Lecture 34: Identifying Leviathan | Free Online Biblical Library

Lecture 34: Identifying Leviathan

Course: The Book of Job

Lecture: Identifying Leviathan


We spent the last two lectures looking at behemoth. Now we’re going to consider Leviathan, a creature that God gives a lot more attention to in his speech. Before we try to identify Leviathan, let’s just read what God says about him and then we will take it apart piece by piece.

I. Description of Leviathan

Chapter 41 reads as follows: “Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook or tie down his tongue with a rope? Can you put a cord through his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook? Will it keep begging you for mercy? Will it speak to you with gentle words? Will it make an agreement with you for you to take it as your slave for life? Can you make a pet of it like a bird or put it on a leash for the young women of your household? Will traders barter for it? Will they divide it up among the merchants? Can you fill its hide with harpoons or its head with fishing spears? If you lay a hand on it, you will remember the struggle and never do it again! Any hope of subduing it is false; the mere sight of it is overpowering. No one is fierce enough to rouse it. Who then is able to stand against me? Who has a claim against me that I must pay? Everything under heaven belongs to me.

I will not fail to speak of Leviathan’s limbs, its strength and its graceful form. Who can strip off its outer coat? Who can penetrate its double coat of armor? Who dares open the doors of its mouth, ringed about with fearsome teeth? Its back has rows of shields tightly sealed together; each is so close to the next that no air can pass between. They are joined fast to one another; they cling together and cannot be parted. Its snorting throws out flashes of light; its eyes are like the rays of dawn. Flames stream from its mouth; sparks of fire shoot out. Smoke pours from its nostrils as from a boiling pot over burning reeds. Its breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from its mouth. Strength resides in its neck ; dismay goes forth before it. The folds of its flesh are tightly joined; they are firm and immovable. Its chest is as hard as rock, had as a lower millstone. When it rises up, the mighty are terrified; they retreat before its thrashing. The sword that reaches to it has no effect, nor does the spear or the dart or the javelin. Iron it treats like straw and bronze like rotten wood. Arrows do not make it flee; slingstones are like chaff to it. A club seems to be but a piece of straw; it laughs at the rattling of the lance. Its undersides are jagged potsherds , leaving a trail in the mud like a threshing sledge. It makes the depths churn like a boiling caldron; it stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment. It leaves glistening wakes behind it, one would think the deep had white hair. Nothing on earth is its equal – a creature without fear. It looks down on all that are haughty; it is king over all that are proud.”

II. Leviathan is Not A Crocodile

What is Leviathan? Again, some people treat Leviathan as a natural animal, most commonly the crocodile. But clearly, this is much, much more than a crocodile.

A. Invulnerable to human weapons

Let’s briefly just survey some of the things that are said about it. First of all, it is invulnerable to all human weapons. Again, verse 7: “Harpoons and fishing spears have no effect upon it.” Verses 26-29: “Swords, javelins, spears, darts, iron and bronze, these are like nothing to it. Arrows don’t chase it away.” And he says, “slingstones are like chaff to it.” What does that mean? In The Ancient World, as I’m sure you know, they had to thresh their grain and they would put the grain down in a threshing floor and they would go over it with a threshing sled, which would be a big sled that had these iron teeth sticking down the bottom and it would tear up the grain. That would separate the edible portion, the kernels say of wheat, from the chaff, which is a very thin shell, an inedible, indigestible shell. The shell was very thin, very light; and then when they were ready to complete the threshing process, they would get threshing forks. They would throw the mix up into the air and the chaff was so light that it would just be blown away and the heavier kernels of wheat or barley would fall to the ground.

So when he says “slingstones are like chaff to it” he is talking about that thin, tiny little shell that goes over a kernel of wheat or barley, something totally
insubstantial. What he is saying is, you can shoot all kinds of weapons at it, but it won’t even feel them, it will hardly even notice that they are there. Leviathan is described first of all as invulnerable to human weapons; and that is certainly not true of any crocodile or any other animal.

B. Eyes and nose flash with light

Secondly, its eyes and nose flash with light, 41:18. “Its snorting throws out flashes of light; its eyes are like the rays of dawn.” Again, obviously no animal does that.

C. Pours fire out of its mouth

Thirdly, it pours fire out of its mouth, as we think of the traditional dragon. Chapter 41, verses 19 and following where we read: “Flames stream from its
mouth. Smoke pours from its nostrils.” He says it is like a boiling pot over burning reeds. That is an interesting thing to say, isn’t it? A boiling pot, of course, is going to put forth a lot of steam; and if a fire is made with reeds, the reeds are going to produce a lot of smoke. So smoke and steam would come up from a boiling pot over burning reeds; and he says that is what his breath is like. He pours out fire and smoke and steam whenever he breathes.

D. He is covered with armor

He is covered with armor. Again, 41:15-18: “Its back is like a row of shields; they are so tightly joined together” he says, “even air can’t get through.” Certainly no weapon can get past his armor, his powerful scales.

E. He dominates all creatures

He dominates all creatures, 41: 34: “It looks down on all that are haughty; it is king over all that are proud.” We should say here, not only does it say it
dominates every other creature, but it specifically speaks of the haughty and the proud. Haughtiness and pride in the Bible are kind of basic fundamental sins. Anyone who is haughty and proud is opposed to God. This Leviathan creature sits above them all. You could call him the lord of sinners, the lord of people who rebel against God. Again, obviously I would say, this is no animal.

F. God implies that he has speech

Furthermore, it seems he has speech. Verses 3 and 4: “Will Leviathan beg for mercy? Will it speak to you with gentle words?” Obviously no animal will do this and God seems to be implying that leviathan does have speech.

When we look at all this, what we come away with is a creature that is unlike any animal anyone is ever going to encounter. The closest thing that we have in our literature is something like a dragon, a mythological dragon who is big and fierce and terrible, who may be covered with heavy armor, who breathes fire and can talk also. If you are familiar with The Hobbit, you have the dragon Smaug, who has its armor and who breathes fire and who speaks to Bilbo, etc. That is about the closest thing we have in literature to Leviathan. He is some kind of creature that is above the animal kingdom. He is really supernatural in his power.

III. The Name Leviathan

Now let’s consider his name. He is called “Leviathan.”

A. Some Bible passages use this name to refer to a sea creature

Sometimes in the Bible Leviathan is used for what is simply a sea creature, just an ordinary, natural sea creature. We read this for example in Psalm 104:26 which says of the sea: “There go the ships and leviathan that you formed to sport in it.” Psalm 104 verse 26 is looking at the sea and the nature of the sea, that ships are on the sea and inside the sea there are these creatures that the psalm calls “leviathan.” In this case, leviathan seems to be nothing more than big sea animals, maybe big sharks, maybe whales, things like that. It is not surprising, though, that the term “leviathan” can have a multitude of uses because in fact, the word “sea” has multitude of uses. Sometimes in the Bible the sea is just the sea, it is just a great big body of water that has fish in it and that people sail over. Nothing symbolic about it, it doesn’t represent anything else, there is nothing diabolical about it; it is just the ocean. Very often, however, the sea is something much more terrible. It is a domain of death, it is a domain of evil, it is a place of chaos and destruction. In fact, probably the majority of places in the Bible that refer to the sea speak of it in that way and not as just the ordinary waters of the ocean.

So leviathan is kind of the same way. In some uses leviathan is just a great big creature that lives in the sea, maybe a whale. In other places, however, Leviathan is something much more notorious, much more evil and dangerous.

B. Found in Ugaritic literature

As a creature, leviathan is not unique to Biblical passages. We have references to leviathan in other literature, especially in the Ugaritic literature. Let’s remind ourselves of what Ugaritic literature is. Remember that north of Israel in what we now call Lebanon, near the Mediterranean shore, up until about 1200 BC there was a city called Ugarit. Ugarit was kind of a Phoenician, Canaanite type city. It fell, it was destroyed in about 1200 BC. It never rose again, it was abandoned. When archeologists found the city of Ugarit, they found many, many clay tablets there which had written texts. Those texts were written in the language of Ugarit, which we now call Ugaritic. Scholars were able to decipher these texts and in so doing they were able to not only expand their knowledge of the languages of The Ancient World by a great degree, which is helpful for Hebrew; but they also were able to understand much better the mythology and the practices of the ancient people of that world.

It turns out that they believed in these two mythological creatures, one called Motu -- death and the other called Lotan, which is equivalent to Leviathan. Lotan and Leviathan don’t sound the same in English pronunciation; but in fact when you compare the Ugaritic to the Hebrew, they are virtually identical. So you have Motu – death – and by the way, that has a Hebrew equivalent as well [speaks Hebrew] the Hebrew word for death – and Lotan, Leviathan. You have a myth from Ugarit that concerns the god Baal who had a battle with Motu the god of death.

Here is what the text says: “My throat is the throat of the lion in the wasteland and the gullet of the snorter in the seas. It craves the pool as do the wild bulls. It craves springs as do the herds of deer. Indeed, my float consumes heaps of things. Yes indeed, I eat by double handfuls and my seven portions are in a bowl. They mix into my cup a whole river. So invite me, Hadu, along with my brothers. Have me over, Hadu, along with my kin. Eat bread with my brothers. Drink wine with my kin.” This is Motu speaking. Motu is death and death by nature consumes endlessly. You also have this idea in the Bible, that death has an appetite that is never satisfied. Here Motu, death, is speaking to the god Baal. He describes himself as having this unquenchable thirst and insatiable appetite. He is speaking to Baal, who he calls Balu – Baal. Also he is called Hadu.

So he says, “Have you forgotten, Balu, that I can pierce you through. When you smite Lotan (here is Leviathan), the fleeing serpent, finish off the twisting serpent, the close-coiling one with seven heads. The heavens wither and go slack like the folds of your tunic. Then I with groans am devoured like a piece of dung, I die. So you must for your part descend into the throat of Motu, son of Elu, into the watery depths of the beloved warrior, of Elu.” Elu is El, the high god.

What is going on here? Basically, Motu, the god of death, is challenging Baal. Baal and Motu will have a big battle, they will have a big fight. Baal will actually be slain, but then he will rise from the dead and that gives rise to the standard myth of Baal, that he dies every year and he comes back to life every year when all the crops begin to grow, etc. That is the basic myth behind all of this, but what we are looking at here is his description of Lotan, who is Leviathan. He describes him as a great, fierce serpent, someone that Baal must fight in addition to fighting Motu the god of death. He calls him a fleeing serpent, a twisting serpent, one who coils.

Notice he has seven heads, which is similar again to what we see sometimes in the Bible.

You have in The Ancient Near East this notion of this terrifying, horrible creature who in Ugaritic, is called Lotan and in the English translation of the Hebrew term he is called Leviathan.

C. Psalm 74:13-14

What else do we have about leviathan in the Hebrew Bible? For example, we have Psalm 74, verses 12-14: “But God is my king from long ago; he brings salvation on the earth. It was you, God, who split open the sea by your power. You broke the heads of the monster in the waters. It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan and gave it as food to the creatures of the desert.” On to verse 15: “It was you who opened up springs and streams; you dried up ever flowing rivers.” This is quite a psalm and again, it is a difficult psalm. We are not going to try to do a full exegesis of this passage. But the point here is, the power of God is described metaphorically and it is just a metaphor, as if God were fighting Leviathan. Leviathan is presented as a great and powerful dragon, a force of death and a force of chaos; and God slays Leviathan and in the process opens up streams of water for humans and for animals to drink from. Leviathan is associated again, of course, with the sea and with the waters.

It is a description of the power of God in very elaborate language. But all we want to see here is how Leviathan is described and he is again a kind of ferocious sea dragon kind of creature.

D. Isaiah 2:1

We have another reference to Leviathan in Isaiah chapter 27:1 where we read: “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.”

What do we have here? God is obviously described as about to destroy some creature called Leviathan. This passage, Isaiah 27:1 is part of a larger text, Isaiah 24 through chapter 27. In this text Isaiah is describing the upheaval in the world that has come about because of the Assyrian Empire. We call that the Assyrian Crisis. The Assyrians sent their armies throughout the world and they subdued or destroyed many peoples. They destroyed the Kingdom of Syria and Damascus.

They destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel with its capital city of Samaria. They also did a lot of damage and a lot of havoc among other peoples. They were a terror to the Phoenicians, to the Ammonites, to the Moabites, to the Edomites, to the Philistines. Everywhere they went, they were an irresistible, terrible monster of an army, an empire. They of course also came to Judah, to the southern kingdom of Israel. They laid siege to many cities and destroyed them. The most famous city that they laid siege to and destroyed was the city of Lachish, a city in western Judah. They laid siege to Jerusalem and came very near to taking it. But if you remember, in the Bible in the book of Isaiah, Hezekiah prayed to God and God sent out the Angel of the Lord to strike the Assyrian Army so that the city of Jerusalem was not destroyed by the Assyrians.

This is the Assyrian Crisis, where they went throughout the whole earth, laying waste to everything in their path and creating this terrible, frightening empire. So, Isaiah chapters 24 to 27 is set in this context and it portrays the earth as a wasteland, as an upheaval, as being destroyed; but also how God will redeem it and how God will bring good out of all this destruction. In the course of it we come upon the verse that we just read, 27:1 which says, “God will destroy Leviathan.”

What is leviathan in this text? Leviathan is used as a kind of metaphor, I think, for the Assyrian army and for their power. When God destroys Leviathan, it is a way of saying God is going to take this force of chaos and destruction and he is going to bring that destruction to an end. God is going to redeem the world.

IV. Conclusion

What we have seen in our discussion of Leviathan and the picture of Leviathan is yes, sometimes leviathan is just a big sea creature, like a whale. Nothing
mysterious about him, nothing evil about him, he is just a big animal in the sea.

On the other hand, more frequently Leviathan is portrayed as some kind of dragon, sea dragon, terrible monster, a creator of destruction. He can be
representative of empires, just as we talked about with behemoth. Leviathan in the Ugaritic myth is associated with death and he generally is a force of death and chaos. I believe that in the book of Job, Leviathan is taking on that role. He is a monster, he is a source of evil. He is destructive. He is irresistible in his power. No human being can stand up to him. No human being can resist him.

Can we identify leviathan any more closely than that? I would suggest that we can. Because of course, one of the most striking features about the book of Job is that Satan appears in chapters 1 and 2 and then is never mentioned again. There is no reference to Satan whatsoever in any of the speeches. Even where we have the night spirit, the term “Satan” does not occur. We just have this dark, terrible spirit. But Satan as a figure, who has to be dealt with, never, ever appears again.

If you just leave it at that, that is one of the most unsatisfying things about the book of Job. Here, this whole great conflict and this big book and this massive debate and this titanic theological struggle has all been put in place by the challenge of Satan and then Satan is just gone from the picture. Nothing else is said. Shouldn’t there be some closure here? Shouldn’t Job in some way address Satan and his challenge toward the end of the book?

In my opinion, it does. It does in the figure of Leviathan. Remember again what the passage says about Leviathan in the last verse of this chapter, that he is king over all the proud and the haughty. Again, pride and arrogance are the hallmarks of those who resist, who hate God in the Bible. If there is any one single sin that can be said to be the sin that characterizes the godless and the enemies of God, it is arrogance and pride. I think when it says he is over them and he is king of them, it is not simply that he has more power than any other sinner, it is that he is their head, he is their chief.

We have this figure who I think brings closure to the book of Job by bringing us back to the figure of Satan, the king of the arrogant. And ultimately what the book I think is saying is, in order for God to deal with evil, he must deal with the one who is the head of all evil, Satan. So when God is describing Leviathan and as we will see, I think how he alone must deal with Leviathan, what God will be saying is that in order to solve the problem of evil and injustice, all the wickedness that is in the world, God must defeat Leviathan, that is, Satan.

With that, in our next lecture we will continue on and see how God combats Leviathan.