What comes to mind when you think about monsters? In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, Heather Macumber joins Pete and Jared to discuss monster theory and how monsters are more prevalent in scripture than most people realize. Together they explore the following questions:
- According to monster theory, what is a monster?
- How can monsters be found and identified in the Bible?
- Who are the monsters and what role do they play in the book of Revelation?
- What do you uncover when you track the chain of command of the monsters in Revelation?
- Is there an intentional parallel drawn between the locusts in Revelation with the plague story in Exodus?
- How do monsters function in the Bible in relationship to God?
- If we automatically assume that monsters are good or evil, how does that influence our reading of a book like Revelation?
- How might an understanding of monsters and monster theory influence our view of holiness?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Heather Macumber you can share.
- “We often describe monsters not as evil, but as ‘other.’ And whether they’re good or evil, their main qualifier is ‘other’ – they don’t fit our categories.” @heathermacphd
- “There’s a real reluctance in scholarship to see the connection between the Four Riders of the Apocalypse and the heavenly creatures. And I find it fascinating because a lot of artistic depictions don’t have that hesitation.” @heathermacphd
- “People want to separate the divine beings in Revelation based on their violence and the harm and the fear they cause. But in the end, the people who caused the most fear and terror is not really the dragon and the beasts, but God and the Lamb.” @heathermacphd
- “Monsters aren’t just the evil creatures. That the monstrous is something that can cause awe as much as it can terror. And I think to me, that’s changed the way that I approach something like holiness.” @heathermacphd
- “When we start looking at the monster in an interesting way, it makes us start thinking about what holiness means. And it also helps us to not sanitize the God of the Old and New Testament, but to realize we cannot put God in a box and try to make God comfortable.” @heathermacphd
Mentioned in This Episode
- Website: thebiblefornormalpeople.com
- Book: The Evolution of Adam
- Website: The Evolution of Adam Video Series
- Book: Recovering the Monstrous in Revelation
- Book: Love Matters More: How Fighting to be Right Keeps Us from Loving Like Jesus
- Podcast: How to Disagree
- Support: patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople
Powered by RedCircleRead the transcript
Pete: You’re listening to the Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
[Jaunty intro music]
Jared: Welcome, everyone, to this episode of the podcast. Before we jump in, one more reminder that we have the Evolution of Adam video series coming out October 28th. Make sure you check it out.
Pete: Yeah. And you know, this is a six-week series. Actually, I keep saying six-week series, it’s not. It’s a six-
Jared: Whatever time you want! Don’t let anybody tell you what to do.
Pete: There are six like videos or something, right?
Jared: Not or something.
Pete: There are videos. Of me talking… and yeah, you can finish that in five-minutes- well you can’t finish in five minutes.
Jared: I mean, if you go real fast. You could do like four or five times.
Pete: Just fifty speed. You can do that.
Jared: Yeah, exactly.
Pete: But anyway, do what you want. The main thing is just do it. That’s the thing. So, this this video series is really based on the second edition, the 10th anniversary edition, of The Evolution of Adam, which is put out by Baker Books and is available for you really, really, really, really soon.
Jared: Yeah, so pay what you can for the first week. So, make sure you go to thebiblefornormalpeople.com/evolutionvideo
Pete: Okay, well, our episode today is “Monsters in the Bible,” and our guest is Heather Macumber.
Jared: And Heather is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Providence University College. And she has a book called Recovering the Monstrous in Revelation. So, check that out.
Pete: As in the book of.
Jared: The book of Revelation.
Pete: Right, yeah. Right.
Jared: But that’s not the title.
Pete: No, no.
Jared: It’s just “in Revelation.”
Pete: In Revelation.
Jared: We just had to, you know, make sure we’re real clear.
Pete: Just made that more confusing than it had to be.
Jared: So, this is interesting. I have to say, I have to preface this whole episode with I’ve been nerding out about this for a year when we first learned about Heather and I thought what a wonderful episode to have right before Halloween. I think it would be great to talk about monsters in the Bible right before Halloween. You know as we’re watching Hocus Pocus and all these other movies as one does for Halloween.
Pete: You let your kids watch those things?
Jared: Of course, of course.
Pete: Okay. Wow.
Jared: I wasn’t allowed as a kid.
Jared: I could only go as a Bible character.
Pete: [Continued laughter]
Jared: So, I mean, we just really unleashed it now.
Pete: I know. Who’d you go as?
Jared: It doesn’t matter. They’re all the same.
Pete: One of the prophets?
Jared: You just give them a name. You wear the exact same thing. And it could be Moses, it could be Jesus. It could be Abraham…
Pete: Doesn’t matter who it is.
Jared: Because that’s a nice, it’s a gift that keeps on giving.
Pete: Anyway, back to monsters. It’s really surprising like what a monster is and where they’re found in the Bible. That’s sort of the key here. Don’t think of Shrek or something, you know, it’s a little more, or maybe you think of Shrek, but not just Shrek.
Jared: Right. Shrek is actually a really- you just gave a very complicated answer, because Shrek kind of fits in some of these definitions we’re about to learn.
Pete: Yes. Exactly. Right, right. Yeah. So, alright. Have fun folks and Happy Halloween.
Heather: Monsters matter. Monsters aren’t just the evil creatures. The monstrous is something that can cause awe as much as it can terror. When we start looking at the monster in an interesting way, it makes us start thinking about what holiness means. And it also helps us to not sanitize the God of both the Old and New Testament. But to realize we cannot put God in a box and try to make God comfortable.
Jared: Well, welcome to this episode of the podcast, Heather. It’s great to have you.
Heather: It’s great to be here. Thanks.
Jared: So, before we get started, I think it’s really important to ask what happened, what went wrong in your childhood that led you to want to study monsters in the Bible?
Heather: That’s a good question! So, I did most of my doctoral research on angels. And I was working a lot on angels in the Book of Daniel and the Book of like 1 Enoch and a little bit of the Dead Sea Scrolls. And I was very focused on, you know, kind of the traditional idea of the angel in heaven as a kind of, you know, the good character comes to help and is sent by God to humanity. And I was very interested in like, the intersection with earth and heaven. And it was good, but it was really lacking, I think some, I don’t, critical groundwork and I really wanted to present at a conference and I wanted to present on the Book of Daniel and angels and I remember looking at – they always have these descriptions of you know, what they’re looking for. And I remember them saying something, we’re looking for some critical methodologies, you know, post-colonial feminist and then monster theory, and I thought oh, what is monster theory?
Pete: That came out of nowhere, didn’t it? So, okay.
Heather: So, then as one does when you’re, you know, presenting at a conference, you try to kind of craft your presentation so it fits into a session, and I thought, well, monster theory sounds interesting. And I just started going down this rabbit hole of monster theory. And at the end of it, I realized that the angels I was studying were not that different from the monsters that were coming up in monster theory. And so, it led me into this really strange realm of biblical studies where I started finding monsters everywhere.
Pete: Okay. Under the bed and in the closet too, or just more in the text?
Heather: Well, my family is very obsessed with dragons and monsters, so they really are everywhere in my life. Yes.
Pete: Okay, gotcha. Okay, so just very basically – what is a monster in monster theory?
Heather: All right, well, monster theory is a way of reading a text by prioritizing the monster and how we define monsters differs on basically how it’s been used in history. So today, if you were to ask, you know, someone just off the street, “What is a monster?” They would definitely use a lot of the same kind of characteristics: they’re evil, they’re scary, they’re abnormally large, they’re trying to eat people all the time. Like, the mouth of the monster is a huge thing in all across different cultures; they’re out to harm humanity. And so, and definitely the evilness and the disgustingness of the monster is something that people will focus on. But in monster theory, if you go back to like the roots of the word monster, and again, the roots are difficult to find, but often people will go back to the Latin monstrum, which means a sign, which may be related to a couple other Latin words that mean a warning or even like a demonstration. And so, a lot of people will say that the use of the word monster is really a sign or a warning from the gods or the deities. And so, it’s something that is extraordinary that shows up and that typically crosses boundaries. And often they cross boundaries in their bodies, but also in the way they move across geographical locations. And so, we can find monsters pretty much everywhere in something like Greek mythology, but this also shows up in Babylon, it shows up at Ugarit. It will show up in cultures all around the world where monsters are these extraordinary bodies. Sometimes we focus on their kind of deviance, like that they’re misshapen or that they’re missing something, and other times, we focus on their awesomeness. And so, monster theory doesn’t always, sometimes they do but doesn’t always, place a value on their hybridity. It’s not a moral judgment if you’re a monster like it is today.
Pete: Okay. So, it’s widespread in ancient cultures, including Jewish culture, right? I mean, we find these things in the Bible, and I know you’ve been doing some work in the book of Revelation itself. And that is, I mean, that’s a maybe a different kind of perspective to read this from, you know, the perspective of the monster in the Book of Revelation. But that’s just different from what people are used to, you know, the way at least modern, you know, Western Christians tend to read the Book of Revelation is just either literally true or just incomprehensibly weird, you know, but let’s talk about these. There are monsters in the Book of Revelation, help us understand who those monsters are and what role they play in this piece of literature, because this is all about trying to understand what this writer of the Book of Revelation is trying to say. Right? And he’s using imagery. And so, what is that monster imagery that he’s using?
Heather: Well, to start with, I think it’s really important to understand that there’s no actual word for monster, you know, like we have to start excavating and digging into the text. So, we can’t just have like a great word that we can just say, “Oh, this word means monster,” and go find it. We do have some words, like in Hebrew we have tannin, and we have some words like leviathan and we have the different words that even say like beast or animal and those are sometimes used as monstrous figures. But a lot of times, monsters in the Bible come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. And so, I do call it excavation. And oftentimes, I also say that they’re hidden in plain sight. So, there are monsters in Revelation that people don’t even see anymore because they have become normalized. And so, we need to, what I want to start with is actually reading the body of the monster. So, before I identify the monsters, I say we actually need to recognize what monsters look like for the ancient peoples. And even today, a lot of these things still hold true. So, monster theorists talk about the hybrid body. So, the idea that a monster is composed of different parts and so that’s where you get in the ancient world, like something like the Sphinx, or you get even like the mermaid, right? Like, like Ariel. She is like part human.
Pete: Aww, not Ariel!
Pete: No! All right.
Heather: Yeah. So, I mean, but then you’ll see something like Pirates of the Caribbean where they’re using mermaids as like monstrous creatures, right? It depends on the lens that you’re using. And so, when we start to read their bodies, we start to recognize them a little more.
So, we want to pay attention to any divine creature that is combining different parts that don’t normally belong together. So, they’re crossing boundaries in their bodies. They’re also perhaps larger than normal. So, you can have these gigantic figures. So, the text might describe them as large or great or immense, or even their actions show that they’re bigger than normal. And then you’ll also find, sometimes they come in swarms. So, you’ll have like a massification of all of these animals that are coming at once, and again, they’re usually hybrid creatures that are coming as one kind of, I usually call them an attack force. And then you also have to think about who are they associated with? Who are they working for? Who are they? Whose team are they on if you want to use that language. And so that’s where I start with when I look at any monstrous figure in in either the Old Testament or the New Testament.
So, when we get to the Book of Revelation, one of the ways that people look at it is they really see it through the lens of the dragon and the two beasts. So, Revelation 12 and 13, that those are our chief monsters, right? Because they are the aggressors, they are the negative, what we would what often we call the evil characters. and that they are, you know, the dragon goes up to heaven to attack it, he’s attacking the woman clothed with the sun. And so, oftentimes people will focus on the dragon as the figure of chaos. And this gets us back to that ancient figure of chaos, who shows up all through the Old Testament, the leviathan or other monstrous kind of sea serpents, right? And we have this narrative of the God of order in the Old Testament who fights the chaos monster and then defeats the chaos monster. And often the chaos monster is representative of some kind of Empire, whether it’s Pharaoh in Egypt, or whether it’s Nebuchadnezzar, or whether it’s Antiochus, right, in the book of Daniel and beyond.
So, all of these empires sometimes take the form of monsters, right? These monsters become the symbol of the crisis that people are going through. And you have the exact same thing in Revelation, you have the Great Red Dragon, who’s portraying or symbolizing the Roman Empire, and the threat, perhaps, that people are feeling or their discomfort of living under Empire. And so, when I look at Revelation, it’s really easy to look at the Great Red Dragon as the monster. But then what happens is we forget about the all the other hybrid and divine creatures that populate this book. And that’s actually where I often focus is these other creatures that don’t get the airtime because monster theory is actually prioritizing the monsters and even in a book like Revelation, you would think that monsters are being centralized in the narrative, but it doesn’t always happen. A lot of times, scholarship hasn’t really given them the focus.
Pete: So, let’s give these guys some airtime.
Heather: Yes, let’s do that.
Pete: These poor monsters who have been in the shadows for so long.
Jared: I thought they’d like the shadows.
Heather: They do. They do. And some are in the shadows, and again, some are not in the shadows. So, let’s start with some of the ones that perhaps get some negative feedback from people. So, the first ones are the locusts in Revelation 9. And I like to focus on them because most scholars see them as evil and as disgusting. So, I don’t know how familiar you are with these locusts and what they look like. But they are described as having human faces and long hair, and their familiarity, like that human face that’s familiar to us, becomes really unsettling because they have lion-like teeth and they have tails like scorpions, and they attack.
Pete: Hmm, okay.
Heather: And these are these are the locusts that come out of the abyss. There is a star that falls from heaven, opens the door of the abyss, and you get this angel like creature or some divine being that comes out who is also known as The Destroyer or as Destruction. And this being is the king of the locusts and then the locusts are given the command to attack anyone who does not have the seal of God.
Pete: So, I mean, they have a human face.
Heather: They do.
Pete: Which, you know, when you said, I’m not kidding, that sort of like it freaked me out a little bit because there’s something about animals with human faces that’s frightening. I don’t know, it’s not cute. When dogs look like dogs, it’s cute. But when you put a human face on an animal, it’s so strange and so other, you know, you can’t help but be a little bit frightened. But you’re saying that, are you saying that these are sort of an enemy figure in the Book of Revelation or not?
Heather: Well, depends who you ask.
Heather: So, look at a lot of the scholarship around it.
A lot of people will argue that Destroyer or Destruction however you want to call, like Apollyon is one of the names he’s given, this king that rises out of the abyss, they will say he is representative of Belial or Satan. So, he’s kind of some kind of evil or satanic figure and these locusts are demon-like. And so, already you can see all of these labels are being added on to these creatures already. They’re not in the text. They’re not called demons. They’re not called evil. But as you read a deeper into the scholarship, you just see all of these labels are just being added on to them. But what’s interesting is they are doing the work of God. They are very closely aligned with the divine throne room, and they are, what I argue, part of a divine army or attack force. And so very much like the Old Testament locusts in Joel or Exodus, they seem very much to be divinely sanctioned to go in and to attack. And just like in Exodus, where the plagues were limited in, you know, who they would affect, the locusts are also limited in who they can attack, for how long they get can attack, and they’re even told not to attack the vegetation, right? Like Earth is given a reprieve, but it’s the people without the seal or the mark, who are attacked by these locusts. And so, this is not the dragon’s attack force, this is actually coming right from the divine throne room.
Pete: Do you think there is an intentional, like parallel with the plague story in Exodus? Or is it just a common thing that happens in biblical stories?
Heather: That’s a hard question. John’s reuse of Exodus, Isaiah, of much of the Old Testament, Joel, you can see it, like, you can feel it as you’re reading Revelation. But it’s not always a one-to-one ratio, there is a mixing, I mean I use the word hybridity to talk about how John is reusing material and in the process of reusing, creating something new. And so, I absolutely think there is a reuse of Exodus, but it’s not, it’s not a one-to-one application of it. He’s doing something different here. And in the process, it’s pretty unnerving. And your use of the word ‘other’ is actually spot on when it comes to monster theory, because we often describe monsters, not as evil, but as other and whether they’re good or bad, or good or evil if we want to use those terms, their main qualifier is other. They don’t fit our categories.
Jared: So, just to go back to that, what’s at stake in terms of when we read Revelation and maybe make assumptions about what monsters are good or bad? How does that impact how we read Revelation or maybe other biblical texts where the other is assumed to be bad? I mean, I just think in my tradition, if it’s other it’s assumed to be bad. And so, what’s the implications of that?
Heather: Well, one of the biggest implications is that if we follow the chain of command back from the locusts, the next creatures that we get to are the Four Riders of the Apocalypse. And again, they’re another group of monstrous creatures that are often seen as negative, as demonic. They’re bringing, you know, plagues and awfulness to humanity and there’s a real reluctance in scholarship to see the connection between the Four Riders of the Apocalypse and the heavenly creatures. And I find it fascinating because a lot of artistic depictions don’t have that hesitation. So, you’ll see like an Albert Dürer’s engravings that they have usually like some kind of angel who’s almost like pointing the way forward for the Four Riders. Sometimes you’ll even have a lamb in the corner representing. you know, the Lamb of Revelation 4, who’s kind of sanctioning the use, like the coming of these Riders. And even in the text itself, it’s really clear that the living creatures are saying, “come,” and “go,” you know? They’re giving their divine assent from the Throne Room through the living creatures to the Four Riders, and then eventually to these other monstrous creatures. And so, when we start following the chain of command back, we realize that the locusts and the Four Horsemen, or Four Riders of the Apocalypse are part of God’s army. And what happens when commentators call these creatures, evil, monstrous, ugly – I mean monstrous is fine – but like ugly and deviant is that they really, they start to make excuses for why God is using these creatures. So, they’ll say that God uses evil for God’s own purposes, right? It’s like a way of trying to excuse why God is being aligned with these creatures.
Pete: Yeah, I mean, because the Book of Revelation is, for many people including myself, uncomfortably violent. So, I can understand why people would do that, but it doesn’t mean it’s a good reading of the text. Okay, so the Riders are- they’re sort of part of the chain of command are they monsters themselves?
Or are they just helping us understand that this is all a God thing that’s happening here with the locusts?
Heather: Yes, the Riders. So, when I try to read the body, the monster, the riders are harder because we don’t have as much description of their actual bodies. And yet, I mean, they’re probably some kind of angelic cavalry similar to what you have at the end of Zechariah. You have like angels on chariots kind of going out and patrolling the world. So, this idea of angels on horses moving throughout the world is not uncommon in the Old Testament. I mean, I would also say that angels themselves, by their very definition and being, are also monstrous creatures.
Pete: Okay. Yeah. Yeah. And seeing them riding on horses. That’s a little bit maybe weird.
Jared: Well, not to take us too far afield here, maybe I will. Maybe I do want to do that. I want to extrapolate that because I think there’s this bigger principle here of how monsters in the way you’ve defined them are portrayed, particularly in their relationship to God, because what I hear is, you know, locusts come from the abyss, in some ways, they’re sort of the Lord’s army, if you will, this attack force. And then I can’t help but think about leviathan in the Hebrew Bible in the Old Testament, where there’s, it seems to be this animosity or there’s a tradition of animosity, but then it ends up being like God’s pet, in some ways, in maybe Job or something. And so, I guess it just brought to mind, you know, what in the biblical story, do we see different relationships of these monsters, these various monsters to God? Are some enemies? Some not enemies? And how do we kind of adjudicate between those? Because I think with Revelation, it might be tricky, like you said, a lot of scholars just make assumptions. So how do we kind of know how these monsters are functioning in the Bible, as far as it relates to their relationship to God?
Heather: I think, first of all, we have to be really careful about judging their appearance to say, “Oh, you’re a hybrid, therefore you’re evil, or you’re disgusting. Therefore you are counter-God.” And this comes up, actually, quite often both in Daniel and in Revelation scholarship. So, let’s pick another example which will get us back to the Old Testament, but if we look at the living creatures in Revelation, they are, you know, like, they are very classic kind of reuse of the cherubim of Ezekiel, for example. And in Ezekiel, they have four faces, and they’re pretty scary beings, right? They’re like the ancient Sphinxes of the world and they surround the throne of God and they are keeping people from accessing the divine, right? They’re kind of the guards that the guard the Divine Throne in many of these cases.
But when we think about like hybridity, when people look at like the locusts, for example, it’s pretty easy to say, “Oh, they’re ugly, therefore, they’re evil.” But when we look at the cherubim, and their bodies are just as hybrid, they’re just as scary, and they’re just as dangerous. That’s another thing about monsters is they are dangerous, whether we deem them good or evil, they are dangerous, and the cherubim fit all the characteristics that the locusts do, for example, but people will look at them and say, “Oh, they are an example of God’s creation.” Right? They’re showing God’s wholeness and creation, and all these things fit together beautifully. But really, I mean, they’re monsters, they’re scary, they are crossing boundaries. And even the living creatures in Revelation, they’re not just crossing animal/human, but they also may be crossing inanimate objects. There is debate about how much the living creatures both in the Old Testament with the cherubim and the living creatures in Revelation are part of the throne of God, right? Are they separated from the throne? Are they part of the throne? The Dead Sea Scrolls go into this a little bit as well in the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice. So, there is debate about how animate versus inanimate these monsters are.
Jared: Hey, everyone, Jared here. I have a very exciting announcement to make before we get back to the podcast. Last year, I released a book called Love Matters More: How Fighting to be Right Keeps Us from Loving Like Jesus. Well, as we head into the holidays this year, I thought it would be appropriate to revisit this idea. So, I have a brand-new, limited episode podcast out called How to Disagree, where I talked to a religiously conservative father and a progressive daughter as they talk about how they’ve managed their relationship over the years. I talked to a married couple, one politically conservative and one politically liberal. In one episode, I interview a communication and conflict expert, and I had a blast with all of these episodes and more. The series is about how to disagree with people you love. And you can find it in the show notes of today’s episode of The Bible for Normal People, or just search wherever you listen to podcasts. And if you haven’t already, I would encourage you to pick up a copy of Love Matters More: How Fighting to be Right Keeps Us from Loving Like Jesus. Okay, now back to the podcast.
Pete: It made me think of the cherubim that are on the Ark of the Covenant. Which, I mean, I guess maybe that’s not a good example, because they’re not like living creatures, but still, they’re inanimate and they’re sitting there and if that’s God’s footstool, which it seems to be, according to at least some texts…
Yeah, that’s interesting, because you know, the cherubim, they’re… I mean, the cherubim and the locusts are acting on God’s behalf. They’re just really freaky scary.
Heather: Yes. And but the thing is, we have neutralized the cherubim. So, if you look at paintings the cherubim are like these baby-faced angels, right? With wings and they’re cute.
Pete: Hey, that’s scary. I know, I have a four-year-old and a two-year-old grandkids and that’s about as scary as it gets. But anyway, carry on with your point. That was for my daughter, I threw that in for free.
Heather: Excellent. Yeah, no, but I mean, we’ve just neutralized the fear of them. But the cherubim, their job is to keep people away, right? Like they’re the guards, and they’re guarding the Divine Presence. They’re also the channels of the Divine Presence, as much as they’re keeping people away, they also become the channels of the Divine Presence. And so, the cherubim play a really important role. And you can see that in Revelation when they are the ones who instigate a lot of the plagues and by telling the Riders to come and to leave and to go out and judge. And so, definitely, they are they are part of this attack force and they are part of this, I guess, this command that I see that kind of goes down. And what I find is that people want to separate the divine beings in Revelation based on their violence and the harm and the fear they cause. But in the end, the person who causes, or the people who caused the most fear and terror is not really the dragon and the beasts, but God and the Lamb. And in Revelation, John is very clear that the terror and the horror come from the Divine Throne Room.
Pete: Yeah, one thing that this is bringing up for me is how important it is to understand, you know, the imagery of monsters in the Book of Revelation, frankly, most anything in the Book of Revelation, with a little bit of background to what’s happening in, you know, in the Hebrew Scriptures, and, you know, you mentioned 1 Enoch, you know, we have intertestamental, so-called literature as well, and just the ancient world as a whole. So, these, these images probably made a tremendous amount of sense to the people reading them, but we look at them and we, and you’ve been saying this, we tend to try to have these things fit into a structure, a theological structure, you know, a faith structure, even if you will, and we wind up probably misunderstanding what these figures are doing. And that’s, that’s sort of a shame, because this is extremely interesting. I might even go back and read the Book of Revelation again. No, I’m just kidding.
Jared: Whoa. Let’s not get carried away.
Pete: I’m just kidding. I actually love the Book of Revelation. So, I mean, do we have the other examples of monsters in the Book of Revelation?
Heather: Well, I thought, it might be helpful to even see that this, I guess, mislabeling of the monster, or perhaps the overlooking of a monster also happens when biblical scholars look at Ancient Near Eastern literature. So, if you’re familiar with the Enuma Elish, and the kind of the struggle between Marduk and Tiamat – the same thing is happening there when biblical scholars are reading that. They often read Tiamat as the chaos monster and Marduk as the hero of the text. But a lot of the more recent scholarship is calling that into question, primarily because Marduk is presented as a monster, but we don’t remember that. He has multiple limbs and he has many eyes and many ears, he breathes fire, but that’s not what you remember. You remember Tiamat as the monster, who is the aggressor, and a lot of people right now are re-reading this conflict between the two of them not as the hero versus the monster, but as a conflict between two gods and Tiamat loses and she becomes monstrous and othered, even though in effect, if we’re using monster theory, both Marduk and Tiamat are just as monstrous.
Jared: That’s really interesting, and I wonder – I feel like there’s so much to unpack and go through the layers of our assumptions. And I think that for me is like becoming the main takeaway of this conversation is how powerful our categories and labeling of things affect our reading of texts.
Where because for us the other, the face of this and the hybridity, right? The hybrid nature of these beings. It’s almost like we have it baked into us that this is bad, we put these value judgments, this is bad, this is evil, this can’t come from God. This is good, this can come from God. And we almost even shape and reinterpret these figures in our own imaginations, according to these categories where, like Tiamat, Marduk, or even the cherubim, like you said, it’s like in modern imagination, we’ve had to reimagine those into what we call “good figures” who have certain kinds of body types and certain kind of faces and certain kind of things that don’t scare us. And it’s just I think that’s really interesting. Is that fair to say?
Heather: Absolutely. And I think part of it comes out of some of our readings of Leviticus, but especially the reliance on Mary Douglas and her work on purity. And so, we have it kind of in our, I don’t know, like our mental kind of systems, that when we look at these texts that anything that crosses boundaries is impure, right? Because that’s sort of the narrative that we’ve kind of inherited. But Mary Douglas is interesting, because when you look at her work, she seems to skirt around the implications for the divine creatures.
So, in my work, I look at, you know, some things she says with a cherubim, and she says, you know, yeah, these are hybrids, and yet we treat them with awe rather than disgust. But then the next sentence she’ll say, but the Jews treated- Jewish people treated all hybrids as disgusting. And so, you’ll notice, when you look at Leviticus in the purity system, it doesn’t always map on to the divine world. And I think that’s one of the problems is, we’re not looking at the bigger picture of how both heaven and earth and the events of the nether world or whatever you want to call it, we have monsters everywhere. So, we have them from heaven all the way into hades. And, yes, even in someplace like the abyss, you can have locusts. Now, they’re dangerous and they’re scary, but they seem to be working for God and heaven. And so, it’s much more complicated, I think, than just saying, “These are good creatures. These are bad creatures.” It seems like they’re dangerous creatures. They are other.
Jared: Right and again, I want to maybe bring up this as a bit of an interesting point for me that, in my tradition, growing up, I guess, kind of in modern imagination, the most disfigured scary creature is Satan, right? Or the devil. And yet in the biblical text, with a few times that this figure shows up, not really presented that scary, not really, that scene is the way we’ve maybe configured Satan or the devil in our modern imagination. And yet, these figures that are actually acting on behalf of God are portrayed or depicted in even scarier ways maybe than we would see the devil or Satan in the Bible, is that fair? Maybe I’m missing some points there.
Heather: No, I mean the body of Satan I mean sometimes it’s referred to you know as an animal, like as a lion prowling in Revelation. There’s you know, the serpent of old, the Devil, Satan, the Great Red Dragon, there’s an amalgamation of all these figures but the you know, the body of Satan is not really described as much and so you know, you have like a great large red dragon and it’s probably a hybrid creature. But again, the focus for John in Revelation is not, I mean, it is on the red dragon to it to an extent, but that is not his focus. That becomes, I think, later interpreters focus, right? We think of Revelation as this text where the dragon is out to get everyone, and the dragon absolutely is. But the focus for John is actually on the God in heaven who is going to save and intercede for those who are being attacked and so, I mean, if we go back to like the very the heart of the Book of Revelation to 4 and 5 and God on the throne, you know God fits all those monstrous categories as well. As the hybrid lion/lamb that shows up in Revelation 4 and 5 as well. So even there in the Divine Throne Room, I would argue we have monstrous language being attributed.
Pete: Any more monsters that we should know about lurking in the shadows, under the bed, in the closet?
Heather: I mean, Revelation is full of monsters. The Bible is full of monsters. I mean, I do know when I teach on Revelation and I start calling Jesus a monster-
Pete: Okay, got my attention. How was Jesus a monster?
Heather: I mean, people do take a little step back from that, but there are three different, you know, images of Jesus that show up in Revelation. We have the Son of Man in the first chapter. We have and this, you know, a human/divine hybrid with a sword coming out of His mouth. He has eyes like flames of fire, feet like burnished bronze, and he’s holding the keys of Death.
And He was dead, but now he’s alive. So, even in that description we have both hybridity and liminality, right? We have someone who has transitioned from death to life. So, the regular normal boundaries don’t apply to this figure anymore. And you know, this figure is holding the keys of Death and Hades. And one thing I didn’t mention, but it’s really one way to find a monster is to look at how the humans are reacting around them. When John sees this figure, he falls over as if dead. And I adore these reactions of horror and terror that we see throughout the scriptures. Daniel’s another one who is like falling over as a sick man. And you can see when someone meets a monster, they are scared. And I mean, the classic example is the shepherds when they meet the angels, you know, with the Nativity, they are scared so that the angels will say, “Do not fear.” So, when you meet an angel and you are told not to be scared, it’s because you’re terrified because you’re in the presence of something other and monstrous. And so yeah, so we have Jesus as like the Son of man who is definitely a monstrous figure. But then I think the weirdest one for me is Jesus as the lion and the lamb. And what’s interesting is that scholarship really tries to diminish the lion aspect of this part of Revelation, they’re not comfortable with Jesus being described as a lion. And so, they want to say, you know, wherever you see, like, whenever you see lion, it’s just a lamb, you know, like, it’s just a metaphor, just go with the lamb imagery. But what they forget is that this isn’t a normal lamb. This is a lamb with seven horns and seven eyes. And this lamb is able to take a scroll and open it. And so, this is a very hybrid and monstrous lamb, it doesn’t fit into our normal categories. But even when people think of the lamb, I think they just think of this normal, cute lamb. But this is also a lamb that has been slaughtered and yet is alive. And so, I think that we move too quickly to the metaphor before really appreciating its monstrous body.
Pete: Yeah, you heard people talking about God, you know, is a moral monster for killing people all over the place. But, you know, I just want to piggyback on things you’ve been saying all along, and especially the beginning, for our listeners that it all depends really on how we define monster and what we mean by that. And if those Latin roots are any help to people, that these are signs, they are warnings, they are maybe even demonstrations of God’s presence somehow, which is not comfortable, necessarily. And I guess all these bad things are happening to bad people? Not to be simplistic and Sunday School about it, right, because the marginalized, the people who were oppressed in the book of Revelation, are kept safe from these things that are done to them. Is that right? And it’s just like others who get it?
Heather: Yes… in John’s perspective. So, from John’s perspective, the judgments are valid. But when we look at it from someone like Jezebel, who is John’s opponent, who’s named as a prophetess, and we don’t know if she’s a real person, or if it’s like, a group of people and they’re using like a female identification as a way of shaming them, it’s not very clear like who this is. And again, Jezebel is reusing an Old Testament name, which has also its own set of negative connotations, especially that scholars have added on. And so, when we look at Revelation, we often look at it from John’s view, and he is absolutely othering someone like Jezebel. And he aligns her, even with someone like Woman Babylon or, as most people call her, the Whore of Babylon. And so, he is othering his opponents by aligning them with the dragon and the beasts. And on the other hand, he aligns himself with God and with the divine world.
Jared: Well, I mean, I think that’s actually a really good segue into this last question as we wrap up our time here, but how, as people kind of look for new ways, interesting ways, creative ways of reading their Bible, you talked earlier about centering the monster. And, you know, how might people, just some practical ways for how might people read the Bible in this in a way that centers the monsters? Do you have any practical tips for maybe a new way to approach the Bible in a way that includes monster theory in some small way?
Heather: I think one of the ways, at least that I teach my students, is to be careful of the places of Scripture that you’re ignoring.
So, what are the corners that are dusty, that you haven’t, you know, read for a while, and I mean, a bit back to your point Pete about, you know, in Revelation, it’s only the people who are experiencing judgment are the ones who deserve it. The Old Testament has kind of a different story sometimes. So, the Book of Job has, you know, Job talking about God using some metaphors that are really uncomfortable. So, God as beast, God as archer, God as warrior, God as lion. So, when we are looking at a book like Revelation, I think we really need to have a really strong backing in these older images of God in the Old Testament, because for me, when I read Revelation, as an Old Testament scholar, I am just reading a continuation of this divine warrior theme that’s attributed to God, all throughout the Old Testament. So, when I read Revelation, it makes a lot of sense, because that’s what’s happening all throughout the Old Testament. But if you don’t know your Old Testament, and you get to Revelation, that picture of Jesus as a divine warrior, and we didn’t get to Revelation 19, but Jesus takes on divine warrior imagery, and it’s pretty violent and it’s unsettling and it’s scary. But if you don’t know that is normative in the Old Testament, it becomes really unsettling if you’ve only read the New Testament. And so, I think just a greater appreciation about how Revelation is speaking back to the Old Testament. And then again, just being really aware that monsters matter. That monsters aren’t just the evil creatures. That the monstrous is something that can cause awe as much as it can terror. And I think to me, that’s changed the way that I approach something like holiness, that holiness isn’t something necessarily that’s completely, it’s not, it doesn’t- I think, Rudolf Otto his book, The Idea of the Holy talks about holiness doesn’t equal completely good. It’s not necessarily a moral category, but it’s more the emotion of, you know, feeling your creaturely-ness in relationship to the divine to the Creator. And so, I think that when we start looking at the monster in an interesting way, it makes us start thinking about what holiness means. And it also helps us to not sanitize the God of the Old and New Testament, but to realize we cannot put God in a box and try to make God comfortable. That God, especially we look at this monstrous imagery of God, the divine world, it’s not necessarily saying that, you know, it’s not saying something is evil, because I don’t think that’s how they thought. They didn’t think in terms of good and evil yet, that’s a much later development. But they thought in terms of other and awesome and it’s breaking all the categories that we keep trying to put. And I think that monster theory really helps us to recover some of the more ambiguity that we find in the text.
Pete: Yeah. The God that we’ve tamed doesn’t fit with the Book of Revelation and other places. That’s a really helpful point, Heather. That’s a great point to end on.
Jared: I think it’s a great place to end on because I think that really helps people see a broader perspective and, something we talk about a lot on the podcast, is being aware of the things that we’re putting into the text and the context that maybe isn’t always there.
Jared: Excellent. Well, thank you so much again, Heather, for dropping by and for, you know, just downloading all of this wonderful knowledge about monster theory.
Heather: Oh, you’re very welcome. Thanks for having me.
Jared: Absolutely. Alright. See ya.
Pete: See ya.
Heather: See ya.
Stephanie: You just made it through another entire episode of The Bible for Normal People. Well done to you, and well done to everyone who supports us by rating the podcast, leaving us a review, or telling others about our show. We are especially grateful for our Producer’s Group who support us over on Patreon. They are the reason we are able to keep bringing podcasts and other content to you. If you would like to help support the podcast, head over to patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople where for as little as $3/month, you can receive bonus material, be a part of an online community, get course discounts, and much more. We couldn’t do what we do without your support.
Dave: Our show is produced by Stephanie Speight; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. For Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team – thanks for listening.
Jared: Recovering the Monstrous in Revelation, you can see how that’s revelant. Ugh. Revelent.
Jared: Revelation. Relevant. Relevant to what we’re going to be talking about today.
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