Leviathan, the Biblical Sea Monster

For thousands of years, sailors have reported seeing strange creatures while at sea. Sometimes, as in the case of the mythological Kraken, it is likely that the sightings were of actual creatures like the giant squid. There is one creature that was first described in the Hebrew Tanakh, which is also the Old Testament in the Christian Bible. That creature is the Leviathan.

An engraving by Gustave Dore entitled
An engraving by Gustave Dore entitled “Destruction of Leviathan”

The original Hebrew word for Leviathan was livyâthân, making the word “Leviathan” a transliteration rather than a translation. The Leviathan is first mentioned in the Book of Job, in which it is described by God to Job. According to the New International Version of the Bible, God describes it in Job Chapter 41, verses 1 through 34:

“Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook or tie down its tongue with a rope? Can you put a cord through its nose or pierce its jaw with a hook? Will it keep begging you for mercy? Will it speak to you with gentle words? Will it make an agreement with you for you to take it as your slave for life? Can you make a pet of it like a bird or put it on a leash for the young women in your house? Will traders barter for it? Will they divide it up among the merchants? Can you fill its hide with harpoons or its head with fishing spears? If you lay a hand on it, you will remember the struggle and never do it again! Any hope of subduing it is false; the mere sight of it is overpowering.

No one is fierce enough to rouse it. Who then is able to stand against me? Who has a claim against me that I must pay? Everything under heaven belongs to me. I will not fail to speak of Leviathan’s limbs, its strength and its graceful form. Who can strip off its outer coat? Who can penetrate its double coat of armor? Who dares open the doors of its mouth, ringed about with fearsome teeth? Its back has rows of shields tightly sealed together; each is so close to the next that no air can pass between. They are joined fast to one another; they cling together and cannot be parted. Its snorting throws out flashes of light; its eyes are like the rays of dawn. Flames stream from its mouth; sparks of fire shoot out.

An artist's rendition of Leviathan on land as a serpent
An artist’s rendition of Leviathan on land as a serpent

Smoke pours from its nostrils as from a boiling pot over burning reeds. Its breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from its mouth. Strength resides in its neck; dismay goes before it. The folds of its flesh are tightly joined; they are firm and immovable. Its chest is hard as rock, hard as a lower millstone. When it rises up, the mighty are terrified; they retreat before its thrashing. The sword that reaches it has no effect, nor does the spear or the dart or the javelin. Iron it treats like straw and bronze like rotten wood. Arrows do not make it flee; slingstones are like chaff to it. A club seems to it but a piece of straw; it laughs at the rattling of the lance.

Its undersides are jagged potsherds, leaving a trail in the mud like a threshing sledge. It makes the depths churn like a boiling caldron and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment. It leaves a glistening wake behind it; one would think the deep had white hair. Nothing on earth is its equal- a creature without fear. It looks down on all that are haughty; it is king over all that are proud.”

Certainly, the description God gives of the Leviathan paints a picture of a very unusual creature. It is described as being an aquatic animal, yet unable to be killed by humans or domesticated. Aside from its impenetrable armor and huge size, the Leviathan is described as possessing the unusual ability to breath fire which no animal today is capable of. The Leviathan is only briefly mentioned elsewhere in the Bible, such as in Psalm 41, verses 13 through 14:

“You [God] divided the sea by Your strength; you broke the heads of the sea monsters in the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; You gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.”

The Leviathan is mentioned briefly again in Isaiah 27, when describing the deliverance of Israel:

“In that day the Lord will punish with his sword- his fierce, great and powerful sword- Leviathan the gliding serpent, Leviathan the coiling serpent; he will slay the monster of the sea.”

Ancient artwork depicting the Hydra battling Heracles
Ancient artwork depicting the Hydra battling Heracles

Despite the few and brief mentions of the Leviathan, it is clear that the Leviathan is a creature with some relatively high level of importance. For some, the Leviathan is simply a sea creature of unusually large size. There are even those who suggest that God was actually describing a crocodile, based on the description given in Job which references the creature having armor on its back and thrashing. However, this does not account for the Leviathan’s ability to supposedly breath fire. In Psalm, the Leviathan is described as having “heads,” which gives the creature a more mythological appearance similar to the serpent-like Hydra of Greek mythology.

However, it is also possible that there was more than one Leviathan, so rather than the “heads” belonging to one creature, it could mean the heads of multiple creatures. In the Book of Genesis (which tells the creation of the world), Genesis 1:21 states that on the fifth day God created the tanniynim, which is the plural form of the Hebrew word tanniyn, meaning “sea creature” or “sea monster.” In Isaiah 27:1 (as seen above), in the original text the word tanniyn is used, which is directly referring to the Leviathan (which is also referred to as a dragon or a reptile in some versions). The use of these words leads some experts to believe that since the word tanniyn is referring to the Leviathan in Isaiah, then tanniynim is referring to Leviathans being created on the fifth day. This suggests it is possible that God did in fact kill multiple Leviathans at one point, and that only one remains. The Leviathan in Isaiah is described again as a singular entity that will be destroyed by God, as well as being described as a serpent.

Artist's depiction of an
Artist’s depiction of an “Orange Sea Leviathan,” seen here as more serpent-like in appearance

It is important to note that Job describes the Leviathan in such a way that would almost give the impression of a crocodile-like creature, although in Psalms and Isaiah the Leviathan is described outright as being a large serpent. It is odd that these passages refer to the same creature, yet Job focuses on the strength and size of the Leviathan while Isaiah and Psalm focus on the Leviathan’s death at the hands of God. Oddly, Psalm states that God has already killed the Leviathan and given it as food to the creatures that reside in the wilderness, whereas Job suggests it is still alive while Isaiah specifically states that the Leviathan has yet be killed in the future by God.

As can be imagined, experts and scholars have multiple theories as to what the Leviathan was. Some suggest that the Leviathan was mentioned in Job merely to help illustrate the sheer extent of God’s power, while others think the Leviathan is based on a similar, seven-headed serpent from Canaanite mythology, as well as other Pagan mythologies such as the Ugaritic myth. However, other experts argue that Job is presented as a strict monotheist (believing in only one God), and that it wouldn’t make sense for the Book of Job to include references to other religions. There is also how Job would have had to have known about the Leviathan beforehand, and that God’s usage of Leviathan as an example of his power would have been ineffective if God had invented the Leviathan to be a purely symbolic creature.

An image of a Chinese dragon
An image of a Chinese dragon

There are others who suggest that the Leviathan is a dragon. Most versions of the Bible, such as the King James version, the International Standard version, the American Standard version, etc. state that in Isaiah 27 God will kill the dragon, rather than referring to it as a monster like the New International version. This would make sense since Job states that the Leviathan has the ability to breath fire, and Isaiah and Psalm both refer to Leviathan as a serpent. Both of these qualities would make the Leviathan appear very similar to the popular image of what a dragon looks like.

Overall, the three major ideas as to what the Leviathan are that it was either a creature that is still alive yet undiscovered, that it was a real creature which has since gone extinct, or that it was never a real creature to begin with and that it was simply a mythological creature. Many Creationists believe that the Leviathan was in fact an aquatic dinosaur, which if it went extinct with the other dinosaurs would explain why there are no more today. The oceans are certainly big enough to hide an undiscovered prehistoric creature, such as the Giant Squid or the reported sea creature sighting by the U-28 crew during World War I. Even for those who are not of the Christian or Jewish faiths, there is no reason to suggest that there isn’t a large, undiscovered sea creature that still exists somewhere in the deep.

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