A biblical blog by Rob J Hyndman 

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Mythical and metaphorical monsters

Published on 2 June 2012 in Articles

Great mythical monsters of the deep are mentioned surprisingly often in the Bible. The appearance of creatures such as Leviathan and Rahab reflects the pagan myths from the nations surrounding Israel.

In the Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Canaanite mythologies, the creator-god battled with some sea-monsters before making the world. In Canaan, Baal battled with Yam; in Babylon, Marduk struggled to overcome Tiamat, and in Egypt Atum fought with Nehebkau. But the most interesting of the myths from a biblical perspective comes from the Ugaritic texts which describe the seven-headed sea serpent Lotan who fought against Baal Hadad. It is likely that Lotan and Leviathan refer to the same mythical beast. Later Jewish myths describe a demon called Rahab the “angel of the sea” (Bava Batra 74b).

Rahab, Leviathan and Egypt

It is this demonic monster Rahab that is mentioned in Psalm 89:

Who is like you, Lord God of heavenly forces?
Mighty Lord, your faithfulness surrounds you!
You rule over the surging sea:
When its waves rise up,
it’s you who makes them still.
It’s you who crushed Rahab like a dead body;
you scattered your enemies with your strong arm.
Heaven is yours! The earth too!
the world and all that fills it—
you made all of it! North and south—you created them! (Psalm 89:8-11)

In this section of the Psalm, Ethan is praising God for his great power and borrows some imagery from the ancient creation myths. In the myths, the sea-monster is defeated by the creator-god; here, God is portrayed as defeating his enemies in the same way.

Similarly, Psalm 74 is a richly descriptive poem about the deliverance of Israel from Egypt, but it borrows imagery from the ancient creation myths:

You split the sea with your power.
You shattered the heads of the sea monsters on the water.
You crushed Leviathan’s heads.
You gave it to the desert dwellers for food! (Psalm 74:13-14)

In the myths, a many-headed monster is overcome by the creator-god; in the Psalm, Egypt is the multi-headed dragon called Leviathan which is destroyed in the Red Sea.

Rahab is also applied to Egypt in many other places including Psalm 87:4 and Isaiah 51:9; 30:7. Ezekiel 29:3-5; 32:2-6 uses some of the same imagery, but without naming the monster.

The death of Leviathan

On that day, the Lord will take a great sword, harsh and mighty, and will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the writhing serpent, and will kill the dragon that is in the sea. (Isaiah 27:1)

This is the start of a wonderful vision of Israel blossoming in their own land. So it might seem strange to begin with the destruction of Leviathan, a mythical dragon. But, as we have seen, Isaiah liked to use the dragon metaphor for Israel’s enemies, and so the kingdom begins with the defeat of all of Israel’s most powerful enemies, leaving them to live in peace and prosperity.

The sea-monsters at creation

With this cultural context in mind, a verse in Genesis 1 now takes on new meaning.

God created the great sea creatures and every living and moving thing with which the water swarmed, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. God saw that it was good. (Gen 1:21)

While other gods needed to battle the sea monsters before creating, Yahweh created the monsters themselves. Again, the biblical account is establishing the power of the true God over the mythical creatures. (There is a parallel with Jesus establishing his power over the “demons” thought to cause illness.)

Job’s Leviathan

Job mentions Rahab in Job 9:13; 26:12-13 and Leviathan in Job 3:8. However, the greatest and most famous passage is Job 41 which is a poem dedicated to describing Leviathan. A few of the verses are cited below.

1 Can you draw out Leviathan with a hook,
restrain his tongue with a rope?
2 Can you put a cord through his nose,
pierce his jaw with a barb?
8 Should you lay your hand on him,
you would never remember the battle.
10 Nobody is fierce enough to rouse him;
who then can stand before me?
12 I’m not awed by his limbs,
his strength, and impressive form.
14 Who can open the doors of his mouth,
surrounded by frightening teeth?
18 His sneezes emit flashes of light;
his eyes are like dawn’s rays.
19 Shafts of fire shoot from his mouth;
like fiery sparks they fly out.
20 Smoke pours from his nostrils
like a boiling pot over reeds.
21 His breath lights coals;
a flame shoots from his mouth.
25 The divine beings dread his rising;
they withdraw before his thrashing.
26 The sword that touches him won’t prevail;
neither will the dart, spear, nor javelin.
31 He causes the depths to churn like a boiling pot,
stirs up the sea like a pot of scented oils,
33 None on earth can compare to him;
he is made to be without fear.
34 He looks on all the proud;
he is king over all proud beasts.

Countless interpreters have tried to identify Leviathan as a known animal — a popular candidate is the crocodile. However, once we apply the fundamental principle of “First understand how it was first understood”, it is clear that this is a description of mythical sea creature defeated at creation. No known animal breathes fire, for a start. The point of the passage is that God is far more powerful than any known animal, and any imaginary monster.

Behemoth and Leviathan. Watercolor by William Blake from his "Illustrations of the Book of Job"

Behemoth

Job also describes another beast called Behemoth (Job 40:15-24) which has been variously identified as a hippopotamus, a crocodile, an elephant or a water buffalo. However, none of these animals fit all the description in Job 40. It seems more likely that this is another mythical beast.

In the 2nd century book of Enoch, Behemoth is the unconquerable monster of the land, just as Leviathan is the great monster of the sea. In Enoch, Behemoth lives in an invisible desert east of Eden (1 Enoch 60:7-8) while Leviathan lives in “the Abyss”. Presumably Enoch is reflecting earlier Jewish mythology that is also the origin of the reference to Behemoth in Job.

The beasts of Revelation

Although Leviathan and Behemoth are not named in Revelation, there is a clear parallel with the Beast from the Sea (Rev 13:1-11) and the Beast from the Land (Rev 13:11-18) that can’t have been lost on the first century readers who knew their Jewish mythology. And just as in Isaiah, the mythical monsters are metaphors for the enemies of God’s people, and all will be ultimately destroyed (Rev 19:20).


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