The Sea as Embodying Evil in the Bible

In the Ancient Near East there was prevalent the belief that the universe was populated by both good and hostile spiritual forces. The people then believed that there was something foundationally wrong with the cosmic environment; prosperity and survival (or lack of) depended to a great extent on the defeat or appeasing of demonic forces. Inevitably this belief found its way into the literature of the time:

“Like most cultures throughout history, the ancient cultures of Mesopotamia gave mythological expression to the conviction that the world is in an ongoing state of war between forces of good and forces of evil.” (pg.75, God At War [GAW hereafter] by Gregory Boyd which also contains very useful notes and bibliography on the warfare motif in Scripture)

These forces were often personified in the ANE literature as the sea and/or the waters of the deep:

“We must pay more attention to the warfare myth as it is found among the Canaanites since, on the reckoning of most scholars, this culture exercised the most direct influence on the thinking of the Israelites…(In many of these myths) we see that the order of the world is perpetually threatened and must be defended. In a cosmology that understands water to encircle the earth, and in a culture in which life itself hangs upon the behavior of rivers and rains, this threat is primarily portrayed as being the threat of the sea.” (emphasis mine) (pg. 79, GAW)

Bearing in mind that this was the cultural milieu in which the ancient Israelites lived, it should not surprise us to find semblances of popular ANE mythical elements in their writing, particularly the Old Testament.

“Like their neighbors and most other non-Western cultures, the Israelites held the conviction that the world is, at least to some extent, characterized by a state of cosmic war. The Hebrews’ intense monotheism did not prevent them from adopting the belief that the world was under siege by forces that were hostile to it (and)…given the surrounding cultures, they too expressed this by talking about such things as the raging waters that they believed encircled the earth, or the ferocious sea monsters that waged war upon it.

“Like all ANE peoples, the Israelites believed that the earth rested upon waters. When the author of Genesis 1 begins his creation account by referring, without explanation, to ‘the surface of the deep’ and ‘the waters’ (Gen 1:2), no ancient Near East person would have had trouble understanding what he was speaking about. This was ‘the deep’ or ‘the waters’ on which everyone believed the earth had been founded (Psa 24:2)” (emphasis mine) (pg.84, GAW)

Some of the OT passages which present the sea as a source or personification of rebellion to YHWH (whilst maintaining His sovereignity in the face of such hostility) are as follows:

Psa 93:3–4, “The seas have lifted up, O Lord; the seas have lifted up their voice; the seas have lifted up their pounding waves. Mightier than the thunder of the great waters, mightier than the breakers of the sea — the Lord on high is mighty.”

Psa 29:3–10, “The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord thunders over the mighty waters…The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord is enthroned as King forever”.

Prov 8:27–29, “I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep, when he gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overstep his command…”

Psa 77:16, “The waters saw you, O God; the waters saw you and writhed; the very depths were convulsed.”

Isa 17:12–13, “Oh, the raging of many nations — they rage like the raging sea! Oh, the uproar of the peoples — they roar like the roaring of the great waters! Although the peoples roar like the roar of surging waters, when he rebukes them they flee far away, driven before the wind like chaff on the hills, like tumbleweed before a gale.”

Job 38::8–11, “Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment and wrapped it in thick darkness, when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place, when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt’?”

Psa 104:6–9, “…the waters stood above the mountains. But at your rebuke the waters fled, at the sound of your thunder they took to flight; they flowed over the mountains, they went down into the valleys, to the place you assigned for them. You set a boundary they cannot cross; never again will they cover the earth.”

Hab 3:8–15, “You trampled the sea with your horses, churning the great waters.”

Nah 1:4, “He rebukes the sea and dries it up; he makes all the rivers run dry.”

And facing the mighty waters as an expression of individual struggle:

Psa 69:14–15, “Rescue me from the mire, do not let me sink; deliver me from those who hate me, from the deep waters. Do not let the floodwaters engulf me or the depths swallow me up or the pit close its mouth over me.”

Psa 144:7, “Reach down your hand from on high; deliver me and rescue me from the mighty waters…”

Psa 18:16, “He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters…” (it is very likely that the motif of this verse and Psa 144 — God ‘reaching down’ to save us from trouble — could’ve been what Matthew was signaling his readers towards in Matt 14:31)

The point of these passages is that the seas and waters represent a chaotic aspect of creation which, given the climate of the culture then, would surely go beyond merely ‘natural’ phenomena; these are forces which require YHWH’s ‘rebuke’ and His setting of boundaries over them, which are coterminous with the ‘raging nations’ which ‘writhe’ and ‘convulse’ in His sight, etc. Yet not only the sea but, as mentioned earlier, frightening sea monsters (in the form of Leviathan and Rahab) become an OT metaphor for the enemies which YHWH must triumph over:

Psa 74:10–17, “But you, O God, are my king from of old; you bring salvation upon the earth. It was you who split open the sea by your power; you broke the heads of the monster in the waters. It was you who crushed the heads of the monster in the waters. It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan and gave him as food to the creatures of the desert.”

Isa 27:1, “…the Lord will punish with his sword…Leviathan the gliding serpent, Leviathan the coiling serpent; he will slay the monster of the sea.”

Job 26:13, “By his breath the skies became fair; his hand pierced the gliding serpent” (Job 41 also contains numerous references to the awesomeness of this creature. Although some consider it nothing more than a natural beast, given the references to it in Isaiah and Psalms [not to mention Rev 13:13], it is more likely that Leviathan is an OT mythical creature representing the supernatural hostility threatening the world, not unlike a sea monster which threatens the safety of a day at sea. There is also Behemoth, mentioned in 40:15–24, although depicted there as a natural creature, was however referred to in the apocrypha as a demonic being (see Boyd, pg.97)).

Job 7:12, “Am I the sea, or the monster of the deep, that you put me under guard?”

Isa 51:9–10, “Was it not you who cut Rahab to pieces, who pierced that monster through? Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep, who made a road in the depths of the sea so that the redeemed might cross over?” (here the parting of the Red Sea is depicted as a victorious slaying of Rahab)

Job 9:13, “God does not restrain His anger; even the cohorts of Rahab cowered at his feet.”

Psa 89:9–10, “You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you will still them. You crushed Rahab like one of the slain…”

Not unsurprisingly, the nations which warred against Israel were personified as monsters too:

Eze 29:3, “’I am against you, Pharoah king of Egypt, you great monster lying among your streams…”

Eze 32:2, “’You (Pharoah) are…like a monster in the seas thrashing about in your streams, churning the water with your feet and muddying the streams…with a great throng of people I will cast my net over you, and they will haul you up in my net.”

Jer 51:34, “Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon has devoured us, he has thrown us into confusion, he has made us an empty jar. Like a serpent he has swallowed us and filled his stomach with our delicacies and spewed us out”

In summary, the OT speaks proudly of a God who is (and will be even more) victorious over genuine and powerful rebel elements in the universe. Congruent with the cosmology of the times, the ancient Hebrews often wrote of these anti-creation/anti-God elements as surrounding the world like the seas, as frightening as the mighty waters and sea monsters which no man could overcome…yet they are no match for the power of God.

He was the One who hovered over them in the beginning, readily bringing new life out of the darkness (Gen 1:2). He rebukes and thunders over the waters and pierces the serpent till, in His final victory, there will be no more sea and thus no more tears, death or pain, and all things become new again (Rev 21:1–5).

Edu-trainer, Žižek studies, amateur theologian, columnist.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store