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:
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.