Is there a backstory lurking behind the Bible?

From time to time on this blog I offer reviews of books about the Bible, even though 9780802837462most posts are devoted to answering questions about the Bible itself.  In the next several posts I’d like to review Gregory Mobley’s book The Return of the Chaos Monsters.

I’m going to give so much space to this book because I find it to be a very significant one.  It suggests an approach to the Bible that many readers, tired of the typical method of trying to extract personal divine daily messages from isolated snippets, are likely to find appealing and refreshing.  But as I’ll argue in this series, I don’t believe Mobley ultimately presents an accurate picture of what the Bible is and what we are supposed to do with it, or of God, or of the place of suffering and evil in creation.  His book is written in a delightful style that carries the reader along in glad assent, and I’m concerned that some readers may not appreciate exactly where they’ve been carried by the time they get to the end.  So let me share some thoughts about where this book goes and how it gets there.

In the middle of the book, Mobley lays all of his cards on the table.  He summarizes his understanding of the relationship between God, creation, and humanity this way:  “Before time, the blinding Infinite Light exploded into a billion sparks, a happy accident for us since our very lives are merely infinitesimal reflections of this primeval divine effulgence.  But this creation of the many left the One diminished.  It is the sacred duty of every person to let his or her little light shine . . . and thus restore the full brilliance of the Light of Lights” (p. 82).

Mobley explains that the source of this understanding, in which God needs humans as much for His own restoration as they need God for theirs, is “medieval Jewish mystical theology, Kabbalah.”  But he also maintains that the Bible itself, read in a certain way, says the same thing.  Let’s explore how he makes his case.

Mobley’s first step, at the beginning of the book, is to turn all of the varied types of writing in the Bible into narrative.  Citing phenomena such as the traditional headings that “associate given psalms with events in the life of David,” he claims that “a narrative alchemy is at work in the process of the Bible that endlessly, inevitably seeks to transform every genre into story” (p. 4).

I would argue, however, that this is precisely the way to misunderstand the biblical books.  One of the first and most essential steps to understanding them on their own terms is to recognize their true genres and not approach them with expectations appropriate to different ones.  They are not all stories.  (I find that this presupposition causes problems for Mobley’s interpretations of many biblical books, as evidenced, for example, in his complaint that the “plot” of the book of Job “has been obscured by the poetic format.”  Job contains some of the most elegant poetry ever written, and to see this as an “obscuring” factor is surely to miss what that book is all about.)  Mobley’s approach is also precisely the way to misunderstand how the varying works collected in the Bible combine to become a grand story.  They don’t do this by all turning into narrative.  They instead together sketch out a story of God that is beyond themselves, and then they each find their own place within that story.

Nevertheless, let’s see where this leads.  Mobley then observes that every story has a backstory or prequel.  “No story starts ‘in the beginning.’ Every infant story is born into a narrative world that already exists” (p. 9).  Some backstories actually do get written up, like The Hobbit as a prequel to The Lord of the Rings.  But Mobley says that a true backstory is an “implied narrative” that has “not yet been composed, but looms, all latency, just before the horizon of a given narrative’s daybreak” (p. 9).  He says he will give us “a thematic overview of the entire Hebrew Bible” by sharing the backstories that guide the “meaning-making most characteristic of” each of its sections (p. 13).

Mobley begins with the first section, “the creation stories,” and suggests that even Genesis itself doesn’t begin “in the beginning.”  “Observant readers,” he says, “note that . . . there is something there: the primeval cosmic soup with its formless abyss.”  The backstory in circulation at the time when Genesis was composed told how one god or another had slain this “chaos monster” and built the creation out of its dismembered carcass.  But Genesis, Mobley acknowledges, is an example of how an author can “defy the conventional pattern and change the plot. . . . The chaos monsters . . . are not God’s mythological opponents; they are merely one more phylum of creation,” the “great dragons” (p. 10, “great sea creatures” in most English translations.

However, Mobley says, while this is the “official story,” there is an “alternate creation story” found elsewhere in the Bible.  While the “front story” (my term) does indeed take things in a new direction, Mobley would prefer to keep them where the backstory had them.  And so he cites two references in the Psalms and one in Isaiah about God slaying a chaos monster called Rahab or Leviathan.  We should understand this “slaying,” he says, as only an incomplete victory over chaos; quoting Timothy Beal, he insists, “It is difficult to keep a good monster down.  They have a tendency to reawaken, reassemble their dismembered parts, and return for a sequel.”  And so in Mobley’s understanding, “God has subdued chaos, just barely” (pp. 16-17).

As evidence that chaos monsters are actually “lurking in the background” in the rest of the Bible, despite the placid and orderly creation account in Genesis, Mobley cites Job’s wish for someone to “awaken Leviathan” so that his day of birth, which he is cursing, will cease to exist: “The clear implication is that once the dragon Leviathan is aroused from her slumbers . . . all hell will break loose and creation will start to come undone” (pp. 22-23).  I would argue, however, that the book of Job, by its end, also “changes the plot” and recasts Leviathan as one of God’s creatures, “one more phylum of creation,” not God’s mythical opponent.  This is one of the many ways in which Yahweh’s speeches to Job at the end of the book address and resolve concerns raised at the beginning.

Similarly, I would argue that Isaiah’s point in asking Yahweh, “Was it not you who cut Rahab to pieces?” is, “Was it not you, and not Marduk, who cut Rahab to pieces?”  In other words, Isaiah is appropriating the Babylonian propaganda and repurposing it as part of his sustained argument that “apart from Yahweh there is no other god.”  Beyond this, it is hardly suitable to cite this part of the book of Isaiah, which lyrically celebrates Yahweh as effortlessly creating “the ends of the earth” by his “great power and mighty strength,” as a source for the idea that God has “just barely” restrained chaos.  Nor is it really fair to cite the references to the mythological version of Leviathan in Psalm 74 and Rahab in Psalm 89 without noting the reference to the natural, creaturely version of Leviathan in Psalm 104, “which,” the psalmist says to God, “you formed to frolic” in the sea.  Apparently the psalmists knew the backstory myth and could appropriate it for their own purposes, but they also told the “official story” with delight, picturing Leviathan frolicking in the waves, rather than awakening to undo the rest of creation.

But however we understand such passages, if this backstory is only found in other parts of the Bible, it doesn’t seem legitimate to treat it as the backstory to the Genesis creation accounts (particularly since Mobley himself says it is “suppressed” there, p. 23), as if it provided a foundation for understanding the rest of the Bible.  But that’s precisely how he treats it, making it the basis for all the further steps in his argument.

I’ll explore those further steps in my next posts.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

2 thoughts on “Is there a backstory lurking behind the Bible?”

  1. I’m curious as to whether you’ve read Conrad Hyer’s book “The Meaning of Creation” and what your thoughts are about it if you have. It discusses a lot of the themes you discuss in this post and is one of the few books I recommend about as often as I recommend your book Paradigms on Pilgrimage.

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