar tri-partite formula as the psalms do: the description of disaster, the revelatory image, ending with the hymn of praise for salvation. The motif of cosmic battle takes on a strange twist in Enochic literature, however, where it is revealed that God will not only ultimately defeat Leviathan, the monster of the depths, but shall serve it as food for the righteous who will live on in the world to come. The input for this seems to derive at least in part from Isaiah 27, where the day of the Lord is paired with the ultimate defeat of Leviathan. This defeat, and the tradition of serving Leviathan (and its Jobian counterpart, Behemoth) as food for the world to come is also mirrored in 4 Esdras and the Apocalypse of Baruch, going so far as to be featured in Talmudic tractates, notably Bavli Baba Batra 74b, where a theological reasoning based on the text is at least attempted to explain how Leviathan winds up being a part of the eschatological feast. At the very least, the tradition in Baba Batra certifies that Leviathan and Behemoth were expected to be served as dishes for the righteous at the end of the world going far back into Second Temple times and in traditions that were not necessarily under the total sway of the apocalyptic movement.

Psalm 74 presents Jewish and Israelite tradition in flux, as the confidence of the covenant is shaken by the horror of the exile. It stands in the gap between the mythological past and eschatological future, hinting and hoping for a better day to come to those who wait and depend on God’s awesome power. From such texts as Psalm 74, future scribes came to see an answer to the psalmists pleading, and the answer would be that yes, the God who defeated chaos, created the world, and redeemed Israel, was strong enough and willing to do it all over again. The progeny of Psalm 74 is the genre of the apocalyptic, and indeed, the yearning contained within its verses grants insight to the apocalyptic mindset. It represents the turning point in literary and prophetic imagination. It gives readers a strong indication of the way in which brilliant Hebrew scribes were reworking extant material to create something new, inspired, and also wholly their own.

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