“Behold, I am against thee, Pharaoh king of Egypt, the great dragon that lieth in the midst of his rivers …”
Ezekiel’s Hebrew word for “dragon” is tannim. It’s the same word that, in its more common spelling tannin, is used in Genesis 1:21, “And God created great whales.” “Whales” is how the King James Bible translates it; the Revised Standard Version prefers “great sea monsters.” As we’ll soon see, King James’s translators had solid Jewish tradition to back them up.
Dear reader: you’re probably noticing that I’m taking a break from UFOs. Dragons, whales, sea monsters–whatever you want to call them, they’re on my mind today. And a weirdly cryptic passage from the Zohar, the classic text of the Jewish mystical system known as Kabbalah, which seems to propose them as emblems of cosmic and historical evil.
I blogged about the Zohar on October 16, 2014, when I joined a Facebook group called simply “The Zohar” and we embarked on the project of reading the entire Zohar together, one page a day. The Zohar is three volumes long. Now, almost a year and a half later, we’ve finished the first volume (the Zohar to the Book of Genesis), and made a substantial dent in the second, on the Book of Exodus. We’ve got about three more years to go.
That we’ve made it this far is due largely to the devotion of Rabbi Ben Newman, who posts each day to SoundCloud a recorded reading of the day’s Zohar page: in the Aramaic original (in Rabbi Newman’s beautiful chant), then in the English translation by distinguished Kabbalah scholar Daniel Matt which I’ll be using, with some adaptations, in this post.
The Zohar was written in Spain around the end of the 13th century, in an artificial Aramaic invented by its author(s). It’s in part a rambling commentary on the Scriptures, in part a theosophical novel. Its heroes are a group of rabbis, historical figures most of them, who lived the Holy Land in the 2nd century of the Common Era. These characters revolve in their several orbits around the Zohar’s central figure: the “Holy Lamp,” the master of mysteries, Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai.
Rabbi Shimon doesn’t come on stage very often. But when he does, you know something momentous is about to be revealed.
“Rabbi Shimon said, ‘Now it is fitting to reveal mysteries cleaving above and below.'” That’s from volume 2, page 34a of the Zohar, in Matt’s translation, which I will use and sometimes adapt in the quotes that follow. Matt explains in his footnote that “these are mysteries of the demonic powers, who are rooted in the divine realm and branch out below.”
Mysteries of the Dark Side, the “demonic powers”–how alluring. At least for those of us who don’t really take a supernatural Dark Side–or “the Other Side” as the Zohar calls it–all that seriously. Movie audiences get pleasurable shivers from tales of demons; would those demons still be fun if we believed in them as concretely as (say) ISIS terrorists?
Yet evil is part of our world, whether we explain it through theology or through evolution. The riddle of it nags at us, always unsolved. When Rabbi Shimon claims to reveal the “mysteries” of evil, I prick up my ears. Not expecting to find revelations about the nature of the universe, but perhaps hints about the nature of the human soul as it wrestles with that universe.
Rabbi Shimon begins with a question. Why does God tell Moses in Exodus 10:1 to “come unto Pharaoh” and not “go” unto him? “Well, because the blessed Holy One brought [Moses] into chamber after chamber, to a certain high and mighty Dragon, from which numerous rungs unfold. Who is that? Mystery of the Great Dragon …”
So the “Pharaoh” whom Moses encounters is not, or not only, a historical Egyptian king but, following the verse from Ezekiel 29, a “great dragon that lieth in the midst of his rivers, which hath said, My river is mine own, and I have made it for myself.” The encounter itself is not just an incident in which the enslaved Israelites get their freedom, but something broader and deeper, to be translated from history into myth.
There’s a dragon-slayer in this myth, but it’s not Moses. On the contrary: “Moses was afraid of him, approaching only his streams and rungs; but him he feared and would not approach, for he saw him rooted above. When the blessed Holy One saw that Moses was afraid, and that other appointed messengers could not approach him … the blessed Holy One, and no one else, had to wage war against him …”
Which turns out, as we’ll see, not to be quite true.
“Rabbi Shimon said, The Companions study the account of Creation”–that is, the first chapter of the Book of Genesis–“and comprehend it, but few know how to allude thereby to the Mystery of the Great Dragon.” That mystery, he says, has been shared with “those fathomers who know the mysteries of their Lord.”
We’ve been given notice: the Mystery of the Great Dragon is the shadow side of the Biblical Creation story, hinted at between the lines but never spelled out. Only the Kabbalistic “fathomers” are able to piece it together. That under-story is mentioned explicitly only once in Genesis, in chapter 1 verse 21, where “God created the great dragons,” or “sea monsters” or “whales,” and it looks like the Zohar’s author really did think of whales when he read this verse. He says of the dragons that “each one’s head is pierced with a hole … and he vibrates wind through that hole upward.” As Daniel Matt points out, that’s got to be a whale’s blowhole. The writer builds his myth from the garbled, monster-ridden zoology of his time, woven into the Bible.
The Dragon’s “rivers” that Ezekiel speaks of, are essential to the Zoharic myth. They’re more primary than the Dragon himself. They number nine, plus a tenth “whose waters are calm … the finest river of all.” Being ten, they correspond to the sefirot, the ten vessels through which the liquid light that is the Kabbalistic God pours itself into the world.
Not only that: they are “blessed” by the waters of the Garden of Eden–symbolic of the divine realms–which flow into them three times a year. That water is what gives the Dragon his power. He “enters that river, gathering strength, swimming along–entering the sea, swallowing fish of many kinds, gaining dominion, and returning to that river.”
As often in the Zohar, it’s not easy to understand what is going on. Is the “sea” just the sea, present because a myth of a sea monster requires it? Or does it have some symbolic meaning? Are the “fish” just fish or a code term for divine powers, whom the Dragon devours and then absorbs? It does appear that the Dragon is empowered because in some strange manner he sucks from the divine. This must be what Moses had in mind when he saw that the Dragon was “rooted above,” and that fighting him was useless.
But back to the story of Creation, or rather of Creation’s hidden underside.
What was the “darkness” that Genesis 1:2 locates over the “face of the deep”? The Dragon’s breath, says the Zohar, which blew on the primeval abyss and suppressed its light. When God “tamed” this Dragon-wind with a wind of His own, light could burst forth (Genesis 1:3). The Dragon himself becomes luminescent: “radiance shone upon his head … until his light descended, sparkling into seventy-two gleams of the sun.” But now God hides the light away, so that “primordial darkness emerged, spreading over [the Dragon’s] head, through that hole knocked into it.“
So is God the source of light and the Dragon of darkness, or the other way around? I wish I could tell you things sort themselves out as the story progresses. On the contrary, they get more and more confusing. I have the sense of something pouring out of the writer’s unconscious, not fully intelligible even to him, as a new and vastly wilder Bible story emerges from beneath the skin of the old one.
And now a new twist: a “curse” appears in heaven. This is a pun on Genesis 1:14, which speaks of “lights” but the Hebrew word me’oroht can also be read me’erat, “curse.” It’s a serpent in the sky, which Daniel Matt plausibly connects with the constellation Draco. We gather from the sequel that this is the same snake that ruined Adam and Eve.
Isaiah 27:1: “In that day the Lord with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish … leviathan that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea.” Who’s the “he” who does the slaying? Most of us would say, the Lord; and the Zohar says so too. But the Zohar, words perhaps spilling out of the writer’s pen in a dreamy trance, also says something totally different. The Serpent and the Dragon are two different creatures, one associated with land and the other with the sea. The Serpent is the one who slays the Dragon.
It’s a theme known from more recent myth-making. Godzilla vs. King Kong. The octopus vs. the giant spider in The Thief of Bagdad. Exciting, no doubt. But if we ask, why is it exciting, we may be moved to think it reflects something within us that struggles with the uncontrolled monstrousness of our world. Which we have to face alone, since Moses our champion is too frightened to do it for us.
In other words: evil.
The reality of which is a theme for entertainment in the 20th century, myth and Biblical interpretation in the 13th. Which approach is more authentic? I’ll vote for the Zohar.
by David Halperin
Learn more about David Halperin on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/davidjhalperin
Connect to Journal of a UFO Investigator on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/JournalofaUFOInvestigator
and Find David Halperin on Google+
Don’t have time to keep checking my blog? Sign up for my monthly email newsletter, with summaries and links to the past month’s posts, plus oldies-but-goodies from the archive.