Leviathan (Part 1)


In Isa 27:1, a great mythopoetic image emerges. YHWH, the God of Israel, conquers an evil force opposed to Him – a creature called by various names, but translated in general as “Leviathan”, a great sea serpent:

In that day the LORD will punish with his hard, great, and fierce sword, Leviathan, the twisting serpent; he will slay the dragon of the sea.

Although one can understand Leviathan as a simple image, from whence did the idea of a giant serpent whom God fights arise? From the beginning of recorded history, there have been narratives of creation. Notably, each and every one of these narratives from the Ancient near east, the area where Israel resided, contained mention of the “sea” or “sea serpent”. From the perspective of the modern era, this becomes a strange anachronism – how does one understand usage of Leviathan in the modern day? Does one retain the ancient meaning, or can Leviathan be supplanted from its historical context? The key lies in the study of hermeneutics, wherein one can study the use of this ancient Hebrew word and its relevance for communities of faith. The task at hand is to see which interpretations not only best reflect the original intent, but also explain its usage in the Ancient near east, specifically the authors of the Biblical text. From an analysis of the interpretation of Leviathan throughout time, starting from the first creation myths to its use by both Judaism and Christianity, the “surplus of meaning” will become staggeringly clear.

Leviathan and Ancient Mideastern Mythology

John N. Day, author of the journal article “God and Leviathan in Isaiah 27:1”, believes that this creature derives from similar mythology in ancient Near Eastern cultures. Specifically, it embodies the idea of ascendency of a local deity over a pantheon of gods by defeating the powers of Chaos. Chaos, for these cultures, represented either the raging Sea or fearsome dragon that existed at the creation of the world, and by defeating this creature, the deity brings order to the cosmos. Thus, for Day, the imagery in Isaiah 27:1, as with other references within the Hebrew Bible, are understood as poetic imagery symbolizing the destruction of evil, not an actual serpent or creature, regardless of location or context. For Day, mythology was a vehicle through which the deep mysteries of life and meaning could be explained by extracting meaning out of the flux of historical change. In a way, the gods could be seen as an escape from ancient existential ennui, where metaphysical ideas were enforced upon the world to create order out of chaos. However, many of the ancient near eastern myths did not declare this order to be permanent; if the gods were lackadaisical in their duty, chaos could return. Day believes that Israel sought a radical break from these stories in that they needed no mythology; their God was active in history, and thus they brought these pagan gods into real history to mythologize and destroy them.

Ugaritic and Canaanite Mythology

As for actual evidence to support these claims, most scholars look no further than the Ugaritic cuneiform texts dating from the thirteenth century B.C.E. These texts outline Canaanite mythology, specifically the establishment of the kingship of Baal over the power of Chaos represented by the Sea-god, Yamm, and the Death-god, Mot. Yamm, specifically, has ties to Leviathan, as both are gods of the sea. In the Baal narrative, Yamm sends messages to El, the chief of the assembly of the gods, demanding that Baal be surrendered to him. El allows this to occur; Baal, angry, proceeds to fight Yamm in combat. Baal, throwing two clubs crafted by Kothar-and-Khasis, defeats Yamm with the second club; thus, Baal, representing “storm”, triumphs over Yamm, or “sea” and “river”. Baal bring the forces of chaos, identified as a fierce ocean, under control and order is established. Anat, Baal’s consort, makes the connection with the Biblical imagery explicit:

…Surely I lifted up the Dragon…I destroyed the Crooked Serpent, the Tyrant with the seven heads…

This same creature also bears the name “Lotan”, a seven-headed serpent, in the Ugaritic texts.11 An explicit relationship exists between “sea” and “river”, as well as “dragon” and “Lotan”, an equivalency that appears in Scripture.

Babylonian Mythology

Furthermore, the Enuma Elish narrative, which predates the Ugaritic texts, establishes another creation story in the same vein. The creation begins with a mingling of the fresh waters, called Apsu, and the saline water of the oceans, represented by the name Tiamat. The mingling of the two water, which has an odd sexual connotation, causes the creation of an entire pantheon of new gods. The new gods are rambunctious and noisy; as their father, Apsu resolves to destroy them all to get some peace and quiet, but is put to sleep by a spell from Ea, who proceeds to kill Apsu. This throws Tiamat, Apsu’s wife, into a blind rage, and she declares war on her children with the might of countless minions. God after god proves inadequate to eliminate the wild Tiamat. However, one god stands up to the task: Marduk, Ea’ son. Marduk promises that he will conquer Tiamat if the other gods promise that he, Marduk, becomes king of the gods and the commands of his lips become unalterable. The gods, in their desperation, accept this heavy price. Marduk, the young active god, fights against Tiamat, the old passive god, and wins the battle, subsequently creating the heavens and the earth by splitting her corpse in two. Marduk builds a cross-bar between the two pieces of Tiamat’s body, hopefully ensuring that the chaotic water never reform.

Egyptian Mythology

Egyptian creation myths, which predate the Enuma Elish, show a similar generation of the world from chaotic waters and conflict. In the Hermapolis tradition, creation originated from the Ogdoad, a set of eight gods consisting of four males and their consorts, whose tensions bring about the creation of Nun in the watery darkness. In addition, Egyptian cosmology represents ground, sky, and dry air by three gods – Geb, Nut, and Shu, respectively. Geb and Nut embrace each other as husband and wife, but Shu make room for Atum, the god who was generated out of Nun. Geb and Nut continually struggle against Shu to embrace again, wherein Shu keeps the balance for Atum to work his creative power. The parallels of conflict, wherein Leviathan arises, occur in multiple ancient near-eastern myths, and similar appearances in the Hebrew Bible cannot be mere coincidences.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.