November 24, 2014

The Backstories of the First Testament

Chaos Monsters CoverThe 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:

  1. God has subdued chaos, just barely. (Creation)
  2. God has given humans an instruction manual for life on planet Earth so they can partner with God in the management of chaos. (Torah)
  3. 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)
  4. God enlists prophets to mediate this dynamic partnership upon which the health of creation depends. (Latter Prophets)
  5. 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)
  6. 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)
  7. 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)

dore leviathan

Destruction of Leviathan, Dore

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.

Comments

  1. Sounds like a fascinating book. Thanks for the well-done review.

    I was particularly struck by this line: “through lament humans report on the quality of God’s management of chaos”

    That one will stick with me for a while.

  2. 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.”

    Agreed. Chaos appears to enter paradise through the cunning of the serpent, which seems to bring back the imagery of chaos monsters.

  3. Is Mobley then saying the theme of chaos ran from the original works of the OT all the way through to the 2nd Temple Period? Another way to ask it is: did the later writers of the OT understand the chaos theme of the early writers?

  4. David Cornwell says:

    My first reaction to this book, without having read it yet, is that it explains a lot without telling the end of the story. I don’t mean this in a bad way, because the nature of chaos means that there is much that cannot be explained. But what an exciting and dynamic narrative this becomes. God is in the story, and stays in the story and will not leave it to play out in another way. Here, in this narrative, is a plot that builds, becomes twisted, and turns in every which direction, with the outcome never being quite sure.

    One of my first questions has to do with the relevance of this to our own present age. I wonder if Mobley has written about this. When I wake up n the morning and scan the news, even the news from close to home– my thoughts many times are about the chaos of this era. And when I hear of a 17 year old boy who is near and dear to me, whose life has gone out of control– then again my thought is of the chaos that has come into his young life, and of the devastation it can bring to a family.

    So, my thoughts are: how does Mobley bring this around? This God– who from chaos brings creation, and again and again restores order and creation, what is He up to now? And then I am reminded of the Lord Christ who rose from the dead, defeating the chaos of death, and who will, in time, intervene to bring about a New Creation.

    But in the meantime, just where does His new creation break through? Where do we see signs of it now? This, I think, is where our prayers come to bear, for this is how he admonishes us to pray.

    And I think that Mobley’s theology is such that I can read and not dose off!

  5. Am I the only one that cringes every time the OT is called the “First Testament” ? Reminds me of some wise-ass in designer jeans trying to be edgy and relevant.

    • I can see your concern, however; it helps with the idea that is not old and that we dont need to pay close attention to it. I know that for me is refreshing to hear the OT call the First Testament, becasue it lets me know, by the name alone, that there are things in it worth exploring

    • You got me pegged, Boaz. Designer jeans. Edgy and relevant. Ha!

      The “wise-ass” part is probably correct.

    • I dunno… I suppose it still feels strange calling the other testament “New” after 2000 years. They’re both old, but one came first :P

  6. I just read the amazon preview, and this seems pretty imaginative. God “just barely” defeated the chaos dragon, thank goodness. We’d never defeat it alone!

    There is so much suspicion and conjecture in these kinds of explanations of the OT. The priest sources suppressed X and Y, but forgot about Z, which the Elohist had put in. Based on what? Objectively speaking, there’s no evidence to believe most of this stuff, which is why there are so many competing, conflicting theories. It’s comical to try to keep track of it. In 50 years, all of this will be forgotten for some totally new explanation.

    I don’t see how any of this is edifying for faith.The relevant evidence is all lost to history, and one can either play these speculation games or trust on faith Christ did not come to fulfill the wishful fantasies of disgruntled Babylonian captives.

    • It’s all about academia. Some dude wants to get a PhD and there’s no room for another dissertation in traditional theology, so it’s conspiracy theory time. :P

      I actually do think there is value in listening to these approaches, so long as one knows how to draw the line between speculation and what is commonly accepted as historical fact. But just like new songs in church music, I’d rather let these ideas vet a few decades for them to really prove their worth before I start building anything on them.

      • Yeah, except Mobley is not innovating.

        • Right, my comment was meant to be about higher criticism generally, not Mobley. As progressive scholarship goes, this does seem fairly tame. Exchange the word “chaos” for “evil,” and it kinda fits with traditional categories. I doesn’t look like I’d have to reinvent my anthropology, harmitology, and soteriology to accept what he is saying. :D

    • You haven’t lived until you’ve read The Pooh Perplex.

    • “I just read the amazon preview, and this seems pretty imaginative.”

      “It’s all about academia. Some dude wants to get a PhD and there’s no room for another dissertation in traditional theology, so it’s conspiracy theory time.”

      Aw, come on guys, you can do better than that.

      Without commenting on the book’s exact argument-I have not read it-the author is not just making things up, but trying to understand these texts in their near eastern contexts and in relationship to other texts (some theoretical). That’s tricky business, but given our deep desire to understand very old texts about which much evidence is lost, it’s a worthwhile venture. And we can’t get there without some conjecture.

      I think you are right, though, that all things academic are best efforts, and that there’s plenty of room for further examination, and little room to say anything is the last word. That is the academic project after all.

      • David Cornwell says:

        Exactly. I’ve never understood why people are so afraid to look at something from a different perspective or in a new way. It won’t hurt the brain or orthodoxy.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I just read the amazon preview, and this seems pretty imaginative. God “just barely” defeated the chaos dragon, thank goodness. We’d never defeat it alone!

      Sounds like Marduk and Tiamat.

  7. David Cornwell says:

    Mobley, according to the seminary web site, experiments in intuition and spontaneity, in order to break through “modern conditioning” in his attempts to understand the First Testament. In my opinion the way we think is so different from the ancients that it takes something like this to approach the meaning.

    I can conceive of some very exciting ways to teach the old stories to children using these concepts. And probably many adults as well. I fail to see how his teaching or understanding does any violence to the truth, but it does provide a different way to understand it. We don’t need to do it the same way as the reformers, or even those nearer to our age.

  8. Does anybody still say ‘Process Theology?’

  9. I really liked the post. However, it sounds like the the book describes human sin as directly causing chaos to break free. I just don’ t see that in Genesis. God remains in control of chaos but releases it at will.

  10. Gregory Mobley says:

    It is gratifying to read Chaplain Mike’s positive review of my book, and also to follow the conversation it inspired. I especially loved the allusion to H. P. Lovecraft, whose “nihilogy” (my term) essentially narrates the the same story as mine IF the monsters were to win. But deep down, I am a prisoner of hope and believe that in the end Love wins.

  11. Gregory Mobley says:

    oh, Chaplain Mike: one more thing. I went to seminary with Michael Spencer. may the circle be unbroken.