Like the dark depths of the ocean, the biblical marine creature Leviathan evokes a universal sense of power, mystery and primordial dread. It has garnered a cultural legacy over the centuries, appearing in works of art and as a symbol of evil in esoteric religious writings. Leviathan has lent its name to sinister forces and shadowy organizations in works of fiction, and the philosopher Thomas Hobbes used it as the title of his seminal work advocating sovereign political power.

Leviathan is mentioned a half dozen times in the Old Testament, twice each in Job, the Psalms and Isaiah. The diverse poetic descriptions of the creature in these passages have led to equally diverse interpretations among faithful and skeptical readers alike.

Was Leviathan a metaphorical image or an actual living beast that prowled the seas in ancient times? The short answer is both. But a longer answer may yield a deeper appreciation for the majesty of God and the wonders of his creation.

Ancient parallels, modern interpretations

Various cultures of the Ancient Near East (ANE) had creation myths involving battles between their gods and the primordial sea, which was seen as a symbol of chaos and evil. The god would defeat the sea, along with a variety of sea monsters thrown in for good measure. One of these creatures was called Leviathan, or something similar in the languages of the region that were related to Hebrew.

This, together with the fantastical depictions of Leviathan in the Old Testament, has led scholars of a skeptical bent to assume the beast was nothing but a myth, borrowed by the Jews from their near eastern neighbours. But since both Job and Psalms place Leviathan alongside real-life creatures to demonstrate God’s power and wisdom in creation, this hardly seems like a tenable assumption.

Another common interpretation put forward by both Jewish and Christian scholars is that Leviathan was a crocodile, or less frequently a whale or a sea snake of some sort. But aside from being wildly different from each other, none of these creatures comes close to fitting the detailed and dreadful portrait of Leviathan found in Job. To be sure, crocodiles are scary. But they’re not that scary.

There have also been attempts to identify Leviathan with various extinct marine creatures, notably plesiosaurs, mosasaurs and a species of giant crocodile known as sarcosuchus. But none of these identifications has proven conclusive, relying as they do on arguments from silence, and on varying interpretations of the timescale during which these creatures lived.

While the textual evidence from the Scriptures indicates that Leviathan actually existed, it cannot be conclusively identified with any known animal, past or present. Moreover, the variety in the descriptions suggests that different creatures may have been in view in the various passages, some of them real, others symbolic, adapted from the surrounding cultures to make a theological point.

A symbol of divine judgment

“You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the sea monsters on the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.”
 (Psalm 74:13-14)

“In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.”
 (Isaiah 27:1)

One of the best preserved of the ANE creation myths is the Baal Epic, recorded on clay tablets that were discovered among the ruins of Ugarit, an ancient Canaanite port city in northern Syria. The text contains remarkable parallels to the Leviathan passages found in Psalms and Isaiah:

“When you slew the Leviathan, the fleeing serpent, [when] you finished off the twisted serpent, the powerful one of seven heads, the heavens were laid bare and languished.”
(KTU 1.5 lines 1-4)

The connection to the biblical material is undeniable. However, the OT authors weren’t simply passing along a shared mythology, as critical commentators suggest. The context of both Psalm 74 and Isaiah 27 is God’s judgment on Israel’s enemies. These nations are metaphorically compared, here and elsewhere in the OT, to various primordial monsters from ANE mythology, including this hydra-headed version of Leviathan.

Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the authors of Scripture repurposed these mythical narratives to show that the God of Israel, and not Baal or any other, is the Sovereign Lord who triumphs over his enemies and over every manifestation of evil. More than that, he isn’t engaged in a titanic struggle with the aquatic forces of chaos. He created the oceans and the great creatures that live in them. They all belong to him, and are his to dispose of as he pleases.

This literary practice of adapting familiar beliefs from one culture to make a point in a new context is known as “broken mythology.” The Apostle Paul did something similar when he addressed the Athenian philosophers at the Areopagus. Paul cited quotes about Zeus from a pair of Greek poets to show the Athenians that they were the offspring of God, in whom they lived and moved and had their being.

The wonder and joy of creation

“Here is the sea, great and wide, which teems with creatures innumerable, living things both small and great. There go the ships, and Leviathan, which you formed to play in it.”
 (Psalm 104:25-26)

Compared with the judgment narratives in Isaiah 27 and Psalm 74, the tone of Psalm 104 is radically different, as is the image of Leviathan pictured therein. This isn’t the seven-headed monster of ANE mythology, the symbol of chaos and evil crushed by God, emblematic of his judgment on the nations. It’s a happy and very real sea beast, splashing in the waves for the pleasure of its maker.

The whole of Psalm 104 is a joyful paean to the splendour of God, expressed through the wonders of his creation. God’s kindness and care for his handiwork are on display here, as is the harmonious interplay of his created order – night and day, activity and rest, longing and satisfaction, with all creation singing for joy at the wise providence of God.

Humanity is woven into this tapestry, engaging in creative, fruitful work and enjoying the good things God has made.

And Leviathan is part of the celebration, breaching the waves in sight of the ships that go sailing by, sharing the ocean with a wealth of marine life, looking to God for its food in due course. This isn’t a beast of fantasy but of the natural world. It fulfills its divine mandate by playing – some translations say frolicking or splashing about. The Hebrew word has a sense of playing together, suggesting that God enters into the pleasure of this creature he has made, as one would with a beloved pet.

The wisdom and majesty of God

“Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook or press down his tongue with a cord? Can you put a rope in his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook? Will he make many pleas to you? Will he speak to you soft words? Will he make a covenant with you to take him for your servant forever? Will you play with him as with a bird, or will you put him on a leash for your girls?”
 (Job 41:1-5)

“He makes the deep boil like a pot; he makes the sea like a pot of ointment. Behind him he leaves a shining wake; one would think the deep to be white-haired. On earth there is not his like, a creature without fear. He sees everything that is high; he is king over all the sons of pride.”
 (Job 41:31-34)

“No one is so fierce that he dares to stir him up. Who then is he who can stand before me? Who has first given to me, that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine.”
 (Job 41:10-11)

By far the most extensive discussion of Leviathan in the Scriptures is found in the penultimate chapter of the book of Job. In the final section of the book, God confronts Job with a litany of rhetorical questions about various aspects of his creation – the stars, the earth, the ocean depths, weather patterns, birds, animals. The point is to impress upon Job that God’s wisdom and majesty, to say nothing of his purposes in allowing suffering, are far beyond Job’s ability to comprehend.

God concludes this sustained rhetorical argument with an entire chapter devoted to the wonders and terrors of Leviathan. Clearly this is no mere mythological beast or simple crocodile. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the Egyptians routinely hunted crocodiles for food and even domesticated them as objects of worship.

But Leviathan couldn’t be domesticated or killed with any known weapon in the ancient world. It was armour-plated, impervious to every form of harm and massive, leaving a wake as it swam in the ocean like a large ship would. God presents it as a capstone of his natural order, an alpha creature at the pinnacle of the food chain. It may have frolicked in the waves as ships sailed by, but it was also a deadly threat to any who ventured too close to it.

And yet, Leviathan is not presented here as a symbol of chaos or evil to be subdued. As a matter of fact, God seems rather pleased with his fearsome creature. “I will not keep silence concerning his limbs, or his mighty strength, or his goodly frame,” he tells Job.

In the end, Leviathan is a prime example of the argument from lesser to greater. If this powerful ancient marine creature was wondrous and majestic, how much more is the God who created it? Before such wonder, the fitting response of wisdom is the one expressed by Job: keep silent and stand in awe.

Sources and further reading

Lita Cosner, “Leviathan – real or symbolic?Journal of Creation, Volume 27 Issue 3, December 2013.

Michael S. Heiser, “Why does the Bible say God battled sea monsters at creation?Logos Talk, October 10, 2017.

Josh Larsen, “What’s Godzilla doing in the Book of Job?Think Christian, May 18, 2014.

Timothy Mackie, “Book of Job: God gives Job a virtual tour of his wise world,” The Bible Project, May 27, 2017.

Jack Wellman, “What is the Leviathan in the Bible?Patheos, August 22, 2015.

Copyright 2019 Focus on the Family Canada

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