Passages

Leviathan by Alessandro Rivera ; Dexter Callender

Monsters inspire fear, pose an existential threat, and embody the forces of chaos. For the biblical writers and their audiences, Leviathan was just that, and perhaps more.

How is Leviathan typically portrayed?

Biblical references locate Leviathan within a widespread and venerable tradition of watery serpentine beings. Such monsters embody chaos as cosmic foes of an order-imposing deity. According to Isa 27:1 the Lord will punish Leviathan, “the fleeing serpent,” “the twisting serpent,” and “the dragon”—phrases that describe the similarly named Litan of Ugaritic literature (KTU 1.5 i:1-3). Similarly, in Ps 74:13-14, the psalmist seeks relief from God, who “broke the heads of the dragon in the waters” and “crushed the heads of Leviathan.” Within this broad tradition also stand Tiamat of the Babylonian Enuma Elish, Apopis of Egyptian solar mythology, as well as other biblical figures such as Rahab (see Job 26:12; Ps 89:10; Isa 51:10).

Is Leviathan always “evil” or a threat?

Most biblical portrayals cast Leviathan in starkly negative terms. In the book of Job, Leviathan embodies the chaos behind Job’s misfortune and provides a frame for the poetic dialogues that compose the main section of the book. The dialogues open with Job cursing the day of his birth, seeking even to expunge it by enlisting those “skilled to rouse up Leviathan” (Job 3:8). The dialogues close with God questioning Job’s knowledge of Leviathan (Job 41:1-34). It will not submit to serving humans or be domesticated for play or trade (Job 41:4-6). It strikes fear into the gods (Job 41:25) and in the final analysis “is king over all that are proud” (Job 41:34). Thus, Job’s exemplary character (Job 1:1) is no match. His misfortune reflects a chaos beyond human control. Yet this chaos remains under divine control, which Job acknowledges in his final statement (Job 42:1-6).

One encounters a very different picture of Leviathan in Ps 104:26-27, not of a monster but of a fully domesticated animal. Formed to play in the sea or perhaps with the Lord (the Hebrew text supports either reading), it looks to the deity for its food. Leviathan here is no cosmic enemy to be vanquished; no threat or monster but almost a pet. Yet the language reflects the control humans clearly lack over Leviathan in Job 41:4-6. Leviathan’s transformation presents a different image of the power of the Creator. Like the modern marine park equivalent, the attraction is chaos held at bay.

Alessandro Rivera , Dexter Callender, "Leviathan", n.p. [cited 3 Dec 2021]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/passages/related-articles/leviathan

Contributors

Rivera-Alessandro

Alessandro Rivera
undergraduate student, University of Miami

Alessandro Rivera is a senior at the University of Miami, majoring in Religious Studies. He intends to continue his studies the field of religion and is planning for a career in ministry or academia. Alessandro is looking forward to starting his graduate studies toward a Master of Divinity next fall.

Dexter Callender

Dexter Callender
Associate Professor, University of Miami

Dexter Callender is associate professor of religion at the University of Miami, Florida. He is the author of Adam in Myth and History (Eisenbrauns, 2001). He specializes in myth theory and ancient Near Eastern literature and history.

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

Absence of order. In the ancient Near East, chaos was believed to precede and surround the order of the known world.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

A Babylonian creation myth that describes how the god Marduk triumphed over chaos, paralleling the Creation story of Genesis 1.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

related to the city of Ugarit

Isa 27:1

Israel's Redemption
1On that day the Lord with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, a ... View more

Ps 74:13-14

13You divided the sea by your might;
you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters.14You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
you gave him as food for the creatur ... View more

Job 26:12

12 By his power he stilled the Sea;
    by his understanding he struck down Rahab.

Ps 89:10

10You crushed Rahab like a carcass;
you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm.

Isa 51:10

10Was it not you who dried up the sea,
the waters of the great deep;
who made the depths of the sea a way
for the redeemed to cross over?

Job 3:8

8Let those curse it who curse the Sea,
those who are skilled to rouse up Leviathan.

Job 41:1-34

1 “Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook,
or press down its tongue with a cord?2Can you put a rope in its nose,
or pierce its jaw with a hook?3Will it make ... View more

Job 41:4-6

4 Will it make a covenant with you
    to be taken as your servant forever?
5 Will you play with it as with a bird,
    or will you put it on leash for your gir ... View more

Job 41:25

25 When it raises itself up the gods are afraid;
    at the crashing they are beside themselves.

Job 41:34

34 It surveys everything that is lofty;
    it is king over all that are proud.”

Job 1:1

Job and His Family
1There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.

Job 42:1-6

Job Is Humbled and Satisfied
1Then Job answered the Lord:2“I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.3‘Who is this that hi ... View more

Ps 104:26-27


26 There go the ships,
    and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.


27 These all look to you
    to give them their food in due season;

Job 41:4-6

4 Will it make a covenant with you
    to be taken as your servant forever?
5 Will you play with it as with a bird,
    or will you put it on leash for your gir ... View more

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