The Combat Myth is a supernatural battle between order and chaos (or good and evil) that we see in mythologies of civilizations throughout the Ancient Near East, culminating with Judaism. Yahweh isn’t a remarkable god, different from the made-up gods in surrounding cultures. Instead, his story is just one stage in a long line of mythology. If the Akkadian god Anzu or the Babylonian god Marduk are obvious myths, Yahweh is the same.
While the Mesopotamian myths are unfamiliar to most of us, we see a hint in Greek mythology. Zeus wasn’t always the chief god of the Greek pantheon but took that role from his father Cronos. And Cronos succeeded his own father, Uranus. Though there are important differences, this succession is common to the Combat Myth.
1. Akkadian myth: Ninurta defeats Anzu
The Akkadian Empire followed Sumer as the primary Mesopotamian civilization. This myth developed about a thousand years before the Yahweh story in the Old Testament.
In the Akkadian pantheon, Enlil was the king of the gods. Kingship was invested in the god who possessed the Tablet of Destinies, which showed all that has happened and all that will happen.
The griffin-like Anzu, assistant to Enlil, steals the Tablet and flies away. Chaos threatens the order of the gods. Kingship will go to the god who restores order, but none steps up to respond to the challenge. Finally, Ninurta, an unimportant god to that point, volunteers.
Besides being able to fly, Anzu has two useful powers. One is that he can make all his feathers fly out and then come back, which distracts his opponents. The other is that he can disassemble things (such as arrows shot at him) into their component parts. And, of course, he has the Tablet, which is handy for seeing what an opponent is about to do.
The first battle is a stalemate. Anzu is able to disassemble Ninurta’s arrows. But Ninurta enters the second battle with a new stratagem. He shoots an arrow disguised as a feather at just the right moment so that it’s lost in Anzu’s cloud of feathers. Anzu pulls the feathers back in and is killed by the arrow. Order is restored, and Ninurta ascends to become the king of the gods.
The Combat Myth
From this, let’s distill out the Combat Myth. It begins with a chaotic threat to the council of the gods. None of the gods from the older generation is willing to face the challenge, but one young god steps up. He defeats the monster and becomes the new chief god. This structure is constant, though the details are customized in subsequent civilizations.
Two features are not shared by all examples. In some, we see the hero god dying and being reborn in the process. Also, our human world is sometimes created from the carcass of the slain chaos monster.
2. Babylonian myth: Marduk defeats Tiamat
This story comes from the Enuma Elis, the Babylonian creation epic. In the beginning were Tiamat, the female serpent or dragon who was salt water, and Absu, the male god who was the fresh water.
(I’ve written more about how the Genesis story parallels the Mesopotamian myth of a saltwater dome above the primordial earth and a fresh water ocean underneath.)
Tiamat and Absu create a generation of younger gods who become too noisy for Absu’s liking. He plans to kill them all, but they learn of his plan and kill him first. Tiamat is furious.
Marduk the storm god steps up to respond. He kills Tiamat, forms the universe from her body, and installs himself as king of the gods.
3. Ugaritic myth: Baal defeats Yam and then Mot
This myth comes from Ugarit, just north of Israel. It’s dated to roughly 1300 BCE. This is the environment from which Judaism emerged.
Our historical record is fragmentary, but El is the chief god, and Baal (“Lord”) volunteers to fight the chaos threat. (Yes, these are the same El and Baal mentioned in the Old Testament.) He uses a supernatural club to kill Yam (“Sea”), the serpent-like sea god. Some variations give Yam seven heads and use Lotan and Leviathan as synonyms.Next, Baal fights Mot (“Death”), another threat to order. Baal dies in this battle but is brought back to life to finally overcome Mot.
4. Israelite myth: Yahweh defeats Leviathan
Early Judaism had the same council of the gods as in Ugaritic mythology. (I’ve written more on Israelite polytheism here.) Yahweh is a son of El (also called Elyon) and was just one of many in the council of the gods.
When Elyon divided the nations, when he separated the sons of Adam, he established the borders of the nations according to the number of the sons of the gods. Yahweh’s portion was his people, [Israel] his allotted inheritance. (Deuteronomy 32:8–9)
Yahweh was assigned Israel, and other gods in the council were given their own tribes to rule.
We see the Bible’s version of the Combat Myth in Psalms 89:5–12. First, Yahweh has taken his place as king of the council of the gods.
The heavens praise your wonders, Yahweh, your faithfulness too, in the assembly of the holy ones. For who in the skies above can compare with Yahweh? Who is like Yahweh among the heavenly beings? In the council of the holy ones God is greatly feared; he is more awesome than all who surround him.
Yahweh has slain the chaos monster Rahab (yet another name for the sea monster).
You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them. You crushed Rahab like one of the slain; with your strong arm you scattered your enemies.
Finally, Yahweh created the earth.
The heavens are yours, and yours also the earth; you founded the world and all that is in it.
We read a similar retelling in Psalms 74, where Yahweh is credited with creation. But first, he defeated the monster(s):
It was you who split open the sea [Yam] by your power; you broke the heads of the monster in the waters. It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan and gave it as food to the creatures of the desert. (Ps. 74:13–14)
We see this multi-headed dragon both looking back as Lotan in Ugaritic mythology and looking forward as the sea dragon in Revelation 13.
With Yahweh as just one more step in the evolution of the Combat Myth, little besides wishful thinking supports the idea that he alone is for real.
And that’s the point about beliefs—they don’t change facts.
Facts, if you’re rational, should change beliefs.
— Ricky Gervais (The Unbelievers movie trailer)
Acknowledgment: My primary source for this post was a podcast episode by Dr. Phil Harland (York University, Toronto) “Podcast 7.2: Origins part 1 – Ancient Near Eastern Combat Myths.” I recommend his “Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean” podcast.
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 10/11/13.)
Photo credit: Wikipedia