🔼The name Leviathan in the Bible
The name Leviathan belongs to one of a few unidentified Biblical creatures that scholars generally assume to be mythological (some others being Behemoth, Rahab, and perhaps Cherubim and Seraphim, although those are usually classified as angels).
Leviathan is also part of the larger snake-motif of the Bible (read our article on the magnificent word נחש, nahash, which means snake but also divination and bronze), with other dominant instances of the locutionary snake in Paradise (Genesis 3:1), the Seraphim again, Nehushtan (the bronze snake Moses made; Numbers 21:8, 2 Kings 18:4), and Paul's defiance of Dike, the goddess of absolute justice (Acts 28:4).
The name Leviathan occurs five times in the Bible, all in the older material:
🔼Leviathan in the Book of Job
When Job finally breaks down and begins to lament his dire plight, he starts out by cursing the day of his birth. He even invites people who routinely curse days to curse his particular birthday, and equates them with those "who are prepared to rouse Leviathan" (Job 3:8). This appears to suggest that the author of Job saw Leviathan as a dangerous but latent being. Near the end of Job's trial, YHWH answers Job out of a storm and by means of a rhetorical interrogation describes Leviathan as a biological creature — having a neck, a head, a tongue, a nose, a jaw and terrifying teeth, skin and limbs — so powerful that no one is as bodacious as to arouse him (Job 41:10). But he also has a voice and intelligence, as he might supplicate or speak soft, enticing words (Job 41:3).
Leviathan is obviously not an ordinary creature, as (according to the Creator Himself) he is endowed with curious stationary folds of flesh and a rock-hard heart. In fact, if this description wasn't in a millennia old text but in some poem from after the industrial revolution, every reader would understand Leviathan to be some kind of machine or craft. It has an armored exterior with air-tight interconnected scales, a face with doors, photophores that activate when he sneezes, very big or bright eyes, a fire emitting mouth and a smoke emitting nose. And whatever Leviathan is, he's submarine. He resides in the depths that he makes boil like a pot. There's nothing like him on dry land and when he raises himself up and glides past, he leaves a trail like a gray braid behind (Job 41:32).
🔼Leviathan in Psalm 74
The Book of Job as we have it stems probably from the Babylonian era, but it obviously plays in the time of the Patriarchs (when folks still built private altars; Job 1:5), and scholars admit that fragments of Job may be very old. By the time of Asaph (a leading musician in the time of king David), Leviathan was understood to have had multiple heads, all of which were crushed by Elohim, who proceeded to turn what was left of him into food for עם ציים; "the peoples that were wilderness-dwelling" (Psalm 74:14, which clearly resonates the imagery pertaining to the fall of man: Genesis 3:1, 3:5, 3:15; also see 2 Esdras 6:52 and Habakkuk 3:14).
Not only does that suggest that Leviathan had been wounded or maimed since pre-historic times, but also that around the time of king David, people knew that in pre-historic times there had been no civilization. The multiple heads of the aquatic Leviathan (an image that obviously returns in the visions of John the Revelator; Revelation 13:1), may either suggest that he was understood as one (biologically impossible) physical creature with many heads, or a phenomenon with multiple manifestations (like one fleet of multiple unidentified semi-submerged or amphibious objects or devices). But a fleet of submarines can't be eaten, and Asaph's Leviathan was consumed by pre-historic people. It may be a bit of a leap, but Asaph seems to talk about the rise of civilization, which coincides with the rise of understanding.
Asaph's somber and despairing poem speaks of Elohim as a king of old (74:12), whose congregation He has purchased in deep antiquity (74:2), and even alludes to the second creation day when Elohim divided the waters (Psalm 74:13, Genesis 1:6). Asaph's Leviathan describes the global unified human mind which must have existed before distinct human cultures (Leviathan's heads) began to evolve and diverge (also see Genesis 11:1-9). Since the image of dry land in the Bible often serves as a metaphor for certainty and knowledge, the sea in which Leviathan resided is the collective intelligent but blank human mind. It's the home of superstitions, flawed beliefs, fears and doubt (also see Matthew 14:30; Peter, the stone of private faith, sinks into the global sea of doubt and fear).
🔼Leviathan in Psalm 104
Leviathan is mentioned in one other Psalm, which is a completely different one. The anonymous but highly confident Psalm 104 celebrates the works of the personal YHWH (in stead of the forcible Elohim), and mentions much of the highlights touched by Asaph. The fearless Psalmist leaps where Asaph stumbles, and rejoices where Asaph fears. His Leviathan is a nothing but a big pet that frolics in the ocean beneath the ships (Psalm 104:26).
The fearless Psalmist uses the word אניה for ship, and the word that Asaph used to describe wilderness-dwellers is the Hebrew word צי. A different but exactly identical word צי was imported from Egyptian at such an early date that Isaiah could use it. And it means ship (Isaiah 33:21).
Asaph and the fearless Psalmist and even Matthew are very obviously all drawing from the same symbolic library. They're telling the same story but from different perspectives: Asaph from a person who recognizes the greater forces of the world; the fearless Psalmist from someone who recognizes the Lord as a personal deliverer, and Matthew from someone who is in the presence of this personal deliverer.
🔼Leviathan in the Book of Isaiah
The final and probably youngest occurrence of the name Leviathan in the Bible is possibly the most important one, because it suggests that Isaiah believed that despite the fearless Psalmist's optimism mankind is in a transitional period. Even though Leviathan's heads were crushed and his body fed — or is still feeding — the peoples, he is still alive and kicking.
Isaiah predicted "a day" on which YHWH will "swallow up death for all time" (Isaiah 25:8), and paints the picture of a city with its gates open to the righteous (Isaiah 26:1; John the Revelator obviously depicts the same city: Revelation 21:12).
🔼Leviathan in adjacent cultures
The ancient Israelites were not producing their stories in a cultural vacuum, and the large majority of symbols used in the Bible are part of the greater symbolic structure of the world at their time (the Ark of Noah and the Gilgamesh epic are obviously kindred; the tower of Babylon tells of ziggurats; the Madonna with Child was preceded by the Egyptian Isis and Horus; the phrases King of kings, Son of God, Savior et cetera are all re-applications from Roman imperial theology, and the list goes on and on). The error that many critics make is to assume that the use of a symbol declares the user an adherer to its established meaning. But it works the other way around. When Paul stated the Jesus is the Son of God, he didn't equate Him with emperor Augustus (the adopted son of the deified Julius Caesar), he rather declared that not Caesar is the Son of God but Jesus. It's not the similarities that tell the tale; it's the differences. Or as Jesus said: "To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is in parables" (Luke 8:10).
The story of Leviathan appears to be a member of a larger cluster of chaos-conquering stories that survive from antiquity, which also includes the stories of Marduk versus Tiamat in Mesopotamia, Baal and Anat versus the Sea and Lotan — the "fleeing" and "twisting" serpent of Isaiah 27:1 — in Canaan, Illuyankas versus Hupashiyas in Hittite mythology, and possibly even the widely popular Ouroboros. Another grave error that many critics make is to assume that myths arose from ignorance and are spooky bed-time stories at best. In our present day and age it's becoming increasingly evident that the ancients were very clever indeed, and very well informed about matters that have become clear to us moderns only in the course of the twentieth century. The gods-and-chaos stories are not intuitive reflections of intellectual infants, but of solidly founded world views. In adopting and adapting these themes the Hebrew authors indicated that they were partaking in the larger discussion on who we are and how everything sticks together. The much lamented exile to Babylon was to the Hebrew scribal elite the equivalent of Ramanujan's trip to Cambridge; it fostered their incredible natural genius and cast it into the presentable format we know today as the Bible.
When Isaiah speaks of Leviathan, he's not a wide-eyed bewildered lunatic who sees monsters under his bed, but a brilliant theorist who takes an established metaphor of the most intricate workings of the human mind and incorporates it into his theory of intellectual evolution. If the reader sees a serpentine dragon in Isaiah, there's something wrong with the reader, not with Isaiah. Commentators have recognized Leviathan as a monstrous snake, a crocodile, a mythological ophidian, and nowadays we see the unmistakable description of an alien Calypso or Bismarck, depending on our leanings. But the machine in Job is an allusion, a fashionable UFO we recognize in the Rorschach blot of a hyper-complex symbolic representation of the tabula rasa of an unapplied human mind.
🔼Etymology of the name Leviathan
The name Leviathan is treated in the Bible as a masculine noun (and that's why we list it as a masculine name). It might have been imported from another language; it's possibly an adaptation of the Ugaritic alloform Lothan. But even if it is, it appears to be grafted on an existing verb, which helps to explain the character of Leviathan on the Biblical stage. The verb is לוה and here are three of them:
Leviathan is the Joiner and represents the faculty of the cognitive brain that impels humans to put one and one together: logic thought. It feeds the total body of knowledge we possess, and personifies the ultimate folly of the conviction that humankind can reason itself out of the grip of mortality.
To avoid an avalanche of angry emails, it's prudent to point out that in the Bible Leviathan is classified as a tannin, a large and unspecified sea creature, which was created on the fifth day, long before the fall (Genesis 1:21, Isaiah 27:1). Leviathan was as perfect as the rest of creation, including the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (which desired to make wise; Genesis 3:6), and only becomes corrupt by misapplication. That misapplication is summed up most aptly by Solomon's proverb: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding (Proverbs 3:5).
The Bible urges on multiple occasions to search and investigate, to contemplate and conclude, to become skilled and wise (Proverbs 6:6, 1 Corinthians 2:10-11, 1 Thessalonians 5:21), but contrary to other major schools of thought, Biblical theory never suggests that our knowledge will free us from natural laws such as death. That freedom is available only through the intercession of God.
In the time of the Bible, there was no distinction between scientific, legal and divine law; all of it was "Law," and at least the scientific and legal parts of law were developed by logic thought. The discovery of causality was probably the greatest intellectual achievement of ancient man, but it resulted in the defeat of mercy. The horror of ancient legal scholars was their inevitable conclusion that law of any kind could only lead to a form of absolute justice that would irrevocably condemn all spontaneity to mechanism, all creativity to code and all life to death.
From ancient time and all over the world, cultures have experimented with the resurrection of mercy and as a legal phenomenon and in that regard Jesus Christ was nothing new. The newness of Jesus Christ was that the theory that described Him was sound; a properly defendable conclusion of a model that described all observations. The resurrection of mercy in a model that left the power and consequences of law in tact was an intellectual achievement that shook the academic world of its day on its foundations.
Somehow modern history has managed to turn the Bible into chicken soup for the soul, Jesus into a hippie and Paul into a man who preyed upon the grey masses of mental midgets. Not true. The cult of Yahweh first and later that of Jesus Christ was presented in scientific or legal formats (Paul's letters are all in the form of legal opinions; satan was presented in various common legal terms, and Jesus didn't die heroically in battle or by a natural disaster or through an illness but through a legal procedure), and was debated in the academic hotspots of the world. From the schools of Babylon to those of Greece and later that of the Roman world, the resurrection of mercy was discussed at the highest levels of education. Its novel idea was that the death that law inflicted on mercy was not permanent simply because mercy preceded law and had produced it. Mercy doesn't break the law but produces it, dies by it and must emerge from it. Any human reflection of law (whether legal or scientific) that has not produced a form of mercy is either flawed or incomplete. The gospel of Jesus Christ translates into secular terms as: Any kind of formal system must describe itself, its own limitations and indicate what follows, by means of the terms that describe it wholly.
Examples of this excurrent phenomenon:
- The incompleteness of any formal system, as described by the incompleteness theorem of Kurt Gödel.
- Life that emerges from the material world, and which operates beyond the reach of Newtonian mechanics.
- The speed of light, which marks the limit of classical mechanics, and which can only be superseded by human planning.
- Philanthropy within a commercial market.
Critics will demand that all of this sounds very religious, but it really works the other way around. The main concern of Hebrew thought (and thus the Bible) is the preservation of life, and its main conclusion is that science, though necessary and helpful, does not suffice and an alternative must be available. The Bible is not a collection of antiquated legends but a carefully honed array of exquisitely brilliant thought.
Most of us bob about the great sea in the relative safety of secluded dogma, but we're all trying to reach the permanent shores of dry land. Some of us are so sure of ourselves that we jump out the boat and sink like a boulder, and many of us are tossed out by our ship mates. The great unknown swarms with creatures, some clean and some unclean, and sometimes really big ones can carry us to dry land on the proviso that in addition to our convictions we call on the Name of the Lord, because in the end, it's His hand that pulls us out (Jonah 4:9, Matthew 14:30).
And Leviathan? He still wags his fluvial heads but his body tastes excellent barbequed and enjoyed with friends (John 21:9).