July 1, 2018
Leviathan has no doubt inspired countless conversations among readers of the Bible. What exactly is it? Is it some monstrous creature that is now extinct? Is the Bible perhaps hyperbolizing a crocodile of sorts? It is often easy for us to read Scripture as if it were a science textbook and view it from the lens of our own culture. In order to understand Leviathan, we ought to take a look at two things: historical context and the broader scope of the Bible.
The historical context surrounding Leviathan takes us into ancient mythology. The concept of Leviathan originates from Ugaritic texts (as Litan) where it is described as a many-headed (often 7-headed) chaos monster. Many creation stories, including the one found in Genesis, begin with order being constructed out of chaos. In most non-biblical creation accounts, bringing about this order involves divine conflict against forces of chaos. These chaotic forces need to be destroyed or kept at bay by God, or the gods, to allow for the created order to be established. Leviathan is one such force. In Ugaritic mythology, Leviathan (Litan) is ultimately defeated by Baal, the chief god.
The Bible makes several references to Leviathan. The first biblical mention of Leviathan is Job 3:8: “May those who curse days, curse that day, those who are ready to rouse Leviathan” (Job 3:8, NIV). The concept of arousing Leviathan appears in various ANE (Ancient Near Eastern) curses and incantations meant to bring forth chaos. This seems to be the reference that Job is making. In Psalms 74, the psalmist praises God as King for establishing order and for “crushing the heads of Leviathan” (Psalm 74:14, NIV). Here we see Leviathan described as a multi-headed beast, as was common in the ANE. The psalmist is reflecting the ancient motif of defeating chaos to bring about order and is ascribing that victory to God. The prophet Isaiah also refers to Leviathan when he states that “the Lord will punish with His sword… Leviathan the gliding serpent, Leviathan the coiling serpent” (Isaiah 27:1, NIV). Interestingly, the future tense is used in this verse. Isaiah is referring to a future time when God will defeat this creature. Finally, Job 41 no doubt contains the most famous passages dealing with Leviathan. While some of the references can be taken quite literally, if we combine our understanding of ANE mythology with the biblical passages mentioned above, we see that God is describing something far more powerful than a literal creature. God is using the concept of Leviathan to challenge Job: If Job cannot domesticate the forces of evil and chaos, how dare he challenge the God who has been and will be victorious over them?
Combining the historical context dealing with ancient mythology with the broader scope of the Bible, we see that Leviathan is, in fact, a reference to the force of evil and chaos that seeks to unravel the created order. In the New Testament, this force is revealed to be Satan. In fact, Revelation 12:3 describes Satan as a seven-headed dragon, which is likely a reference to the seven-headed Leviathan. Leviathan/Satan is a force that has opposed God’s order since the beginning and has continued to push forth chaos and evil into the cosmos. We can, however, rest assured in the fact that God has already claimed victory over this dark force and will ultimately defeat Leviathan once and for all.
Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Douglas, J.D., & Tenney, M.C. (2011). Zondervan illustrated bible dictionary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.