Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)

Prelapsarian predation, part 3: wildness in Genesis 1-2

Were animals bitey before the Fall? Or did they only start munching on each other afterwards? In the third part of this series I look at clues in Genesis 1-2 that reveal a much wilder world than creationists suppose.

Continued from part 2, on the provision of plants for food

That’s wild-ness, not wilderness. And what I mean is simply that the prelapsarian world of Genesis is presented as far wilder than we might realize as we sit in our artificially-lit modern homes and churches, reading English translations of the text.

Wilder, I think, than a creationist reading of Genesis can bear.

I pick out three broad ways in which this wildness is presented:

1. Tanninim (sea creatures)

This is the most decisive factor, so I’ll present it first. On the fifth day, “God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm” (Genesis 1:21). This is interesting because, while every kind of aquatic creature is included here, only one kind is expressly called out: in Hebrew, tanninim.

This refers to powerful creatures like serpents, crocodiles, and sea monsters (compare Jeremiah 51:34; Isaiah 27:1; Job 41:1–34), in addition perhaps to whales and sharks. Tanninim, broadly speaking, were reptilian monstrosities. To Hebrews straight out of Egypt, the paradigmatic example would have been the Nile crocodile, though Moses also uses the same word of Egyptian cobras—which in turn represented Pharaoh and the goddess Wadjet as the figureheads of the cosmic powers opposing Yahweh.

This connection is important to understanding why Moses highlights tanninim in Genesis. In pagan ANE religions, the sea was an eternal or primordial chaotic abyss; the domain of a great coiled sea monster. In Canaan, its name was Yam, the adversary of Baʿal. In Scripture, starting with the tannin of Pharaoh’s magicians, and the Uraeus on his headpiece, and then later drawing on Caananite mythology, it came to represent the gentile nations, ruled by Satan, the great serpent.

So the reason Genesis focuses on the creation of these kinds of creatures, these tanninim, is polemic: the point Moses is making is not so much about the natural world, but the supernatural one. In contrast to ANE creation myths, there is no epic battle here where Yahweh must subdue a terrifying monster in the deep. Neither does he create anything divine. There is no chaos deity. Indeed, not only is the Leviathan a creature under God’s dominion*—and by extension under ours through Genesis 1:28—but there is nothing unique or special about him at all. He is not just one creature; he is one of a great, swarming multitude. So this is a polemic against pagan creation myths, and a reassurance that even the seemingly mysterious and untamable sea is entirely under God’s control.

* This is not to deny that Leviathan in Job represents Satan. But Genesis is not Job.

But—and this is a big but—Moses’s theological point here requires the material reality of these sea creatures. Without these reptilian monstrosities, there is nothing for the spiritual motif to trade on.

The problem for creationists is that Genesis gives no hint whatsoever that tanninim are anything other than powerful predators. Remember, the word in context refers to what you might call “sea monsters”. A Hebrew would primarily have associated it with sea serpents and crocodiles—animals that he would know are meat-eaters.

Moreover, as I mentioned in the previous installment, there is no provision of vegetation for the diet of sea creatures, and they are excluded from God’s later provision of meat. So even if you want to read those provisions as creationists do—though I think I’ve shown that fails to properly explain them—the sea creatures are exempt.

If the first principle of interpretation is to ask how the original reader would have understood the text, in this case we are forced to conclude that in the absence of qualifying statements or explanations, the original reader would have understood tanninim to refer to predatory aquatic animals. But there are no qualifying statements or explanations in the text to suggest that these creatures are not predatory—or that they only became so after the fall. Neither is there anything in the curse itself to suggest this, as I’ll discuss in a future installment. Indeed, the force of the theological polemic here trades on understanding tanninim to be predatory creatures rather than gentle seaweed eaters.

Now the issue here is simple: if the sea is created wild, why not the land too? If predation was occurring in the depths on day five, why not in the heights also on day six? What principled difference is there between a wild ocean and a wild earth?

Which leads to my second point…

2. Dominion

Evangelical Christianity mutes the commission God gives Adam by speaking in terms of “stewardship”. But while it is true that Adam was a steward of creation, that is not the connotation we find in Genesis.

The term translated “rule” or “have dominion” in Genesis 1:26, 28, means to reign—it refers to kingly authority, often backed up by the might of an army, and often with messianic overtones (compare the same term used in Numbers 24:19 and Psalm 72:8-9). By the same token, the term translated “subdue” in Genesis 1:28 is elsewhere used of enslavement and conquering (see, for example, 2 Chronicles 28:10; Numbers 32:22, 29).

I’ve made the point before that although God did not create us to have a combative relationship with the world, Genesis clearly does imply that the world was needful of taming—and not just taming, but subjugation. Eden was a sanctuary—but Moses does not suggest the rest of creation was similar. God does not plant a garden throughout the world, but only in Eden. The rest of creation was not gentle or soft; the implication is that it was wild and even hostile, with Adam being made to bring it into submission. The garden was, perhaps, a model for Adam of how things should look once he was finished with subduing and ruling the world.

This, in turn, meshes well with what we know of Yahweh in the Old Testament, and Jesus in the new. If Adam is made in God’s image, and that image cashes out in terms of dominion—as it unquestionably does in Genesis 1—then how God exercises dominion should tell us a lot about how he expects us to image him. Both Yahweh and Jesus are represented as warrior kings. They are not, of course, tyrannical kings, nor vicious warriors—but they are not ashamed of exercising their power, and they do not apologize for subduing their enemies by force. Revelation presents us with a picture of eschatological peace through superior spiritual firepower.

Commensurate with this model, there is no hint in the Bible (to my knowledge!) that man’s natural aggression and competitiveness is a result of the fall. Rather, it is a design feature which, though it is easily corrupted by sin (eg James 4:1), is nonetheless how we image God; it helps us fulfill the commission of striving with, overcoming, and harnessing the world he created for us.

3. Wild animals

Why, in Genesis 1:25, does Moses draw a distinction between domestic animals, and beasts of the field? Any reader, whether modern or ancient, would know that non-domesticated animals can be dangerous. Indeed, even domesticated animals can be dangerous because domestication is not their natural state—it is something imposed on them. It is an act of dominion.

It seems to me that the distinction between livestock and beasts of the field is not there to establish some kind of prescientific taxonomy—as if God created some animals already domesticated and others not. Should we imagine that he created goats, for example, “predomesticated”, but elephants the way we find them today? Did goats only become wild later? I think we should reject obviously ad hoc and incongruous hypotheses. No, the point of Moses drawing this distinction in Genesis 1:25 isn’t that livestock were created fundamentally different to other animals; rather, he is simply organizing his description according to the natural categories his audience already used. He is grouping animals in the same way an ancient Hebrew would naturally group them in his mind. If he were writing to us today, he would probably include pets as a separate group as well.

But clearly there’s a problem for creationism if Moses is relying on the naturally-occurring categories that animals fell into within an Israelite’s own, post-fall world—rather than the categories they fell into prior to the fall. He is, in other words, presupposing a fundamental continuity between the animals an Israelite knew, and the animals God made. He is saying that God created those animals which man has domesticated, and also the wild animals. That’s the point of organizing them into post-fall groups. But then Genesis 1:25 is describing the same animals which, for example, God tells the Israelites are so dangerous that he won’t drive out the people of the land too quickly, lest tiny Israel get overrun and eaten (Deuteronomy 7:22).

There is more we could say here, but I think this effectively sketches three lines of evidence that run firmly against the grain of creationism. As well as the evidence implicit in Genesis 1, there are plenty of ways the natural world in general points to prelapsarian wildness and predation. But I want to canvass all the biblical evidence before moving on to general revelation; so I’ll leave this for another time. The point I want to make here is simply that Genesis does not distance the original creation from the creation its post-fall readers knew; rather, it appropriates vocabulary associated with especially savage, predatory creatures, and seems to presuppose a wild, untamed creation in need of forcible subjugation by man. That is the very purpose for which man was created. And it’s a purpose that bends creationism to breaking point.

Continued in part 4, on what we can infer about death and predation from the curse


  1. Dave

    “He is, in other words, presupposing a fundamental continuity between the animals an Israelite knew, and the animals God made.”

    It seems to me that the standard YEC narrative turns the original creation into a completely alien world divorced from what the Israelites would have known. And yet, as you point out, the biblical account presents the original creation in terms familiar to the Israelites.

    Not only do YECs suggest that the original creation was totally different from the modern world due to the complete absence of predation, they also maintain it was populated with ancestral “baramins” that would probably not have been recognized by the Israelites – for example, a “dog kind” that fathered wolves, foxes, coyotes, jackals, and hyenas after the Flood. Thus, for Noah, the categories of clean and unclean animals would have looked entirely different than the ones the Israelites knew.

    Another example: by the standard YEC account of the Flood, the original world was buried under layers and layers of sediment and totally rearranged by massive tectonic activity. And yet Genesis 2 defines Eden in relation to geographic features contemporary to the Israelites: Tigris, Euphrates, Cush, Assyria, etc.

    On the other hand, most of these YEC ideas seem to be driven by legitimate scientific concerns. For example, apart from the idea that God created a small number of “kinds” that diversified post-Flood, I have no idea to explain how Noah could have fit members of every “kind” on the Ark. And of course Flood geology seems absolutely necessary for YECs to explain modern geological formations.

  2. B.C. Askins

    It’s interesting how the ‘sea monster’ motif in the OT juxtaposes the monsters as just one part of creation among others [i.e. whale, croc, shark, etc.] alongside the monsters as primal evil [i.e. Leviathan, Rahab, etc.]. What’s your take on reconciling the two (apparently) disparate themes?

  3. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Dave, yeah, there is some tension there. Some of that can be resolved if the flood was local, but I’m fairly skeptical about that.

    I don’t think ancestral kinds are as much of a problem. The reason is simply that we are able to speak of a “dog kind”, for example, without any difficulty understanding what that would be, despite its notable differences to poodles and Pomeranians. The difficulty arises not so much when antediluvian animals are less biologically adapted than postdiluvian ones, but when they are so different as to fall outside of the basic groupings that Moses put them into.

    Fwiw, I think there are ways you could deal with this argument from a creationist perspective, so I put it last in my post. I’m not saying that every piece of evidence I muster is decisive; rather, I’m saying much of it is compelling, and even the parts that merely lean toward predation still add up to an overwhelming cumulative case.

  4. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Ben, I wouldn’t really see those themes as needing reconciliation. Writers are free to demonstrate quite different theological truths using the same basic motifs. If you’re wanting to mount a polemic against ANE creation myths, you might decide to show how sea monsters are just animals. If you wanted to show God’s power over the cosmic forces of darkness, you might decide to draw on ANE serpent mythology to represent how Yahweh subjugates his foes.

  5. bethyada

    I would translate tannin as dragon.

    You seem to be over-reading this Bnonn. Say Moses uses the terms circa 1500 BC to describe the world 4000 BC. He could say wild and livestock. This would be legitimate even if the wild animals had not yet become wild. Yet he says beasts of the field and livestock. That could point to the wild animals not being wild because Moses uses the term beast of the field. While not a strong argument, it is at least as strong as your claim.

    My concern here is that modern ANE studies assumes an evolutionary view of history. So Babylonian mythology antedates Hebrew history, and Moses is reacting against the pagan views etc. But what if those historians are wrong? What if the Bible is right and the mythology is truly Genesis distorted. The nature of the Hebrew narrative vs the other ANE narratives is very suggestive of this, but the consensus currently denies this based on their evolutionary inspired chronology which places Genesis late. I don’t buy it.

  6. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    I would translate tannin as dragon.

    That seems oddly restrictive given the broad denotation, and even broader connotation of the word. Why would you translate it like that?

    Moreover, what’s the difference between a dragon and a serpent apropos aquatic animals?

    You seem to be over-reading this Bnonn.

    If I were making point (3) in isolation I would tend to agree. But when you place the livestock/field-beasts distinction into the broader trajectory I’m tracing, it seems like a fairly suggestive reading to me. But as I already conceded, I don’t think this is an especially strong line of argument. I’m trying to be thorough.

    My concern here is that modern ANE studies assumes an evolutionary view of history.

    My argument makes no assumptions about this at all. I’m not especially enamored with the toledoth theory, but it could well be true; in any case, I agree with you that ANE myths are largely distortions of Genesis, even if the original source material was lost and Moses received new revelation at Sinai. But even if the toledoth theory is accurate, there’s no reason to imagine that Moses slavishly copied the tablets without making any editorial comments at all. There’s a notable distinction between when the source material for Genesis (if any) was created, and when Genesis itself was created.

  7. bethyada

    tannin seems to be reptilian. I think dinosaur would be a difficult translation and would exclude sea creatures which tannin does not. I think whales may not be included but don’t know. That said, there is a passage in Jeremiah that talks about tannin feeding her young which suggests a mammalian species. I know the Hebrews didn’t classify like that but they could still see the difference between feathers and fur and scales. For sea creatures I would translate sea-dragon. Perhaps dragon is too mythological for most readers in contemporary English. To me it seems to be broad enough to encompass a range of creatures. Much like I would translate nachash to serpent now rather than snake as I think it gives it more scope.

    I don’t doubt that Genesis as written by Moses could have elements of an anti-pagan polemic. But it is clear (to me) that it is source material for the subsequent myths and arguments running the other way I do not find compelling.

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