Deep, The

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The ancient Hebrews believed that the earth lay across an all-encompassing ocean, which they called tehom. The term is used in the Bible either for the primordial waters in toto (Gen. 1:2) or for the upper or lower portion alone (cf. Ps. 42:8). Most frequently it denotes the latter, and it is then conventionally rendered "the deep." The Canaanite myths from Ras Shamra (Ugarit) speak similarly of "the two oceans" (thmtm), i.e., the supernal and the infernal, the dwelling of the supreme god El being located at their confluence, i.e., on the horizon. In the Babylonian Epic of Creation the primordial ocean is personified as the monstrous Tiamat, who launches battle against the supreme god Anu, but is eventually subdued by Marduk and slit lengthwise "like an oyster," the two parts of her body forming, respectively, the vault of heaven and the bedrock of the earth. This myth is echoed in several passages of the Bible (Isa. 51:9–10; Hab. 3:8; Ps. 74:13–14; 89:9–10) which speak of a primeval combat between God and a monster variously styled Leviathan, Rahab ("Blusterer"), Tannin ("Dragon"), Yam ("Sea"), and Nahar ("Stream"). In the wake of Isaiah 27:1, post-biblical legend asserts that at the end of the world this monster will again break loose, and again be defeated – a notion which recurs in Iranian lore (Yashts 19:38–44; Bundahišn 29:9), and which also leaves traces both in the New Testament (Rev. 20:1–3) and in the Talmud (BB 75a). The personification of the primordial ocean as a monster is further echoed in Genesis 49:25, where Tehom is described as "crouching below," like a beast. Rivers and springs were believed to emanate from the nether tehom (Targ., Eccles. 1:7; cf. Weinsinck in bibl., p. 42), and the upsurging of it was partly responsible for the Deluge (Gen. 7:11). Ecclesiastes 1:7, as interpreted by Targum and Rashi, believes that after surging up from this nether tehom and flowing through streams into the sea, the water finds its way back to the tehom through tunnels and then surges up again to the springs and repeats the cycle. The rock on which the Temple was built at Jerusalem issaid in later legend (Targ. Jon., Ex. 28:30) to have covered the mouth of the deep, and the stairs connecting the two courts of the Temple were called popularly "the stairs of Tehom" (Targ.,Ps. 120). Similarly, the temple of Marduk at Babylon and that of E-ninu at Lagash rested reputedly on the nether ocean. Related to this is the belief that the supreme god sits enthroned over the waters of the nether flood. Thus, in a Hittite myth the god who conquers the dragon Illuyankas is subsequently installed "above the well," while in the second century c.e. Lucian was shown a spot in the temple at Hierapolis into which the waters of the Deluge were said to have gathered. This belief is, possibly, reflected in the words of Psalms 29:10: "The Lord sat enthroned over the flood" (see Gaster in bibl., pp. 750–1, 843–54, nos. 25–31). It is related in the Talmud (Ta'an. 25b) that the angel Rdyʾ, who is in charge of rain, stands midway between the upper and lower oceans, bidding the waters of the former to pour down, and of the latter to rise. In Ecclesiasticus 24:8 Wisdom is said to have walked primordially "in the depth of the abyss," and in Babylonian glossaries the name Apsu, by which the freshwater abyss is called, is fancifully etymologized as ab-zu, "abode of wisdom" (E. Dhorme, Religion assyro-babylonienne (1910), 73). Comparable is the classical notion that Proteus, the old man of the sea, is omniscient, while in ancient Mesopotamian folklore the seven sages (apkallê) who introduced civilization, emerge from the deep (Gaster, 324, no. 31). Job 28:12, 14 seems, however, to protest against this idea, while in Proverbs 8:24, Wisdom exists prior to the creation of the deep.


A.J. Wensinck, The Ocean in the Literature of the Western Semites (1918); T.H. Gaster, Myth, Legend and Custom in the Old Testament (1969), 3–4, 323–5; H.L. Ginsberg, The Five Megiloth and Jonah (1969), on Eccles. 1:7.

[Theodor H. Gaster]