I wanted to make a note of a recent publication that deserves more attention, The Conflict Myth and the Biblical Tradition, by Debra Scoggins Ballentine, which is a revision of her dissertation from Brown University. The book presents a comprehensive review and functional analysis of the mythological motif of combat with the Sea/Dragon in West Asia, spanning a period of almost three millennia. She sums up the basic thrust of her argument at the beginning of the first chapter:
This study explores how the theme of divine combat was meaningful for particular authors in particular contexts, that is, how it was useful for saying things about, responding to, portraying, and shaping socio-political realities. The conflict topos was employed in part for ideological purposes in various historical situations, as the following chapters demonstrate through analysis of both whole narrative articulations of the conflict topos and examples of the conflict motif used outside of a narrative context. Ancient West Asian stories of divine combat generate a narrative hierarchical relationship among their characters, and the taxonomy of those mythical characters was consciously projected onto historical persons and polities for ideological purposes. Those aligned with the victorious deity are validated and endorsed by association with that deity. Those aligned with the sea or dragons are, the authors hope, destined for defeat, invalidated, and delegitimized.
The analysis is thorough, theoretically sophisticated, and very well done. For anyone interested in exploring more deeply a theme of crucial generative significance for a variety of narratives in both the Old and New Testaments, The Conflict Myth is a must read. Ballentine not only illuminates the flexibility, variation, and consistency of the conflict motif over a wide geographical and temporal frame, but she powerfully demonstrates how the study of the ideological function of myth can enrich our understanding of familiar stories from the Bible.
Perhaps most provocative is her conclusion that the various enemies featured in the conflict myth are not “agents of chaos” but should rather be understood as “agents of an alternative divine power structure.” Accordingly, she pleads that scholars avoid using “chaos” or “Chaoskampf” with reference to the conflict theme. On the one hand, I think that Ballentine is absolutely right that “chaos” as a descriptive label has been overused and abused, that all the enemies defeated by warriors gods should not be simply homogenized together or decontextualized and in some cases their ontology and status is portrayed as not substantially different from other deities. Yet to my mind to characterize the theme of divine combat with the Sea as merely conflict between competing power structures also hardly does justice to its mythological resonances. One needs to differentiate between specific creative articulations of the motif as attested in specific literary sources (Yam in the Baal Cycle, Tiamat in Enuma Elish) and its more basic underlying mythological structure and conceptual background, which originally seems to have been closely tied to cosmogonic creation and some sort of conflict with primordial “chaos.” In the eastern Mediterranean where the myth appears to have developed the basic idea was that a god had defeated a primordial Sea monster at the beginning of time and established his mountain throne 0n top of it, in the process creating a well-ordered cosmos, with sea, dry earth, mountains, fresh water, and sky. The myth is reflected in numerous biblical and extra-biblical texts and also makes sense within the local topography of the region (Batto 2013; Kottsieper 2013; Ayali-Darshan 2014).
That this primordial Sea monster can accurately be associated with a concept of “chaos” or “Chaoskampf” is supported by various considerations: 1) this Sea monster is primordial or pre-creation and is the stuff upon which the cosmos are established; 2) it is portrayed as monstrous in form, suggesting it is unlike other more benevolent anthropomorphic deities; 3) it is associated with the watery deep and sea, which are inherently chaotic and dangerous; and 4) it is located at the periphery of the cosmos from the perspective of humans and thus occupies a pole opposite from the ordered center (Smith 2001: 27-33).
I would therefore argue that the terminology of “chaos” and “Chaoskampf” is still useful as a description for some versions of the West Asian conflict topos, and even in those cases where the enemy of the warrior god is not identifiable or coterminous with chaos per se, such as with Yam at Ugarit in the Baal Cycle, resonances of the chaoskampf theme nevertheless lie in the background and inform how ancient readers would have inevitably approached the narrative, e.g. when El sides with Yam and calls him his “beloved” for kingship, it only makes El look thoughtless and foolhardy, since the Sea was formidable and dangerous and could not be a worse choice for rulership over the gods on mount Zaphon.
Ayali-Darshan, N. 2014. The Question of the Order of Job 26,7-13 and the Cosmogonic Tradition of Zaphon. Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 126: 402-417.
Batto, B. 2013. The Combat Myth in Israelite Myth Revisited. Pp. 217-236 in Creation and Chaos: A Reconsideration of Hermann Gunkel’s Chaoskampf Hypothesis, ed. J. Scurlock and R. H. Beal. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.