Leviathan (Part 2)


No study of Ancient near eastern creation mythology/symbology would be complete without the Hebrew Bible. Leviathan itself is called as such in the following five passages within every English translation. Surely, the word used in these contexts is not always “לִוְיָתָן” or, transliterated, “Livyatan”, but most scholars agree that every other reference other than the following five are secondary and not a direct link to the actual idea, word, or creature.

Isaiah 27:1

The first reference, of course, is Isaiah 27:1. Isaiah 27:1’s canonical context gives Leviathan a specifically eschatological character that does not exist in other ancient Near Eastern narratives, nor in other Hebrew Bible passages. In this passage, the Leviathan becomes a future symbol for the oppressors of Israel, wherein YHWH smites Israel’s enemies once and for all. If the basic problem of metaphysics in antiquity was the ontological reality of primordial evil, then YHWH, in the end times, must eliminate Leviathan forever. Thus, the label of “ultimate evil” would certainly fit. This passage shares a threefold poetic form with Canaanite literature; Mot’s speech to Baal confirms this: “Because you smote Leviathan the Ancient Serpent, [and] made an end of the Crooked Serpent the Tyrant with the seven heads.” However, the scale of the conflict has expanded from a fight for supremacy into a fight against the primordial evil. YHWH’s conquest over Leviathan echoes Baal’s victory over Yamm. Baal’s victory, however, was understood as temporary and precarious; the God of Israel destroys chaos fully and finally, establishing the superiority of YHWH over the universe itself.

Isaiah 27:1 also reflects elements of an apocalyptic. The vision of Isaiah 24-27 as a unit displays the end of time; YHWH, the head and only God, destroys chaos once and for all in an act of divine judgment, not just redemption or salvation. Just prior to Isaiah 27:1, Isaiah 26:21 tells the reader that “For behold, the LORD is about to come out from His place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity; and the earth will reveal her bloodshed and will no longer cover her slain.” YHWH specifically uses the sword to punish and destroy Leviathan, and this imagery is echoed in the later Isaiah 66:13, wherein the sword is used in judgment against evil. Thus, the Leviathan reference of Isaiah 27:1 only uses Leviathan as a source of ultimate evil in its canonical context that YHWH will conquer in the eschaton, not a reference to Ugaritic or Babylonian myths.

Job 3:8; 41

Job provides the reader with the next two references. The first, Job 41, is the famous description of the beast. Within its context, this description has an important purpose. Job, here, has waited seven days from the time in which everything that he had was taken away from him. In Job 3, he begins to speak out against God for these meaningless transgressions – why am I being punished for no wrongdoing? Job curses the day of his birth (3:1), for in his pursuits everything was taken away in one felt swoop. Chapter 3 continues to relay the idea that being born is a curse unto itself. Job’s day of birth, nay, his day of conception, should be removed from the span of time. In this sense does Job 3:8 bear mention: “Let those curse it [night] who curse the day, who are prepared to rouse Leviathan.” Job’s author uses the specific metaphor of day and light to show a reversal. The day is cursed by darkness (v. 4-5), and the night is cursed by light (6-7); both times of the day are turned on their head and destroyed by their opposite. Thus, the reversal causes chaos, the enemy of YHWH, to re-awaken, here represented by the terrible beast image Leviathan. Edward Ullendorff re-translates this verse to reflect this particular interpretation: “Let the light-rays of day pierce it (i.e. the night) apt even to rouse Leviathan”. This fits in line with the general theme of light and darkness seen in v. 2-9 better than the traditional “curse” narrative of most translations. Job wants the Leviathan to seperate him from YHWH, whose capriciousness has brought him to the depths of despair – the Leviathan creature accurately reflects Job’s experience of the world as a chaotic and disruptive place.

Job 41 describes the beast in great detail. One must remember, in the canonical context, that Leviathan’s mention in 3:8 reappears here in a different formulation: YHWH, who has heard Job’s arguments and found them wanting, has already replied to his initial objections and silenced Job (40:3-5). However, even after Job has garnered his response, God continues to call out of the whirlwind (40:6) and question Job’s call for Leviathan in 3:8. In Job 41, YHWH describes the terrible Leviathan creature as too large to capture or pierce with weaponry (v. 1-2, 7, 26-28), as having an outer shell that is doubly thick (v. 13), and having terrorizing teeth (v. 14). Leviathan’s scales are impenetrable as they are layered so close together (v. 15-17, 23), and the creature can breath fire (v. 18-21). In addition, Leviathan itself was created without fear, able to fight against anything and anyone (v. 33), and the creature is the king over all the sons of pride and arrogance (v. 34). Many interpreters have seen this as an actual creature, along with Behemoth in Job 40, perhaps a crocodile or hippopotamus. Considering the ancient near-eastern location of the writer, it would not be suspect to assume that these creatures, both of whom can be found in or around Egypt, would be familiar to the author in order to bring about a certain set of images for his audience, even a portmanteau of the two creatures together. This would not be unprecedented in Israelite literature: Ezekiel’s initial visions involve cherubs that are literal chimeras, having the appearance of several animals combined into one being.

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.