Gospel Doctrine Lesson 39: Isaiah 50-53

Gusave Doré’s The Destruction of Leviathan. Public Domain

One theme throughout these chapters is the redemption and recovery of Israel, specifically from Babylonian exile and previous scattering by the Assyrians. The lesson manual focuses on the messianic foreshadowing of Jesus as redeeming figure. Scholars refer to these as the “Suffering Servant” passages, and the text is well-known to many people through Handel’s Messiah. I want to focus on a few different passages, though, which invoke certain attributes of God’s power as they relate to creation, chaos, and also (in a roundabout way) redemption and atonement.

First two passages.

50:2 … By my rebuke I dry up the sea, I make the rivers a desert… 51:9-10 Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon? Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep; who made the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to cross over?

Who is Rahab? Who is the dragon? When did this piercing happen? What does the sea have to do with anything? And what does any of this have to do with God bringing Israel back from Babylon? To answer this, let us recall that we’ve encountered similar language in Isaiah before.

27:1- On that day 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.

We’re now adding Leviathan, the fleeing, twisting serpent to Rahab, the dragon, the sea and serpent… which are all practically one and the same for Isaiah’s purposes. Let’s look at these, retranslated.

50:2 …by my rebuke, I dry out Yam, I make Nǝharōt into desert… 51:9-10 Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of Yahweh! Awake as in ancient days, primordial generations! Are you not the one who cuts Rahab into pieces, the fatal wounder of Tannīn? Are you not the drier-up of Yam (and) the great waters of Tehom, the one who made (the) depths of the sea (yam) a way for the redeemed to cross over? 27:1 On that day, Yahweh will visit/punish/avenge/set to right with his great cruel strong sword Leviathan, the coiling snake; He will kill the dragon (tannīn) which is in the sea (yam).

Note that I’ve made several of these into proper nouns whereas the KJV translates them as regular nouns with definite articles. Hebrew has no capitalization to set off proper names; proper nouns must be recognized by context and familiarity. However, these common nouns lack the definite article here in Hebrew (with one exception), and proper names do not take the definite article. (In some languages like Greek, they do.) That lack strongly suggests that these should be read as quasi-proper nouns and names here, YamNǝharōt, Rahab, Tannīn, Tehom, Leviathan and then tannīn and yam appear with the definite article, so they are translated.

Several of these nouns/names has to do with water in some way.  Yam =“sea” Nǝharōt = “rivers” Tehom = the mythological Deep from Genesis 1, the cosmic waters; Each of these was a deity elsewhere. At Ugarit, for example, Prince Yam was also known as Judge River, and had an epic battle with Ba’al (the rough equivalent of Yahweh). In the Babylonian Enuma Elish, the goddess Tiamat (≈ tehom) does battle with Marduk (the roughequivalent of Yahweh). Marduk and Ba’al defeat Yam/Nahar/Tiamat, thereby proving their power and supremacy. What of Rahab, Tannīn, Leviathan, then? As it turns out, Tiamat was not alone. Like all villains, she had lackies, henchmen, subordinates who fought on her behalf. They are represented as monsters- a serpent, dragon, sea monster, etc. Behemoth (≈ Leviathan) was another one of these, but is only named in Job.

The reference to Rahab in the OT should be read against the background of ancient Near Eastern mythology describing creation as based on victory over the powers of chaos, viz. the primordial oceans. These powers are represented as monsters. The best known example is the Babylonian myth Enūma eliš describing Marduk’s creation of the kosmos by defeating the chaos monster Tiamat with her helpers. In the Ugaritic myth of Baal there are references to a primordial battle between Baal or his consort Anat against the god of the Sea Yam and other chaos monsters… The same myth tells us that this battle did not stop with the creation of the world: the powers of chaos remain a threat which has to be confronted again and again. – Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, “Rahab.”

Isaiah clearly refers to an Israelite tradition of God triumphing over the quasi-personified watery chaos. His power is made clear in vanquishing these watery forces of chaos in the distant mythical past of creation… but also in history, at the Exodus where he “made (the) depths of the sea (yam) a way for the redeemed to cross over.” In other words, because God’s power was manifest in the past, he can manifest it as well in the present. You might have noticed in my retranslation, several of the past-tense verbs became present-tense descriptors. This is because Isaiah is using present participles, i.e. ongoing action. Having vanquished these things in the past was not enough; they are always just out of sight, on the edge, held back and restrained by God’s power but not destroyed. They remain a threat.

The Argonath of Lord of the Rings, forbidding and holding back
Job always reminds me of the Argonath of Lord of the Rings, forbidding and holding back.

Following God’s statement to Job about the sons of God singing at creation (38:7), God recounts how he

shut in Yam with doors… prescribed bounds for it, set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’

(Similarly, Marduk “fixes a crossbar and posts guards over the half [of Tiamat] from which the heavens were made, so that their waters might not escape and threaten his victory.” Levenson, cited below.) Thus, Isaiah calls on Israel’s faith in God’s past performance to convince them that God is still powerful enough to bring them out of Babylon/Assyria, in spite of his apparent defeat by these foreign gods. As 27:1 shows, that God defeated these enemies in the past indicates his power to defeat in the present, and once-and-for-all in the future.

Two further points of interest.

First, the way Isaiah, Job, and Psalms reference this is completely opposite Genesis 1 where God is presented as supreme and there is no conflict. Although the tehom exists before God begins creating (it’s the Deep of v.2), it poses no challenge to him, no battle takes place. The tannīn is also present there, but only as one of God’s submissive creations (Gen. 1:21, KJV “great whales.”) Isaiah probably represents both a revision to Israelite traditions and a dig at non-Israelite ideas, in the sense of “Oh yeah? Our god is so powerful, nothing can even challenge him. Your god Marduk had to fight to get to his position, but what if some other god comes along and knocks him off the top of the heap?” (This may be the thinking behind Isaiah’s assertions in 43:10 that there was no god formed before Yahweh, nor after. Yahweh is the only and incomparable savior; to trust in any other god or think that Yahweh either supplanted one or will himself be supplanted is to get things terribly wrong.)

Second, this relationship between God and mastery of the waters carries forward into the New Testament. It is probably present for the episode in which Jesus is sleeping on a boat, but awakened by the disciples when a large storm comes up, and he calms the storm and the waters. The disciples are amazed not just because of this supernatural power, but because control of the waters is God’s primordial power first seen at creation and various times of deliverance in times past. Controlling the waters was the symbol of God overpowering and undoing chaos and evil.

Matt 8:27/Mark 4:41/Luke 8:25  (with minor variance) “They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?”

As it turns out, the NT has the clearest elucidation of this mythology of battle between God and sea-monster, which was not clearly understood in the Old Testament until the discovery and translation of the thousands of ancient texts from Assyria, Babylon, and  especially Ugarit. Levenson, again-

“Without the Ugaritic literature, these allusions would remain tantalizing obscurities, for the Bible offers no connected narrative of primordial divine combat, only poetic snippets, usually within a hymnic or plaintive context.

Having the Ugaritic and similar materials, we are able to get a sense of the full dimensions of the old myth and its continuing vitality in Israel—as well as the failed efforts of some circles to suppress it. “

Thanks to Ugaritic, we can now identify some ancient Near Eastern roots of the Book of Revelation, which talks about war between God and his opponent, a serpent or dragon, rising out of the sea, with helpers on both sides (chap 12-13).  It’s a simplified nutshell version of what Isaiah is invoking. God proved powerful and triumphant at creation, again in delivering (and redelivering) his people, and would/will again in vanquishing sin and death.

Further reading:


  • I’ve addressed this topic previously. Some groundwork (part 1), and exposition (part 2). I wrote a very brief post introducing Ugaritic and its importance here, in which I linked to Mike Heiser’s discussion of Ugaritic.
  • Here’s a good passage for talking about the power of words to heal.

    50:4 The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.

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