Monday, September 24, 2012

Cryptids in the Bible Series: Leviathan

Normally, I keep things on this site pretty regional in nature. I concentrate on the goings on here in Texas and the surrounding states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico with the occasional glimpse into interesting happenings south of the border in Old Mexico. However, I’m going to widen things out a bit for this particular entry to discuss a question that has interested me for a long time; are cryptid creatures mentioned in the Bible?

A few weeks ago, I was reading in the book of Job. I’ve always found this Old Testament book very interesting. Whether you believe the book of Job to be a true historical account of events that really took place or just an allegory meant to make a point really makes no difference for our purposes here. What I’m interested in is a creature mentioned and described in great detail in the book. This creature has been the subject of much debate for centuries and may have inspired stories of a terrible monster that is found in the mythology of nearly every ancient culture the world over: the Leviathan.

The Leviathan is actually mentioned several times in the Old Testament. Psalm 74:14 and Psalm 104:26 reference the Leviathan. Of particular interest to me is Isaiah 27:1 which reads:

“In that day the Lord will take his terrible, swift sword and punish Leviathan, the swiftly moving serpent, the coiling, writhing serpent. He will kill the dragon of the sea.” (New Living Translation)

The books referenced above all describe a creature of great strength that lives in the sea: a classic sea serpent in every sense. Leviathan sounds like an animal for which a great amount of respect should be afforded. Most biblical scholars believe that, in Isaiah, the term Leviathan is being used symbolically as a term for Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. While this may be true, the writer of the passage is comparing the Egyptian ruler to what seems to be an animal known to the people of the time; a “coiling, writhing serpent” of great power. The “dragon of the sea.”


While the Old Testament books above make brief mention of the Leviathan, the book that actually goes into the greatest detail about the beast is the book of Job. It gives a very clear picture of the appearance, size, and abilities of the Leviathan.

For those unfamiliar with the story of Job allow me to provide a bit of context. Job is generally believed to be the oldest book of the Bible and has a little bit of everything. Job rises to a position of importance and prosperity only to lose everything (wealth, family, friends, and health) but gathers himself and rises again. The book centers around the eternal conflict between good and evil as Satan spars with God over whether or not Job will turn his back on his Creator if his life suddenly, and without warning, goes awry. Satan does everything in his power to get Job to curse God but ultimately fails, as Job remains faithful. The purpose of the book seems to be to address the age-old question of why bad things happen to good people. It is widely considered to be one of the greatest books in the history of world literature. It is during Job’s low period when he begins to question God as to why these terrible things have befallen him that God answers him sternly. It is during this exchange that the Leviathan is described in great detail. You can read the entire passage in Job: 41 but I’ll hit some of the highlights below.

Job 41: 1 – “Can you catch Leviathan with a hook or put a noose around its jaw?” (New Living Translation)

Job 41: 7 – “Will its hide be hurt by spears or its head by harpoons?” (New Living Translation)

Job 41: 9 – “No it is useless to try to capture it. The hunter who attempts it will be knocked down.” (New Living Translation)

In the passage God is making a point to Job. He is basically saying, “Who are you to question me?” He emphasizes his strength and omnipotence by asking if Job, or any human, can capture, kill, or tame the mighty Leviathan. Whatever Leviathan was it was obviously quite powerful and dangerous. Also, it was clearly a creature of the water. Other more descriptive passages follow:

Job 41: 12-17 – “I want to emphasize Leviathan’s enormous strength and graceful form. Who can strip off its hide and who can penetrate its double layer of armor? Who could pry open its jaws? For its teeth are terrible. Its scales are like rows of shields so tightly sealed together that no air can get between them. Each scale sticks so tight to the next. They interlock and cannot be penetrated.” (New Living Translation)


Now things are getting really interesting. The physical description above is pretty detailed. Based on these passages, most scholars believe that the creature being described is a Nile crocodile. I feel confident most people out there know that the Nile crocodile is a deadly predator. It is a known man-eater. Certainly the assumption that the Leviathan is a Nile crocodile is an understandable and logical assumption based only on Job 41: 12-17. The problem is that the descriptions of the Leviathan do not stop after verse 17. They continue and the features and abilities ascribed to the Leviathan are really quite fantastic.

Job 41: 18-21 – “When it sneezes, it flashes light. Its eyes are like the red of dawn. Lightning leaps from its mouth; flames of fire flash out. Smoke streams from its nostrils like steam from a pot of heated over burning rushes. Its breath would kindle coals, for flames shoot from its mouth.” (New Living Translation)

THAT is pretty wild stuff. It gets more incredible still as the strength of the Leviathan is described.

Job 41: 22-34 – “The tremendous strength in Leviathan’s neck strikes terror wherever it goes. Its flesh is hard and firm and cannot be penetrated. Its heart is hard as rock, hard as millstone. When it rises, the mighty are afraid, gripped by terror. No sword can stop it, no spear, dart, or javelin. Iron is nothing but straw to that creature, and bronze is like rotten wood. Arrows cannot make it flee. Stones shot from a sling are like bits of grass and it laughs at the swish of javelins. Its belly is covered with scales as sharp as glass. It plows up the ground as it plows through the mud. Leviathan makes the water boil with its commotion. It stirs the depths like a pot of ointment. The water glistens in its wake, making the sea look white. Nothing on earth is its equal, no other creature so fearless. Of all the creatures, it is the proudest. It is the king of beasts.” (New Living Translation)

Here is where I feel the Nile crocodile theory loses some steam. The crocodile was widely known even in ancient times and, while a predator worthy of inspiring terror, it was a far cry from the beast described in Job 41. Why would the author of Job ascribe fire-breathing abilities to a crocodile? What crocodile, fearsome though it might be, could ever “kindle coals” with the breath from its mouth? In addition to the fire-breathing qualities ascribed to the Leviathan, the animal is described as all but invulnerable. Again, crocodiles are big and dangerous reptiles and are well armored; however, the statement, “No sword can stop it, no spear, dart, or javelin,” certainly is not, nor has it ever been accurate when it comes to these animals. Crocodiles have been hunted and killed by men since ancient times. Certainly, the phrases “Iron is nothing but straw to that creature,” and “bronze is like rotten wood” do not apply to the crocodile.


It is possible that the writer of the book of Job engaged in a bit of hyperbole when describing the beast known as Leviathan. His point, after all, was to show how powerful and strong God was compared to his follower Job. He certainly makes his point. Still, this doesn’t ring completely true to me. If the writer was describing a crocodile, why would he describe abilities and characteristics that his audience would know this reptile did not possess? Wouldn’t that have hurt his credibility?

I want to ask those of you reading this a favor at this point. I would like any of you who have young children to read the description of Leviathan found in Job: 41 to them and ask them what animal they think is being described. I’d say chances are good they would come up with a candidate within moments:

A dragon.

I must admit that dragon myths have always interested me. How can ancient civilizations in Europe, China, Japan, Central America, and South America, and other locales around the globe all have stories of the same type of creatures? These cultures had little to no contact with one another. What was the basis for these similar legends? Was there an animal, found around the world, now long extinct that is the basis for the dragon myth? If so, is this mystery animal the creature described in the book of Job?

I suppose we’ll never know.

10 comments:

  1. I LOVE that you posted this. This is a topic I have researched extensively and have always wanted to discuss with you. Now, if you'll indulge me...

    Yes, it is true that in some places of the Bible the Leviathan seems to be used as a metaphor. However, the funny thing about metaphors is that in order for them to work, it has to be something that the audience is familiar with. In the case of the passage in Job, the writer seems to be describing an actual living, breathing animal that was known to Job.

    Why do I say that? Well, here the writer is directly quoting God, Himself. Whether or not somebody believes that these quotes ACTUALLY come from God are irrelevant. The story is clear that God is the one being quoted. Elsewhere in the Bible when God is quoted, He is not given to exaggeration. Why? Because exaggeration is a... "stretching" of the truth, and as the Bible points out consistently, God IS truth and CANNOT lie. So, if this passage were "exaggeration" by God, it's terribly inconsistent with the rest of the Bible.

    Some might say, that God isn't exaggerating but using a mythical creature to compare his power to. Logically... to me.. that doesn't add up. Nobody TRULY knows the power of an animal that doesn't exist. If I were to say to you, "Mike. I'm more powerful than a unicorn". I'm sure you'd be thinking, "Well that's great, but unicorns aren't real, and if they WERE real, how strong are they, anyway?".

    Furthermore, in Job 40, God seems to be describing an animal that we all know existed (which I believe was a Brontosaurus, but that's a different conversation lol). Why in one breath would he compare his power to a known animal, and then in another breath compare his power to something that doesn't exist? I think it's more likely that given what I'm saying and your point about the dragon legends across the globe, that there was an actual dragon that God was comparing His power to.

    I know some will argue, "Where are the bones?!". After all, if there are no bones, it never happened. Right, Sasquatch? But who's to say these dragons weren't known animals, like a T-Rex, a pterodactyl, or an allosaurus? All of them have unexplained "chambers" in their skulls that could have been used to store some sort of gas. Why not? Modern scientists haven't even reached a definitive conclusion about what those were used for.

    Think an animal walking around with "chambers" that hold gas is far fetched? Look up the bombardier beetle. If a beetle can blow fire out of its butt... is it impossible to believe that some dinosaur couldn't do the same from it's mouth or nose?

    Great post. Looking forward to the rest!

    -Justin

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  2. Nice bit of writing.

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  3. First of all, English is not my first language! So if you encounter some strange language or spelling you know why!

    Anyway, I personally think such a conclusion, that Leviathan and Behemoth might actually be now extinct (pre-historic, as they are called) animals, is very likely. And I also believe Leviathan to be the creature that performed as the basic inspiration for the dragon legends around the world.

    So considering all this and the scriptures of Job 40-41, where does that take us? Behemoth as a sauropod? Leviathan as a theropod? Or as a large serpent of the sea? A Kronosaurus? I have another suggestion for Leviathan!

    Leviathan enjoyed the sea and, maybe, a lake big enough. It fed there, I guess. But it was also, if you think free and closely about certain passages of Job 41, sometimes to be found up on land. Resting? Feeding? Bathing in the sun? Well, who knows, but it was able to walk/move on land too! So you will need quite a ship out on open water but also something different from say a Kronosaurus that could not be on the move on the firm ground.

    Check out the hebrew meaning of the word "Leviathan"! It means something with a special shape. Like something that has been bent, is not straight. I could say, is shaped like an "S". Serpent? Well, not necessarily.. Strange as it may seem, I´m proposing that Leviathan actually should be paired with the bones and body constitution of the large sauropod!

    But it fed on grass! It could never harm anyone! It walked around in large herds on open plains! Well, I´m not so sure about that. It is, as we all understand, a quite difficult thing knowing/guessing the real-life behaviour of extinct animals. Without any written documents or other clues about them. And it also seems some of the sauropods did have some kind of body armour..


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  4. I think that the beast had died in the flood and so the Book of Job is very Ancient.

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  5. I never thought of it that way! Very mysterious creature indeed!

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  6. I'm personally undertaking some research for an extensive project slated for the near future. Thanks for the detailed post. It got me thinking a bit more about the details of Leviathan.

    I'm in line with your reasoning. One area that stumped me for a moment was the apparent contradiction between the existence of a large creature residing within a marine habitat and its stated ability to breathe fire. While acknowledging the occasional propensity for biblical texts to wax allegorical, I, like the writer above, believe that in this context, the use of allegory/metaphor would be illogical. That said, and reading in Job what I believe to be literal description, Leviathan lives at least part of its life under water and manages to manufacture and expel fire from its mouth and nostrils. This may seem biologically contradictory, but perhaps not.

    Pure speculation here… The mechanics may not be understood as we don’t have fossilized specimen to analyze, but is it possible that the beast may have been designed as a water dwelling creature as a method of cooling whatever apparatus generates fire. When the beast surfaced, oxygen would be drawn into this apparatus combining with a chemical reaction, ignited, and discharged via respiratory organs. Submerging would allow the reaction to cool before harming the creature.

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  7. I have a suggestion as to why the bones were never found. The Leviathan died in the flood and, because it was so large, its body sunk to the bottom of the ocean and was covered under millions of years worth of soil.

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  8. very nice read. thank you.

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