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Leviathan

Among the ancient civilizations there are myths about dragons. The Babylonian creation myth contains a battle between Merodach and a dragon (Tiamet). The destruction of this dragon turns into the creation of the earth and the ascendancy of Merodach.

Another of these myths is about a seven-headed dragon named Lotan or Leviathan. During excavations at a site called Ugarit (modern day Ras-Shamra) there was a tablet found bearing a story concerning "Baal and Anat" which dates back to 1400 BC. In the text there is found this ref to the Leviathan: "Didst thou not smite Leviathan, the swift serpent, even the crooked serpent? Didst thou not break in pieces his seven heads?" (Marston, The Bible Comes Alive, 54).

This creature is probably to be associated with the Canaanite god, Yamm, who is the god of seas and rivers. He does battle with Baal and is destroyed. This battle is thought to be represented by winter storms that subside in the spring time.

This passage is cited -- almost verbatim -- in Isa 27:1,2. Isaiah must have been familiar with this text and here he is using it for God's own purpose. Taken in context with Isa 26:21, Yahweh is planning the punishment of the people of the earth, the nations. That leviathan sig the nations (or a nation) is to be deduced from Psa 74:14. Here again the knowledge of the seven-headed dragon myth is revealed because of the mention of leviathan's heads (plural!). This passage is talking about Egypt. The Psalmist is referring to the greatest political power at that time, Egypt, and likening it to this mythological dragon. God is the true king (v 12) and the One to bring judgments upon the Egyptians. "Leviathan" is given for "food for the creatures" (RSV, NIV) -- ref the dead bodies of the Egyptians washed up on the shore as being meat for the animals. This is a common idea in the latter day prophecies which speak about the bodies of the destroyed nations (ie Gog in Eze 39).

"Very remarkably, identical language to Isaiah's has been found in one of the Ugarit religious tablets: 'Didst thou not smite Leviathan the swift serpent, even the crooked serpent? Didst thou not break in pieces his seven heads?' This inscription dates back to 1400 BC; so there is the remarkable phenomenon of an inspired prophet of Jehovah quoting from what was evidently familiar literature of an earlier pagan religion. Presumably in the first instance some Ugaritic priest wrote the words to celebrate an earlier period of Assyrian expansion... which suffered a serious reverse. Now Isaiah picks up the familiar words, rightly attributing this latest mighty Assyrian disaster to the angel of the Lord (Isa 37:36)... One is sorely tempted to read these serpent allusions as a sidelong reference to the brazen serpent, made by Bezaleel and smashed up in the fervor of Hezekiah's reformation (2Ki 18:4). If Ahaz had encouraged his people to associate that image with the power of the Assyrian overlord, its destruction would be an open flouting by Hezekiah of the authority of the bully of Nineveh, and then it is understandable why Sennacherib made such a vicious onslaught on the tiny state of Judah... Sennacherib was not amused!" (WIsa 279).

There can be no denying the political nature of this symbol in the OT. Is it any wonder that the book of Rev also picks it up as a symbol of paganism (Rev 12:3)? God is using this common idea among the nations to show His superiority over these "no-gods". Instead of denouncing the concept of "Leviathan" outright he develops it for his own purposes and symbology. There can be no credence given to a literal dragon with seven heads, yet the symbology can be used for the nations.

Even outside of the canon of Scripture this dragon was used to represent political powers: "Of particular interest is the ancient Babylonian myth of a combat between the divine Creator and a great sea monster. This myth finds echoes in a number of passages in the OT where the monster is variously described as the Dragon, Leviathan, Rahab or the Serpent. In Babylonian and Hebrew forms alike it symbolizes the chaotic deep or cosmic ocean (Heb "tehom", Babylonian "tiamat") which is regarded as a place of mystery and evil. Elsewhere it is identified with Egypt (cf Psa 87:4) which in several places is described under the figure of a great sea monster (cf Psa 74:13...; Eze 29:3; 32:2). This same monster reappears in apocalyptic form in several writings of various dates. In the Testament of Asher, for example, the writer tells of the coming of the Most High to earth and of his 'breaking the head of the dragon in the water' (cf Psa 74:13). There is a tradition that this dragon, described as Behemoth and Leviathan, is to be devoured at the Messianic Banquet by those who remain in the Messianic Age (2 Esdras 6:52; 2 Baruch 29:4). In the Zadokite Fragments the same figure is used to describe 'the kings of the Gentiles' (9:19-20), whilst in the Psalms of Solomon the ref is to the Roman general Pompey (2:29), no doubt under the influence of Jer 51:34, where Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon is referred to in similar terms" (DS Russell, Between the Testaments 98,99).

In the OT there are a number of references to Yahweh's conflict with the dragon and the sea, the dragon sometimes being named as Leviathan or Rahab. The theme is also seen in the NT in the book of Rev. The imagery is sometimes associated with the creation of the world. Sometimes it is historicized, so that the dragon symbolizes a foreign nation such as Egypt, and sometimes the divine conflict is projected into the future as the final, Last Days battle. The background of this mythological imagery was previously believed to be Babylonian, but since the discovery of the Ugaritic texts it has become apparent that the more immediate source of the Biblical allusions is Canaanite mythology (ABD).

A. Creation

A number of poetic OT passages describe a conflict at the creation of the world which pit Yahweh against the dragon and the sea. The clearest instances are in Psa 65:6,7; 74:12–17; 89:9-14; 104:1–9; Job 9:5–14; 26:5–14; 38:8–11. This conflict also seems to form the background of Psa 93:3–4; Job 7:12; 40:15–41:34, while Job 3:8 seems to allude to the reversal of the process of creation.

It has been long assumed that these OT allusions constituted an Israelite appropriation of the Babylonian myth of Marduk's defeat of the sea monster Tiamat recounted in Enuma Elish, the so-called Babylonian creation epic. This view continues to find support, but the discovery of the Ugaritic mythological texts has shed new light on the question. In addition to a detailed account of Baal's defeat of the sea-god Yamm, there are allusions to another conflict between Baal or Anat and the sea monster Leviathan (also known as the twisting serpent, the crooked serpent, and/or the dragon, in addition to other monsters). These indicate a Canaanite background for the allusions to Leviathan (Psa 74:14; Job 3:8; 40:25–41:34; Isa 27:1) and the twisting or crooked serpent (Isa 27:1; cf Job 26:13). Since Rahab seems to be another name for Leviathan, this too was presumably a Canaanite dragon name, though it has not yet appeared in any extra-biblical text (See Lesson, Rahab (Egypt)).

It seems likely that the theme of Yahweh's conflict with the dragon and the sea was a motif in the celebration of Yahweh's kingship at the Feast of Tabernacles. Just as the kingship of Marduk was associated with his defeat of the sea monster Tiamat in Babylon, and Baal's kingship was connected with his defeat of the sea-god Yamm at Ugarit, so perhaps Yahweh's kingship was associated with his victory over the sea. This is explicitly the case in Psa 29; 74; 93. In Babylon the imagery was associated with the Akitu festival, the Babylonian spring New Year festival, and it appears that in Israel this imagery had its setting at the turn of the year -- at the feast of Tabernacles. Such a setting is in keeping with the creation context of the theme -- the obvious connection between creation and the New Year. Moreover, Psa 65, which has the chaos conflict theme, not only has the creation context (vv 6–7), but is also a harvest hymn (vv 9–13), and the Feast of Tabernacles was a harvest festival. There is strong evidence that Yahweh's kingship, which was associated with the conflict with the chaos waters, was an important theme at the Feast of Tabernacles (cp Zec 14:16–17; later Jewish tradition associating Yahweh's kingship and the New Year; the LXX heading associating Psa 29 with Tabernacles; etc).

There are several allusions to Yahweh's conflict with the dragon and the sea in the book of Job (Job 3:8; 7:12; 9:8,13; 26:12–13; 38:8–11; and 40:15–41:34). There are also references to Rahab (including the helpers of Rahab), Leviathan, Behemoth, the twisting serpent, the dragon, and the sea. In some of the passages the creation context is clear (cf Job 9:8, 13; 26:12–13; 38:8–11) and, in the absence of more plausible settings, the creation context is reasonably assumed in the others. In Job 3:8, when Job laments the day of his birth, he cries, "Let those curse it who curse the day, who are skilled in rousing up Leviathan." This appears to involve the reversal of the process of creation. Two reasons may be suggested to explain why this imagery is so frequent in Job. First, Wisdom theology is preeminently creation theology, and the dragon/sea conflict passages in Job have a creation context. Secondly, the conflict between the dragon and God provides an appropriate parallel to the theme of Job's conflict with God (Job 7:12; 9:13–14; 40:15–41:34).

A number of passages in the OT speak of Yahweh controlling the waters at the creation of the world rather than in conflict with them (most importantly Gen 1:2,6–10; but also Psa 33:7–8; Pro 8:24,27–29; Jer 5:22; 31:35). Perhaps these are a demythologization of the conflict myth. It has often been thought that Gen 1 is intended as an argument against the so-called Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish. The Heb word translated "deep" (tehom) in Gen 1:2 is a cognate with Akkadian Tiamat, the name of the chaos monster overcome by Marduk in connection with the creation in Enuma Elish. However, though cognate, there is no reason to believe that the word "tehom" is actually derived from Akkadian Tiamat. Also, although there are some points in common in the order of creation in Gen 1 and Enuma Elish, these are not compelling enough to demand the dependence of one upon the other. Instead, it appears that the same chaos conflict myth ultimately lies behind the account in Gen 1 as well as the poetic passages elsewhere in the OT discussed in this article -- ie, that the myth is ultimately Canaanite, not Babylonian. More immediately, it seems likely that Psa 104 is one of the sources behind Genesis 1. The order of creation in Genesis 1 corresponds very closely with the order cited in Psa 104; the psalm even has the word "tehom" in the context of Yahweh's battle with the sea (v 6), as well as other parallels.

Finally, it should be noted that Psa 29:3,10 and Nah 1:4 seem to speak of Yahweh's victory over the sea as part of his present lordship over the world of nature.

B. Conflict in Nature

In Job 40–41 Yahweh asks Job if he is able to capture the beasts Behemoth and Leviathan. The most common view is that Behemoth and Leviathan denote respectively the hippopotamus and the crocodile. However, they are probably instead chaos monsters. The description of neither Behemoth nor Leviathan corresponds to any known creature, and certainly not the hippopotamus and crocodile. It seems fundamental to the argument in Job 40–41 that the beasts in question can be captured by God alone; otherwise, Job might have replied that he could have captured them, and then God would lose the argument! The hippopotamus and crocodile were, however, captured in the ANE. Leviathan, moreover, is said to breathe out fire and smoke (Job 40:18–21), strongly suggesting a mythological creature, and Leviathan is elsewhere a mythological sea serpent or dragon in both the Ugaritic texts and the OT, including the book of Job (Job 3:8). Apparently Yahweh's subduing of Leviathan and Behemoth at creation forms the presupposition of His speech. Job is, in effect, asked if he can play the role of God. Thus God asks Job (Job 41:5), "Will you play with him as with a bird...?", which must reflect Psa 104:26, which may be read, "There go the ships, and Leviathan whom you (ie Yahweh) formed to play with", or alternatively, "There go the ships, and Leviathan whom you formed to play in it (ie, the sea)." Leviathan in Psa 104:26 has often been thought to be some creature such as the whale, but it may be a mythical monster.

Similarly, Behemoth is no hippopotamus, for its tail is high and lifted up (Job 40:17), not short and curly, and Behemoth clearly cannot be captured by man (Job 40:24). It is most likely another chaos monster, oxlike in view of its name (lit "great ox"), and also capable of living in the water (Job 40:23). Twice in the Ugaritic Baal myth there is a mythological beast, "El's calf", answering to this description, and on both occasions it is mentioned alongside Leviathan (dragon). This is likely to be the prototype of Behemoth.

The point of Yahweh's speech about Behemoth and Leviathan seems to be that since Job cannot overcome the chaos monsters whom Yahweh has overcome, how much less can he hope to overcome Yahweh in argument. It is therefore appropriate that following this speech Job humbles himself before God.

C. OT History

The dragon imagery in the OT is also used metaphorically to denote earthly powers hostile to Yahweh. In particular, it is applied to Egypt (so Rahab, Isa 30:7; and quite possibly Isa 51:9, cf v 10; Psa 87:4) or Pharaoh (Eze 29:3–5; 32:2–8; reading tannin or "dragon" for MsTx tannim or "jackals"). Since Egypt oppressed the Hebrews prior to the Exodus, and the heart of the Exodus was the deliverance at the Reed Sea, it is understandable how Egypt would be singled out for special designation as this mythical sea monster. The imagery seems to apply to Egypt in connection with the Exodus deliverance in Isa 51:9 (cf v 10), and Psa 77:16–20 likewise uses Exodus imagery, but with no reference to the dragon. The same imagery is also employed in the so-called Song of Moses in Exo 15:1–18 in a transformed sense, namely that the battle is no longer with the sea but at the sea.

The imagery of the chaos waters is also applied to the Assyrians (Isa 17:12–14; cf Isa 8:5–8; Psa 46), and the waters and the dragon are both used to denote the oppressive Babylonians (Hab 3; Jer 51:34,44). See also Psa 46; 48; Joel 3; Zec 12; 14. It seems probable that the motif of nations coming to attack Zion who are then miraculously defeated by Yahweh constitutes a development of the divine conflict with the dragon and the sea.

In Psa 44:19 the MsTx tannim or "jackals" possibly should be emended to tannin or "dragon", though it is unclear which political entity is meant. It is also unlikely that Psa 68:29 refers to a chaos monster in its allusion to "the beast of the reeds, the herd of bulls with the calves of the peoples." It more probably uses animal names to denote leaders and warriors (eg, 1 Sam 21:8; Job 24:22; 34:20; Lam 1:15).

D. Last Days

The original conflict with chaos at the creation of the world is also associated with the Last Days, in which a "new creation" is being born. The so-called Isaiah apocalypse reads: "In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the twisting serpent, Leviathan the crooked serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea" (Isa 27:1). This passage depicts Leviathan in terms similar to the Ugaritic Baal myth almost a thousand years earlier: "Because you smote Leviathan the twisting serpent [and] made an end of the crooked serpent...").

One of the most interesting instances of the influence of the myth of the divine conflict with the dragon and the sea appears in Daniel 7, the chapter about the "one like a son of man." Not everything in this chapter can be explained from the Canaanite myth, but only the Canaanite myth can adequately explain the combination of the following three factors: (1) in Dan 7:9, God is called "the Ancient of Days" and he has white hair, which is reminiscent of the Canaanite supreme god El, whose stock epithet was "Father of Years" and whose position as an aged deity is also indicated by his gray beard; (2) the "one like the son of man," who comes with the clouds of heaven and is exalted to kingship by the Ancient of Days (Dan 7:13,14), may be compared with the Canaanite god Baal, who is often called "Rider of the clouds", and whose rule ultimately depended on El's authority; and (3) the "one like the son of man" rules after overthrowing the beasts of the sea -- which may be compared with Baal, whose kingship resulted from his victory over Yam, the god of the sea. Thus the chaos monster imagery is unique in Dan 7 in that it reflects the underlying Canaanite myth, in which a distinction is still made between the supreme God and the one who is exalted over the sea.

In the present form of the text the "one like a son of man" may denote the angel Michael (cf Dan 12:1). One may compare Rev 12, where Michael defeats the seven-headed dragon. Interestingly, the next chapter, Rev 13 (cf Rev 17:3) presents another creature derived from Leviathan, the seven-headed beast, symbolizing Rome (Rev 13:1–10) as well as another beast, symbolizing the false prophet, who appears to derive from Behemoth (Rev 13:11–18).

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