What is the Leviathan?
8th December 2021
Many Christians are curious about the identity of the Leviathan, a creature referenced by name six times in the Old Testament (Psalm 74:12-19, 104:25-26; Isaiah 27:1 [2x]; Job 3:8; 41:1-34) and likely raising its head in the New Testament as the “beast from the sea” (Revelation 13:1). What should we make of this uncatchable, water-dwelling, fire-breathing, multi-headed monster?
What could this creature be? The etymology of the name provides a hint. Though there is some speculation on this, the name “Leviathan” most likely means “writhing or twisting one,” which naturally suggests a snake-like creature. The other hint comes from the Septuagint (or LXX), a Greek version of the Old Testament from the second century BC. It translates “Leviathan” in the second divine speech in Job with drakon, which also denotes a serpentine creature and in English is “dragon”. Interestingly, the LXX translates the other instance of “Leviathan” in Job 3:8 with ketos, a Greek-styled dragon that has a hog nose. The cumulative evidence certainly supports the idea that Leviathan is a sea dragon. The biblical descriptions of Leviathan also indicate it could be a type of tannin or “sea monster” (see Psalm 74:13-14; Isaiah 27:1; cf. Genesis 1:21). In ancient Near Eastern mythology the tanninim are concrete symbols for the sea, that God is described as defeating (Psalm 74:13), and appear to represent chaos, disorder, and even evil itself.
Similar monsters also feature elsewhere in ancient Near Eastern texts. Powerful serpent-like creatures appear in texts from the city-state of Ugarit (in modern Syria), which flourished at the time of the biblical Judges. Six clay tablets from Ugarit make up a tale known as the Baal Myth or Baal Cycle. One of these texts describes the god Baal slaying a dragon named Lotan (or Litan) (CTA 5.1.1-5), the Canaanite equivalent to “Leviathan”. In another text, Anat, Baal’s sister, strikes down the seven heads of the “Twisty Serpent” sea monster (Tunnanu = tannin) (CAT 1.3.III 38-42), mirroring God crushing the heads of Leviathan in Psalm 74:13 and slaying the sea dragon with a sword (Isaiah 27:1). In Psalm 74, the psalmist reminds God of his impressive ancient action and asks for intervention for the Judeans who have been decimated by the Babylonians. If God could accomplish such a feat, defeating a great dragon, then handling the Babylonians should be a cinch.
If Leviathan then appears to be a huge sea dragon, then it means that it is no natural animal or dinosaur but a monster. Monsters are symbols, and they represent a darkness or evil that we attempt to push aside or repress. Often recognised as “the Other”, they lurk in the in-between spaces, on the threshold between order and chaos. They’re used to construct, maintain, and sometimes deconstruct, boundaries. Cultures often form their identities over against their respective monsters.
This is just as true for the Israelites. And one particular way the Israelites did this was to use Leviathan as an agent of theodicy. Theodicy is an academic word for attempting to mitigate the problem of evil, both natural and moral, in a world created by a good God. Psalm 74 represents one particular theodicy strategy. In the Psalm, Leviathan represents an enemy of the LORD and so is crushed. Afterwards, God exposes Leviathan’s body to scavengers. God’s creation of the cosmos is then described, including the placing of celestial lights and designating places for water and desert (vv. 15-17). One could say that God has defeated chaos and disorder and afterwards placed order or constraints on it. God does much the same in Genesis 1, when the earth is chaotic and formless (tohu and bohu) (v. 2) and he begins to separate elements within the watery, cosmic melting pot. This is strikingly similar to what we find in the Babylonian creation myth or Enuma Elish, a text from the Library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, where the Babylonian warrior deity, Marduk, slays the Sea, represented by the dragoness Tiamat, and then starts creating elements of the cosmos from her body. The strategy used by Psalm 74 has the advantage of putting distance between God and chaos/evil, but in isolation could be seen as questioning God’s omnipotence, if Leviathan is indeed a threat, as the psalm seems to suggest. It’s striking that this particular strategy is not found again in the Old Testament.
Whereas Psalm 74 attempts to place distance between chaos or disorder and God, with the figure of Leviathan, Psalm 104 takes a different strategy. Here, instead of separating the deity from the dragon, the dragon becomes one of God’s creatures, made for a particular purpose. This resonates with Genesis 1:21, where God commands the seas to bring forth all manner of swarming sea creatures, including the tanninim or sea monsters. Leviathan is also employed in the same strategy in the second divine speech in Job. Unlike Behemoth, another Biblical monster, whose creation by God is specifically acknowledged (40:15), Leviathan’s origin is only hinted at with the word “creature” (41:33). So here the inclusion of Leviathan in the creation of the cosmos hints at a world that is dangerous, wild, cruel, chaotic, and that even contains evil. This means that chaos and evil have a place in God’s divine economy somehow and points to the mystery of God’s ways. This strategy then has the advantage of emphasising God’s power and sovereignty but the disadvantage of questioning God’s justice or beneficence. Apparently, the Israelites could live with that.
A third theodicy strategy used in the Old Testament is to turn Leviathan or the tannin into a cipher for Israel’s enemies that God will punish (e.g. Isaiah 27:1). Leviathan, then, becomes merely a metaphor, and any hint of evil gets displaced on Israel’s enemies.
In the New Testament and beyond
The shadow of Leviathan is seen again as an enemy in Revelation 12-13, where a very Leviathan-like creature is described as a devouring dragon: “that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan” (12:9). The Septuagint also casts the Leviathan and Behemoth (another biblical monster) in a negative light, with the explanation that both were created “to be mocked by angels” (LXX Job 40:19; 41:24). This negative view of Leviathan continues in early Christianity (the early church father, John Chrysostom being an exception) and into the Medieval Age, where Leviathan becomes a major symbol for Satan and is often depicted as Hellmouth, the gaping jaws of Leviathan forming the very gates of Hell. A favourite iconographic motif is of Jesus stabbing the devil with a long-staffed cross in one hand and with the other hand pulling Adam and Eve and the rest of the patriarchs out of Leviathan’s cavernous mouth. Christ is usually depicted as grabbing Adam’s wrist, instead of his hand, to indicate that Adam’s salvation is dependent on Christ alone. During the late medieval period Leviathan is also often depicted as a whale, an idea which filtered down to the 1851 novel, Moby Dick, by American writer Herman Melville.
The first to identify Behemoth and Leviathan as the hippo and crocodile was Samuel Bochart, a seventeenth-century, Huguenot antiquarian and biblical scholar. He reflected the growing interest in biblical fauna and flora during the Enlightenment, a process that involved attempts to defend the credibility of the Scriptures in the context of doubts emerging concerning its historical and “scientific” accuracy. Most biblical scholars follow Bochart’s lead, viewing Leviathan as a natural animal. There has been a ‘romantic’ reaction to this perspective reflected by artists such as William Blake, who portrayed Leviathan as a sea dragon.
The Leviathan in contemporary culture
Popular culture has continued to preserve the notion of Leviathan as a huge, monstrous creature. I give one recent example. In the second season of Disney’s ongoing television series, The Mandalorian, the first episode, which aired 30 October 2020, features a sand dragon that eats bovine creatures called banthas (= Behemoths). The dragon is eventually called a Leviathan, and after it is killed, its meat is eaten as a delicacy. It seems we’ve come full circle.
As you can see from this quick sweep through history, there has never been a settled answer to what the Leviathan is. While it doesn’t give us a neat and tidy zoological classification, the Leviathan offers us something else. As a symbol of chaos and strength it gave the biblical writers a means to speak about the greater power of their God. As a formidable adversary and ancient monster from ancient myth, it helps to put the Psalms, Isaiah and Job in their ancient Near Eastern literary and cultural contexts. As a terrifying creature of immense proportions, whose mention brings with it a shiver of fear and awe, it continues to capture imaginations and even today maintains its mystery.