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.