What was Leviathan in the Bible?
In the Old Testament, Leviathan is a chaotic dragon who is overcome by YAHWEH or Jehovah. He is referred to in Isaiah as the “crooked serpent”, and in the book of Job, God says, “His heart is as firm as a stone; yea as hard as a piece of the nether milestone.”
In the Apocalyptic writings, as well as in Christianity, the devil is said to manifest as the serpent Leviathan. In the Apocryphal Book of Enoch, he appears as a vast creature, which inhabits “the abyss over the fountains of the waters.” Leviathan’s jaws were sometimes regarded as the very gates of hell.
In the Phoenician mythology, however, Leviathan was a ferocious monster. His name means “Coiled”. The figure of Leviathan drew on the Canaanite Lotan, a seven-headed monster killed by Anat (or Baal), as well as on the chaos monster Tiamat of Mesopotamian mythology.
The idea of sea creatures or monsters in the ocean has been a common trend amongst almost all ancient civilizations, particularly those that lived close to the water. The ocean itself would certainly have been a mystery, an endless stretch of water teeming with life, and yet, so full of dangers and compelling intrigues.
Why? Even when the oceans were being fed by the early Greeks and Romans, the mystery of the sea would only begin to grow as one could not know what lurked in the shadows below.
The discoveries and sightings of aquatic life would only fuel the belief in savage sea monsters, and before, long many would misinterpret that which they saw, spawning rumours and false accounts, that at the time, would be taken as words of caution.
The ocean remains to be a place of frightful elusiveness, and perhaps, just the place that may have once been the home of the devastating biblical monster known as Leviathan.
The Leviathan appears in the Old Testament and is a popular creature and metaphor amongst the people of the Christian and Jewish faiths. It is thought to be a representation of God’s power, given this sheer size of the beast, as well as a demonic being, a monster that plagues the waters alongside its monster bodies, the Behemoth who terrorizes the land and the Ziz who is associated with the air.
We see Leviathan appear a total of six times in the bible. Once in Isaiah, twice in Psalms, and twice in the Book of Job.
Leviathan in the Book of Job — The Powers of Leviathan
We first see it mentioned in the Book of Job after God has killed Job’s children, ruined his crops and his livelihood, and allowed the devil to curse Joe with sores upon his body. This comes about as a wager between God and the devil, who argues that job is only loyal to God because God treats him with all that he has.
God believes, however, that even if he took everything away from Job, Job would still worship him. By the third chapter, Job is on the verge of giving up; even his wife tells him to forget about God and to go ahead and die.
Job resides to cursing his day of birth, wishing he’d never been born and encourages everyone else in a monologue to do the same. In Job 3:8, he tells us,
‘May those who curse days cursed that day, those who are ready to rouse Leviathan.’
What Job means by this is that he wants everyone to curse the day he was born, regardless of who they are, he wants them to share his pain almost, and even includes those who are reckless and mad enough to rouse Leviathan. He wants even the craziest most diabolical, most foolish people, the types of people that would even think about rousing Leviathan to curse his day of birth as if their curses would hold even more weight.
What’s interesting here is that by this, Job is seemingly aware of Leviathan and what it is capable of, given that he recognizes that those who would intentionally awaken it would be mad and of ill sense.
After a few days of lamenting, Job’s bitterness is unleashed. He cannot understand why God has done this and pretty much has a long go at him. God replies to Job, however, though, it doesn’t mention that he had a wager with the devil and that job was the unfortunate focus of the bed, but instead tells Job that he’s just a mortal and so cannot understand.
He tells him about all the duties he has as God, how he maintains the world and provides an adequate ecosystem for all living things. He patronizes Job into oblivion but not before he brings up Leviathan, which the entirety of chapter 41 of the book of Job is dedicated to. He says,
‘Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook or tie down its tongue with a rope?
Can you put a cord through its nose or pierce its jaw with a hook?
Will it keep begging you for mercy? Will it speak to you with gentle words?
Will it make an agreement with you for you to take it as your slave for life?
Can you make a pet of it like a bird or put it on a leash for the young women in your house?
Will traders barter for it? Will they divide it up among the merchants?
Can you fill its hide with harpoons or its head with fishing spears?
If you lay a hand on it, you will remember the struggle and never do it again!
Any hope of subduing it is false; the mere sight of it is overpowering.
No one is fierce enough to rouse it.
Who then is able to stand against me? Who has a claim against me that I must pay?
Everything under heaven belongs to me.’
‘I will not fail to speak of Leviathan’s limbs, its strength and its graceful form.
Who can strip off its outer coat? Who can penetrate its double coat of armor?
Who dares open the doors of its mouth, ringed about with fearsome teeth?
Its back has rows of shields tightly sealed together; each is so close to the next that no air can pass between.
They are joined fast to one another; they cling together and cannot be parted.
Its snorting throws out flashes of light; its eyes are like the rays of dawn.
Flames stream from its mouth; sparks of fire shoot out.
Smoke pours from its nostrils as from a boiling pot over burning reeds.
Its breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from its mouth.
Strength resides in its neck; dismay goes before it.
The folds of its flesh are tightly joined; they are firm and immovable.
Its chest is hard as a rock, hard as a lower millstone.
When it rises up, the mighty are terrified; they retreat before its thrashing.
The sword that reaches it has no effect, nor does the spear or the dart or the javelin.
Iron it treats like straw and bronze like rotten wood.
Arrows do not make it flee; slingstones are like chaff to it.
A club seems to it but a piece of straw; it laughs at the rattling of the lance.
Its undersides are jagged potsherds, leaving a trail in the mud like a threshing sledge.
It makes the depths churn like a boiling caldron and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment.
It leaves a glistening wake behind it; one would think the deep had white hair.
Nothing on earth is its equal—a creature without fear.
It looks down on all that are haughty; it is king over all that are proud.’
So, as you can see, God almost lecturing Job on the Leviathan. He reveals two chasms like gaps between their intellects by detailing the greatness of Leviathan and how incredibly intricate its physiology is. He’s telling Joe that he’s stepping out of line by even questioning him, that he has the means to make something so immense while job does not.
He essentially uses Leviathan to remind Job to stay in his lane and not to think he knows everything when evidently, he does not and cannot hope to.
The passage is also great in giving us a description of Leviathan. It helps us to shape our idea of what this creature is and how powerful it is.
Leviathan in the Book of Isaiah — The Killing of Leviathan
Leviathan is also mentioned in Isaiah 27, where Isaiah tells us about the deliverance of Israel and what God’s judgment will look like during this time.
The chapter begins by detailing the fate of Leviathan, where Isaiah tells us that on this very day of Israel’s deliverance, ‘The Lord with his sword—his fierce, great and powerful sword—Leviathan the gliding serpent, Leviathan the coiling serpent; he will slay the monster of the sea.’
By this, it is thought that Leviathan is an evil entity and that by slaying it, God is bringing salvation on mankind by ridding them of a creature that may have terrified them so. In his delivery of Israel, he is ridding the world of a menace in Leviathan and further reinforces the belief that if one follows a righteous path, God will reward them in some manner.
The killing of Leviathan is not only a show of God’s strength but also symbolic of a creator who wants the best of his creations and is willing to erase the perils he has put in place for them should they show him loyalty.
In essence, the destruction of Leviathan can be seen as God’s mercy.
Leviathan in the Book of Psalms—Description of Leviathan
Psalm 74 titled ‘A Contemplation of Asaph’ also mentions Leviathan but gives us a slightly different description.
The Psalm is thought to be a sorrowful prayer to God after the destruction of a temple by the Babylonians in which Asaph is asking God why they had been forsaken, why had the temple been allowed to be destroyed.
God is also asked how long he intends to remain silent on the matter, for the enemies mock him despite all that he has done.
Asaph reminds God that, ‘It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan and gave it as food to the creatures of the desert.’
And through this, Asaph shows God that if he can do something as bold as slaying Leviathan, then he should not be so coy in slaying those who destroyed the temple.
Interestingly, we see Leviathan described as having hits, claws, and this only serves to make the monster seem even more terrifying. It also shows us the depths of God’s creativity to make something so ghastly, but also the power of God that he’s able to crush those very heads.
Leviathan is then used as a nourishment for the creatures of the desert, and some believe that by this, Asaph means the most righteous, in that those who are the most loyal are rewarded with the flesh of the Leviathan to consume.
This links with the mention of the Leviathan in the apocryphal Book of Enoch, which also states that Leviathan will be served as food.
Leviathan in the Book of Enoch—Gender of Leviathan
Chapter 58 of Enoch is dedicated to describing the destruction that Enoch sees in the vision, and he tells us,
‘In that day shall be distributed for food, two monsters; a female monster whose name is Leviathan, dwelling in the depths of the sea, above the springs of waters. And a male monster, whose name is Behemoth, which possesses, moving on his breast, the invisible wilderness.’
Here, we see a gender assigned to Leviathan, in that it is female, something that isn’t apparent in the description by God to Job, or in the Psalms.
It might seem inconsequential as to what gender that Leviathan is, but if it was a female, then it might have been created by God to have it reproduce.
Such an idea also comes across in a Midrash, where it’s believed God created both a male and female Leviathan, that he feared the two monsters would procreate and that their species would hunt everything else into extinction. So, God killed the female, and once again, its flesh would be used to feed the righteous on the advent of the Messiah.
Leviathan in the Akdamut Hymn—The Use of Leviathan’s Flesh
Furthermore, a Jewish hymn sung at the festival of Shavuot that celebrates the giving of the Torah known as Akdamut contains a section that tells us more about the use of Leviathan’s flesh. We are told that Leviathan locks horns with Behemoth and that the two engage in a fight before God intervenes and kills them both with his sword.
The skin of Leviathan is described as beautiful, and it is used as a canopy to shelter the righteous who will dine on its flesh as well as the Behemoth.
Leviathan in the Jewish Talmud—God’s Pet
Psalm 104, meanwhile, is a text dedicated to praising the greatness of God and paints Leviathan in a slightly different light. It reads,
‘How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number—living things both large and small. There the ships go to and fro, and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.’ — Psalm 104:24-26
It almost sounds as if Leviathan is being spoken about favourably here. In a passage that speaks about praising God’s works, it’s interesting that Leviathan—a scary monster—should be mentioned at all.
By stating that it frolics where ships are, makes it sound as if the monster coexists with those faring the Seas, and even makes his sound playful. This might link with a belief that Leviathan, though a monstrous-looking being, is God’s pet and that God plays with the Beast the way one might play with a kitten.
Similarly, there is a mention of Leviathan in the Jewish Talmud where it said that,
‘There are twelve hours in a day. In the first three hours, God sits and learns the Torah, in the second three hours he sits and judges the world. The third three hours God feeds the entire world… the fourth three-hour period God plays with the Leviathan.’
Another interpretation of Leviathan though, is that the Beast is either a demon or very simply a sea monster that is influenced or in some way controlled by Satan. Meanwhile, some interpreters see Leviathan as a metaphor for the rebelling of mankind against God, and that Leviathan is so large a creature because it represents man’s sin.
The fact that God usually destroys Leviathan supports the idea that eventually, those who go against God will be met with extreme punishment, usually, destruction or the crushing of heads as Psalm 74 tells us.
The Depictions and Meanings of Leviathan
The term Leviathan is thought to have meant ‘twisted coil’ in old Hebrew, and this may attest to the idea that Leviathan was a snake-like creature or a sea serpent.
This is echoed by the Greeks, for when the Old Testament was translated into Greek, the term Leviathan meant dragon.
Alternatively, modern Hebrew sees Leviathan to mean whale, again, another beast associated with the water; albeit a more corporeal and less exciting one.
Since then, Leviathan has also been thought to have been a very large crocodile, which many attribute to its scaly flesh.
Still, across all translations, it is agreed that Leviathan is a large creature, one that has a dominant presence in the water and something that would certainly be a testament to God’s creative ability. But of course, the descriptions of the creature changed across translations, cultures, and general beliefs where some see it as a serpent and others seeing it as a whale.
The whale variation is thought to show the creature to be larger than the biggest whale, and to come with a cylindrical body and fins which could form into a more realistic and earthly expectation. Meanwhile, the serpent or dragon variations are far more ambitious and show the beast to be covered in a scaly Armor-like flesh, rows of sharp teeth and the uncanny ability to shoot blasts of molten fire.
Metaphorical Origin of Leviathan
While the exact origin of Leviathan is unknown—though most point to the Book of Job—it’s thought that the basis of the creature may have come from the Canaanite God Baal, who had a battle with a seven-headed monster known as Lotan.
There is no clear-cut correlation between Lotan and Leviathan, especially given that no one in the Bible tries to fight the Beast.
Others see Leviathan as a metaphor for the sea itself, in that the sea is massive, making up most of the earth. The sea is also a dangerous Beast if you think about it. Uncontrollable waves that move freely, that can sink vessels and drown men all in a matter of minutes.
The sea itself is just as terrifying as Leviathan, for mankind cannot hope to ever control it, defeat it or even really understand it.
Another interesting interpretation appears from scholars who believe that Leviathan was a metaphor for pirates, who at the time, would prey on merchant vessels in the Kingdom of Israel. They would kill crews and steal that which they wanted.
Much like the biblical beast, these seafaring rogues were hard to pin down and perhaps the scale that they were operating on may have made sailors feel like these Marauders were everywhere and far larger.
It’s hard to comprehend the sheer scale of Leviathan, let alone consider the sheer destructiveness of such a monster. It’s fair to say that if such a thing existed in our time, we would have no doubt known about it by now. But some wonder what exactly lurks at the bottom of the ocean and whether there could be something Leviathan-like, lurking down there waiting to submerge.
Art Sources: free4fireYouTube, Wikipedia.