Reclaiming Chaos: Women and Evil

Marduk kills Tiamat in the Enuma Elish

When in the height heaven was not named, And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name, And the primeval Apsu, who begat them, And chaos, Tiamat, the mother of them both, Their waters were mingled together, And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen; When of the gods none had been called into being, And none bore a name, and no destinies were ordained; Then were created the gods in the midst of heaven…”

These words come from the text of the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation myth which precedes and foreshadows the account of creation found within the Hebrew Bible in the book of Genesis. I first encountered this story in my Introduction to Theology course at Bluffton University. The Enuma Elish recounts the story of the slaughter of Tiamat, the “sweet-water ocean”, the first goddess, the mother of the gods and the embodiment of chaos who becomes a mortal enemy to be destroyed. As the myth recounts, Tiamat, with her partner, Apsu,  gave birth to new gods, Lahmu and Lahamu, and Anshar and Kishar, who in turn gave birth to new children who begat others and so went the cycle of life.

However, these younger gods, the great-grandchildren of Apsu and Tiamat, were “full of life and vitality” and enjoyed loud, raucous

Stereotypical Adam and Eve in the garden

gatherings which bothered Apsu. He developed a plan to destroy these young gods, which Tiamat vehemently opposed. Tiamat cried out in rage, “Why should we destroy that which we ourselves have brought forth?” As theologian Catherine Keller notes, “This sounds like every woman who has ever tried, with aching deliberation, to protect children from abuse. Her cry protests the betrayal of life itself…” But Tiamat’s cry was not to be heeded, and Apsu persevered in his quest to destroy the young gods. In punishment for his plot, Apsu was overcome and slain by the god Ea.

Tiamat, disturbed by the death of her husband and upset by a “prank” played on her by the god Anu, decided to launch a war against the gods who were complicit in the death of Apsu. Through a series of events, Tiamat would meet the son of Ea, Marduk, in combat. Marduk kills Tiamat with an arrow, and proceeds to “cast down her carcass and victoriously [stand] upon it.” He splits Tiamat’s body into two parts and uses them to create the earth, with one half of her body forming the sky and the other forming the earth.

This violent myth, a precursor to the Hebrew Bible, prefigures many themes that have come to be at work in religious thoughts about

creation and the nature of evil. It highlights a preference for order over chaos, and it sets the stage for the subjugation of females. It paints with broad strokes the link between women and chaos, and labels them as evil and enemy. As theology has developed throughout history, these links have come to be solidified within so-called “orthodox” or traditional understandings of the doctrines of creation and sin. And the doctrine of sin itself has become inextricably bound to understandings of evil. You can trace these links as they develop throughout Christian history: in the reading of the creation story and Eve’s role in original sin that St. Augustine posits; in colonial texts which make links between women and indigenous peoples and evil, in order to make the process of taking their land and lives compatible with a Christian mission; and in many texts which talk about human dominance over the earth and over the enfleshed body.

In her book, Face of the Deep, Keller outlines the systematic removal of chaos from the creative process that occurred in the development of the creation ex nihilo doctrine, and she advocates for the redemption and reinstitution of notions of chaos. In re-visiting the Enuma Elish, Keller finds in Tiamat’s mothering cry of rage to

Chaos by Paulette Ingersoll

save her grandchildren, a supreme example of an ethics of chaos: “…to love is to bear with the chaos.” Keller continues to expound on this idea to develop a robust conception of chaos and its positive functions, and in the end, she suggests that, far from being the in-breaking of evil, chaos might be, in fact, the essence of God. To refer to the “trinitarian first person,” Keller uses the name “the depth of God.” She describes this Trinitarian member when she writes; “Chaos, as Tehom, the heterogeneous depth of divinity and of world, place of places…” Keller describes a Trinity that is made of “folds” and not strictly drawn lines. This definition of the Trinity defies order and systematization. It implies a divinity that is predicated on mystery and innately bound into and within the natural world. And it redeems the idea of chaos, and with it, women, as not evil, but as uniquely tied to the divine.

What do you think? What can we learn from redeeming the concept of chaos?



Filed under Theology

3 responses to “Reclaiming Chaos: Women and Evil

  1. Lane Miller

    It seems to me that a distinction should be made between chaos and creativity (particularly because the Bible seems to make one). Creativity is certainly a divine characteristic (the definitive characteristic if you follow Kaufman). According to pentecostal theologian Wariboko, it is the essence of the Spirit which is characterized by beginnings, contingency, im-predictability, newness, and eschews the teleological assumptions of more ordered theological systems. I do not know Keller’s work (I have only read reviews), but it seems that the two are dealing with many of the same themes (beginnings, play, post-structuralism). I wonder whether we have not displaced some of the characteristics of the Spirit onto chaos (they are both in the creation story) and so left ourselves with a truncated pneumatology that functions rather mechanistically in our ordered systems. It would be interesting to see both these new streams (reflections on chaos and pneumatology) in conversation with each other.

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      Lane – These are interesting reflections. I have not read Wariboko’s work, and I have to confess that I am also not up to date on Pentecostal theory in general. Although it perhaps did not come through as clearly in this post, Keller certainly is not trying to conflate chaos and creativity, nor is she suggesting that chaos function in the place of the Holy Spirit (although you are right: there could potentilally be some fruitful discussion surrounding pneumatology, chaos and their interactions). The way that I read Keller is simply trying to preserve chaos and reclaim it from the erasure that typically happens in our accounts of creativity. I think she would be suggesting a creativity that is about play, as you have mentioned, and that is not simply driven by a desire for a certain type of order or structure, which Western thought especially has privileged. So chaos is not simply seen within solely the spirit, but is also embraced by God as well as valuable. How would Wariboko talk about creation narratives?

  2. The idea of “a Trinity that is made of ‘folds’ and not strictly drawn lines” reminds me of a recent mention of the concept of Perichoresis (seen most strongly in Eastern Orthodox theology) as being in many ways a dance, which each moving in toward the others simultaneously. John 17:21 describes the oneness of the perichoretic union of the Trinity, and that Christ asks the Father to draw all his followers into the same unity – the same dance of oneness.

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