What is Leviathan and Why should I Care?

At the end of God’s speech to Job, He speaks for an entire chapter about a creature called Leviathan.  There is much confusion about the identification of this creature (in spite of its lengthy description) for the following reasons:

  • The word itself is simply a transliteration of the Hebrew (not a translation).  It seems to derive from a root meaning, “coiling, gliding”.
  • It’s description does not match exactly any one creature.
  • The context would seem to be a real (not mythological) animal known by Job, but the description seems to be mythical or hyperbolic.
  • The word is used only five times in the bible, and seems to have a different meaning in some of them.
  • It’s closest parallel seems to be to another being mentioned in the Bible, Rahab; This creature is equally mysterious and not mentioned by name outside of scripture.

Options, please:

A. Leviathan is a crocodile. This is supported by the following facts:

  1. It is described as being covered with something like scales or a skin impervious to puncture.
  2. It is described as having fearsome teeth.
  3. It is a marine animal, yet also can leave a trail in the mud

The weaknesses of this view are the following:

  1. Leviathan is described as a beast that none can capture, but crocodiles have always been able to be captured by skilled hunters.
  2. Related to the above, Leviathan seems to be pictured as the most fearsome beast, but few would give that description to the crocodile.
  3. Leviathan is said to breathe fire
  4. “The deep” usually refers to the sea, not swampland or rivers
  5. The parallel passages which refer to Leviathan do not fit with the description of the crocodile.

B. Leviathan is an extinct dinosaur:

  1. A number of ancient fossils describe a beast like this
  2. While these creatures would not be known to Job, God could still be describing them (and perhaps fossils of dinosaurs were known)

The weaknesses of this view:

  1. It would fit the context better if it were a being that Job had actual knowledge of.
  2. No dinosaur could breathe fire.

C. Leviathan is a crocodile (or some other animal) that is given a hyperbolic, not literal, description.

  1. This would make sense of the crocodile like features, as well as the breathing fire.
  2. This would fit the style of the book of Job (this is poetry, after all, not a zoology textbook).

However:

  1. If the point of the chapter is to show God’s greatness in what He created, it perhaps seems pointless to have an exaggerated description.
  2. The problem with the parallel passages remains.

D. Leviathan is an unknown (probably extinct) sea monster of some kind.

  1. The depths of the oceans still holds many mysteries to us

However:

  1. It stretches credulity to think of a sea monster who was able to breath fire.
  2. The context seems to demand a creature who can also appear on land, or at least the shallows.

E. Leviathan is a purely mythological being.

  1. Since no animal actually matches the description, it must be a mythical or symbolic being.

However:

  1. The context almost demands an actual created being.

F. Leviathan is a unique and somewhat supernatural being, associated in some way with Satan’s primeval opposition to God.

G. Leviathan is a real creature (like a crocodile or dinosaur), but also serves as a symbol for the evil forces opposing God’s good rule over creation.

Let’s look at these last two ideas more closely:

In addition to the description in chapter 41, the book of Job also mentions Leviathan once more:

First, in Job chapter 3, where Job is cursing the day of his birth.  He says in verse 8.

May those who curse days curse that day,

those who are ready to rouse Leviathan.

Let the stars of its dawn be dark.

 

Here we see the first thing Leviathan was associated with in the ancient mind: darkness.  Those ready to rouse Leviathan are looking to blot out the dawn or the day.  Leviathan seems to be a creature at war with the coming of light or day.

The book of Psalms mentions Leviathan twice, in very different contexts.

The first is in Psalm 79:

12 But you, O God, are my king from of old;

you bring salvation upon the earth.

13 It was you who split open the sea by your power;

you broke the heads of the monster in the waters.

14 It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan

and gave him as food to the creatures of the desert.

15 It was you who opened up springs and streams;

you dried up the ever flowing rivers.

16 The day is yours, and yours also the night;

you established the sun and moon.

17 It was you who set all the boundaries of the earth;

you made both summer and winter

This psalm is a cry for God to save His people from their adversaries.  The section here hearkens back to God’s power in His victory over his enemies at the dawn of creation.  Leviathan is described as a sea monster with several heads.  At some time associated with creation, God crushed Leviathan and gave him as food for the creatures of the desert.

Before we look at a parallel text to this, we should also look at Psalm 104:

 

24 How many are your works, O Lord!

In wisdom you made them all;

the earth is full of your creatures.

25 There is the sea, vast and spacious,

teeming with creatures beyond number—

living things both large and small.

26 There the ships go to and fro,

and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.

Here Leviathan is again associated with the sea, but is seen, not as a fearsome foe of God, but one of the animals that frolic in the sea.

The Last mention of Leviathan is somewhat surprising to us in light of what we already have read.  It is Isaiah 27:1:

In that day,

the Lord will punish 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

Again, Leviathan is seen as some sort of sea monster, and an enemy of God.  But God’s victory over Leviathan is seen in the future, not the past.  Indeed, most Bible scholars view this whole section of Isaiah as eschatological, that is, looking forward to the final victory of God over his enemies and the establishment of His eternal kingdom.

Now, before we begin to interpret these verses, we should also point out verses that deal with a being that seemingly is associated with Leviathan: Rahab.  This being is not mentioned outside the Old Testament, but many of the ancient myths refer to a creature or force like Rahab.  The first reference is again in the book of Job (26):

10 He marks out the horizon on the face of the waters

for a boundary between light and darkness.

11 The pillars of the heavens quake,

aghast at his rebuke.

12 By his power he churned up the sea;

by his wisdom he cut Rahab to pieces.

13 By his breath the skies became fair;

his hand pierced the gliding serpent.

Here we see many of the same themes associated with Leviathan: a gliding serpent in the sea that God cuts to pieces as part of the creation process.

Psalm 89 also describes God’s power over creation and Rahab:

9 You rule over the surging sea;

when its waves mount up, you still them.

10 You crushed Rahab like one of the slain;

with your strong arm you scattered your enemies.

11 The heavens are yours, and yours also the earth;

you founded the world and all that is in it.

12 You created the north and the south;

Isaiah 51 hits the same notes:

9 Awake, awake! Clothe yourself with strength,

O arm of the Lord;

awake, as in days gone by,

as in generations of old.

Was it not you who cut Rahab to pieces,

who pierced that monster through?

10 Was it not you who dried up the sea,

the waters of the great deep,

who made a road in the depths of the sea

so that the redeemed might cross over?

This last verse also brings in another meaning of Rahab.  Rahab also symbolizes Egypt, as the enemy of God’s people (and therefore of God himself). This symbolism is brought out plainly in Isaiah 31:

6 An oracle concerning the animals of the Negev:

Through a land of hardship and distress,

of lions and lionesses,

of adders and darting snakes,

the envoys carry their riches on donkeys’ backs,

their treasures on the humps of camels,

to that unprofitable nation,

7 to Egypt, whose help is utterly useless.

Therefore I call her

Rahab the Do-Nothing.

This same identification of Egypt with Rahab is seen in Psalm 86: 4

Finally, in Ezekiel 29, the king of Egypt is described as a monster not unlike Leviathan or Rahab:

Son of man, set your face against Pharaoh king of Egypt and prophesy against him and against all Egypt. 3 Speak to him and say: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says:

“ ‘I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt,

you great monster lying among your streams.

You say, “The Nile is mine;

I made it for myself.”

4 But I will put hooks in your jaws

and make the fish of your streams stick to your scales.

I will pull you out from among your streams,

with all the fish sticking to your scales.

5 I will leave you in the desert,

you and all the fish of your streams.

You will fall on the open field

and not be gathered or picked up.

I will give you as food

to the beasts of the earth and the birds of the air.

See also the almost identical scene in Ezekiel 32:1-4.

Analysis:

  • It appears obvious from the above that a simple identification of Leviathan with some animal is inadequate.
  • Leviathan is equated or at least associated with another sea creature, Rahab.
  • Rahab is both already conquered by God, and yet to be conquered by God in the last days.
  • Rahab has a strong association with the sea, and sometimes seems to personify the sea in its resistance to land and human civilization
  • Both Leviathan and Rahab are also associated with darkness.
  • Rahab serves as a symbol of Egypt and Egypt’s king, enemies of God’s plan.
  • It is worth noting that Satan is described in Revelation as both a serpent and a dragon (chapters 12 and 20), and in Genesis 3 as a serpent.
  • In Revelation 13:1 the first beast is described as “coming out of the sea”. See also how the four beasts of Daniel 7 also arise out of the sea).
  • Perhaps we see two hints of all this in the first and penultimate chapters of the Bible.  Cryptically, the only day of creation which God did not pronounce his blessing on (“It was good”) was the second day, when the seas were formed. Just as cryptically, we find that Revelation 21:1 says, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no more sea”.

Conclusions:

  • Leviathan is not a mythical being (totally made up), but rather a symbolic being.  God uses earthly creatures to point to spiritual (invisible) forces.
  • In the fullest sense, Leviathan stands for violent opposition to God.  This is pictured in the raging sea threatening life on land (or ships) with its stormy darkness.  Repeatedly, God’s forming of the world is described as a victory over the waters (see also Job 38:8-11).   But this is not simply inanimate resistance, but associated with the active resistance of intelligent and willful opponents of God. This is why God is described as triumphing not only over the sea (an inanimate force) but over the great monster of the sea (an animate and willful force).
  • It is this last sense that Egypt and Pharoah become apt symbols of Leviathan and Rahab.
  • It is also in this sense that the victory over Rahab is not yet complete.  Yes, Rahab as opposition to creation was defeated, but Rahab as opposition to God’s new creation (centered on a redeemed humanity) continues until it’s final defeat in the last days.
  • Option F (above) is possible. In this view a supernatural yet physical being still exists, probably in the deepest ocean lair.  This being was subdued and imprisoned there until the end of days when God will allow it to again wage war against God and will be completely defeated.  Note Job 7:12 —    “Am I the sea, or the monster of the deep, that you put me under guard?”
  • Option G is preferred. Job 41 is more than a description of God’s power in creating the crocodile or some other great being.  It is an affirmation that Satan and all the forces opposing God are totally under his control.  Job can place his trust in God because, even though his ways are mysterious to man, they are not random but part of his active plan to defeat the forces of evil.

The Sin of the Orthodox

[note: by “Orthodox” I am referring to those who are biblical and traditional in their theology; I am not referring to the Orthodox church]

 

Each time I read the book of Job I find deeper meanings.  As I read it this week, one idea that kept coming to my mind was the sin of those who thought they had God all figured out.

At the conclusion of the book, God responds to Job, and then responds to Eliphaz and his friends.  The friends were, you will recall, the “miserable comforters” who debated with Job about the justice of God. The substance of their great debate could be summarized this way: The friends argue that since God is just, Job’s afflictions must be the punishment for some hidden sin.  Job argues in response (repeatedly): Look, I don’t have any “secret sin” that deserves this kind of punishment, so God is not being just to me.  The friends then accuse him of undermining the notion of God’s justice.  Job responds by repeating what he knows: I am innocent, yet enduring incredible suffering, and this suffering seems to come from God himself.  Again, Job implies, “God is not being just with me”.

Now, of course, we readers are let into a secret.  Chapters one and two describe the scene in heaven where God twice describes Job, “a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil”.  In fact, God says, “there is none like him on earth”.  So we know before the dialogue begins that the three friends are in the wrong.  Job’s afflictions are not punishments.  Job is blameless before God.

But imagine if we did not have this information.  Imagine we walked in to the story right where the dialogue starts.  On the one hand, we have three wise, older men who have an exalted view of God and are eager to defend his ways.  They are completely orthodox in their understanding, and their first priority is to protect God’s reputation.  On the other hand, you have Job, who seems to be not only suffering, but positively afflicted by God (the suddenness and completeness of his losses cannot be mere coincidence).  Job argues that he is blameless, therefore God is not being just, while the orthodox friends argue that God is just, therefore Job is not blameless.  Who is right?

Wait: before you answer, again try to strip your mind of what you know from chapters one and two.  And you may find yourself in the position of Elihu.  Elihu is a rather mysterious figure.  He shows up without introduction and his name is not mentioned again after his long speech (chapters 32-37).  His speech does not serve to advance the dialogue at all, and neither God nor Job nor the friends respond to it.  Here is what I think: Elihu is intended to function as a warning to the reader.  His viewpoint and speech (“Job, you are wrong; I know wisdom, and you are speaking folly”) are the natural conclusion we are tempted to draw simply by listening to the speeches (without the prologue).  In his speeches, he not only agrees with the orthodox friends, but is angry at them for not being able to withstand Job’s arguments. 

It is right after his speech that God Himself arrives on the scene and, incredibly, joins in the argument.  God does two things.  First, he reproves Job (chapters 38-41) for failing to understand what Kierkegaard would later call “the infinite qualitative distinction” between God and man.  Job is wrong because He simply is not in a place to understand God’s ways, and therefore is recklessly hasty in saying that God is unjust to him.  The second thing God does, then, is surprising.  He approves Job, especially in contrast to his orthodox friends.  Twice he tells the orthodox, “you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has”.  In fact, God regards this not only as a mistake, but a sin, for which they need to offer a sacrifice and ask Job(!) to pray for them.  God seems less upset by Job yelling at Him than the friends yelling at Job on God’s behalf.

This, then, is the surprising conclusion to the dialogue: Elihu listens and takes the side of the orthodox friends and rebukes Job, while God listens and ultimately takes the side of Job and rebukes the orthodox.  And this is the heart of the book of Job: God’s ways are, in the final analysis, not able to be fully understood by man, simply because we are never in the position that He is in.  Even the most godly (like Job) and the most orthodox and cerebral (like Job’s friends) can never understand God in the same way they understand the things of this world.  In fact, God describes the words of the orthodox friends, who felt they were speaking godly wisdom, as “folly”. 

Now, here is where the rubber hits the road.  I have always taken pride in holding correct, orthodox views of God and theology.  And I still feel that the traditional, conservative, biblical viewpoint is the best way to understand the world in which we find ourselves in.  Yet, books like Job warn me to be very humble about this.  In the end, I have little doubt that my orthodox, evangelical theology will be like the fig leafs the first couple used to clothe themselves: wholly inadequate, and replaced by something else by God’s grace. 

What does this mean practically?  It means that we should be careful that our study of theology should never outstrip our understanding of “the infinite qualitative distinction”.  It means our eagerness to defend God should never come at the expense of loving people.  It means we must learn to live out our worldview fully, all the while realizing that when we see Him all of our previous “knowledge” will be fig leaves of foolishness.