The Return of the Chaos Monsters and Other Backstories of the Bible
by Gregory Mobley
Wm. B. Eerdmanns Pub. Co. (2012)
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One of the liveliest, most intriguing and insightful books you will read on the Hebrew Bible is Gregory Mobley’s The Return of the Chaos Monsters.
For some reason, perhaps because of our view of “inspiration,” many Christians (including myself) have had the idea at one time or another that the people of Israel were so distinct from their neighbors that the Bible they wrote is some kind of supra-cultural document, uninfluenced by the stories of the world around them. To the contrary, Gregory Mobley shows the dynamic interplay that existed between the Jews and the narrative universe in which they lived, describing the “backstories” or “metanarratives” in their thought world that lie behind and percolate through the narratives of Scripture.
This book is about the stories in the Bible and the stories behind the Bible and how the Bible is essentially, relentlessly story. This book is about seven basic stories – outlined above – that the book known to Jews as Tanakh and to Christians as the Old Testament tells as its composers and the ancient communities to whom they spoke wrestled with a single theme: how to make meaning from the chaos of experience, the human condition. (Mobley)
Each backstory that Mobley describes is a variation on a single theme – the dynamic interplay between order and chaos. Mobley takes a “big picture” approach. He looks at the major sections of the Hebrew canon and the major genres which characterize them. These various genres all contribute to an overall story or narrative fabric. His premise is that the Bible is best understood as “wholly narrative, and that most of its individual narratives are variations on seven basic stories, and that all seven of these stories are variations on a single theme: the dynamic interplay of order and chaos.”
The seven backstories are:
- God has subdued chaos, just barely. (Creation)
- God has given humans an instruction manual for life on planet Earth so they can partner with God in the management of chaos. (Torah)
- God has enacted the tough love of moral cause and effect in order to reward fidelity to the instruction manual and to support management of the chaos. (Former Prophets)
- God enlists prophets to mediate this dynamic partnership upon which the health of creation depends. (Latter Prophets)
- Through praise humans release energy that augments God’s management of chaos; through lament humans report on the quality of God’s management of chaos. (Psalms)
- Here and there, humans catch glimpses of the divine design for chaos management; living according to these insights is another expression of the partnership. (Wisdom)
- There are times when chaos gains the upper hand and humans in partnership with God can only hope that God is able, as in the beginning, to subdue chaos. (Apocalyptic)
Since the Creation backstory is fundamental to all the others, let’s get a taste of how Mobley approaches it. He calls it, “The Return of the Chaos Monsters.” The chaos monsters are personifications of “the disorderly, random, and untamed features of reality” that threaten the world and human thriving. The story of “Creation” shows that God has defeated but not completely destroyed the chaos monsters. They inevitably return, especially when humans “open the doors to their cages through ethical lapses.”
Mobley shows how, although Genesis 1-2 are the “creation” stories most Jews and Christians think about when the subject is raised, there are alternate creation accounts throughout Scripture that open our eyes to the backstory. The psalms that celebrate creation, for example, describe a primordial battle between God and Leviathan (or Rahab) — the dragon of chaos. God defeats and subdues the chaos monster, bringing order to the world. This backstory plays a major role in the book of Job.
Although Genesis 1 does not bring this backstory to the surface, there are moments even in the initial “creation” narrative where we can sense its presence. The chaotic waters and darkness at its beginning, for example, show that this is not a story about creation ex nihilo, but about God bringing order to a chaotic cosmos already in existence. There are “sea monsters” (Heb. tanninim) that make a brief appearance but their significance is downplayed: they are merely one type of creature God made. All is orderly and proceeds with stately wonder in Genesis 1, but in the background God is fighting the forces of chaos and bringing them to submission. The darkness is contained. The waters are gathered and kept within bounds. The creatures are put in their place and granted life and blessing.
Chaos can break its bounds, however. The story of Noah confirms this, for in that account, creation is undone and the chaos monsters are awakened. Why? Because of human sin (Genesis 6:5-7). As Mobley says, “The sequence of the plot is clear: human violence threatens cosmic order and health. God created a world that works by controlling chaos behind a firmament. But the chaos is ever ready to break free from its restraints, and human trespass erodes the stability of the dam behind which the waters mass.”
One of the clearest prophetic oracles describing this is Jeremiah 4:23-26 –
I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
and to the heavens, and they had no light.
I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,
and all the hills moved to and fro.
I looked, and lo, there was no one at all,
and all the birds of the air had fled.
I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
and all its cities were laid in ruin
before the Lord, before his fierce anger.
Day by day, through the Babylonian invasion, as Jeremiah outlines it, creation is being undone. Human sinfulness bears cosmic consequences. The chaos monsters threaten to plunge the world into the state of “waste and void” again. The prophets, however, also remembered the creative power of God to overcome chaos and restore order. And so, for example, Isaiah speaks of the desert blossoming once more and of a new heavens and a new earth with abundant, fruitful harvests to come.
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In my view, Gregory Mobley has brought a sense of clarifying order to our understanding of the First Testament in The Return of the Chaos Monsters. Rarely have I found such sheer delight in reading a book of Biblical theology. His writing is lively and enthusiastic, appealing to mind, heart, and imagination as he connects his thoughtful reading of each text with the big picture of the First Testament, Ancient Near Eastern myths that formed the context for Israel’s narrative world, examples from literature and popular culture that illustrate the universal themes of the Biblical story, and personal reflections.
My highest recommendation goes to The Return of the Chaos Monsters.