In my new novel, Noah Primeval, Book One of the Chronicles of the Nephilim, I retell the story of the Biblical Noah as a nomadic tribal warrior. He refuses to worship the divine council of gods in Mesopotamia and is subsequently hunted down by assassin giants, leading the chase through Sheol, and ending in a climactic battle involving Leviathan and other hybrid monsters.
“What?” you may say. That’s not in the Bible! That sounds more like the non-canonical book of Enoch or the fantasy world of The Lord of the Rings than Holy Scripture. Isn’t that mythologizing the Bible?
It is hard enough to get some religious believers to appreciate the imagination of the fantasy genre. But when it comes to retelling a story from the Bible, their view is categorical: don’t even think of putting those two things together — Bible and fantasy. That borders on tampering with the Word of God worthy of the curse in Revelation 21 on those who “add or take away from the words of the book.”
I think this negative impulse comes from an essentially good intent: the desire to avoid denigrating their sacred stories or reducing them to the level of false pagan myths. But such good intent does not necessarily produce the good result of a well thought out Biblical understanding of story. 1
What would surprise many of these concerned believers is the fact that the same ancient Hebrews who championed the Scriptures as their sacred text containing the very words of God, were also the ones who wrote those Scriptures utilizing pagan imagination and motifs. And they were also the same ancient believers who wrote many other non-canonical texts that retold Biblical stories with fantastic embellishments worthy of mythopoeic masters.
Subverted Pagan Imagination
I have written elsewhere about the extensive use of Canaanite poetry and imagination by Bible authors to express God’s own imagination. 2 The Bible redeems pagan imagination by using its motifs and baptizing them with altered subversive definitions that support Yahweh, the God of the Jewish Scriptures against Baal, the god of Canaan, and other pagan deities in the ancient Near East.
Two examples of this redemptive subversion that show up in Noah Primeval are Leviathan and the Divine Council of the Sons of God. It appears that Yahweh was not only interested in dispossessing the Canaanite people from the Promised Land, he was interested in dispossessing their narrative, because the Bible embodies a subversion of Canaanite imagination within its own narrative.
Baal, the storm god, was the chief deity of the land of Canaan in the time of the Israelite conquest. Canaanite myths depict Baal as a “cloud rider” who defeats the River and the Sea, as well as the Sea Dragon called “Leviathan,” (a symbol of chaos) in order to claim his eternal dominion. 3
In polemical response to this mythology, the Biblical writers describe Yahweh as a “cloud rider” (Is. 19:1; Ps. 104:3-4), who defeats the River and Sea (Hab. 3:8), as well as the Sea Dragon, “Leviathan,” (Is. 89:6-12) in order to establish his eternal dominion (Ps. 89:19-29). It appears that Yahweh, in consort with the human authors of the Bible, is subversively using the pagan cultural motifs and thought-forms of the day to say, “Baal is not God, Yahweh is God.”
In Psalm 74, 89, Isaiah 27, and Isaiah 51 the story of the Exodus crossing of the Red Sea is described with the imaginative terms of creating the heavens and earth, crushing the head of Leviathan, and binding the chaos waters of the sea in order to establish Yahweh’s covenantal dominion on the earth in his people. This is history mixed in with mythopoetic imagination to describe the theological significance of what is taking place – just like other ancient Near Eastern religions did. 4
Another aspect of Canaanite pagan mythology that is redeemed in the Scriptures is the Divine Council of the Sons of God. In the sacred Baal texts we read about the “Sons of God” who act as an advisory council and judicial board to a Father deity called “El.” Baal is a vice regent who ascends to the throne of El and rules over the other gods of the council, who then do his bidding. 5
In the Bible, Yahweh (also called “El”) presides over a divine council of the “Sons of God”, (Ps. 89:5-7) who also give advice in judicial decisions of Yahweh (Ps. 82), and carry out his bidding as well (Job 1:6-12; 1 Kings 22:19-22). A deified figure called the Son of Man is a vice regent who ascends to God’s throne surrounded by those “holy ones” who do his bidding (Dan. 7:9-14).
Of course, there are significant differences that separate the monotheistic Biblical divine council and the polytheistic pagan Canaanite divine council. As one example illustrates, the Biblical divine council are not to be worshiped, but Yahweh alone; while the Canaanite divine council were worshiped. Big similarities, but bigger differences. Biblical imagination is not engaging in syncretism (blending opposing views), but in subversion (infiltrating and overthrowing an opposing view). The commonalities show a clear cultural connection that is subversively redeemed and redefined in the Biblical understanding of the concept. God incorporates pagan imagination and motifs into his own narrative and subverts them through redefinition and poetic usage.
So that’s what I did in Noah Primeval. I retold the story of Noah, utilizing mythopoeic notions of Leviathan as a personification of chaos, and the sons of God as the divine council around God, as well as the incorporation of other Mesopotamian imagery in order to give a theological explanation for the true origins and partial reality of pagan mythology.
Don’t worry, it’s not as head trippy as all this academicspeak may sound. This is just the deep stuff behind the exciting fantasy action adventure in the novel. But there are appendixes in the book for those who want to explore the Biblical and ANE research more in depth.
1 The curse of Revelation 21, is not a reference to the entire Bible, but the prophecy of the particular book of Revelation. Also, the context is not about taking away individual words but about taking away or adding to the content of the prophecy. If it were words, then we are all condemned because we do not have the original words, but only English translations based on many different copied manuscripts with lots of different textual variations. In other words our book of Revelation contains added words and taken away words.
2 See Wyatt, N. Religious Texts from Ugarit. 2nd ed. Biblical seminar, 53. (London; New York: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002). Also, Brian Godawa, “Old Testament Storytelling Apologetics,” at www.godawa.com.
3 See my article “Biblical Creation and Storytelling: Cosmogony, Combat and Covenant” for a detailed explanation of this ANE technique.
4 See Michael S. Heiser, The Divine Council In Late Canonical And Non-Canonical Second Temple Jewish Literature (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, 2004) 34-41; Patrick D. Miller, “Cosmology And World Order In The Old Testament The Divine Council As Cosmic-Political Symbol” Israelite Religion and Biblical Theology: Collected Essays by Patrick D. Miller, (NY: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000).
5 For more differences explained, see Gerald Cooke, “The Sons of (the) God(s),” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, n.s.:35:1 (1964), p 45-46.
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Brian Godawa is the author of the new Biblical fantasy novel, Noah Primeval, now available for purchase on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. To see a trailer, read an author interview, sign up for free chapters, and learn more information about the Chronicles of the Nephilim, visit the Noah Primeval web site.
Mr. Godawa is also the award-winning screenwriter of the feature film To End All Wars, starring Kiefer Sutherland. In addition, he authored the popular book Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment (IVP). Visit his web site for films and other books and free articles.