One hundred years ago Hermann Gunkel identified the Chaoskampf—the Battle Against Chaos—as a fundamental biblical myth. Working from the then recently published Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation epic, Gunkel drew a picture of the events before creation, in which the sovereign god (in Babylon, Marduk) had to establish his sovereignty by defeating watery opponents. Gunkel showed that many poetic biblical passages in the Psalms, prophets and wisdom literature refer to this same mythical concept. Moreover, he demonstrated that biblical ideas of the eschaton (the end of time) mirrored these conceptions of the beginning, that is, God’s ultimate kingdom will also be established after a defeat of enemies.
In the years following Gunkel’s groundbreaking work, scholars have identified the Chaoskampf throughout the ancient world. Discoveries at 14th-century B.C.E. Ugarit show that Ba‘al was thought to have become king of the gods after defeating Prince Yam (Prince Sea). Midrashim—rabbinic interpretations and expansions of the Hebrew Bible—reveal that the rabbis understood the biblical allusions in Genesis to refer to the rebellion of the Prince of the Sea against God. Scholars have now also identified this widespread mythical motif of a king defeating a watery enemy in Egypt and India. The near ubiquity of the motif in the Old World has led some scholars of Hindu mythology to suggest that the myth stems from a prenatal memory of the violent moment when sperm cells attack the egg and one succeeds in penetrating it.
This comparison of the moment of conception with the combat myth strikingly illuminates the nature of this myth—not because it is accurate, but because it is completely off the mark. Current embryological research teaches us that the merging of sperm and egg is not violent. One sperm does not aggressively beat out the others in a mad swim-and-pierce contest. Sperm, it turns out, cannot swim very well, and it is the cilia in the vagina that propel the sperm toward the egg. The egg, moreover, has filaments that bring the sperm into a kind of port, where by thrashing its tail, the sperm can corkscrew its way inside. Our old image of conception, far from being the source of the combat myth, is the ancient combat myth itself projected into the fallopian tubes.
Once we realize this, we begin to see how fundamental the chaos myth is to our culture’s vision of reality. First, it is a highly gendered myth, for whether the force to be conquered is the devouring mother (as in Babylon) or the greedy rapacious brother (as in Canaan), the hero is always a brave warrior. Whether the warrior goes on to create a nation (as in Babylon and Israel) or to face another contender to his rule (as in Canaan), he is the heroic male (in Babylonian, quradu; in Hebrew, gibbor) who uses his might to bring order to the world. He is the Near Eastern counterpart to the dragon- or witch-slaying heroes in the myths of Western culture, the men who rescue damsels so that they can live happily ever after.
Our religions look forward to the day when God will defeat Leviathan or when the Messiah will defeat the enemies of Israel and/or the forces of evil. Twentieth-century history is replete with recurrent appearances of this myth in the political arena, in which all power is vested in a political leader-redeemer—a führer, a duce, a dictator—who could vanquish chaos and create stability and order. We still look for a knight in shining armor to come and solve all our problems!
In recent years, some Americans hoped that Colin Powell would come from the battlefield to their aid, metaphorically galloping in on a swift charger; others looked to Newt. Whether the redeemer is a Messiah riding a donkey, a knight on a horse, or a politician on a landslide or a mandate, it is all the same myth projected over and over again: The heroic man of steel will bring truth, justice and the American way, and all our troubles will be over. With a man of might, the side of right will win.
The combat myth is a myth of power, of God’s might. It manifests faith that power is a constructive force. It is no accident that the hero becomes king or that both the Babylonians and the Israelites used the divine combat myth to lend glory and authority to their human kings. The myth shows us the basic attraction of kingship—people will give up autonomy for security, will relinquish their freedom to choose in return for freedom from danger. The full historical sweep of the combat myth, from the battles of Ba‘al and Yam, of Marduk and Tiamat, through biblical Israel’s declarations that “YHWH is King,” and on to its many modern variations and permutations, demonstrates the power of this paradigm and our culture’s fervent desire to believe, not that might makes right, but that right-minded might can make everything right. When the children of light defeat the children of darkness, when the 047forces of good conquer the legions of evil, when the Jedi defeat the dark side, then peace will reign: God will be king over all the nations, and we shall experience war no more.
But repeating this myth without understanding its character and implications keeps us repeating the myth’s downside. Rather than creating perfect peace, the Chaoskampf sets up a cosmic cycle; violence used to defeat enemies always leads to new violence as it creates resentment and revenge fantasies in those it defeats. Threatened violence leads us to seek a redeemer; the power we invest in our redeemers turns against us once they become kings of the universe. The combat myth is a violent myth, and after all our history, ancient and recent, it is hard to believe that violence can ever bring peace. The combat and struggle that created our world created a violent t world, and to create a new peaceful order we must break the pattern of violence. The myth of the warrior king who defeats his enemies can never accomplish that.
One hundred years ago Hermann Gunkel identified the Chaoskampf—the Battle Against Chaos—as a fundamental biblical myth. Working from the then recently published Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation epic, Gunkel drew a picture of the events before creation, in which the sovereign god (in Babylon, Marduk) had to establish his sovereignty by defeating watery opponents. Gunkel showed that many poetic biblical passages in the Psalms, prophets and wisdom literature refer to this same mythical concept. Moreover, he demonstrated that biblical ideas of the eschaton (the end of time) mirrored these conceptions of the beginning, that is, God’s ultimate kingdom will […]