J. Richard Middleton on Creation-By-Combat

In my previous posts (here and here), I asked some questions I have pondered about the significance of the creation of humanity in God’s image. Thanks to John Anderson for pointing me in the direction of this book where the subject is treated at length. Something I was reading in it today struck me. Middleton raises a concern he has with construing Genesis 1 as employing the imagery of creation-by-combat, a concept he readily recognizes elsewhere in the Bible (e.g. Psalms 74 and 89). He writes,

In prophetic oracles against the nations (Egypt and Babylon, for example), the Chaoskampf is used to portray YHWH’s judgment on these nations without the mediation of Israel. Perhaps more importantly, this judgment on the nations (couched in combat-myth language) follows upon YHWH’s use of these very nations to judge Israel. This certainly suggests that the combat motif, when decoupled from a cosmology (as is typical in the Old Testament), is not always motivated by a nationalistic sensibility that exalts Israel at all costs. Indeed, Millard Lind, who examines the biblical traditions of Israel’s military or political defeat at YHWH’s own hand, comments that “while ancient Near Eastern nations occasionally saw their gods as fighting against their own city or nation, Israel expressed this as a continuing theological principle that ruled both her historical writing and her prophetic thought.” It is possible that this continuing theological principle is intrinsically connected to the relatively peripheral status of creation-by-combat in the Old Testament. Perhaps the typical decoupling of the combat myth from Creation in Scripture is part and parcel of an alternative vision. (253)

For Middleton, it is very important that Chaoskampf, the battle of chaos, be separated from Israel’s cosmology. This is, in part, theologically motivated. A paragraph later he writes,

Creation-by-combat . . . ontologizes evil, understanding it to be at least equiprimordial with God and goodness and perhaps even more primordial, as in the Enuma Elish, where the olden gods are the locus of chaos and where order (represented by the younger gods) is later. But not only is evil (in the form of chaos) given primordial status, the conquest of this evil/chaos to found the ordered world enshrines violence as the divinely chosen method for establishing goodness. (254)

One can see why, given my questions regarding the image of God (here and here), I would be interested in Middleton’s discussion. Is violence an aspect of the divine image which man reflects? Middleton is obviously rejecting that, and his reasons are not purely theological (i.e. I don’t like that type of God).

Thus, if Genesis 1 indeed harbored a Chaoskampf motif, the text would simply replace one form of ideology (in the pejorative sense) with another. Rather than providing a genuine alternative worldview, this resistance by appropriation would actually reinforce the depth that violent resistance to a myth of violence is not true resistance. It is, on the contrary, capitulation to that very myth. Thus if Genesis 1 did utilize some version of the chaos-cosmos scheme to articulate God’s creation of the world, this would seal the ideological triumph of Mesopotamia. (262)

What really struck me when I read this is how Middleton and Nathan MacDonald both reject the the creation-by-combat motif of Genesis 1 for mutually exclusive reasons. Middleton sees Genesis 1 as a part of the overarching ideological critique Genesis 1-11 lays against Mesopotamian ideology.  Nathan rejects polemical readings of Genesis 1. Both argue against the notion of Chaoskampf in Genesis 1 and tie it to their polemical/non-polemical readings of the text.

As for me, I am still working this one out.


Middleton, J. Richard. The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005.


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