Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking

By Michael Fishbane | Go to book overview
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11 The Primordial Serpent and the Secrets of Creation

Introduction

Over the centuies, different passages from the stock of biblical references to an ancient combat between Goand a great sea dragon gained special prominence in Jewish texts; and these recur as the topics of commentaries or midrashic teachings—new and old. The old images thus migrate across time and space, simultaneously regenerated and reapplied in ever new ways, and testifying to a range of imaginative possibilities. For example, referring to the mystical meaning of 'the great sea serpents' in Gen. 1: 21, R. Baḥye b. Asher (thirteenth century, Spain) states that these creatures refer to the 'four camps (of angels) that are exterior to the Shekhinah (or: supernal Matron) of the Holy One, blessed be He—to glorify and exalt Him with songs and praises'. 1 This view is, significantly, a virtual citation of a remark found in a special section dealing with 'The Secrets of the Creation' included in the commentary on the Song of Songs by R. Baḥye's contemporary, R. Ezra of Gerona. At the beginning of the comment on 'the great sea serpents', we find a close parallel to the previous comment, when it states that the serpents 'are four camps, which are exterior to the Shekhinah'. 2

There then occurs this striking variation in R. Ezra's text: 'And corresponding to them (the serpents), it says (in Scripture) “Leviathan, whom You have created to sport with” (Ps. 104: 26)—and the Holy One, blessed be He, created it to extol Him and to exalt Him with words of songs and praises'.

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