Leviathan and Wisdom

Leviathan appears most famously in the Book of Job. As we shall see this sea monster also features in two psalms and the Book of Isaiah. In the Hebrew Bible Leviathan is a sea monster and is of such size that it stretches the word monster to its most monstrous scale. As well as its cataclysmic size and power this monster also carries mythic overtones too. In the Ancient Near-East there are various creation myths in which a god battles with a primordial sea monster to bring an ordered creation out of chaos.  So, in this way mention of Leviathan conjures up the terror and horror afforded by the biggest of sea creatures but further there is an allusion to a level of power than only an awesome warrior god could hope to survive an encounter with.

The sense of being overwhelmed by Leviathan is to the fore in Job chapter 3 where Job curses the day of his birth:

May those who curse days curse that day,

    those who are ready to rouse Leviathan.

Job 3:8 (NIV)

The detailed meaning of this verse is disputed, but that need not delay us on this occasion. This passing reference to Leviathan does not prepare the reader of Job for the massive role that the huge monster plays towards the end of the book. Chapter 41 is wholly devoted to Leviathan. For those familiar with The Gruffalo a similarity of style is seen in verse fifteen onwards, as feature after remarkable feature is portrayed, enabling the fearsome horror that is this creature to be taken in. In just a few verses, however, it is clear that the Gruffalo is nothing compared to the might that is Leviathan. The point for Job who hears this description of Leviathan is that mighty though Leviathan is, God is a whole new level of power and majesty over and above this monster:

‘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?

Job 41:1–5 (NIV)

 Psalm 74 tells everyone what Job is told; that Yahweh is so mighty that he can turn Leviathan into fish food:

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 it as food to the creatures of the desert.

It was you who opened up springs and streams;

    you dried up the ever-flowing rivers.

Psalm 74:13–15 (NIV)

In this psalm we can see that not only God’s might but his role as Creator are celebrated. This centrality of creation is found in the Psalter’s second mention of Leviathan:

How many are your works, Lord!

    In wisdom you made them all;

    the earth is full of your creatures.

There is the sea, vast and spacious,

    teeming with creatures beyond number –

    living things both large and small.

There the ships go to and fro,

and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.

Psalm 104:24–26 (NIV)

In Scripture’s only other mention of Leviathan by name (Isaiah 27:1–3) the mighty creature is portrayed in eschatological tones—his demise at the hands of God will be a feature of the Day of the Lord. This defeat of mighty monsters at the second creation is picked-up and developed in the Book of Revelation. The wisdom material of the Old Testament very much centres on how to live wisely now, in a world created by God. But below this ordered surface lies mythopoetic imagery that the world as it currently is will one day change. This change for the better will be the defeat of anything that would harm us, whether in the deep dark wood or the depths of the sea.

Author: PsalterMark

Psalm addict, disciple, son, husband, father, academic, theologian, cacti grower, steam enthusiast and ale drinker

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