The word has become synonymous with any large sea monster or creature. In literature (e.g., Herman Melville's Moby-Dick) it refers to great whales, and in Modern Hebrew, it simply means "whale". It is described extensively in Job 41 and mentioned in Psalm 104:26 and Isaiah 27:1.
- 1 Can you pull in the leviathan with a fishhook or tie down his tongue with a rope?
- 2 Can you put a cord through his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook?
- 3 Will he keep begging you for mercy? Will he speak to you with gentle words?
- 4 Will he make an agreement with you for you to take him as your slave for life?
- 5 Can you make a pet of him like a bird or put him on a leash for your girls?
- 6 Will traders barter for him? Will they divide him up among the merchants?
- 7 Can you fill his hide with harpoons or his head with fishing spears?
- 8 If you lay a hand on him, you will remember the struggle and never do it again!
- 9 Any hope of subduing him is false; the mere sight of him is overpowering.
- 10 No-one is fierce enough to rouse him. Who then is able to stand against me?
- 11 Who has a claim against me that I must pay? Everything under heaven belongs to me.
- 12 I will not fail to speak of his limbs, his strength and his graceful form.
- 13 Who can strip off his outer coat? Who would approach him with a bridle?
- 14 Who dares open the doors of his mouth, ringed about with his fearsome teeth?
- 15 His 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 His snorting throws out flashes of light; his eyes are like the rays of dawn.
- 19 Firebrands stream from his mouth; sparks of fire shoot out.
- 20 Smoke pours from his nostrils as from a boiling pot over a fire of reeds.
- 21 His breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from his mouth.
- 22 Strength resides in his neck; dismay goes before him.
- 23 The folds of his flesh are tightly joined; they are firm and immovable.
- 24 His chest is hard as rock, hard as a lower millstone.
- 25 When he rises up, the mighty are terrified; they retreat before his thrashing.
- 26 The sword that reaches him has no effect, nor does the spear or the dart or the javelin.
- 27 Iron he treats like straw and bronze like rotten wood.
- 28 Arrows do not make him flee, sling stones are like chaff to him.
- 29 A club seems to him but a piece of straw, he laughs at the rattling of the lance.
- 30 His undersides are jagged potsherds, leaving a trail in the mud like a threshing-sledge.
- 31 He makes the depths churn like a boiling cauldron and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment.
- 32 Behind him he leaves a glistening wake; one would think the deep had white hair.
- 33 Nothing on earth is his equal—a creature without fear.
- 34 He looks down on all that are haughty; he is king over all that are proud.
In Psalm 74 God is said to "break the heads of Leviathan in pieces" before giving his flesh to the people of the wilderness; in Psalm 104 God is praised for having made all things, including Leviathan; and in Isaiah 27:1 he is called the "wriggling serpent" who will be killed at the end of time.
Ancient Middle Eastern origins
Sea serpents feature prominently in the mythology of the Ancient Near East, attested as early as the 3rd millennium BCE in Sumerian iconography depicting the myth of the god Ninurta overcoming the seven-headed serpent. Examples of the storm god vs. sea serpent trope in the Ancient Near East can be seen with Baʿal vs. Yam (Canaanite), Marduk vs. Tiamat (Babylonian), and Atum vs. Nehebkau (Egyptian) among others, with attestations as early as the 2nd millennium as seen on Syrian seals.
In the Ugaritic texts Lotan, or possibly another of Yam's helpers, is given the epithets "wriggling serpent" and "mighty one with the seven heads". Isaiah 27:1 uses the first of these phrases to describe Leviathan (although in this case the name "Leviathan" may refer to an unnamed historical/political enemy of Israel rather than the original serpent-monster). In Psalm 104, Leviathan is not described as harmful in any way, but simply as a creature of the ocean, part of God's creation. It is possible that the authors of the Job 41:2–26, on the other hand, based the Leviathan on descriptions of Egyptian animal mythology where the crocodile is the enemy of the solar deity Horus (and is subdued either by Horus, or by the Pharaoh). This is in contrast to typical descriptions of the sea monster trope in terms of mythological combat.
In later Jewish literature
Later Jewish sources describe Leviathan as a dragon who lives over the Sources of the Deep and who, along with the male land-monster Behemoth, will be served up to the righteous at the end of time.
When the Jewish midrash (explanations of the Tanakh) were being composed, it was held that God originally produced a male and a female leviathan, but lest in multiplying the species should destroy the world, he slew the female, reserving her flesh for the banquet that will be given to the righteous on the advent of the Messiah (B. B. 74b).
Rashi's commentary on Genesis 1:21 repeats the tradition:
the...sea monsters: The great fish in the sea, and in the words of the Aggadah (B.B. 74b), this refers to the Leviathan and its mate, for He created them male and female, and He slew the female and salted her away for the righteous in the future, for if they would propagate, the world could not exist because of them. הַתַּנִינִם is written. [I.e., the final “yud,” which denotes the plural, is missing, hence the implication that the Leviathan did not remain two, but that its number was reduced to one.]- [from Gen. Rabbah 7:4, Midrash Chaseroth V’Yetheroth, Batei Midrashoth, vol 2, p. 225].
In the Talmud Baba Bathra 75a it is told that the Leviathan will be slain and its flesh served as a feast to the righteous in [the] Time to Come, and its skin used to cover the tent where the banquet will take place. The festival of Sukkot (Festival of Booths) therefore concludes with a prayer recited upon leaving the sukkah (booth): "May it be your will, Lord our God and God of our forefathers, that just as I have fulfilled and dwelt in this sukkah, so may I merit in the coming year to dwell in the sukkah of the skin of Leviathan. Next year in Jerusalem."
The enormous size of the Leviathan is described by Johanan bar Nappaha, from whom proceeded nearly all the aggadot concerning this monster: "Once we went in a ship and saw a fish which put his head out of the water. He had horns upon which was written: 'I am one of the meanest creatures that inhabit the sea. I am three hundred miles in length, and enter this day into the jaws of the Leviathan'" (B. B. l.c.).
When the Leviathan is hungry, reports Rabbi Dimi in the name of Rabbi Johanan, he sends forth from his mouth a heat so great as to make all the waters of the deep boil, and if he would put his head into Paradise no living creature could endure the odor of him (ib.). His abode is the Mediterranean Sea; and the waters of the Jordan fall into his mouth (Bek. 55b; B. B. l.c.).
In a legend recorded in the Midrash called Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer it is stated that the fish which swallowed Jonah narrowly avoided being eaten by the Leviathan, which eats one whale each day.
The body of the Leviathan, especially his eyes, possesses great illuminating power. This was the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer, who, in the course of a voyage in company with Rabbi Joshua, explained to the latter, when frightened by the sudden appearance of a brilliant light, that it probably proceeded from the eyes of the Leviathan. He referred his companion to the words of Job xli. 18: "By his neesings a light doth shine, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning" (B. B. l.c.). However, in spite of his supernatural strength, the leviathan is afraid of a small worm called "kilbit", which clings to the gills of large fish and kills them (Shab. 77b).
In the eleventh century piyyut (religious poem), Akdamut, recited on Shavuot (Pentecost), it is envisioned that, ultimately, God will slaughter the Leviathan, which is described as having "mighty fins" (and, therefore, a kosher fish, not an inedible snake or crocodile), and it will be served as a sumptuous banquet for all the righteous in Heaven.
The Leviathan of the Middle Ages was used as an image of Satan, endangering both God's creatures—by attempting to eat them—and God's creation—by threatening it with upheaval in the waters of Chaos. St. Thomas Aquinas described Leviathan as the demon of envy, first in punishing the corresponding sinners (Secunda Secundae Question 36). Peter Binsfeld likewise classified Leviathan as the demon of envy, as one of the seven Princes of Hell corresponding to the seven deadly sins. Leviathan became associated with, and may originally have referred to, the visual motif of the Hellmouth, a monstrous animal into whose mouth the damned disappear at the Last Judgement, found in Anglo-Saxon art from about 800, and later all over Europe.
In LaVeyan Satanism, according to the author of The Satanic Bible, Anton Szandor LaVey, Leviathan represents the element of Water and the direction of West. The element of Water in Satanism is associated with life and creation, and may be represented by a Chalice during ritual. In The Satanic Bible, Leviathan is listed as one of the Four Crown Princes of Hell. This association was inspired by the demonic hierarchy from The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abra-Melin the Mage. The Church of Satan uses the Hebrew letters at each of the points of the Sigil of Baphomet to represent Leviathan. Starting from the lowest point of the pentagram, and reading counter-clockwise, the word reads "לִוְיָתָן". Translated, this is (LVIThN) Leviathan. In demonology, the Leviathan is one of the seven princes of Hell (envy) and its gatekeeper (see Hellmouth).
Leviathan in popular culture
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901–1906.
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- "The History of the Origin of the Sigil of Baphomet and its Use in the Church of Satan". Church of Satan website. Retrieved 3 September 2009.
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- 'Sea monster' whale fossil unearthed. Named Leviathan by scientists 30 June 2010.
- Putting God on Trial- The Biblical Book of Job contains a major section on the literary use of Leviathan.
- http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=job%2041:1-41:34&version=KJV Job|41:1-41:34|KJV
- The fossilised skull of a colossal "sea monster" has been unearthed along the UK's Jurassic Coast. 27 October 2009
- 'Sea monster' whale fossil unearthed 30 June 2010
- Enuma Elish (Babylonian creation epic)
- Philologos concordance page
- Text of the Leviathan passage from Job 40 and 41