What is a Leviathan?

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By BibleAsk Team


The term “Leviathan” appears in several places throughout the Bible, often evoking a sense of awe and mystery. The word itself originates from the Hebrew word “livyathan,” which denotes a large sea creature or a dragon-like entity. This exploration will delve into the biblical references to Leviathan, its characteristics, symbolic meanings, and interpretations within the context of the Scriptures.

Biblical References

Leviathan is mentioned six times in the Old Testament (Job 3:8; 41:1-34; Psalms 74:13, 14; Psalms 104:26; Isaiah 27:1). Let us examine some of these references:

1. Job 41:1-34

The most extensive description of Leviathan is found in the Book of Job, where God Himself speaks of this formidable creature. Job 41:1-34 (NKJV) provides a detailed account:

“Can you draw out Leviathan with a hook, or snare his tongue with a line which you lower? Can you put a reed through his nose, or pierce his jaw with a hook? Will he make many supplications to you? Will he speak softly to you? Will he make a covenant with you? Will you take him as a servant forever? Will you play with him as with a bird, or will you leash him for your maidens? Will your companions make a banquet of him? Will they apportion him among the merchants? Can you fill his skin with harpoons, or his head with fishing spears? Lay your hand on him; remember the battle—never do it again! Indeed, any hope of overcoming him is false; shall one not be overwhelmed at the sight of him?

No one is so fierce that he would dare stir him up. Who then is able to stand against Me? Who has preceded Me, that I should pay him? Everything under heaven is Mine. I will not conceal his limbs, his mighty power, or his graceful proportions. Who can remove his outer coat? Who can approach him with a double bridle? Who can open the doors of his face, with his terrible teeth all around? His rows of scales are his pride, shut up tightly as with a seal; one is so near another that no air can come between them; they are joined one to another, they stick together and cannot be parted. His sneezings flash forth light, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning.

Out of his mouth go burning lights; sparks of fire shoot out. Smoke goes out of his nostrils, as from a boiling pot and burning rushes. His breath kindles coals, and a flame goes out of his mouth. Strength dwells in his neck, and sorrow dances before him. The folds of his flesh are joined together; they are firm on him and cannot be moved. His heart is as hard as stone, even as hard as the lower millstone. When he raises himself up, the mighty are afraid; because of his crashings they are beside themselves. Though the sword reaches him, it cannot avail; nor does spear, dart, or javelin.

He regards iron as straw, and bronze as rotten wood. The arrow cannot make him flee; slingstones become like stubble to him. Darts are regarded as straw; he laughs at the threat of javelins. His undersides are like sharp potsherds; he spreads pointed marks in the mire. He makes the deep boil like a pot; he makes the sea like a pot of ointment. He leaves a shining wake behind him; one would think the deep had white hair. On earth there is nothing like him, which is made without fear. He beholds every high thing; he is king over all the children of pride.”

This passage portrays Leviathan as an immensely powerful and terrifying creature, impervious to human attempts to capture or subdue it. The vivid imagery of fire-breathing and invincible scales emphasizes its fearsome nature.

2. Psalm 74:12-14

Another reference to Leviathan is found in Psalm 74, which recounts God’s past deeds of deliverance for His people:

“For God is my King from of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth. You divided the sea by Your strength; You broke the heads of the sea serpents in the waters. You broke the heads of Leviathan in pieces, and gave him as food to the people inhabiting the wilderness.”

In this context, Leviathan represents chaos and opposition, which God triumphs over. This reinforces the theme of God’s sovereignty over all creation, including the most formidable creatures.

3. Psalm 104:25-26

Psalm 104 celebrates God’s creation and providence, including a mention of Leviathan:

“This great and wide sea, in which are innumerable teeming things, living things both small and great. There the ships sail about; there is that Leviathan which You have made to play there.”

Here, Leviathan is depicted as a part of God’s creation, frolicking in the sea. This portrayal contrasts with the fearsome image in Job, suggesting a creature under God’s dominion, created for His purposes.

4. Isaiah 27:1

In Isaiah, Leviathan is symbolic of God’s ultimate victory over evil:

“In that day the Lord with His severe sword, great and strong, will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan that twisted serpent; and He will slay the reptile that is in the sea.”

This prophetic passage associates Leviathan with chaos and evil, which God will ultimately defeat, bringing order and justice.

Characteristics

The biblical descriptions of Leviathan present several key characteristics:

  1. Formidable Power: Leviathan is depicted as an overwhelmingly powerful creature, unmatched by any other being. This is evident from Job’s description of its indestructible body and fearsome appearance.
  2. Impervious to Weapons: Leviathan’s scales and physical attributes make it impervious to human weapons, highlighting its invincibility and the futility of human attempts to conquer it.
  3. Fire and Smoke: The creature’s ability to breathe fire and emit smoke from its nostrils in Job 41 adds a mythical and terrifying dimension to its character.
  4. Symbol of Chaos and Evil: In Isaiah and Psalms, Leviathan often symbolizes chaos, evil, and opposition to God’s order, reinforcing the theme of divine sovereignty and ultimate victory over chaos.
  5. Part of Creation: Despite its terrifying nature, Leviathan is also depicted as a creature created by God, playing in the sea (Psalm 104). This duality emphasizes that even the most fearsome entities are under God’s control and part of His creation.

Symbolic Meanings and Interpretations

1. Symbol of Chaos

Leviathan frequently symbolizes chaos and disorder, which God triumphs over. This theme is prominent in the ancient Near Eastern context, where chaos monsters like Leviathan represented the forces opposing creation and order. God’s defeat of Leviathan, as mentioned in Psalm 74 and Isaiah 27, underscores His power to bring order out of chaos.

2. Representation of Evil

Leviathan also represents evil and opposition to God. Isaiah 27:1 portrays Leviathan as a serpent, a common symbol of evil in biblical literature. The slaying of Leviathan by God signifies the ultimate victory of good over evil, a recurring theme in biblical prophecy.

3. Test of Human Limitations

In Job 41, Leviathan serves to remind Job (and readers) of human limitations compared to God’s infinite power. The inability to control or conquer Leviathan contrasts sharply with God’s absolute sovereignty and control over all creation. This is part of God’s response to Job, emphasizing that His ways and His creation are beyond human understanding.

4. Part of God’s Creation

Psalm 104’s depiction of Leviathan playing in the sea shows a different aspect, where the creature is part of the created order, enjoying the freedom within the bounds set by God. This portrays a harmonious relationship between creation and the Creator, where even the most fearsome creatures have their place.

Theological Context

1. God’s Sovereignty

Leviathan’s portrayal across different books of the Bible underscores God’s absolute sovereignty. Whether as a chaotic monster or a playful creature, Leviathan is always under God’s control. This serves to reassure believers of God’s supreme authority over all aspects of life and the universe.

2. Human Limitations and Divine Wisdom

The detailed description of Leviathan in Job 41 is a powerful reminder of human limitations. God’s rhetorical questions highlight Job’s (and humanity’s) inability to understand or control the natural world fully. This serves to humble humans and remind them of their place within God’s creation, encouraging trust in God’s wisdom and plans.

3. Victory Over Evil

Leviathan’s defeat, as prophesied in Isaiah 27, is a symbol of God’s ultimate victory over evil. This aligns with the broader biblical narrative of redemption and the establishment of God’s kingdom, where evil is vanquished, and divine justice prevails.

Mythology

In ancient Canaanite mythology, Leviathan was regarded as a seven-headed serpent that fought the gods and the good forces. It was therefore regarded as the personification of evil. An example of this can be found in the ancient Canaanite texts from Ras Shamrah (Vol. I, pp. 128, 129) as “Lotan.” This beast is regarded as the same name as the Biblical word “leviathan” (Heb. liwyathan).

Conclusion

Leviathan is a multifaceted symbol in the Bible, representing chaos, evil, human limitations, and the diversity of God’s creation. The references to this creature in Job, Psalms, and Isaiah (NKJV) each contribute to a richer understanding of this enigmatic creature and its theological significance.

In Job, Leviathan highlights human limitations and the vastness of God’s creation, reminding believers of their place in the divine order. In Psalms, Leviathan appears as both a defeated enemy and a playful creature, symbolizing God’s control over chaos and the diversity of His creation. In Isaiah, Leviathan represents ultimate evil that God will defeat, assuring believers of divine justice and victory.

These varied portrayals underscore God’s sovereignty, wisdom, and the ultimate triumph of good over evil, encouraging believers to trust in God’s plan and power. Through the lens of Leviathan, the Bible communicates profound truths about the nature of God, the world, and the human condition, inviting reflection on the divine order and our place within it.

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In His service,
BibleAsk Team

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