Meyerhoff Center hosts lecture on dragon slaying in Ancient Hebrew texts

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By Nicole Reisinger
For the Mitzpeh

Dragons, storm gods, and the sea were the focal points of Robert Miller’s lecture Wednesday when he addressed a group of about 30 students and faculty.

The lecture, “Dragonslaying in the Ancient Near East, Hebrew Bible and Early Jewish Texts,” was the first of four spring semester talks organized by the Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies.

Junior linguistics and Jewish studies major Rebecca Magazine said she had never attended one of these lectures before.

“I enjoy learning about things that I wouldn’t get [the chance] to otherwise,” said Magazine. “It’s an interesting topic that I don’t know anything about.”

Miller, a Ph.D. in Ancient Near Eastern Studies from the University of Michigan, is an associate professor of Old Testament at the Catholic University of America. He’s also an affiliate of the Meyerhoff Center, spoke on the complex origins of the dragon slaying mytheme.

Charles Manekin, a philosophy professor and director of The Meyerhoff Center, introduces speaker Robert Miller. Nicole Reisinger/Mitzpeh.
Charles Manekin (left), a philosophy professor and director of The Meyerhoff Center, introduces speaker Robert Miller (right). Nicole Reisinger/Mitzpeh.

A ‘mytheme,’ as Miller described, is the fundamental element of every myth. In the theoretical study of myths, there are several elements one can combine in different ways, Miller said. Motifs such as the storm god slaying the dragon, the enthronement of a god or human king on a mountain, a victory banquet, the pilgrimage of a nation, or creation are combined to create what Miller refers to as constellations.

“[Mythemes are] a great way to approach religious studies as these stories are typically more organic and fluid than we approach them today,” said junior David Malamud, a history, Jewish studies, and classics major. “Studying the integral parts and plot points helps determine similarities more easily.”

Miller dated these myths, or constellations, appear in texts, narratives, poetry, and iconography back to the fourth millennium B.C.E.

From the Tobit to the Old Testament, the motif of dragon slaying is not only used as a metaphor, but also serves as the focus of the narrative itself. The myth resurfaces many times in the Torah, and Miller’s attempt to take it’s Ancient Near Eastern roots and “trace it forward,” sorting out the Canaanite and Babylonian influences along the way, helps us better understand these biblical and post-biblical texts.

In Hebrew, Baal was called the storm god, He Who Rides on the Clouds. In Phoenician he was called Baalshamin , Lord of the Heavens. Yamm —the Hebrew word for ‘sea’— was the Ugaritic god of the sea who appeared in the Baal myths that were written in the second temple texts before the Hebrew texts. Yamm is described as either a sea monster or horned serpent. Tannin was the Canaanite and Phoenician interpretation of a sea monster. These two manifestations of a chaos and evil bear relation to the Hebrew Leviathan: the notorious multi-headed monster in Jewish mythology.

Meyerhoff Center affiliate Robert Miller speaks to a group of about 30 people about dragon slaying in ancient texts. Nicole Reisinger/Mitzpeh.
Meyerhoff Center affiliate Robert Miller speaks to a group of about 30 people about dragon slaying in ancient texts. Nicole Reisinger/Mitzpeh.

However, these myths are “not just about a god who is fighting a dragon of the sea who has multiple heads,” said Miller.

For example in the Book of Judith (first century B.C.E.), God is praised for crushing wars and his opponents. Miller points out that the Greek word for crushing is also used in Psalms 46:10, 76:4-6, 89:11 and the New Testament where these texts refer to a God slaying a dragon.

In many of the Psalms, the God of Israel is referred to as a storm god. There is extensive thunder and lightning imagery and allusions to the sea that link back to the Babylonian and Canaanite notions of battles against gods and dragons. In the Psalm of Solomon 2:25 (first century B.C.E.), “Do not delay, O God, … to declare dishonorable the arrogance of the dragon,” there is a direct reference to a dragon.

However, in the Prayer of Manasseh (first century B.C.E.), “You who made heaven and earth in all their order, who shackled Yamm by your word of command, who confined the Deep and sealed it by your fearful and glorious name at whom all things shudder and tremble before your army,” Yamm in this case does not refer to the dragon-like creature of the sea. Rather, it likens the terrors of the world to a dragon, Miller said.

Miller concluded his lecture by taking questions from the audience, which was eager to share thoughts and ideas.

“As someone very interested in the Hebrew Bible and Near East, I thought the lecture was fascinating,” Malamud said.

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