What was “the deep” over which lay darkness? How deep was it and what was it doing there before Creation? Good questions with surprising answers. It turns out that “the deep” was originally named after a goddess! Her name was Tiamat, and she was the goddess personifying the watery abyss that had always existed according to Mesopotamian mythology.
We are not surprised that the writers of Genesis turned to older literary sources for their forms, their structures, and their images. There had been a full library of Mesopotamian legends and tales, epics,myths, poems, and philosophy, in circulation throughout the ancient Middle East since the beginning of history.
One that concerns us here was a Babylonian epic called Enuma Elish. It was a story like ours of the creation of the world. The watery abyss—both Enuma Elish and the book of Genesis agree that the world began with water — was personified by the goddess Tiamat.
The writers of Genesis knew this story and copied her name! The Hebrew says /al pnai tehom/ (על םפני תהום)“on the face of” /tehom”/, which all English translations have rendered “the deep.” That makes sense in modern Hebrew, where the word /tehom/ does indeed mean a bottomless chasm, an abyss, a really deep hole! It is clear, however, that /tehom/ is simply a rendering of Tiamat, the name of the goddess.
The writers of Genesis used Tiamat’s name because they knew it would make sense as a reference in the cultural milieu of the day. But they were absolutely unwilling to personify that abyss, as Enuma Elish had done by giving it a name. There was only one personification in Genesis and that was, of course, God. That is why the word /tehom /has no definite article in the text. We have had to translate it as “THE deep” because otherwise it would not make sense in English. But the “the” does not exist in the Hebrew text because/tehom/ is not a noun; it would have to had the definite article if it were.
“The deep,” in fact, remains a name, the name of a long-forgotten goddess, which has lasted for thousands of years, long after its original meaning has faded from human memory.
Biblical Reproductions, www.biblicalreproductions.com, offers an exquisite photographic reproduction of nine verses of Creation from the Genesis Scroll Fragment. Biblical Reproductions is licensed by the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Author: Walter Zanger