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The LORD and the Dragon

Updated: Feb 8, 2023

We can see find many examples of dragon slaying myths in Western culture. Most of us are familiar with stories of knights fighting dragons or examples such as Beowulf or Sigurd. The dragons are symbols of evils that must be vanquished so that peace can reign. However, myths of slaying dragons go back much further then might be expected and, perhaps even more surprisingly, glimpses of a similar myth can be found in the bible. The image of a dragon being slain can be found in Canaanite stories as well as those of other cultures. Although the dragon metaphor in the Old Testament is quite subtle, there appears to be a close relationship between this and similar texts found in the near east. However, the bible uses this image to make a theological point that is different from the myths of the people who preceded the Israelites in the Promised Land.





There are a remarkable number of similar stories found in ancient writings that span a surprisingly long period of time and space. An excellent example of this is found in the Ugaritic text of the Epic of Baal which is preserved, although not perfectly, on six tablets (Miller 96). In this text, there is a storm god named Baal. Baal desires to be the king of the gods, however, the god El gives this honor to Yamm. However, alone among all the gods, Baal does not accept this. All of “the Gods lowered Their heads upon Their knees”, except Baal (Satterfield). Baal and Yamm engage in an epic battle. Baal receives assistance from the smith god Kothar who makes weapons to aid Baal. Baal fails to kill Yamm on his first attack, but with the special weapons given to him by Kothar he defeats Yamm in the end (Miller 123).


After his victory, Baal builds his house on mount Zaphon and then holds a victory feast and invites all the gods to attend it (Satterfield). Baal invites Mot who is the god of death and Mot devours Baal. Later on, Mot tells Anat, the sister of Baal, that “I made Him like a lamb in My mouth. Like a kid in My jaws was He crushed" (Satterfield). Eventually, Anat avenges Baal by defeating Mot, and Baal returns as the king (Starr 226).

In Hebrew, the word yam means the sea. Likewise in Ugaritic, the word Yamm means sea and he is referred to as Prince Sea, Prince River, and El’s flood in several parts of the epic (Starr 226). We also learn that the reason Mot wants to kill Baal is "because Baal had destroyed the Serpent Lotan, He would exact revenge by devouring Baal” (Satterfield). It appears that this reference to the serpent Lotan refers to Yamm since he is the only thing Baal has killed in the story (Miller 102). In addition, Yamm is described as El’s dragon (Star 231). In summary, the storm god Baal kills the serpent Yamm, who is also the sea, and in turn is swallowed up by death, to be rescued by his sister.


There are astonishingly similar parallels in other stories found throughout the near east and beyond. In the Babylonian creation myth, the Enuma Elish, we find two elder gods: Apsu, who is fresh water, and Tiamat, who is salt water (Miller 124). Apsu is killed and “Tiamat made weighty her handiwork, [Evil] she wrought against the gods her children. [To avenge] Apsû, Tiamat planned evil” (King 2.1-3). In tablet 4, Marduk agrees to slay Tiamat if he can be the king of the gods, like Baal. The gods give “him an invincible weapon, which overwhelmeth the foe” and “He set the lightning in front of him” (King 4.30, 39). Marduk then slays Tiamat and does so using lightning although he is not technically a storm god (Miller 125). Afterward, Marduk creates the world from the body of Tiamat (King 4.135-140), finally building his temple-home in tablet 6.


It is not clear whether Tiamat is a serpent, but “Tablet 4 can be read this way and she does appear as a dragon in Berossus’s Thalatte. Some iconography suggests she is serpentine” (Miller 131). Additionally, it is much clearer that she is the sea - just like Yamm. She is called salt water and many of the verbs that describe her actions are like water (Miller 131). Both Tiamat and Yamm appear to be forces of chaos, as such, order is brought to chaos with their defeat.


An even more ancient version of the story can be found in the Hittite text called the Illuyanka. Illuyanka is the Hittite common noun for ‘snake’ or ‘serpent’ who fights the Hittite Storm-god (Beckman 11). There are two versions of this story, in the second variant the son of the storm god battles Illuyanka in the sea, reminiscent of the other two myths (Miller 74). The son of the storm god cries out to his father during the battle, telling him to kill them both. “Then the Storm-god killed the serpent and his own son” (Beckman 19).


A final example, to show how far a similar myth can be found is in the Indian Rig Veda. In this text, we find Indra who “roared the mighty Hero’s bolt of thunder, when he, the Friend of man, burnt up the monster” (RV 2.11.10). This indicates that Indra is some sort of storm god, he is also the sender of rain (RV 2.30.1) and the lord of clouds (RV 6.26.2). Vrtra, the monster who Indra slays, is described as a serpent (Miller 13). When Vrtra is slain, “Floods great and many, compassed by the Dragon, thou badest swell and settest free, O Hero” (RV 2.11.2). The serpent is again compared to the sea.


This is a pervasive myth that crosses many centuries, if not millennia. Its scope goes from Anatolia to Canaan, to Babylon, and at least as far as India. The storm god is a divine warrior who slays the serpent and that serpent is nearly always associated with the sea (if it is not the sea itself). Much of the time, the storm god needs help to defeat the serpent with special weapons or another helper. In many of these stories “the storm-god is the guarantor of the stability in the world, the primal victor over chaos” (Miller 79).


Turning to the Bible, the allusions to dragons and serpents are not as clear. Several elements of these Near Eastern myths can be found in the Bible, but it does so in a much more subdued way as “a wider story of God defeating the dragon of chaos waters” (Angel 6). We find a few distinct ways that biblical writers employ the dragon-slaying myth. First, we see the LORD, the God of Israel as the dragon slayer who is enthroned on the mountain. The second is like it, but more so- for the God of Israel the great mythological feats of Baal or Marduk are not even a challenge (Miller 156). Finally, we see that the "language of dragons in this Jewish and Christian literature... most often occurs in writings where the author is suffering” (Angel xiii).


We see a depiction most like the original myth in Psalm 18 (Angel 7). In this Psalm, we see a storm theophany and a conflict with the sea (Miller 158). The Lord is described as coming out of the sky- “He rode on a cherub, and flew; he came swiftly upon the wings of the wind. He made darkness his covering around him, his canopy thick clouds dark with water” (Psalm 18:10-11). In verse 14, thundered from heaven as he multiplies his lightning; however, there is no battle. In verse 16, we are told the sea beds have appeared because yam, the Hebrew word for sea, has fled at God’s approach (Miller 159). The Psalmist calls upon God to save him, and this theophany demonstrates God’s glory and his power to overcome any peril (Angel 8).


In the book of Isaiah, we see several references to the serpent. In Chapter 27, God will punish Leviathan, the fleeing twisted serpent, and “he will slay the dragon that is in the sea” (Isaiah 27:1). This seems to be nearly a direct citation of the Baal Epic (Miller 215). Even the name Leviathan seems to be cognate with the name for the dragon, Lotan, in the Baal Epic (Angels 12). Later in chapter 51, we see that slaying the dragon is like drying up the sea; not only that, but the dragon is cut up, rather like Tiamat in the Enuma Elish (Angel 13). There is an interesting twist in Isaiah 25. Baal was swallowed up by Mot, who is death. However, in Isaiah 25 verse 8 God “will swallow up death forever”. In many of the biblical references we see the LORD doing those things that were done in the myth, but here the God of Israel’s power is so much greater than Baal, that death can have no hold of him whatsoever.


In Psalm 104 we find the verse, “Yonder is the sea, great and wide... There go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it” (Psalm 104:25-26). In this Psalm, the dragon has been greatly diminished and has been created by God as a plaything or a pet (Miller 183). This dragon is not the sea, but merely in the sea like any other creature. The creature that Baal and Marduk struggle to defeat is a creature that God created “as something to muck about in the sea” (Angel 17). This is not a force of chaos, but rather “it is merely a pet fish” (Miller 199).


The biblical writers do not seem interested in these dragon myths for their own sake, but to make an important theological point. They use the stories to better understand and explain “God, their world, and their relationship with God better- and in particular, they used the story to picture how they lived with suffering and God” (Angel 17). One advantage this kind of biblical myth has is that it does not need to reconcile tensions but presents a way to work out how suffering and the salvation of God can both be real (Angel 31). An important example of this is in the book of Job where Leviathan appears several times.


Leviathan shows up early in the book while Job is cursing the day of his birth, “Let those curse it who curse the Sea, those who are skilled rouse up Leviathan” (Job 3:8). In the Illuyanka myth, the dragon is roused so he might be slain, but this reference seems to be the opposite as Job is the one who would like to have been slain, rather than to have been born (Miller 221). This is neatly paralleled by God in the final speech to Job, so the form of the dragon frames the book (Angel 56). Job is bitter about his treatment because he perceives that there is no justice, he would rather be handed "over to chaos and evil, letting Leviathan swallow him up that he might die and his suffering end” (Angel 58).


When God does eventually show up, he tells Job that he has shut in the sea and bounded it, affirming his conquest of chaos like Marduk (Angel 66). Later, he poses rhetorical questions to Job about Leviathan and Behemoth, “can you draw out leviathan with a fishook? Play with him as with a bird? Put him on a leash for your girl?” (Miller 223). Clearly, Job cannot do any of these things. To Job, these creatures are invulnerable, unlike Job himself (Raz 94). However, God’s power is demonstrated by his creation of them, for this foe of the gods is nothing against the power of God. Further, there is no sense in Job calling for Leviathan to be roused because God himself “has defeated and limited chaos” (Angel 68). These creatures are witnesses of God’s power which is far beyond human understanding (Raz 95). This does not change the reality of suffering for Job, however. God has everything under control, but that is not a source of comfort to Job.


When God shows up to talk to Job, he tells Job that he alone can defeat chaos. Only God “can conquer this monster” (Angel 72). Job certainly does not have the power to restore justice or righteousness. God challenges Job to be a warrior to defeat the Chaos which he clearly cannot do, but God himself is “the divine warrior who does conquer chaos [and he] has presented himself without passing Job by for more important battles” (Angel 68). Stories like this forego some of the traditional ideas about God so that God must battle against the forces of chaos (Miller 293). Biblical myths try to demonstrate theological ideas without precise theological language which can limit God’s power (for rhetorical purposes), but “it certainly seems less scary than living in a cosmos... run by a supreme being who secretly wills the torture of little girls” (Boyd 292).


Ultimately, in all of these stories, God is victorious. His power surpasses that of chaos. However, just because the LORD is triumphant, that does not mean that these forces are unreal. This battle between the God of Israel and the dragon demonstrates that there is something about the world which needs to be fought against, even though the conflict and the beast depicted are mythological (Boyd 101). The biblical writers are able to use stories that were probably familiar to their readers to show that evil is present in the world, but God’s sovereignty prevails over it. In fact, evil is not really even a challenge for him. In Genesis 3, the serpent wins, but it isn’t the end of the story.


 

Works Cited


Angel, Andrew R., and N. T. Wright. Playing with Dragons: Living with Suffering and God. Cascade Books, 2014.


Beckman, Gary M. “The Anatolian Myth of Illuyanka.” The Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society, vol. 14, 1982, pp. 11–25. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lsdar&AN=ATLA0000928308&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Boyd, Gregory A. God at War: The Bible & Spiritual Conflict. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.


Coogan, Michael D, Marc Z. Brettler, Carol A. Newsom, and Pheme Perkins. The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version : with the Apocrypha : an Ecumenical Study Bible. Oxford [England: Oxford University Press, 201


King, L. W. The Seven Tablets of Creation. Luzac, 1902.


Miller, Robert D. The Dragon, the Mountain, and the Nations: an Old Testament Myth, Its Origins, and Its Afterlives. Eisenbrauns, 2018.


Raz, Yosefa. “Reading Pain in the Book of Job.” The Book of Job: Aesthetics, Ethics, Hermeneutics, edited by Leora Batnitzky and Ilana Pardes, 1st ed., De Gruyter, Berlin/Munich/Boston, 2015. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvbkk23h.8. Accessed 28 Oct. 2020.


“Rig Veda.” Translated by Ralph Griffith, Rig Veda: Rig-Veda, Book 4: HYMN XVIII. Indra and Others., www.sacred-texts.com/hin/rigveda/rv04018.htm.


Satterfield, Bruce. “The Epic of Baal - Brigham Young University–Idaho.” Ancient Ugarit, emp.byui.edu/SatterfieldB/Ugarit/The%20Epic%20of%20Baal.html.


Starr, Omega Means. “A Search for the Identity of Yamm 'Prince Sea,' of the Canaanite Baal and Anath Cycle.” Folklore, vol. 84, no. 3, 1973, pp. 224–237. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1259725. Accessed 28 Oct. 2020.

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