Slaying Leviathan Cosmic Warfare And The Preservation And Restoration Of Creation - InterVarsity Press (2024)

IN THE LAST CHAPTER WE EXAMINED THE OLD TESTAMENT’S TEACHING regarding malicious demons and rebellious raging waters that encompass the earth. While the point of this teaching is clearly to reinforce confidence in Yahweh’s ability to handle such forces, never does the Old Testament question the genuineness of the battle he must engage in to emerge victorious over them. To the contrary, Yahweh’s lordship is understood to be great precisely because his foes are understood to be formidable. This is no petty, all-too-human, monarchical manipulation of puppets that Old Testament authors are talking about. Rather, it is an admirable sovereignty of wisdom and power against genuine cosmic forces that oppose him. As we have seen, the manner in which this cosmic opposition, and thus Yahweh’s sovereignty, is expressed in the Old Testament draws significantly on the warfare cosmologies of the cultures that surround Israel.

What captures this cosmic warfare motif even more poignantly, however, is the Old Testament’s appropriation of the ancient Near Eastern conception of the world as being surrounded by hostile monsters that forever seek to devour it. As we saw in the previous chapter, the likely allusions to Yamm in Psalm 74:10, Job 7:12, and Habakkuk 3:8 and 15 are references to one such monster. But we also read about Leviathan, Rahab and Behemoth, each of which represents “forces of chaos . . . which threaten man’s existence.”1

In this chapter, then, I first provide an overview of each of these cosmic beasts, then tentatively propose a way in which the creation-conflict dimension of the combat mythology that surrounds these cosmic monsters can be harmonized with the creation story of Genesis 1.2 The latter task, while speculative, is important insofar as the conventional understanding that nothing in creation can really oppose God derives largely from a particular reading of Genesis 1, as Levenson has forcefully argued.3 It is this particular reading of this text that I wish to challenge.

Yahweh and the Cosmic Monsters

As in Canaanite imagery, Leviathan was portrayed as a twisting serpent of the sea with seven heads (a notion picked up by the psalmist when he praises Yahweh for crushing “the heads of Leviathan,” Ps 74:14).4 In customary Near Eastern fashion, Job sees Leviathan as a dragon that periodically threatens to reverse creation by engulfing the moon (during an eclipse) when aroused by evil soothsayers (Job 3:8).5 The very sight of this beast causes panic (41:9, 25), and no one is mighty enough even to wake him up when he is sleeping, let alone to catch, control or domesticate him (41:2-14).

Moreover, this cosmic beast mocks human weapons, for he can eat iron like straw and crush bronze like rotten wood (41:26-27). The mouth of this dragon is filled with sharp ferocious teeth, his back is filled with pointed shields, and his belly is rock hard and horned on the sides (41:14-17, 30). Even worse, he snorts out lightning and smoke and blows hot flames of fire out of his mouth (41:18-21).6

Leviathan, then, is a formidable, hostile, cosmic creature, difficult to control, as even Yahweh intimates in his speech to Job. What is for these authors most significant about Leviathan, however, is that Yahweh has succeeded in subduing him. Indeed, the central point of Yahweh’s speech in Job 41 is to say that Yahweh can do what Job could never do: stand up to and subjugate Leviathan, as he did at the time of creation. The psalmist expresses the same point when he proclaims that Yahweh crushed Leviathan’s many heads and “gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness” (74:14).

Isaiah 27:1, however, portrays the defeat of Leviathan as a future event. Indeed, it is portrayed as an end-time event that would usher in an era of peace. “The LORD with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.” The reference to Leviathan as “the fleeing serpent . . . the twisting serpent” has an exact parallel in an Ugaritic text, demonstrating once again how culturally indebted the biblical authors are at times for the way they express their convictions about Yahweh’s enemies.7 But whereas other Near Eastern myths (including the one Isaiah cites) generally portrayed the great sea dragon being slain so the world would be created, Isaiah here portrays the cosmic dragon as being slain so the creation may be delivered.8 “The ancient Canaanite and Mesopotamian combat myth of creation,” Levenson notes, “has been projected onto the onset of the future era.”9 The effect of this, as it concerns the problem of evil, is that “we are left with the bittersweet impression that the travails of the present, indeed of all history, are owing to the fact that the present order of things stands before rather than after the triumph of God. Leviathan is still loose, and the absolute sovereignty of the absolutely just God lies ahead.”10

This eschatological reworking of the Chaoskampf myth was to become a defining and dominant motif in apocalyptic literature. As we shall see more fully in chapter six, the Jews in the intertestamental period came increasingly to define Yahweh’s sovereignty as an eschatological reality and to see the present world as under the control of Leviathan (or some similar cosmic figure).

We are not surprised, then, to find this same eschatological depiction of Leviathan in the New Testament as John writes about a “great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads” who is “the deceiver of the whole world” (Rev 12:3, 9; cf. 13:1). This “great dragon,” who is, significantly, identified explicitly as “the Devil and Satan” (v. 9), rises up to devour the church but is defeated by Michael and his angels (v. 7). The devil and his evil angels are then cast out of heaven down to the earth where, in their fury, they continue to bring woe “to the earth and the sea” (vv. 9-12).11

As already stated, given the genre of literature we are dealing with here, we must not suppose that there is any contradiction between saying that Leviathan had already been crushed, dismembered and eaten (Ps 74:14) and saying that his defeat still lay in the future (Is 27:1). The central point of each passage, couched in terms that ancient Near Eastern people could readily understand, is simply to express the truth that a hostile cosmic force opposes Yahweh and threatens the earth at a foundational level. But Yahweh has defeated him, and will continue to do so.

Another hostile monster that was believed to inhabit the sea is Rahab. Indeed, in some passages Rahab appears to be simply another name for Yamm. The word “Rahab” means “boisterous one” or “storm.” Like Leviathan, this monster is portrayed as a threatening dragon in the waters that surround the earth.12 Still, while the genuineness of Rahab’s opposition to Yahweh is never questioned, the thrust of what the biblical authors say about Rahab is to stress how Yahweh reigns supreme over it.

Thus when Yahweh was angry, the author of Job writes that “the helpers of Rahab bowed beneath him” (Job 9:13).13 It was by Yahweh’s power that he “churned up the sea [yam],” by his wisdom that “he cut Rahab to pieces,” and by “his hand” that he “pierced the gliding serpent” (Job 26:12-13).14 So too the psalmist proclaims Yahweh’s sovereignty over “the raging of the sea [yam]” by announcing that he has “crushed Rahab like a carcass” and has “scattered your enemies with your mighty arm” (Ps 89:9-10). Warfare there certainly is, but it is clearly a war that Yahweh can readily handle.

As we saw was the case with the raging waters motif, sometimes Yahweh’s creation battle with Rahab is understood as being illustrated, or reenacted, in Israel’s own history. Indeed, the above-mentioned psalm connects God’s vanquishing of Rahab at creation with David’s enthronement and his hope of divine assistance in defending his governance (Ps 89:20ff.).15 Similarly, Isaiah calls upon the Lord to “awake” and deliver the children of Israel out of captivity by reminding him that in primal history he “cut Rahab in pieces” and “pierced the dragon” (Is 51:9). Thus he is assured that Yahweh will do it again and deliver his people (v. 11).

Along the same lines, both Isaiah and the psalmist can personify the evil empire of Egypt as Rahab, for Rahab’s hostile and chaotic character is revealed in, and channeled through, Egypt (Ps 87:4; Is 30:7; cf. Ezek. 29:3; 32:2; Jer 51:34). In the same way that the Shuar and other primitive tribes weave together their reflections on earthly and spiritual enemies, so too the Israelites could understand their political wars as microcosms of the cosmic wars Yahweh fights. Since God is on David’s side, when David marches into battle against his enemies the Lord and his army are, on a parallel plane, marching into battle against his enemies (2 Sam 5:24). No bifurcation between “spiritual” and “physical” realities is envisaged.

Yet a third creature that appears to be some sort of cosmic monster in the Old Testament is Behemoth, mentioned in Job 40:15-24. Even more so than with Leviathan, many have attempted to argue that the author of Job is referring to a natural creature, perhaps a hippopotamus or an elephant, rather than to a mythological cosmic monster.16 While certainly possible—the depiction of this beast is markedly “this worldly”—both his proximity to the mythological Leviathan in Job and his overall description seem to count against such a notion.17 The descriptions of the powerful muscles in this creature’s stomach (v. 16), of his tail as being like a cedar (v. 17), of the strong sinews of his thighs, of his bones as “tubes of bronze” and of his limbs “like bars of iron” (vv. 17-18)—none of these conclusively fits the description of a hippopotamus, elephant or any other known creature, even after due allowance is made for poetic hyperbole.

What is more, Behemoth is described as “first of the great acts of God” (v. 19) whom no one can catch (v. 24), though “his Maker can approach it with the sword” (v. 19). This description does not fit easily with any natural creature. To be sure, Yahweh at one point rhetorically asks Job if he is able to trap Behemoth and pierce his nose as Yahweh is able (40:24). As John Day observes, were Behemoth any form of natural creature, it seems Job could have easily answered, “yes, I am able.”18

Thus it seems likely that we are dealing with another cosmic monster that, like Leviathan, according to Day, may have Canaanite roots.19 The title behemô? is “an extension of the plural of behemâ (q.v.) akin to the superlative in the English.” Hence, according to Elmer Martens, Behemoth refers to “the brute beast par excellence.”20 Later Jews, in any event, took this term to refer to a demonic entity that, alongside Leviathan and Rahab, Yahweh had to subdue.21

Evil at the foundation of the earth. When we piece together the Old Testament’s teaching on Yahweh’s battle with and victory over the hostile waters and anticreation monsters that surround the earth (to say nothing yet of its teaching on Yahweh’s conflict with other gods; cf. chapter four), we see that the authors of the Old Testament shared significant elements of the common Near Eastern perspective that the earth was part of a cosmic war zone. The chaotic waters and cosmic monsters were “demonic creatures,” as Day puts it, against whom Yahweh had to fight.22

The supremacy of Yahweh over these cosmic forces was always emphasized, but in contrast to the later classical-philosophical tradition, this was never taken to mean that the opposition of these forces was not ultimately real. There were, in fact, genuine battles Yahweh had to fight! As several exegetes have noted, the whole of the Old Testament’s strong monarchial theology presupposes this much. On what basis could one celebrate a victorious military ruler, as the Old Testament frequently speaks of Yahweh, if there were no genuine enemies for the ruler to conquer? “The concept of a military ruler,” Lindström argues, “presupposes that there is someone to defeat.”23

Indeed, far from undermining the genuineness of Yahweh’s battle with foes, Levenson rightly argues that in this tradition Yahweh’s “victory is only meaningful if his foe is formidable.”24 And again: “What makes this a confession of faith in YHWH’s mastery rather than a shallow truism is the survival of those potent forces of chaos that were subjugated and domesticated at creation.”25

This “survival of . . . potent forces of chaos” is what permits classifying the Old Testament view as a warfare worldview. Yahweh’s battles are not simply apparent, nor are they simply in the past: they are, for these authors, very real, and they are present, and they are even yet future. While some conservative exegetes fear that acknowledging the ongoing reality of this cosmic opposition compromises Yahweh’s “absolute sovereignty,” the point of this early Old Testament tradition is to portray Yahweh’s sovereignty as being all the greater precisely because he has engaged in such conflict and has been victorious. This gives them confidence that he shall do so again in the future.26

In other words, Yahweh’s sovereignty is no easy manipulation of controlled puppets; it is, rather, an admirable sovereignty that is won in the face of genuine, powerful, opposing forces which we humans could never begin to resist in our own power. This divine ability, for these authors, is one of the characteristics that distinguish Yahweh from humans and make him praiseworthy. We cannot capture Behemoth or pierce his nose (Job 40:24). Nor can we “press down [Leviathan’s] tongue with a cord” or “put a rope in its nose” (Job 41:1-2). Such monster-taming feats of valor are reserved for the one true God alone.

All of this also implies that these authors understand the cosmic battles Yahweh engages in to be provisional. God’s cosmic foes, as real and formidable as they may be, are not ultimate. Levenson again expresses the view well (referring here to Psalm 74):

the author . . . acknowledges the reality of militant, triumphant, and persistent evil, but he steadfastly and resolutely refuses to accept this reality as final and absolute. Instead he challenges YHWH to act like the hero of old, to conform to his magisterial nature.27

Hence (though Levenson himself disagrees with this conclusion) it seems that the understanding manifested in this Chaoskampf material is that the forces opposing Yahweh had a beginning, which is precisely why the Old Testament authors can be confident that, sometimes despite appearances, they shall also certainly have an end. In contrast to everything their neighbors were saying about the matter, the Old Testament assumes, even in its earliest combat material, that Yahweh is the sole Creator of all that is.

This insight, combined with the conviction that the Creator is all-holy and thus does not himself will evil, leads inexorably to the conclusion that these cosmic forces have made themselves evil. They have freely rebelled against their Creator, and thus ought not to be as they now are. This view is implicit in this material, but it becomes more explicit in later material, eventually arriving at the explanation that the origin of evil is rooted in “the fall” of various angels (2 Pet 2:4; Jude 6; cf. 1 Tim 3:6; Mt 25:41). Only this view can provide an adequate foundation for theodicy within a creational-monotheistic context.28

If we take the Old Testament’s combat motif seriously, we must acknowledge that, at the very foundation of creation and in the cosmic environment of the earth, something has rebelled against God and is therefore both hostile toward God and threatening toward the world.29 The manner in which this insight is expressed is highly mythological at this early stage of revelation. Given the cultural situation of the authors, it is hard to see how the point could have been communicated in any other way. To talk about structural cosmic forces of evil in this context is to talk about Yamm, Leviathan and other mythological monsters.

A later inspired writer will express a similar conviction with a different set of cosmological assumptions by referring to a “ruler of the power of the air” who is “the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient” (Eph 2:2). The teaching is essentially the same, though the cultural packaging clearly differs. The cosmic monsters of the Old Testament play some of the same roles Satan and “principalities and powers” do in the New Testament.

In any case, while the Old Testament certainly teaches that this cosmos was created good (Gen 1), it clearly does not take this to mean that everything about the cosmos now is good. To the contrary, the goodness of creation is portrayed as something to be fought for.30 At a foundational level, the cosmos at present embodies destructive, hostile elements. For these authors, the world is certainly no Edenic paradise where the will of God is meticulously carried out and in which everything somehow contributes to a higher good. It is, rather, a veritable battle zone.

Considering Zosia’s torture from within this framework, one would not be inclined to wonder about a secret providential design that was somehow being fulfilled by means of the Nazis. One would rather discern in the eyes of the Nazis something of an evil “twisting serpent” seeking once again to undo creation.

Warfare and Creation

It will prove helpful to conclude our examination of the Old Testament’s conception of hostile cosmic forces by addressing an issue that is important to our understanding of the Bible’s Chaoskampf material but that has, for various reasons, been almost completely ignored by recent scholarship. I have acknowledged the obvious when I said that the specific portrayals of the evil cosmic forces Yahweh contends with in the Old Testament are culturally dependent and mythological. Yet I have also suggested that the reality to which these portrayals point should be affirmed, at least by those who hold to a high view of Scripture.

The still unanswered question, however, is this: What is the reality to which these mythological figures and forces point? More specifically, is the depiction of a cosmic conflict in the primordial past, leading up to the creation of this world, wholly part of the culturally dependent myth? Or is this feature of this Chaoskampf material perhaps part of the reality to which the myth points?

The relationship of myth and history in Scripture’s creation-conflict material. The earlier mentioned fact that the temporal location of the Chaoskampf passages of Scripture (and the parallel literature in the surrounding cultures) varies from passage to passage certainly suggests that we cannot press this mythological language too far. This language is primarily designed to express a feature of the cosmos now—its warfare dimension and Yahweh’s supremacy, despite appearances, over his opponents. Too much, then, should not be made of the temporal language surrounding the Lord’s battles.31 Therefore it admittedly may be the case that we are now asking the wrong question in even wondering whether the creation-conflict accounts entail the view that an actual battle once took place that led up to the creation of this present world.

Nonetheless, the fact that later Scripture leans strongly in the direction of explicitly endorsing a belief in a literal prehistoric fall of angels and cosmic forces as well as endorsing a literal eschatological battle between these forces and God’s forces, combined with the further fact that later church tradition unequivocally endorsed the notion of a primordial fall, lends some support to the possibility that an actual prehistoric conflict can be inferred from this Chaoskampf material.32 In other words, if we have other grounds for believing that God was actually involved in a war before the creation of this world (as the tradition claims), then it seems natural to wonder whether, or to what extent, the various scriptural accounts of cosmic conflict before creation refer to this event.33 Though the manner in which the conflict and the beasts involved are portrayed is admittedly mythological, need this entail that the prehistoric conflict itself is mythological?34 I suspect not.

The association of the cosmic conflict with creation is prevalent throughout the Old Testament and intrinsic to the various passages in question, lending further support to this suggestion. The conceptualization of creation as involving conflict occurs in many more than one or two isolated passages. As we have seen, such creation accounts are numerous, and this must count heavily for any person who is committed to a high view of Scripture.

Finally, the creational monotheism of the Bible and of the church seems to logically require something like a prehistoric fall, regardless of how we interpret the Chaoskampf material of the Old Testament. Assuming that there is one eternal Creator God who is all-good and all-powerful, it is illogical to posit a foundational structural evil within the cosmos (which is the main point of the Chaoskampf passages) without postulating a significant rebellion at some previous point that has corrupted the cosmos (which is the subsidiary point of the Chaoskampf passages). In short, if the all-powerful Creator is perfectly good but creation is largely evil, something must have interfered with the creation.

The general teaching of Scripture seems to agree with this point. Whatever else may be said about the issue, the Bible is certainly far from any dualistic worldview that would posit evil as a coeternal reality alongside God or attribute evil to the creative activity of God himself.35 The fact that all the scriptural authors have a confidence that evil shall ultimately be defeated demonstrates that they did not view it as “primordial” in the sense of being an ultimate constituent in the nature of things. If evil will have an end, it must have had a beginning, hence it is not coeternal with God.

But this point requires that we understand evil as an intrusion into the cosmos—which is precisely how the Old Testament construes it. This consideration lends further prima facie plausibility to that reading of the various biblical conflict-creation accounts which sees them as teaching us, in an admittedly mythological form, something not only about the structural fact of evil in the cosmos but also about the origin of evil in the cosmos.36

Genesis 1 and the warfare model of creation. The main reason this warfare view of creation has not traditionally been affirmed, or even seriously considered, is not that it is absent from the Bible. As we have seen, it is in fact sprinkled throughout the Old Testament. The reason for its neglect is due to its apparent contradiction of the creation story of Genesis 1, which many assume provides the paradigm for understanding creation.

In Genesis 1 the author seems to go out of his way to stress that creation occurred without any conflict, by the sheer fiat of God, and that it is all good. In contrast to the Near Eastern creation stories of his day, this author seems to emphasize that Yahweh had no opponents in creating the world. Thus if one starts with the assumption that this account is normative, it is hard to see how one could take the warfare-creation accounts as being anything more than mythological. Though they express structural features of the cosmos now, they cannot add anything specifically to our understanding of the act of creation. As to how and when the creation became structurally flawed, we simply cannot say based on this reading.

If we can for a moment step back from the traditional reading of Genesis 1, however, the force of this objection can be somewhat assuaged. For one thing, it is not apparent why Genesis 1 should be granted normative status over the other, more numerous, conflict-creation accounts in the Bible. Some have argued that only the Genesis 1 account is consistent with “pure” monotheism, and hence only it can be taken in any sense “literally.”37 But the notion that monotheism is threatened if God must engage in genuine warfare with cosmic (or human) opponents is, as already suggested, nothing more than an arbitrary assumption that simply does not square either with the biblical data or with the early postapostolic church, though it unfortunately came to form one of the foundational assumptions of the classical-philosophical theistic tradition.

Others may argue that the warfare creation accounts should be dismissed as normative because of their obvious mythological features, features that Genesis 1 avoids. But the fact that the descriptions of the cosmic forces which opposed God at creation are mythological no more necessitates that the creation-conflict itself is mythological than it necessitates that either the opposing forces or God himself is mythological in these passages. Arguing in this fashion would be like dismissing the historicity of the Fall because one comes to the conclusion that the talking serpent or the forbidden fruit in Genesis 3 is symbolic. Ancient literature simply does not operate with such clear-cut categories.38

Moreover, on most reckonings Genesis 1 itself is not altogether free from elements of mythological expression. The primitive cosmology that is presupposed throughout the chapter as well as the notion of God “resting” on the seventh day perhaps indicates that Genesis 1, while certainly not as myth-laden as other creation-conflict accounts, is nevertheless hardly a modern, scientific, literal documentary of creation. Further, it is likely that the author yet preserves something of the sinister nature of the “deep” (tehôm), of the waters and of the darkness (Gen 1:2)—elements that, significantly enough, the author does not say the Lord God created.39 Absolutizing this one section of Scripture as doctrinally normative over other, more numerous creation-conflict accounts seems quite arbitrary.

Original creation or restoration? Even more fundamental, however, is that one can make a fairly solid case for reading Genesis 1 that avoids this arbitrary normativity, for it does not conflict with the Bible’s creation-conflict tradition, nor does it require dismissing the creation-conflict tradition as purely mythological. According to this view, the author of Genesis 1 is not attempting to give the exhaustive and definitive account of creation. Rather, the author is providing an account that is supplemental to other warfare accounts. More specifically, while the scriptural conflict-creation accounts parallel (and polemicize against) the other conflict-creation accounts of their day in speaking of God’s conflict with an evil anticreational force, the Genesis 1 account parallels (and polemicizes against) these other accounts in terms of God’s creation of this world after his battle with his cosmic foes, and out of the remains of the battle.

Stated differently, both ancient and modern exegetes have argued with some plausibility that the account in Genesis 1 is not so much an account of creation as it is an account of God’s restoration of a world that had through a previous conflict become formless, futile, empty (tohû wabohû) and engulfed by chaos (tehôm)—the world of Genesis 1:2, in other words. According to this view, sometimes called “the restitution theory” or “the gap theory,” but which I prefer to call “the restoration theory,” the cosmos that had been created in verse 1 had become embattled, corrupted, judged and brought to the nearly destroyed state we find it in verse 2.40 The rest of the chapter then describes God’s creation of this present cosmos out of the formless and empty chaos of the previously ravaged one.

While this interpretation has never enjoyed anything close to a majority opinion, it has found impressive ancient as well as modern exponents.41 Despite some ongoing difficulties,42 a number of things can be said in its favor. I will briefly mention six.

First, as already stated, this reading of the Genesis 1 creation account most easily harmonizes with all the conflict-creation accounts in Scripture, a consideration that has to carry weight for all who affirm the plenary inspiration of Scripture. If this reading is correct, Genesis 1:2 can be understood as describing the desecrated creation immediately after God’s battle with and judgment of evil cosmic forces—the same battle described in mythological language in other biblical and nonbiblical creation accounts. The author’s emphasis on the sovereignty of God over the (now largely depersonalized) cosmic forces can thus be understood as one way of emphasizing Yahweh’s victory over opposing gods, in the same fashion as Enuma Elish emphasizes Marduk’s victory over Tiamat in describing his fashioning the world out of her and her cohorts in six days.43

On this reading, the Genesis 1 account, beginning with verse 2, presupposes the battle and starts with the fashioning of this world out of the battlefield; in Enuma Elish this is Tiamat’s body; in the Genesis account it is the impersonal abyss (tehôm) covering the wasteland earth (tohû wabohû). Levenson, though by no means holding to anything like the restoration theory, is among the few scholars who have acknowledged this point. He argues that the Genesis account “begins near the point when the Babylonian poem ends its action, with the primordial waters neutralized and the victorious and unchallengeable deity about to undertake the work of cosmogony.”44

Other Old Testament scholars have recognized this aspect of the Genesis 1 account and have concluded that there must have been an earlier version of the Genesis 1 account containing a battle scene similar to that of Enuma Elish. This section, they speculate, has been lopped off for theological or redactional reasons in the received version.45 The naturalness of reading Genesis 1:2 as a “postbattle” summary, when read against the background of Enuma Elish, lends plausibility to this theory.

For our purposes, however, the speculation seems irrelevant. Whether or not a prior version of Genesis 1 possessed a battle scene, the author/redactor certainly seems to have known of the earlier creation-conflict accounts. The author also assumes that his readers know about the “abyss,” the “waters,” the “formless and void” earth, as well as about other “gods” (significantly enough, also not mentioned in this creation account) with whom God consults before making humans (Gen 1:26).

It seems reasonable, then, to read the author not as offering an account that corrects the earlier creation-conflict accounts but as presenting an account that supplements them. He is starting where they leave off, and he is doing so to stress just how victorious Yahweh was over his enemies by emphasizing just how easily he fashions this creation—with the mere word of his mouth!—out of the mess left over from his battle with Leviathan (or Rahab or Tiamat), the battle that all his readers are familiar with.

To this end, the Genesis 1 author does not even give Tiamat or any of the other defeated gods the dignity of a personality (though echoes of it can perhaps still be heard). He simply describes the war-torn “world” as tohû wabohû, covered by tehôm, and then proceeds to proclaim Yahweh’s ease in carving this present ordered creation out of this battle-raged chaos. Such a view allows us to give full due to the significant influence of the creation-conflict accounts of Israel’s neighbors while also (and far more importantly) harmonizing Genesis 1 with the other conflict-creation accounts in Scripture. I do not see any other reading that can claim this.

Moreover, and somewhat ironically, this interpretation at once allows for the most culturally relevant reading and the most literal reading of Genesis 1 as well as all the other scriptural creation-conflict accounts. This certainly has to count further in its favor both from a scholarly perspective committed to reading Scripture in its original cultural context and from an evangelical faith perspective committed to affirming the infallibility of Scripture.46

Second, reading Genesis 1 in the light of Scripture’s creation-conflict material, and thus as describing a re-creation rather than original creation, helps explain several otherwise puzzling features of this account. For example, this reading provides a context in which we can perhaps begin to understand the unusual command given by Yahweh to humanity to “subdue” (kabaš) the earth (Gen 1:28). This term usually suggests the suppression, the conquering or the enslavement of hostile forces (Num 32:22, 29; Josh 18:1).47 If what we have in Genesis 1 is a pure and pristine creation of all things ex nihilo, this command is odd. If all is exactly as God intended, what is there to conquer?

If, however, what we have in Genesis 1 is a creation that is good, but that is, following Enuma Elish and other primitive accounts, fashioned out of a battle-torn chaotic abyss and that, as such, must continually be controlled (as in the nonbiblical creation-conflict material), then this command begins to make sense. Humans in this case are charged with carrying on God’s creational work of bringing order to chaos. For just this reason, we are said to be in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26-28). As we shall see in what follows, we are in this view corulers with God over the earth and cowarriors with God against the forces of chaos for the earth. God’s plan for human beings and the earth shall be accomplished when all anticreation forces are vanquished and his kingdom is set up on the earth with him and his human subjects enthroned (Rev 5:10).

This reading also makes the best sense of the Lord’s command to Adam to guard Eden (Gen 2:15).48 The command is a bit puzzling unless the author was assuming that there were at the time forces which the garden needed protection against. When the tempting serpent appears in the next chapter, we perhaps get a clearer idea of what it was that Adam was supposed to beware of. But the sudden and unexplained presence of Satan (according to the traditional interpretation) in the garden is likewise difficult to account for on the supposition that Genesis 1 is providing anything like an exhaustive account of the original creation.49

According to the restoration view, however, neither the commands to subdue the earth and protect the garden nor the sudden appearance of Satan is puzzling. In this view the earth (this present earth) is birthed, as it were, in an infected incubator. It is fashioned in a warfare context. It is itself altogether good, but it is made and preserved over and against forces that are perpetually hostile to it, just as the other creation-conflict passages of Scripture suggest.

In this view, moreover, humans are made in the image of God and placed on the earth precisely so that they might gradually vanquish this chaos and establish—or better, reestablish—God’s all-good plan for it. As God’s earthly agents, we are “to effect the conquest of an evil being who had penetrated into creation.”50 Or, as Erich Sauer puts it, our “appointed vocation in Paradise consisted in the winning back of the earth for God . . . [and] to restore the whole earth to an abode of the presence and revelation of God.”51 The otherwise puzzling features of the Genesis narrative fit perfectly with this perspective.

This reading also makes sense of the unexplained and unexpected use of the first-person plural in Genesis 1:26. The standard Jewish interpretation—and it still remains the best (see chapter five)—is that the Lord is here consulting with angels prior to creating what is to be the pinnacle of his creation (or re-creation). That the narrative up to this point had not mentioned the creation of angels suggests that it simply presupposes their preexistence—which is enough to demonstrate that we are not here dealing with an exhaustive account of creation ex nihilo. According to the restoration view, such beings, usually termed “gods” as we shall see in the next chapter, were present eons before this creation was ever brought about. Indeed, it was Yahweh’s battle against a rebellious faction of these “gods” that brought the creation to the dismal condition described in Genesis 1:2. It is, then, not surprising that Yahweh consults with them, as he apparently does with some frequency (see Gen 3:22; 11:7; 1 Kings 22:20; Is 6:1-8; cf. Jer 23:18; Ps 82:1; 89:7), when he comes to the climaxing act of his warfare against anticreational forces: the creation of humans to subdue the earth.

Third, this view is consistent with linguistic evidence. For example, Genesis 1:2 can be translated, “Now [or ‘But’] the earth became [or ‘had become,’ haye?ah] formless and empty.”52 The terms “formless” and “empty” are usually pejorative in Scripture, denoting something gone wrong, laid waste or judged.53 In the only other cases in Scripture where the terms are combined as they are in Genesis 1:2, they refer explicitly to a desperate state of being that results from God’s judgment (Jer 4:23; Is 34:11).54

It is, then, easy to read the second verse of the Genesis account as referring to a judged and largely destroyed earth—“a chaos that . . . resembled the morning after a battle.”55 It is the kind of wasteland Jeremiah warns will result again after God’s eschatological judgment (Jer 4:21-24; see also Is 24:10). Conversely, it would seem odd if the author was suggesting that God originally created the earth in these wasted, futile and chaotic conditions, and even more odd if he believed this but did not bother to tell his readers.

As the text stands, the formless and futile chaos of verse 2, together with the “deep,” are the only things in this chapter that the author does not say God created or fashioned. Other passages of Scripture seem to go yet further and suggest that this state of being is something God explicitly did not and would not create (see esp. Is 45:18).56 What is more, with the exception of the creation of animals and humans (vv. 21, 26-27), the passage does not use the word “create” (bara’) but “make” (‘asâh), which means to fashion out of preexisting material—again suggesting that we are dealing not with an original creation but with a re-creation.57

Fourth, this reading of Genesis 1 provides the most flexible, and perhaps the most fruitful, paradigm within which the Bible’s creation accounts can be unqualifiedly affirmed without any possibility of running into problems with modern scientific theories concerning the antiquity of the earth. This theory postulates a prehumanoid world of indefinite duration, about which we know nothing more than that it somehow became a battlefield between good and evil and was consequently made into a total wasteland.

This very indefiniteness allows for a remarkably wide range of possible ways of squaring biblical theology with contemporary scientific theories, though unfortunately these ways have hardly begun to be explored, owing to the traditional normativity of Genesis 1 as the definitive creation account. Indeed, though it lies outside the purview of this work, a case can be made that the supposition of a worldwide instantaneous catastrophe alone accounts for much of the geological and paleontological evidence discovered.58

Further, and perhaps most important for the purposes of this project, this understanding provides us with one plausible way of beginning to make sense of what appears to be millions of years of prehumanoid suffering on the earth. It provides a context in which we can perhaps begin to take seriously and develop C. S. Lewis’s speculation that the earth might have become demonized long before humans ever arrived on it.59 It begins to provide some biblical context in which we can perhaps make sense of the fact that most of the fossils we find in the paleontological record are of animals that do not now exist. Long before humans ever came on the scene—or fell—nature was already “red with tooth and claw.”

Fifth, this approach to Genesis 1 allows us to construe an ultimate warfare canvas against which we can begin to make some sense out of cosmic evil. This reading, if accepted, begins to make sense of the fact that both Scripture and our own experience tell us that the whole cosmos is, at a most profound level, corrupted. I take this to be the most fundamental point of the earlier discussed creation-conflict material. Despite valiant attempts to the contrary, there is simply no way to approach an explanation for this cosmic catastrophe by appealing to puny human wills. Our fall cannot explain the cosmic fall, but the fall of cosmic wills can help explain our fall, and with it, the fall of the world we were put in charge of. It is, as C. S. Lewis noted, significant in this regard that the Bible talks much more about “powers of darkness” than it does about the human fall, a point that ought to (but thus far has not) factor significantly in our explanations for why there is evil. This reading of Genesis 1 confirms this observation and thus encourages a more cosmic approach to the problem of evil.60

Sixth, and finally, the understanding that Genesis 1 is about restoring a world that had been ruined by hostile forces is consistent with the otherwise puzzling cosmic dimension of the Bible’s portrayal of humanity’s role on the earth and of Christ’s role as savior.

Immediately after declaring that we have been made in “the image of God,” the Lord tells humans to “subdue” and “have dominion” over the whole of creation (Gen 1:26-30). “I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth,” the Lord says, and everything else, plant and animal, that is upon it (1:29-30). As Sauer notes, “These words plainly declare the vocation of the human race to rule.”61 We were made in “the image of God” precisely because we are created for the purpose of reigning with God over the earth.62

This theme, in a variety of ways, runs throughout the biblical narrative. For example, after the psalmist declares that Yahweh rules “the raging of the sea” and that he “crushed Rahab like a carcass” (Ps 89:9-10), he records the Lord’s promise to his earthly servant: “I will set his hand on the sea, and his right hand on the rivers” (v. 25). As Levenson notes, this text portrays a sort of diarchy, as do a number of other psalms. God rules, but his desire is to rule through his earthly coregents.63

For this reason, as Sauer again notes, the redemption of the earth is intrinsically connected with the redemption of humanity. Indeed, the whole creation, according to Paul, “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Rom 8:19). For this reason also the redemption of the cosmos is intrinsically connected to defeating the evil force that now holds humanity, and thus the whole earth, in bondage (see chapters nine and ten below).

Humanity as the restorative viceroy over the earth. The restoration theory provides an ultimate background against which the themes of human coregency with God over creation and the liberation of the earth and humanity from evil forces can be rendered most coherent and plausible, and through which their unity can be seen. For according to this reading, the creation of humans and their placement in the garden can be seen as God’s means of completing his “conquest of an evil being who had penetrated into creation,” as the great Old Testament scholar Franz Delitzsch put it.64

As a little seed of yeast leavens a whole lump of dough (Lk 13:21; 1 Cor 5:6), so too, we might suppose, God planned on using humans, beginning in Eden, to restore his lordship over the earth by themselves establishing their dominion over the earth, a dominion that would, in every respect, be under the authority of the Lord.65 Or, as suggested earlier, the creation (in Genesis 1) was birthed in an infected incubator, and humanity was given leadership over this earth as the means of killing the infection.

Sauer expresses this view in these terms:

Man’s appointed vocation in Paradise consisted in the winning back of the earth for God, and this again was based upon the sovereignty of God over man and the sovereignty of man over the creation. . . .

Man’s calling was to “destroy the works of the devil” and to renew the earth, thus transforming it into an abode of light and life. . . . The first man . . . received the task, beginning from Paradise, to restore the whole earth to an abode of the presence and revelation of God. His service as ruler consisted in bringing the whole of creation through his mediation into relation with the glory of God and in making the “fullness of him that filleth all in all” accessible to it.66

For this reason, when humans voluntarily rebelled against God’s sovereignty, the whole of creation once again suffered. God had, as the ancient Israelites would say, “shut up Yamm behind closed doors” in order to re-create the world and turn it over to a new viceroy. According to the restoration view, this is what Genesis 1 is all about. But since God’s supremacy is of a moral character, it must be freely chosen.67 Hence the key that could either unleash Yamm once again upon the earth or keep him at bay was placed into the hands of the new viceroy.

When humanity rejected Yahweh’s lordship, we accepted (by unleashing) a new “god of this world.” We compromised our assigned task to have dominion over the world and thus subjected ourselves and all of nature once again to the destructive influence of the forces that oppose God. The guardians of the world, and therefore the world itself, were thus taken hostage by an illegitimate hostile power. Satan now seizes “control of the entire world” and becomes “the prince of this age” and “the ruler of the kingdom of the air” (1 Jn 5:19; Jn 12:31; Eph 2:2; cf. 6:12). Through Christ, however, the key has been given back to those originally intended as landlords, and we are once again commissioned to shut up Yamm on the Lord’s authority (Mt 16:17-19; see part two).

This reacquired demonic lordship has already led to a partial return to the judged state of affairs in Genesis 1:2, when the Lord allowed the chaotic waters to burst upon the earth with the flood (Gen 6—8). The intended viceroys of the earth had become so corrupt that they apparently cohabited with sinister angelic beings (6:1-4), and the Lord was grieved to the point of wishing he had never created humanity (6:5-6). Hence he allowed the “deep” (1:2) once again to cover the earth, as he sought to start over the project of recovering the earth for his glory.

Moreover, according to Jeremiah and Isaiah, the earth shall at some point be brought one more time under this sort of judgment and returned to a state of tohû wabohû (Jer 4:23; Is 34:11), the very state it was in, according to the restoration theory, prior to this present creation. The “dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan,” who has been locked up in “the bottomless pit,” shall “be released from his prison” (Rev 20:1-2, 7). However, as in the Genesis 1 account, the Lord shall vanquish his foe and re-create “a new heaven and a new earth” (21:1).

In this final form, however, the hostile powers shall be permanently defeated and locked up. In the eschaton, “the sea was no more” (Rev 21:1). Satan, death, the beast, tehôm, all rebels and even Hades itself shall be cast into the lake of fire (20:13-15). Hence Scripture assures us that there shall be no more threat to the creation in this its third restoration.

God’s kingdom shall be established on earth, and his children shall be its rulers as he originally intended. Humanity’s prehistoric failure as guardians did not cause the Creator to abandon us in his plan to restore and reclaim the embattled world of Genesis 1:2. To the contrary, and quite remarkably, the Lord’s goal throughout has been to reestablish his lordship upon the earth through the viceregency of humans, and to ultimately vanquish his cosmic foes in the process.

Now, however, and even more remarkably, this goal was to be achieved by the Lord himself freeing humanity—and thus creation—from the dominion of Satan, and to do so by becoming a human himself. This little plot of land in the cosmos apparently became a sort of “Normandy beach” on which creation’s D-Day was waged. As we shall later see, Jesus’ incarnation, his teaching, his healing and deliverance ministry, and especially his death and resurrection are all about vanquishing Leviathan (Satan) and restoring the reign of God on earth over against the illegitimate tyranny of Satan. He will do so by rescuing humans from Satan’s domain and restoring them as God’s viceroys on the earth.68


The restoration theory is part of a cosmic warfare background against which the cosmic dimension of humanity’s purpose, the cosmic dimension of nightmarish evil, and the cosmic purpose of Christ’s coming, death and resurrection begin to make sense. It completes the pattern of creation to chaos to restoration that runs throughout the biblical narrative and thereby brings a thematic unity to the Bible it would otherwise lack. From start to finish, this inspired literary collection is about God restoring his creation through humanity (and by himself becoming a human) and destroying his cosmic opponents in the process.

This reading of Genesis 1 has the fringe benefit of fitting with any estimation of the earth’s age that science might arrive at. It also has the advantage of making the most sense (Custance would argue the only possible sense) out of all the linguistic evidence. Moreover, it fits best with Scripture’s later teaching regarding the fall of Satan and his angels, and makes sense out of otherwise puzzling features of the Genesis narrative (e.g., “subduing” the earth, “guarding” the garden, the unexplained sinister serpent, the presence of angels). It also allows for the most literal reading of the creation-conflict accounts in Scripture. Perhaps most significantly, it at once squares Genesis 1 with these other creation accounts in the Bible, while also allowing for the most use of nonbiblical creation accounts, especially Enuma Elish, in understanding this creation account.

A good deal can be said in favor of the restoration theory. However, I am by no means claiming that this handling of the creation-conflict stories in Scripture is the only way to handle them. Nor would I want to invest too much weight in such a speculative matter. While the case for the restoration view is defensible and compelling, the evidence is nevertheless admittedly tentative and controversial and should not be raised to the level of a doctrine.

Nor would I want the credibility of the warfare worldview to depend on this tentative theory alone. The Bible’s warfare understanding of evil remains intact even if the restoration understanding of Genesis 1 is rejected and the creation-conflict passages of Scripture are taken to be completely mythological (viz., lacking a temporal reference to an actual primordial battle). Still, if this reading of Genesis 1 is accepted as persuasive, it cannot help but further enhance our appreciation for the warfare worldview of the Bible.

Slaying Leviathan Cosmic Warfare And The Preservation And Restoration Of Creation - InterVarsity Press (2024)


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