We all experience incursions of chaos: when raw disorder surges through the surface of our routine.
Sometimes this occurs in relatively small ways. Locking keys in the car turns a predictable morning into an unexpected, exasperating hassle. Bickering disrupts the easy-going enjoyment of an outing.
Sometimes forces of chaos interrupt life more profoundly. Unexpected bad news about family breaks in, clouding the normal order of life like ink falling in water. Chronic sickness makes customary routines a struggle, or impossible. Incarceration rips up the natural sequence of a life. Untimely death leaves a crater that memory must always ever after trace carefully through.
As I understand it, biblical authors, like their ancient Near Eastern neighbors, took individual instances of painful disorder such as these, and thought them out into a huge, terrifying concept. They made its dimensions as fathomless and unpredictable as the Sea. They pictured it as a many-headed Dragon, so vast as to blot out the stars. They imagined it back to the very start of the cosmos. Before the orderly world of our day-to-day experience with its regular rhythms of seasons and crops and meals and births and marriages – there was only the deep: an unrelieved, lightless, nightmare ocean.
Many societies near to Israel and Judah told of how their chief deity fought a titanic battle with the powers of chaos, and by defeating them, inaugurated the world order. But always the powers of chaos threatened to make a renewed assault, and remained a restless, demonic presence at the periphery of consciousness. For many of these societies, this story of the god wrestling chaos to submission functioned as a political myth. Just like modern western governments justify their massive authority by keeping terrorists at bay, so these ancient kingdoms justified their dominance by re-upping national security against the chaos monster.
Biblical authors likewise knew the fragility of our routines. That our day-to-day rhythms hang suspended over the protological Sea. A regular commute could suffer a car crash. A loved one could succumb quickly to terminal illness. In one conversation, a relationship could go out of joint and never recover.
Biblical writers point to God as the only one who sustains the very vulnerable order. Their sense of jeopardy – and the sheer gratuity of God’s preservation – caused them to feel an immense gratitude. Life in its established patterns is not guaranteed, nor owed to us: but handcrafted by God from the midst of a watery depth.
Of course, the Bible elsewhere knows the ways in which order calcifies: and far from representing a gift of God to humans, becomes itself a source of oppression and violence. The regime of security against chaos becomes an agent of the beast. At such a juncture, the prophets inveigh against the symbiosis of temple and nation. Job protests the thick fabric of coherence between sin and suffering.
It is a larger question for biblical theology whether, at the end of the day, God stands as sponsor to (any) systems of order, or represents their prime antagonist: the proud creator of Leviathan, per Job, and the one, per the gospels, who exalted the muckraking prophet, Jesus.
Most likely there is wisdom in in recognizing both: that God detonates the world order that strangles the poor, introducing a dynamic, free new world in the resurrection of Jesus. At the same time, at the micro-level, in the midst of our lives that hang precariously over the flood, God provides safety. God makes a refuge of regularity.
This latter, I take it, is at least some of the meaning of the psalm I read this morning. God’s gift of a dependable world evokes deep gratitude, and a sense of belonging.
The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,
the world and its inhabitants too.
Because God is the one who established it on the seas;
God set it firmly on the waters. (Ps 24:1, 2)