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.

Comments

  1. Vong Oudom says:

    If in case Leviathan exist in this world, how do you think Thomas Hobbes intend to tell us in his book of “Leviathan”?

  2. From what I understand, the reason Hobbes chose that title was to compare the invincible power of the leviathan with the invincible power of the idealized state. The frontpiece of the book had a picture of a towering giant (representing the state or the sovereign), and the quote underneath was from Job, originally describing the serpent leviathan (“There is no power on earth to be compared to him. Job 41 . 24”).

  3. Anonymous says:

    but if there is fossil evidence IN ACCORDANCE to what the bible describes, and the bible says LITERALLY Leviathan the gliding serpent,
    Leviathan the coiling serpent;
    he will slay the monster of the sea,
    can it not be assumed that this was a REAL animal in the ocean not a crocodile? I think it was a huge sea monster that went extinct..

  4. It may have been a literal animal, but it is described poetically, not scientifically, and used symbolically, at least in my opinion.

  5. i’m not religious at all, but in the bible it says god made two leviathans, only to destroy the female so they couldn’t procreate. this would cause this beast to rule the world, not in a human sense, but it would ruin everything which is why it is was put in the deepest depths of the ocean. leviathan i think is satan in his first form when the battle for good and evil begin. what is the point of evil anyway if god rules everything? can’t he just make it disappear? i believe the bible to be a huge book of metaphors and myths just passed down from generation to generation. nothing in the bible makes any kind of sense, but then again that goes along with you don’t need to understand to have faith. i do. that’s why i fell away from religion. none of them are right.

    • Jack

      I’m curious to know where you got the idea mentioned in your first sentence. I have been reading the bible for decades, and have never seen anything about that.

      The idea that religious people somehow are less sensitive to things making sense is, I think, fallacious. The relationship between reason and faith is long and complex. Suffice it to say that both religious and non-religious people (if they are honest and not self-deceived) believe things they do not understand, and act on those beliefs.

    • emmanuel says:

      Jack, I like the way you talk. But I need u to knw dat you haven’t experience God the way I have. If u have I believe u will have a different view about Him. I knw that their are many questions in ur mind that have not been answered. But I will assure u that it will b a different experience if u meet God personaly. I would love to have conversations with you. U can email me @ emmyaneluv@yahoo.com

    • madinatu says:

      May God have mercy on your soul!!

    • Anonymous says:

      Understanding is a gift.

  6. Jack might have been talking about the Jewish bible. I take it, Daniel, your Christian right? If it’s not in the Christian bible, and no one cares about the Quaran except for those with Muslim faith, its probably more likely than not in the Hebrew bible.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I believe Leviathan is a real creature that lives in the depths of the ocean but not discovered.I dont think of it as a crocodile or a dinosaur but as a dragon because it says it could breathe fire

  8. slime-boy says:

    Wow, an excellent examination and analysis. This does make strong points, I wish more expalnations used a good method lie this. Some ideas refer to the Behemoth as the Republican Elephant monster, I am not sure about Leviathan though.
    Great discussion.

  9. I am absolutely convinced that Leviathan was a living creature as described in Bible. A ferocious , monstrous size serpent, which was coiling in the deeps of the oceans resurfacing once in a while from the deeps.As with everything the power of this monster is used to compare the strength of God against one of the most ferocious living creature on earth. So of course it was also used as a metaphor in some parts of the bible just to show the power of God. The fear what the Leviathan causes when it is mentioned by the authors in the Bible it is pretty obvious that they either witnessed it , or have stories of people who saw this monster , and survived encounters with this huge beast. Scientists all over the world identify new species of creatures in the depths of the ocean.the Ocean is a pretty big place , and the depths are unable to reach by us even with the advance technology what we have today. So it makes it easy to hide for such a creature. There is also the possibility that this creature might be extinct by now, which is my belief also. Regarding religion and faith , my comment to everyone is the following. To have faith is a choice. I choose to believe, just because you cannot see something that does not mean it doesn’t exist! You cannot see an electromagnetic field but yet it is there. This is just one of many examples of force or energy what we cannot see but they exist. 500 years ago electricity would have been called magic or witchcraft. I think we cannot see God yet because we are not ready. We have to mature mentally , emotionally as a human race to be able to face God. God in my opinion is positive energy and Satan is negative energy( at least in the bible), and we humans are the charger. If you look at it this way even if you are an Atheist you have to agree with my idea, which is that whenever you do something good you are charging God with your positive energy, on the other hand bad things will charge Satan and take away energy from God. You do not have to agree with me but my choice was and will be to believe, because it gives me comfort that no matter what, I am never alone , and I am Gods , He made us in his image and He loves us forever, no matter what! And this give me peace:)

  10. Most creationist scientists believe that it was indeed a dinosaur and that dinosaurs possibly could breathe fire. Many dinosaurs have enlarged sinus cavities, the T Rex has a large skull but only a small brain. So there’s plenty of room for those type of structures to have existed there, anatomically it’s possible. All we have left are the bones. Additionally it’s chemically possible because we have creatures like the bombardier beetle which can organically produce gas. So if you take this into account, dinosaur is the most plausible explanation of all the alternative offered.

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