Tremper Longman III writes:
Daniel’s report of the vision begins with the setting. He is on the coast of the sea, where the winds are whipping waves into a frenzy. That Daniel is not giving a scientific description is immediately apparent since he attributes the wildness of the sea to the ‘four winds of heaven’ (v.2). They are all blowing at once. We are not simply to imagine huge waves scrashing into the shore, but rather turbulent chaotic waters moving in all directions.
On a simple, psychological level, this forbodes danger. But reading this description with a broader literary background reveals that even more is at stake here. By the time of Daniel, the sea was already a potent symbol of chaos, indeed odf destructive evil. Here and elsewhere in the second half of Daniel the imagery of the visions may be associated with the mythology of the broader Near East. We may illustrate this with reference to the great creation myths of the Babylonians and the Canaanites.
The most well known creation story of the Babylonians is the Enuma Elish. This tale begins with an account of the creation of the gods. At the beginning stands primordial Tiamat and her consort Apsu. Both of these deities represent different aspects of the waters. Indeed, Tiamat’s name, when translated from the Akkadian, means ‘The Sea’. She is the mother of the next generation of deities, including Enlil and Ea. The generation after Enliland Ea includes Marduk. The story in Enuma Elish is about how Marduk becomes the head of the pantheon.
The plot gets underway when Apsu, the father, grows angry with his noisy divine children and purposes to get rid of them. Tiamat, the mother, protests but does not thwart Apsu’s intention. However, Ea, the god of wisdom, catches wind of his intentionsand succeeds in doing away with Apsu. Far from solving the problem, however, Tiamat is now enraged and turns her more potent forces against her children. Ea and the other gods stand powerless before her. Marduk comes to the rescue and agrees to fight Tiamat, The Sea, with the proviso that if he succeeds, he will be recognized as chief among the gods.
This is not the place to justify what to us in the twentieth century seems a silly theology. The point is that the myth in all seriousness now relates the creation of the world in the light of a struggle between the Creator and The Sea. The fight between Marduk, the one who brings order into the world, and Tiamat, the one who by her very nature as water desires to abolish order and boundaries.
The story is dramatically told, but I will relate just its conclusion. Marduk destroys Tiamat, the Sea, and from her body creates the universe as we know it (including humankind). Nonetheless, somehow the sea continues to threaten to abolish creation, so that Marduk must set up boundaries and guards to keep the world from reverting to its formless state. In other words, the sea is a force ranged against God and creation in Mesopotamian theology.
The point is that deep in the psyche of people of the ancient Near East the sea was more than a dangerous place. It was a threatening force that ranged against the beneficial forces of creation.
Daniel was not the first one to use sea imagery in this way. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, Yahweh’s struggle and victory over evil is recounted as a fight against the sea and its monsters. God blasts the sea with his rebuke (Ps. 18:15), he sets guard over the sea (Job 7:12; Jer. 5:22); he causes the sea to dry up (Nah. 1:4); he traeds on the sea (Hab. 3:15); and he fights the sea monsters (Isa. 27:1)
Daniel 7:1 – 3
1In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel had a dream, and visions passed through his mind as he was lying in bed. He wrote down the substance of his dream.
2 Daniel said: “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me were the four winds of heaven churning up the great sea. 3 Four great beasts, each different from the others, came up out of the sea.
- What is the setting for Daniel’s vision?
- How did Mesopotamians understand ‘the sea’?
- What cosmic forces would throw up wild beats and champions against God?
- Who have been champion beasts of chaos in the 20th and 21st century?
- Why shouldn’t people be afarid when chaotic forces of evil manfest themselves in the political, econmoic, and social spheres?