Tiamat Cylinder Seal

No, The Leviathan Is Not A Crocodile


I have heard many pastors and church leaders attempt to link the leviathan with a real animal which could be recognized by humans. This idea that the Leviathan was a crocodile or similar creature is a very popular teaching. I can still recall being in youth group discussing the possible animals that could be the mythical creature. The teaching is probably best displayed by the popular Christian website “gotquestions.org“. Below I will demonstrate why scholars believe this view is flawed. keep in mind that I am not picking on this online resource. I have a lot of respect for the work done by gotquestions.org. However, the site represents a very traditional and unscholarly view of this topic, which needs to be corrected.

The leviathan is a large aquatic creature of some kind. The Bible refers to it as a fearsome beast having monstrous ferocity and great power. The Hebrew word for “Leviathan” has the root meaning of “coiled” or “twisted.” Isaiah 27:1 speaks of “Leviathan the fast-moving serpent, Leviathan the squirming serpent; . . . the sea monster” (NET). Whatever this monster of the sea is (or was), its strength and wild nature were well known.

There are a handful of references to the leviathan in the Old Testament. Most passages describe the leviathan as a real creature, familiar to people (who, of course, kept their distance) by reputation if not by sight. In Psalm 104:25–26 God is praised as the One who created the habitat for the leviathan: “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.” Only a great God could have created Leviathan and then made a place big enough for it to “frolic” safely.

In Isaiah 27:1 the leviathan is used as a symbol for the wicked kings of the earth who withstand God’s people. The great power that wicked nations wield can be terrifying, but God assures His children that evil, no matter how monstrous, will be defeated: “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.” Psalm 74:14 contains a similar reference to God’s victory over Leviathan; in that psalm, the pharaoh of Egypt is most likely meant.

Job 41 gives the most detail about Leviathan as an actual sea creature. In that chapter, God describes Leviathan, emphasizing the animal’s size, strength, and viciousness. The leviathan cannot be tied down or tamed (Job 41:1, 5); it is frightening to even look at (verse 9); it is best left alone (verses 8, 10). The leviathan has a graceful form (verse 12) but is incredibly well protected with scales (verses 13, 15–17). Its chest is as impenetrable as its back (verses 15, 24). It has fearsome teeth (verse 14), and death awaits anyone who approaches its mouth (verses 18–21). Even mighty men are terrified of the leviathan (verse 25). No sword, spear, dart, javelin, arrow, stone, club, or lance can defeat it (verses 26, 28–29). It cannot be caged, because it breaks iron like straw (verse 27). On land, the leviathan leaves a trail of ruts; in the water, it produces a deep, churning wake (verses 30–32). God’s description of the leviathan concludes with a statement that it is the true king of the beasts: “Nothing on earth is its equal—a creature without fear” (verse 33).

So, what animal is Job 41 describing? Some commentators believe Leviathan is a crocodile. Others believe it is a whale or a shark. Based on the biblical description, it seems more likely that Leviathan is a large sea reptile, possibly a species of dinosaur such as the plesiosaurus. Job’s acquaintance with a dinosaur is not far-fetched at all, given that the book of Job is set in a very early time of history.

The point God makes in Job 41 is that Leviathan is under God’s sovereign control. Job had been questioning God (Job 26—31), but God turns the tables and uses the leviathan’s might to emphasize Job’s weakness and frailty. If God created Leviathan (an animal Job cannot stand before), then how great is God? Why is Job even trying to grapple with the Almighty?

Leviathan was a dangerous creature that caused seasoned warriors to turn and run. Leviathan is no myth, but rather a real creature of the sea, subject only to its Creator. As God says in His description of Leviathan, “Who then is able to stand against me? Who has a claim against me that I must pay? Everything under heaven belongs to me” (Job 41:10–11).
(What Was The Leviathan?)

Admittedly, the explanation above is somewhat convincing if one doesn’t read the texts carefully, especially if one is not familiar with Canaanite and Mesopotamian folk-lore. However, the Leviathan was much more than a living animal in the mind of the ancients. Keep in mind that we have to interpret the passage from the view point of the original audience, not from our own perspective. The modern mind want’s to rationalize the texts about the Leviathan because we know it doesn’t exist. But to the ancients, it was very real. The problem arises mostly with biblical literalists because clearly God cannot speak of a creature that doesn’t exist…. right? But this reading eisegesis, not exegesis.


Leviathan in the Ancient Near Eastern Texts


I contend that the Leviathan was, in fact, a mythical creature. This fact is easily determined by looking at the same passages that are listed in the explanation from gotquestions.org, and then interpreting the language through the lens of the ancient audience.

In that day the Lord will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent,
with His fierce and great and mighty sword,
Even Leviathan the twisted serpent;
And He will kill the dragon who lives in the sea.
(Isaiah 27:1)

The prophetic oracle delivered through Isaiah envisions events that will take place during the “day of the Lord”. This is even more evident if we read the passage in context, which for some reason, people rarely do. Let us also examine Isaiah 26:21.

For behold, the Lord is about to come out from His place,
to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity;
And the earth will reveal her bloodshed,
And will no longer cover her slain.
In that day the Lord will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent,
With His fierce and great and mighty sword,
Even Leviathan the twisted serpent;
And He will kill the dragon who lives in the sea.
(Isaiah 26:21-27:1)

Does it make sense that in the day of the Lord, Yahweh is going to punish all the alligators or serpents? Or is it more probable that something more is being communicated? Clearly, the oracle is about something much more significant.

In the time of Isaiah, many thought that a mythical serpent-like dragon dwelled in the seas. Did the animal actually exist in reality? Of course not. But that didn’t stop people from believing that it existed. In this sense, the name Leviathan was both figurative and literal. However, the ancient audience would have taken it to be completely literal. 

The passages from Isaiah 26 and 27 about the Leviathan are alluding to the Canaanite and Mesopotamian myth that there was a sea deity that was defeated by a god, or even THE God. Ancient Mesopotamia and Canaan abounded in sea deity lore. The prophet Ezekiel alludes to the sea deities in his oracle against the king of Tyre.

“Because your heart is lifted up
And you have said, ‘I am a god,
I sit in the seat of gods
In the heart of the seas’;
Yet you are a man and not God,…”
(Ezekiel 28:2)

The Mediterranean sea was the home of an entire Pantheon of Greek deities, including a Leviathan-like creature. However, he older sea deity legends, from Ugarit, are likely the object of reference for the Isaiah’s Leviathan. The section of Isaiah’s message  that mentions the Leviathan immediately proceeds an oracle against the northern Canaanite city of Tyre. Tyre was a neighbor of Ugarit, along the coast of the Mediterranean sea. 

The Leviathan of Ugarit was named Lotan and Lotan is a Ugaritic word that means “coiled” or “twisted” or “slanted”, just like Isaiah said, “Leviathan the twisted serpent“.

If thou smite Lotan, the serpent slant,
Destroy the serpent tortuous,
Shalyat (šlyṭ) of the seven heads,

Crushed I not El’s Belov’d Yamm?
Destroyed I not El’s Flood Rabbim?
Did I not, pray, muzzle the Dragon?
I did crush the crooked serpent,
Shalyat the seven-headed.

According to Canaanite legend, Lotan was a servant of the Canaanite sea deity Yam/Yamm/Yammu. Yam was the watery adversary to Ba’al. Ba’al was the great sky god and son of the god most high, El/Elyon. This is also where the name El and Elohim derive from in the Hebrew scriptures, hence the name of the northern tribes of Jacob, Israel (Isra-El, god-contends). It should be noted also that Yam is the Hebrew word for sea (יאם/יָם). The fact that the Hebrew people inherited much of it’s culture and language from northern Canaan should not be a surprise. The proto-Hebrew script was identical to the Phoenician script (NW Semitic).

In the NW Semitic cultures (Pnoenician) Ba’al (Ba’lu) goes to war with the serpent.

When you smite Lôtan, the fleeing serpent,
finish off the twisting serpent,
the close–coiling one with seven heads,
The heavens wither and go slack
like the folds (?) of your tunic.
(Then) I, with groans, am devoured,
(like) a piece of dung I die.
So) you must (for your part) descend into the throat of Môtu, son of ʾIlu,
into the watery depths of the beloved warrior of ʾIlu.

Yam and the Leviathan are considered wicked fugitives in most Canaanite and Mesopotamian lore. In Canaanite lore, Yam and Lotan rebelled against the pantheon, kidnaped El’s wife, Asherah, and even tried to usurp El’s throne. Outraged, Ba’al leads a fight against Yam and Lotan and is victorious.  Once Yam is defeated, he is imprisoned to the sea, no longer capable of rebelling against the gods. The story is usually referred to as the Epic of Ba’al or the Ba’al Cycle. Of course, multiple variations of this epic exist in neighboring territories. 

A similar battle exists in the mythology of the Mesopotamian peoples. All of the great Mesopotamian peoples had their own version of a powerful deity going to battle with the god of the sea. In Assyria and Babylon it was Marduk defeating Tiamat by blowing into her mouth so that she expands and then Marduk explodes Tiamat with an arrow. 

We see also in the book of Genesis, God’s spirit hovering over the face of the deep waters. Here in Genesis, the primordial waters of chaos is represented by the name Tahom. It has been suggested by myself and others that since Tahom has no definite article (the) then it should be used as a title or name. This, however, is not true of “the waters”, expressed with the definite article as “הַמָּיִם”. 

Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of [the] deep; and the spirit of Elohim hovered over the face of the waters.
וְהָאָרֶץ, הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ, וְחֹשֶׁךְ, עַל-פְּנֵי
תְהוֹם; וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, מְרַחֶפֶת עַל-פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם.
(Genesis 1:2)

In earlier Sumerian mythology, Tiamat and Apzu had offspring named Lahmu and Lahamu. They were born from the merging of the salt water and the fresh water, where the Persian gulf met the rivers of fresh water. Apsu represented the fresh water thought to be from below the earth and Tiamat the salt water from the Persian gulf. The silt left behind by the mingling waters was rippled like a slithering snake which is perhaps the origin of the water serpent myths. 


Leviathan in Biblical Texts


Thus, having briefly explored the mythologies of the sea in the Ancient Near East, it’s easy to see that the Leviathan is no small matter, as it represents the rebellious primordial serpent monster that is trapped in the sea, whom nearly usurped the entire pantheon of Assyria, Babylon, and Canaan. No wonder it is prominently featured in the biblical oracles that relate to the Assyrian and Babylonian periods. 

With some background out of the way, let us return to the biblical passages at hand, namely, Isaiah 26:21, Isaiah 27:1, Psalm 104:25–26, Job 41:1–11, Job 3:7-9, and Psalm 74:12-15.

There is the sea, great and broad,
In which are swarms without number,
Animals both small and great.
26 There the ships move along,
And Leviathan, which You have formed to sport(play) in it.
(Psalm 104:25-26 NASB)

In the psalmist mentions the Leviathan as separate from the animals listed in verse 25, “both great and small”. Why is the Leviathan excluded from the animals both small and great? Seems like a strange way to single out another animal. It’s because the Leviathan was no ordinary beast, as we already discovered. Psalm 104 also uses Leviathan as a title and is a singular object. This is in contrast with “animals” which is a plural form. There was just one Leviathan. Although, each body of water could possibly contain its own Leviathan, depending on the local mythologies. Nevertheless, we can see in the book of Job that the Leviathan was no crocodile.

“Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook?
Or press down his tongue with a cord?
2 “Can you put a rope in his nose
Or pierce his jaw with a hook?
3 “Will he make many supplications to you,
Or will he speak to you soft words?
4 “Will he make a covenant with you?
Will you take him for a servant forever?
5 “Will you play with him as with a bird,
Or will you bind him for your maidens?
6 “Will the traders bargain over him?
Will they divide him among the merchants?
7 “Can you fill his skin with harpoons,
Or his head with fishing spears?
8 “Lay your hand on him;
Remember the battle; you will not do it again!
9 “Behold, your expectation is false;
Will you be laid low even at the sight of him?
10 “No one is so fierce that he dares to arouse him;

Who then is he that can stand before Me?
11 “Who has given to Me that I should repay him?
Whatever is under the whole heaven is Mine.
(Job 41:1-11)

The very first line of chapter 41 opens with a question. Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook? What we know of crocodiles from various inscriptions and artifacts is that the ancients actually did capture the river crocodiles. The term “river crocodile” is important to take note of because most crocodiles in the ANE were found in rivers, not seas. This is not to say that open water crocodiles didn’t exist, just that the home of the crocodiles was usually a smaller waterway or body of water. Nevertheless, the Egyptians were known to capture the crocodiles and even domesticate them as pets for the temple and palace. In fact, the Egyptians were so good at it that they later supplied Rome with crocodiles for the Roman games.  Moreover, the Egyptians captured so many crocodiles that some of them were mummified. This practice of mummification was predicated on the Egyptian belief that the crocodile could act as an intermediate between the mortal and the gods. The famous Greek historian, Herodotus, also gave a description on how crocodiles were hunted and capture, via hook.

“They bait a hook with a chine of pork and let it float out into midstream, and at the same time, standing on the bank, take a live pig and beat it. The crocodile, hearing the squeals, makes a rush toward it, encounters the bait, gulps it down, and is hauled out of the water. The first thing the huntsman does when he has got the beast on land is to plaster its eyes with mud; this done, it is dispatched easily enough – but without this precaution it will give a lot of trouble.”
(Herodotus, The Histories)

Thus, the crocodile is already a difficult fit for the speech delivered to Job, as capturing crocodiles with hooks was somewhat routine. They would house crocodiles as pets, mummify them for the afterlife and offerings, and even select some for idol worship.

The next detail in the speech that should alert the reader that it’s not a crocodile is the phrase “can you put a rope in his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook?” This phrase is shouting to the reader that the Leviathan is even greater than a crocodile. In fact, at many points in the poet warning God compares the impossibility of capturing the Leviathan as if it were a crocodile and every time He reiterates the impossibility. 

5 “Will you play with him as with a bird,
Or will you bind him for your maidens?
6 “Will the traders bargain over him?
Will they divide him among the merchants?

The text speaks specifically of the crocodile trade between the Egyptians and the Mediterranean world. Yet, the Lord finishes the message with the following description of a non-crocodile.

“Behold, your expectation is false;
Will you be laid low even at the sight of him?
10 “No one is so fierce that he dares to arouse him;

Clearly, the message being delivered is a taunt, telling Job that man may be able to capture the crocodile but what of the Leviathan? Only God can master the Leviathan. If there was any doubt as to the mythical nature of the Leviathan, one only needs to read the rest go Job 41, which describes a monster who is akin to a fire breathing dragon.

“I will not fail to speak of Leviathan’s limbs,
its strength and its graceful form.
13 Who can strip off its outer coat?
Who can penetrate its double coat of armor?
14 Who dares open the doors of its mouth,
ringed about with fearsome teeth?
15 Its back has rows of shields
tightly sealed together;
16 each is so close to the next
that no air can pass between.
17 They are joined fast to one another;
they cling together and cannot be parted.
18 Its snorting throws out flashes of light;
its eyes are like the rays of dawn.
19 Flames stream from its mouth;
sparks of fire shoot out.
20 Smoke pours from its nostrils
as from a boiling pot over burning reeds.
21 Its breath sets coals ablaze,
and flames dart from its mouth.
22 Strength resides in its neck;
dismay goes before it.
23 The folds of its flesh are tightly joined;
they are firm and immovable.
24 Its chest is hard as rock,
hard as a lower millstone.
25 When it rises up, the mighty are terrified;
they retreat before its thrashing.
26 The sword that reaches it has no effect,
nor does the spear or the dart or the javelin.
27 Iron it treats like straw
and bronze like rotten wood.
28 Arrows do not make it flee;
slingstones are like chaff to it.
29 A club seems to it but a piece of straw;
it laughs at the rattling of the lance.
30 Its undersides are jagged potsherds,
leaving a trail in the mud like a threshing sledge.
31 It makes the depths churn like a boiling caldron
and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment.
32 It leaves a glistening wake behind it;
one would think the deep had white hair.
33 Nothing on earth is its equal—
a creature without fear.
34 It looks down on all that are haughty;
it is king over all that are proud.”
(Job 41:12-34)

Are we to believe that the crocodile breathes fire and snorts smoke? That a weaponized club is like a piece of straw beating on it? That it can stir up the sea like a cauldron? That nothing on earth compares to it? Of course this description would have been rather silly since crocodiles were easily captured in the ANE. Moreover, crocodiles were not native to the location of the writer of Job. Hence, why most nations imported them from Egypt. Some Mesopotamian regions had crocodiles but they were not featured in much of the culture or lore because they were rare.

The next passage from Job that mentions the Leviathan compares rousing it to a person who wishes for death or to never have been born (something Job is currently doing). 

May those who curse days curse that day,
those who are ready to rouse Leviathan.
May its morning stars become dark;
may it wait for daylight in vain,
(Job 3:8-9)

The Leviathan in Job 3 is a creature that is so dreadful that arousing it as king to wanting to die or having never been born. As we already know from previous examination this description does not fit the crocodile. However, it does fit the mythical Leviathan. 

The most striking reference to the mythical creation that was the great sea monster, comes from Psalm 74. Psalm 74 nearly quotes from the Assyrian myth where Marduk defeats Tiamat.

But God is my King from long ago;
he brings salvation on the earth.
13 It was you who split open the sea by your power;
you broke the heads of the monster in the waters.
14 It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan
and gave it as food to the creatures of the desert.
15 It was you who opened up springs and streams;
you dried up the ever-flowing rivers.
(Psalm 74:12-15)

The passage from Psalm 74:12-15 echoes the ending of the Marduk VS Tiamat battle. After Marduk defeated Tiamat by blowing his wind into her and popping her with and arrow, Marduk proceeded to split her in half and used the two peaces to create the heavens and the earth. Her eyes were used to create the Tigris and Euphrates. Also notice that the Leviathan is said to have “heads” not single “head”. Crocodiles only have one head. The Leviathan has multiple depending on the region that tells the water serpent mythology. 

However, the Psalm adds something to the mythology that only appears in the Bible. It’s probably not meant to be read literally but the heads of the Leviathan are said to have been crushed and then given as food to some desert creatures. Given that the rest of verse 15 seems to be about the wandering of the Israelites in the desert, it’s possible that the reference is vaguely alluding to manna. But that is merely a guess.


Conclusion


While more can said on this topic, I believe the evidence presented already is enough to put this myth away. Crocodiles were not so scary that they would evoke fear in the hearts of men. The description from Job 41 about catching a leviathan with a hook is clearly an allusion to the fact that the Leviathan cannot be captured as a crocodile can be. Only God can tame the Leviathan.

The Leviathan as a serpent of the seas is a deeply held ancient mythology that was certainly the object of reference in the relevant passages in this article. The Bible is steeped with ANE mythologies and the Leviathan is no different.


James Bennett Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament , 3rd ed. with Supplement. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 137-138

William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, The Context of Scripture (Leiden;  New York: Brill, 1997–), 265.

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