Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
In Job 41 God asks Job a series of questions about Leviathan. What kind of creature is it?
The biblical mention of Leviathan raises many interesting questions related to the mythological imagery found in the Bible. In dealing with passages in which Leviathan is mentioned it is useful to keep in mind ancient Near Eastern ideas. They will not determine the meaning of the text, but they will certainly help to clarify its meaning.
In Canaanite mythology Lotan (or Litanu) is a snakelike creature that threatens the order of the world, making it necessary for Baal or his sister to attack and defeat it. The noun means “the twisted one.” Leviathan, together with Mot, the god of death, and Yamm, the god of the sea, represented the forces of chaos. Mesopotamian myths describe a seven-headed monster that is defeated by Nabu (a wisdom god).
Scholars tend to associate the mythological conflict among the gods with the creation of the universe. The conflict-with-chaos motif describes the rise of a hostile monster, a god who defeats it, and the creation of the world.
1. Leviathan as God’s Creature: Over against ancient mythology, Leviathan in the Bible is described as one of God’s creatures. According to Psalm 104:26, God formed it, and it dwells in the sea together with many other “living things both large and small” (verse 25, NIV). The text does not provide enough information for us to identify it with any known animal; we can only say that it designates a large sea creature.
2. Leviathan as an Invisible Enemy: In His dialogue with Job God asked him a series of questions about Leviathan. The description of the animal includes characteristics of a crocodile (Job 41:13-17, 30) and those of a whale (verses 19, 20). Yet the rest of the description does not fit any known creature. The poetic description of the animal is thus transformed into a symbol of an evil power over which humans have no control and who threatens their very existence (verse 25).
3. Leviathan as a Defeated Power: The mythological image of Leviathan as a many-headed monster is used in the Bible as a symbol of the historical and spiritual powers that God has defeated on behalf of His people. In a passage that refers to the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites the psalmist writes: “It was you 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 him as food to the creatures of the desert” (Ps. 74:13, 14, NIV). The myth is historicized, and Leviathan becomes a symbol for the Egyptian armies.
However, the reference to a spiritual power behind Leviathan is not eradicated. The powers of chaos and destruction, represented by the sea and Leviathan, cannot overcome the Lord. The deliverance of God’s people means the defeat of these powers. The biblical writer acknowledges that behind the pagan mythology lies an element of truth: There is in the world an evil spiritual power that opposes God and His people and that only Yahweh can overcome.
4. Leviathan as a Power That God Will Destroy: The language of Isaiah 27:1 is very similar to the language of a Canaanite text in which Lotan is called “the fleeing serpent,” “the twisted” one. That does not mean that the prophet was copying from that text, but that the language was common. The evil power represented by a snakelike animal will be destroyed forever, not by Baal but by the Lord. Now Leviathan has become a symbol of God’s apocalyptic enemies, whom He will confront at the end.
We find this same imagery in Revelation 12 and 20, where the ancient serpent Leviathan is identified as the dragon Satan.
Mythological language is used because it preserved a nugget of truth: there was a primeval enemy whom God confronted and defeated before the creation of the world. That power is not a god but one of God’s creatures, now a demon (cf. Job 3:8). History is the arena where that evil power displays his hatred toward God and His people, where he has been defeated again and again, and where he will finally be destroyed by the Lord.