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.

God and Wisdom, Part 2

7. Sources of Wisdom: Experience, Observation, Tradition, Correction, and Ultimately Revelation
In this chapter Longman explores the expected role of experience and observation in wisdom. These are the sources that mark out the idea of wisdom, i.e. in this sense it differs from legal material, historical narrative and prophetic texts. Longman argues that despite these distinct points of departure of wisdom thought, they have a theological trajectory crystallised in the centrality of the idea of Fear of the Lord. Longman also explores the false claims to revelation within wisdom material, such as those of Eliphaz and Elihu, and he argues that though such views are found wanting they can also be instructive.

8. Wisdom, Creation, and (Dis)order
Longman explores the connection of wisdom with creation, a relationship which he points out is the subject of some scholarly disagreement. He starts out with a brief survey of various key wisdom texts in Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom Psalms and Song of Songs. He suggests that creation is a thread in all five texts, although he also points out that it is not a dominant concern. On this basis he makes that case that ‘the sages’ understand both the fact of creation and the existence of a creator as part of their worldview. Longman concludes this chapter by considering the role of wisdom in a world which is both ordered and yet broken.

9. Israelite Wisdom in its Ancient Near Eastern Setting
Israelite wisdom is more open to similar literature in other Near Eastern nations than is the case for prophecy and law. Longman argues that this openness is, however, not an uncritical one. He argues there ‘is, accordingly, no way that the Israelite sages who produced Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes would think that ancient Near Eastern wisdom teachers were wise in the most important sense of the word’ [p.163]. This is of course unsurprising in light of Longman’s central argument that Fear of the Lord is a necessity as a foundation for wisdom.

10. Wisdom, Covenant, and Law
In this chapter Longman addresses the claim that was highlighted in chapter 9, namely that wisdom is concerned with universal matters and is in some sense distinct from the wider Old Testament. Anyone who has read the book, or even this review, up to this point will know Longman’s likely conclusion—he argues that there are connections between the various Old Testament covenants and the Law.

11. The Consequences of Wise and Foolish Behaviour: The Issue of Retribution Theology
This chapter is an important one in that it addresses some of the terrible category mistakes that have been made regarding the wisdom elements of the Old Testament. He addresses the fact that a proverb is not a promise and the even more insidious claims of those who articulate a so-called prosperity gospel. The way this is approached is helpful—the Books of Job and Ecclesiastes are both recapitulated in terms of their identification of a simple theology of retribution in this life as ‘wrong-minded’. On this basis he helps unfold a more nuanced appreciation of the Book of Proverbs. In this way the three books generally identified as wisdom literature are seen to be of one mind in rejecting the notion of retribution theology.

12. The Social Setting of Wisdom
This chapter is helpfully frank about the limitations of the data available about the social setting of wisdom. The evidence for both the existence of schools and sages in Israelite society is considered. Longman concludes that despite some evidence we cannot be certain of the existence of schools of professional wise people. There is judged to be sufficient evidence to conclude that the wisdom has a variety of social settings and the canon has made use of proverbial instruction from every stratum of society.

The third and final part of this review will follow very soon.

Creation and Wisdom

In an earlier post we considered how wisdom literature grew from an oral tradition in which simple proposals about the nature of the world were tested by the life experience of those who heard them. Those ideas that were found to be useful survived and often evolved over time. Some of these ‘hypotheses’ became proverbs and other short pithy statements about life. In this sense human reason and observation, rather than revelation are to the fore in the origins of Ancient Near-Eastern wisdom. Appreciating this point of departure for biblical wisdom is essential for legitimate interpretation of this genre.

In the later stages of the development of Israelite wisdom it became interwoven with the wider principles of Israelite religion—in some respects the questioning which lies at the heart of the genre enabled wisdom literature to question the other parts of the canon. This inter-wisdom and intra-canon dialogue will be considered in our next post.

Later wisdom reflection attempted to critique religious dogma using the observations and reasoning of the wise. Often this collision of wisdom reasoning with revealed truth concerned creation, both in terms of the origin of the world and the sustaining of it by God. That there is one God and that this God is the creator of the universe is fundamental to Israelite religion. This did not stop the wise questioning God’s very character and nature as they attempted to explain the day-to-day. Despite this questioning, the worldview that the cosmos was made by Yahweh, the God of Israel, is an underpinning assumption of biblical wisdom literature.

The biblical wisdom books present three very different ways in which creation, and therefore creator are examined. In their different ways, each of the Hebrew Bible’s three wisdom books answers the question: “What kind of creation do we live in?”.

The Book of Proverbs sees creation as fundamentally ordered. The premise which underlies its very nature is the original conception of wisdom—that the world in which we live can be understood by careful observation and wise reflection. It assumes that the world is organised, logical and open to rational thought. Although we have said that wisdom literature’s concern with creation is not all about the origin of the world, Proverbs explores a central role for wisdom at the origin of the world:

“The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works,

    before his deeds of old;

I was formed long ages ago,

    at the very beginning, when the world came to be.

When there were no watery depths, I was given birth,

    when there were no springs overflowing with water;

before the mountains were settled in place,

    before the hills, I was given birth,

before he made the world or its fields

    or any of the dust of the earth.

I was there when he set the heavens in place,

    when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep,

when he established the clouds above

    and fixed securely the fountains of the deep,

when he gave the sea its boundary

    so the waters would not overstep his command,

and when he marked out the foundations of the earth.

Then I was constantly at his side.

I was filled with delight day after day,

    rejoicing always in his presence,

rejoicing in his whole world

    and delighting in mankind.

Proverbs 8:22–31 (NIV)

The Book of Job has creation at its very centre. For much of the book, Job is to the fore as creature and throughout God is under trial as creator. As this work reaches its climax, God is not vindicated by rational argument but by nothing less that God unfolding to Job his perfection as creator.

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels
 shouted for joy?

“Who shut up the sea behind doors
when it burst forth from the womb,
when I made the clouds its garment
and wrapped it in thick darkness,
when I fixed limits for it
and set its doors and bars in place,
when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther;
here is where your proud waves halt’?

Job 38:4–11 (NIV)

In this way, the Book of Job might be said to draw a limit to the extent to which wisdom can answer the deepest questions about creation. The Book of Ecclesiastes strays further from the order of Proverbs and questions just about everything to such a degree that the fundamental premise of wisdom is challenged to the core. What kind of creation do we live in? Ecclesiastes answers: “one that often seems ‘crazy’”.

Our next post develops this questioning dynamic of wisdom further. There we shall consider how the diversity of the three biblical wisdom books invites all those committed to Yahweh to continue questioning, albeit from a premise of Fear of Yahweh.

 

C is for Creation

There is no escaping the centrality of the theme of Creation in the Hebrew Bible. Not only is it encountered on numerous occasions, both explicitly and implicitly, but it is also the point of departure of the book of Genesis and therefore the whole Hebrew Bible.

In the previous post we considered two polar opposite approaches to the Hebrew Bible and their respective presuppositions. These were scientific atheism and highly conservative Christianity. Both conservative Christian approaches and militant atheism share a tendency to translate the two accounts of creation found in Genesis 1–2 into propositional truth. In this way the outcome is either:

  1. The Bible’s account of creation is so at odds with astronomy, geology and evolutionary biology that the biblical account is false, or
  2. The Bible’s account of creation is so at odds with astronomy, geology and evolutionary biology that these sciences are wrong.

Of course there are alternatives. These alternatives centre on considering what these texts are—i.e. they are not a series of straightforward propositional truths. This is not to question their potential for conveying truth but rather to recognise that there is something more complex at work in these texts and that their interpretation is richer than a series of true/false statements. I want to suggest that an initial reading of the two accounts of creation in Genesis 1–2 which recognises their cultural milieu indicates two useful starting points.

Firstly, there is a poetic dynamic to the accounts:

  • They are highly rhythmic and stylised—for example the six fold refrain of ‘. . . and there was evening, and there was morning . . .’ (see 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23 and 31).
  • There is word play—for example the use of ‘adamah as earth (as in topsoil) in 1:25 and 2:6 and the use of ‘adam as the first man (earth creature) in 2:7.

Some poetic features are lost in translation but the rhythm and form are readily apparent.

Secondly, the two creation accounts in Genesis and other elements of Genesis 1–11 are part of a number of Ancient Near-Eastern texts which deal with origins. They arose in a context which saw a number of accounts for the origin of the world and explanations of the way things are. For example, there are Akkadian, Egyptian and Babylonian creation stories. These Hebrew accounts provide their own unique answers to the questions being asked at that time.

Of course even when such considerations are handled sympathetically these texts can still be dismissed as wrongheaded, but the way we can dismiss or embrace them is richer than polarising modern science against ancient text as propositional statements which capture timeless truth. The possible ‘thicker’ readings lack the simplicity and closure of the ‘thinner’ alternatives. They raise questions as well as provide answers. The central claims of Genesis 1–2 provide the presuppositions underpinning the whole of the Hebrew Bible—that the Hebrew God, Yahweh, created the universe and that humankind are, at some level, special within this creation. There is no scientific proposal here which can be tested. Rather, this is elegant use of the possibilities of poetry to populate the imagination with rich theological images. This thicker possibility leads us to wonder and perhaps argue about how we interpret the account—how do Adam and Eve fit with the scientific consensus? As a Christian who is also a scientist I welcome the fact that neither scientific consensus nor the Bible trumps the other at the outset of a process of critical evaluation and consideration.

 

Further reading

For a stimulating scholarly exploration of the centrality of creation in the Hebrew Bible see Herman Spieckermann, ‘Creation: God and World’, pp. 271‒292 in The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion (ed: John Barton), Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016