Leviathan and Exegetical Imagination
The Bible is more than simply a theological resource; it can also serve, like J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them, as an indispensable introduction to the magical beasts of the biblical world.1 Leviathan, an enormous mythical sea-creature with seven heads, is one of the most significant of these biblical beasts, bearing eschatological and messianic associations. Because Leviathan is mentioned a number of times throughout the Tanakh and subsequent Jewish literature, it is largely assumed to be a Jewish idea, an example of original Jewish thought. But is it, and has it always been? Can a concept, idea, or way of thinking that originates outside of the Jewish people become Jewish?
Throughout history we have plenty of examples of ideas or ways of thinking that either originated outside of or predate the emergence of the Jewish people or the Hebrew Bible, but were incorporated into its texts and thought, resulting in a new type of Jewish thinking. Using the concept of Leviathan, this article will explore how an idea that originated outside of Israel was incorporated into its scriptures and cultural memory, and in the process, and through further evolution and development, became a uniquely Jewish concept.
What makes a certain type of thinking particularly “Jewish” is the cultural memory it draws upon and within which it is rooted. According to David Gottlieb, “The concept of cultural memory is a means for exploring the process of mutual shaping and reorientation that occurs between individuals and the cultures in which they are situated.” The specific character of Jewish thinking, therefore, “derives from belonging to a distinct society and culture . . . and the result of socialization and customs.” Gottlieb goes on to articulate that for Jews, especially in earlier centuries, “[t]he procession of socialization and enculturation is centered upon the celebration and reinvocation of the metahistorical moments of creation, revelation, and redemption.”2
According to Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, memory is rooted in the biblical concept of “Zakhor,” a direct command to “remember” and not forget, and is an intentional process of reliving, retelling, and reinterpreting Israel’s history for the purpose of those in the present.3 The peculiar nature of Israelite faith is that “[i]t emerged out of an intuitive and revolutionary understanding of God, and was refined through profoundly felt historical experiences.”4 Yet what was exactly experienced in history, and what was retold and reinterpreted was a selective process (both conscious and subconscious).
With the process of canonization (and rooted even earlier), Jewish thinking became intertwined with text. As Moshe Halbertal notes:
Not only does the text provide a common background for various ideas and practices; text-centeredness itself has deeper implications. Some of the major developments in Jewish tradition can be understood through the community’s notions of its relation to the text, of what text is, and how the text functions in its midst. Text is thus more than a shared matrix for a diverse tradition—it is one of the tradition’s central operative concepts, like “God” or “Israel.”5
Concern for how to understand, interpret, and apply scripture within a lived experience naturally follows the codification of the canon. Therefore, what we witness is a body of interpretive literature that embodies the community’s (or, at least, a segment of the community’s) questions and concerns. Subsequent literature is helpful for understanding how Jewish thinking evolved beyond the close of the biblical canon, and the methodologies and hermeneutical processes Jews used to work through the application of biblical ideas in the life of a lived community. Over time, and throughout the many centuries since the canonization of the Bible and its early rabbinic interpretation, memory has been transmitted through ritual, repetition, and recitation. As such, memory and ideas are retold and repackaged and passed down from one generation to another.
Leviathan and Its Origins
Leviathan (לִוְיָתָן), possibly from a root denoting to “coil” or “twist,” is a primordial sea-monster mentioned throughout the Hebrew Bible and, according to Jewish tradition, is identified with the “great sea monsters” (הַתַּנִּינִם) divinely conceived on the fifth day of creation (Gen 1:21; cf. Yalkut Shimoni, Gen. 12).6 Its origins, however, are in prebiblical Mesopotamian myth, especially Ugaritic literature of the 15th and 14th centuries BCE.7
Sea serpents are a prominent feature in ancient Near Eastern mythology, particularly in stories of cosmic battles between sea-monsters, representing the forces of chaos, and a creator deity or hero who imposes order by force.8 A 3rd millennium BCE Sumerian source depicts the god Ninurta defeating a seven-headed serpent. The Babylonian creation myth, Enuma Elish, describes Marduk’s defeat of the serpent-goddess Tiamat, whose body was used to create the heavens and the earth.9 The biblical Leviathan is a direct continuation of the Ugaritic sea-monster, Lôtān, one of the servants of the sea god Yammu defeated by Hadad.10 The Ugaritic account also includes references to Tunnanu (the biblical Tannin).11 The New Westminster Dictionary of the Bible also compares Leviathan to the multi-headed Hydra of Greek mythology (which also drew upon earlier Near Eastern conceptions).12
Within biblical references, the specific term “Leviathan” only appears in poetic sources,13 and is described in Psalm 74:14, for example, as a multi-headed sea serpent that is killed by God and given as food to the Israelites in the wilderness.14 According to Job 41, which devotes the most detail to describing Leviathan, it is massive in size, with double-plated armor, sharp teeth, and the ability to spit fire from its mouth. Leviathan is also used as a symbol of Israel’s enemies, who will be slain by God (Isa 27:1).15
In his work The Exegetical Imagination, Michael Fishbane notes that despite attempts to distance the Bible from myth, mythic allusions and imagery are readily found throughout:
The Hebrew Bible is commonly said to have thoroughly broken with pagan polytheism and its mythic impulses. Accordingly, the myth-like formulations that visibly remain are read as poetic tropes or ancient, frozen forms. . . . The defenders of a pure monotheism thus triumphantly survey the rubble of mythology at the base of Sinai, and presume that only golden calves could be made from these leftovers.16
Fishbane goes on to demonstrate, however, that myth and mythmaking is not antithetical to the biblical worldview, or incompatible with rabbinic interpretation.17 To create such a dichotomy is to impose a conceptual framework onto the biblical text and its interpretive literature that is entirely foreign. The reason why the Hebrew Bible contains so many mythic references and allusions is because its ancient authors and audience did not perceive the world in the same ways we do today. Something can be real, even if not literal. Reality and truth were not perceived in the modern literal-historic sense. As Fishbane articulates:
[The historical] record attests to complex integrations of mythic images and themes into the most traditional of circles. At this point it might suffice to say that monotheistic myth is not alien to ancient Israelite monotheism. In fact, from the complexes of mythology of second-millennium Mesopotamia and Canaan, diverse “bundles of tradition” were absorbed into biblical culture and nativized in various ways.18
The biblical authors drew upon, adapted and reworked existing myth and imagery, and in the process made it their own. As Gehman comments, “The inspired poets and prophets of Israel could employ popular material and mythological figures to serve in the illustration of truth.”19 This relationship between Near Eastern mythology and the Hebrew Bible has long been an interest of scholars. However, it has only been more recently that scholars have truly appreciated the way myth was incorporated into the text and theology of the Hebrew Bible beyond simple cultural reference. Fishbane elaborates:
This reconstruction of the relationship between myth and history in ancient Israel is thus grounded in speech-acts in which a mythic scenario (itself composed of bundles of tradition) is fully integrated into monotheistic theology. Precisely how the psalmist or the prophet understood the reality of Leviathan . . . eludes us. But it is hard to imagine that on a topic as serious as acts of divine redemption these speakers would juggle with tropes. Many examples confirm this point, and some of them even persuade modern interpreters to acknowledge the theological power that several common ancient Near Eastern myths exert in the Bible.20
As we process the ways in which myth is incorporated and adapted it can be helpful to think of these ancient scribes (and later rabbis) as disc jockeys, who are constantly mixing and remixing, and in the process creating something new and original.
[I]n this transformation . . . myths become second-order formulations of culture. . . . Over time, the primary evocations of myth are stylized and reworked into sophisticated composites, harmonized with local [religious] traditions, or retold in new contexts. . . . Such reworkings show how key motifs and figures entered different settings and served different needs over many generations. The upshot is the bold reuse of myth, whose vitality undergoes reciprocal transformations. Myth becomes constitutive of tradition.21
The concept of Leviathan helps illustrate this process, as it is but one example of an idea originating outside of Israel that was incorporated, retaining fragments of its mythic origins, in both the imagery and language employed, while at the same time being reworked into a uniquely Israelite development.
Leviathan in the Tanakh
There are multiple references to Leviathan, and sea-monsters more generally, within the Hebrew Bible. The specific mention of “Leviathan” is found six times in three different books—Isaiah, Psalms, and Job.
On that day the Lord will punish,
With His great, cruel, mighty sword
Leviathan the Elusive Serpent—
Leviathan the Twisting Serpent;
He will slay the Dragon of the sea.22
As previously noted, descriptions of a cosmic battle, known as Chaoskampf, between sea-monsters, representing the forces of chaos, and a creator deity or hero who imposes order by force were common in the ancient Near East.23 This passage from Isaiah, as well as the passage below from Psalm 74, both draw on Chaoskampf imagery and apply it to the Israelite deity (Adonai/YHWH). In Canaanite mythology and elsewhere, this imagery is usually associated with creation narratives (as we’ll see in Psalm 74), when sea-monsters are destroyed at the beginning of time.24 Isaiah 27, however, applies its Chaoskampf imagery to a future eschatological time when God will slay Leviathan along with Israel’s enemies.25 According to Benjamin D. Sommer, “This text moves the event in which chaos is vanquished to the end of time, when the new world order emerges.”26 Israel W. Slotki, in his classic commentary on Isaiah, notes that this chapter is a continuation of the apocalyptic prophecy of the previous chapter, again emphasizing that this is a description of a future event.27 This may well be a uniquely Israelite development.
O God, my King from of old,
who brings deliverance throughout the land;
it was You who drove back the sea with Your might,
who smashed the heads of the sea monsters;
it was You who crushed the heads of Leviathan,
who gave him as food for the people in the desert.28
Psalm 74 describes another Chaoskampf between God and the multi-headed Leviathan29 but, unlike the previous reference, is a retrospection back to creation. It was God, who back in primordial times, “drove back the sea” and brought order to chaos. Yet, it is fascinating that this Psalm provides a sharp distinction from the creation narratives of Genesis 1 and 2. Although Genesis 1 speaks of the creation of the Tanninim (1:21) there is no battle reference whatsoever.30 According to Fishbane,
[T]he battle images of the psalm are of not merely poetical tropes. They rather partake of a literary tradition shared with Canaanite mythology. In that corpus the god Baal destroys sea-monsters with exactly the same names and epithets as those found in the biblical text. Accordingly, it would be more accurate to say that the psalmist has produced a monotheistic reworking of an older nature myth and integrated it into an independent synopsis of the strife of origins. Thus this account neither rivals Genesis 1 nor doubles it in figurative terms.31
The battle against primordial monsters in Psalm 74 underscores the mythic realism preserved in this piece. The psalmist repeatedly refers to God in personal terms and appeals to God to enact those same ancient powers in the present to deliver Israel.32
What variety there is in your works, O Lord!
In wisdom you have made them all;
The earth is full of your creatures.
Look at the sea, so great and wide,
It teems with countless creatures,
Living creatures, both small and great.
There go the ships;
and Leviathan, whom you formed to play there.33
This next psalm is a song of reverence and praise, highlighting the wonders of creation. Within the psalm, the author includes Leviathan as one of the inspiring specimens of God’s handiwork. The Jewish Study Bible notes, “Oddly, manmade ships are seen as part of God’s creations in the sea” along with Leviathan. It continues, “In Ugaritic literature, Leviathan (Lotan), was also a ‘beloved’ of the deity El, a plaything, and that idea may be reflected here.”34 Abraham Cohen also makes this playfulness connection, linking it with Job 40:29.35 The Hebrew, however, places the focus on the broader wonders of the sea, as it does not say that God created Leviathan as a plaything but rather God created Leviathan to play in the sea ((לִ֝וְיָתָ֗ן זֶֽה־יָצַ֥רְתָּ לְשַֽׂחֶק־בּֽוֹ.
May obscurity carry off that night;
May it not be counted among the days of the year;
May it not appear in any of its months;
May that night be desolate;
May no sound of joy be heard in it;
May those who cast spells upon the day curse it,
Those prepared to disable Leviathan.36
This next passage appears within Job’s famous speech where he wishes he were dead, and curses the day he was born and the night he was conceived. While cursing his birth, he makes an unusual reference to Leviathan, “May those who cast spells upon the day curse it, those prepared to disable Leviathan” (v.8). Edward L. Greenstein explains that within the ancient world, it was common to invoke spells believed to be strong enough to neutralize these primeval chaos monsters.37
The most extensive description of Leviathan appears in Job 40:25–41:26—a whole chapter and a half. Due to its length I will not quote the entire section, but it provides numerous details about Leviathan, including its massive size, double-plated armor, sharp teeth, and the ability to spit fire from its mouth. A sampling includes the following features (41:6–14):
Who can pry open the doors of his face?
His bared teeth strike terror.
His protective scales are his pride,
Locked with a binding seal.
One scale touches the other;
Not even a breath can enter between them.
Each clings to each;
They are interlocked so they cannot be parted.
His sneezings flash lightning,
And his eyes are like the glimmerings of dawn.
Firebrands stream from his mouth;
Fiery sparks escape.
Out of his nostrils comes smoke
As from a steaming, boiling cauldron.
His breath ignites coals;
Flames blaze from his mouth.
Strength resides in his neck;
Power leaps before him.38
A number of commentaries (both Jewish and Christian) attempt to explain away the clearly mythological context and origins of this section, dismissing the exegetical imagination behind it. For example, Victor E. Reichert’s Soncino commentary on Job, drawing upon earlier commentators like Rashi and Ibn Ezra, emphatically argues that the creature described here is not a “mythological creature . . . but the crocodile, familiar to the Nile and also, apparently, at one time in Palestine.”39
Attempts to make this passage fit a modern conceptual framework miss its intentional dramatic effect, which precisely draws upon underlying myth. As Fishbane proposed, “monotheistic myth is not alien to ancient Israelite monotheism.”40 Myth and mythmaking were not antithetical or incompatible with a biblical worldview. This conclusion is supported by Robert Alter, who acknowledges the tendency to interpret Leviathan as a modern crocodile, but counters, “Though associated with the crocodile of the Nile, Leviathan . . . is a prime actor in Canaanite mythology as a sea-monster, and in keeping with his role here in the climactic passage of the poem, he is . . . prominently mythological.”41 Chapter 41 intentionally shifts back and forth in contrasting Leviathan with God.42 This stark imagery is part of the drama of the section.
Leviathan in the Apocryphal Writings
Over time, Jewish thinking on Leviathan continued to evolve beyond the Tanakh and we find several additional references in apocryphal and pseudepigraphic writings, becoming a prominent feature in subsequent Jewish eschatology.
2 Esdras 6:49–52
Then you kept in existence two living creatures; the one you called Behemoth and the name of the other Leviathan. And you separated one from the other, for the seventh part where the water had been gathered together could not hold them both. And you gave Behemoth one of the parts that had been dried up on the third day, to live in it, where there are a thousand mountains; but to Leviathan you gave the seventh part, the watery part; and you have kept them to be eaten by whom you wish, and when you wish.43
Second Esdras expands on the tradition that the “great sea monsters” (הַתַּנִּינִם) were divinely conceived on the fifth day of creation (Gen 1:21). However, it broadens the concept to include along with Leviathan another biblical primordial creature, Behemoth. Following creation, they were both separated, with Behemoth assigned to the land and Leviathan to the sea (6:50–52). It then mentions that in a future eschatological age both will “be eaten by whom you wish, and when you wish (6:52).” This idea that the flesh of Leviathan and Behemoth will feed the Jewish people in the Messianic era draws upon the earlier biblical reference in Psalm 74:14 to the flesh of Leviathan being given to the Israelites wandering in the desert. This theme will be expanded upon in rabbinic tradition and become a central Jewish theological understanding, and even incorporated into liturgical practice (more on this in the next section).
Book of Enoch 60:7–9
And on that day two monsters will be separated from one another, a female monster whose name is Leviathan, to dwell in the depths of the sea, above the springs of the waters.
And the name of the male is Behemoth who occupies with his breast an immense desert named Dendayn on the east of the Garden where the chosen and the righteous dwell. Where my great-grandfather was received, who was seventh from Adam, the first man whom the Lord of Spirits made.
And I asked that other Angel to show me the power of those monsters, how they were separated on one day, and thrown, one into the depths of the sea and the other on to the dry ground of the desert.44
Similar to 2 Esdras, Enoch includes a reference to the creation of both Leviathan and Behemoth, along with their separation and assignments to land and sea. A distinct difference between the two traditions is that in 2 Esdras, Behemoth is assigned to live “where there are a thousand mountains,” whereas in Enoch, he is allotted “the dry ground of the desert.” The Enoch text also focuses only on the separation of the pair in the primordial past, making no connection to the future eschaton nor to their being eaten by the righteous in a Messianic age.
2 Baruch 29:3–4
And it shall come to pass when all is accomplished that was to come to pass in those parts, that the Messiah shall then begin to be revealed. And Behemoth shall be revealed from his place and Leviathan shall ascend from the sea, those two great monsters which I created on the fifth day of creation, and shall have kept until that time; and then they shall be for food for all that are left.
This reference again pairs Leviathan with Behemoth, but rather than placing them together in the primeval past following creation, the text projects the primordial monsters into the Messianic era, and again references their being reserved as food for the righteous who remain.
Bel and the Dragon
Bel and the Dragon is one of the Greek additions to the biblical book of Daniel found in the Apocrypha, along with the Prayer of Azariah and Susanna. As Jewish thinking was recorded into Greek, we find another development in the concept of Leviathan when the Hebrew word tannin (תַּנִּין) was translated into Greek as drako–n (δράκων), which is where we get the familiar English word “dragon.” Within this short narrative we are told that in Babylon there was a dragon which the people revered:
23 Now in that place there was a great dragon that the Babylonians revered. 24 The king said to Daniel, “You cannot deny that this is a living god, so worship him.” 25 Daniel said, “I worship the Lord my God, for he is a living God. 26 But give me permission, O king, and I will kill the dragon without sword or club.” The king said, “I give you permission.” 27 Then Daniel took pitch, fat, and hair and boiled them together and made cakes, which he fed to the dragon. The dragon ate them and burst open. Then Daniel said, “See what you have been worshiping!”45
The king granted Daniel permission to attempt to slay the dragon because he believed the dragon to be immortal and unable to be slain.46 But to demonstrate that the God of Israel is superior to the Babylonian deities, Daniel killed the dragon to show that what the people were worshiping was not a god at all.
Leviathan in Rabbinic Tradition
Rabbinic tradition continued to build upon this developing Jewish eschatological understanding of Leviathan. And as we saw within apocryphal literature, the most common theme regarding Leviathan is its association with the Messianic era, and particularly the imagery of its flesh being served as the central entrée for the Messianic banquet of the righteous. This imagery became such a central component of Jewish Messianic understanding and expectation that it is even preserved in our liturgical language today (particularly during Sukkot and Shavuot). Although this paper does not cite every possible mention or allusion to Leviathan within rabbinic tradition, it provides enough of a survey of the material to demonstrate an evolving eschatological understanding that was uniquely Jewish.
Leviathan in the Talmud
The Talmud contains several references to Leviathan. The following selection reflects the primary references.
Avoda Zara 3b
But doesn’t Rav Yehuda say that Rav says: There are twelve hours in the day? . . . During the fourth three hours, He sits and makes sport with the leviathan, as it is stated: “There is leviathan, whom You have formed to sport with” (Psalms 104:26). Evidently, God makes sport every day, not only on that one day. Rav Na.man bar Yitzh.ak says in explanation: He makes sport with His creations, just as He sports with the leviathan; He does not make sport of His creations but on that day alone.47
This Talmudic reference provides a little more development on the idea originally found in Psalm 104 that God plays with Leviathan (along with all of God’s creation), and that this happens in the last part of God’s daily routine.
Moed Katan 25b
The Gemara relates that prior to Ravina’s death, Rav Ashi said to bar Kippok, who was a famous eulogizer: On that day when Ravina will die, what will you say? He said to him: I shall begin my eulogy and say as follows: If the cedars went up in flame, what shall the hyssop of the wall do? If the leviathan was lifted by a hook, what shall the tiny fish of the marsh do? If dryness overtook a flowing river, what can the water of the puddles do?48
This next reference includes a mention of Leviathan used for the purpose of dramatic contrast within a eulogy. The idea is that if such a great beast as Leviathan could be captured, then no other living creature within the ocean has any hope of being free. If Leviathan can be caught, so could they. However, this is an impossibility, as tradition states that Leviathan can only be killed by God. And although we learn from the sugya below49 that in the age to come the archangel Gabriel will lead a hunt for Leviathan, it must be with God’s help.
Bava Batra 74a–75a
By far the most prolonged discussion of Leviathan in the Gemara, this section contains numerous details and teachings, including stories of sages who claimed to have seen Leviathan while traveling by sea. Given that the discussion continues over a couple of pages, this paper will not quote the entire section. However, some specific selections are included below:
Rav Yehuda says that Rav says: Everything that the Holy One, Blessed be He, created in His world, He created male and female. Even leviathan . . . He created male and female. And if they would have coupled and produced offspring, they would have destroyed the entire world. What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do? He castrated the male and killed the female, and salted the female to preserve it for the banquet for the righteous in the future. As it is stated: “And He will slay the serpent that is in the sea” (Isaiah 27:1).
When Rav Dimi came from Eretz Yisrael to Babylonia he said that Rabbi Yonatan says: In the future, Gabriel will perform a hunt of the leviathan. . . . And were the Holy One, Blessed be He, not assisting Gabriel, he would not be able to hunt it, as it is stated: “Only He Who made him can use His sword to approach him” (Job 40:19) [74b–75a]. . . . When Rav Dimi came from Eretz Yisrael to Babylonia, he said that Rabbi Yoh.anan said: When the leviathan is hungry, he produces breath from his mouth and thereby boils all of the waters in the depths of the sea. As it is stated: “He makes the deep boil like a pot”
(Job 41:23). And if the leviathan did not place its head in the Garden of Eden, no creature could withstand his foul smell, as it is stated: “He makes the sea like a seething mixture” (Job 41:23).
Rabba says that Rabbi Yoh.anan says: In the future, the Holy One, Blessed be He, will make a feast for the righteous from the flesh of the leviathan. . . . And with regard to the remainder of the leviathan, they will divide it and use it for commerce in the markets of Jerusalem, as it is stated: “They will part him among the kena’anim” (Job 40:30). . . .
And Rabba says that Rabbi Yoh.anan says: In the future, the Holy One, Blessed be He, will prepare a sukkah for the righteous from the skin of the leviathan. . . .
And with regard to the remaining part of the skin of the leviathan, the Holy One, Blessed be He, spreads it on the walls of Jerusalem, and its glory radiates from one end of the world until the other end. As it is stated: “And nations shall walk in your light, and kings at the brightness of your rising” (Isaiah 60:3).50
Expanding upon Psalm 74:14 and apocryphal traditions, this sugya further develops the concept of Leviathan’s flesh (along with the Behemoth and Ziz, other mythical creatures) being served at a banquet in the Messianic age. Furthermore, it also demonstrates additional uniquely Jewish developments, for example: the skin of Leviathan being used for an eschatological sukkah, that God originally created two Leviathans on the fifth day – a male and female – but God slew the female so she could not reproduce, and that additional skin from Leviathan will be used on the walls of a renewed Jerusalem.
Our Sages taught: There are five dreads, [meaning] dread that the weak cast over the mighty: The dread of the mafgia, a small creature, over the lion; the dread of the mosquito over the elephant; the dread of the gecko over the scorpion; the dread of the swallow over the eagle; the dread of the kilbit, a small fish, over Leviathan. Rav Yehuda said that Rav said: What is the verse that alludes to these matters? As it is written: “He that causes destruction [shod] to flash upon the mighty, so that destruction comes upon the fortress” (Amos 5:9), which is interpreted as: He who lifts the downtrodden [shadud] over the mighty.51
The rabbis relate a tradition that Leviathan, despite its supernatural strength, is afraid of a small worm or fish, called a “kilbit,” which clings to the gills of large fish and kills them.52 So although only God can slay Leviathan, the sea-monster itself has a dreaded-fear of this little, tiny kilbit.
Leviathan in Midrash
Leviticus Rabbah 13:3
We learned earlier from the Talmud that there will be an eschatological hunt for Leviathan led by the archangel Gabriel.53 Leviticus Rabbah adds that this hunt will be a source of great enjoyment for the righteous. According to R’ Yudan bar Simon, those who have not taken part in pagan sports will be allowed to participate in the hunting of Leviathan and Behemoth. Gabriel will be charged with the killing of the monster; but he will not be able to accomplish this task without God’s assistance, who will divide the monster with his sword.54
Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer 9
On the fifth day He brought forth from the water the Leviathan, the flying serpent, and its dwelling is in the lowest waters; and between its fins rests the middle bar of the earth. All the great sea monsters in the sea are the food for the Leviathan. Every day it opens its mouth, and the great sea monster destined to be eaten that day (tries) to escape and flee, but it enters the mouth of the Leviathan; and the Holy One, blessed be He, plays with it, as it is said, “This is the Leviathan, whom thou hast created to play with him” (Ps. 104:26).55
This midrash adds to the idea originally found in Psalm 104, and expanded upon elsewhere, that God plays with Leviathan (along with all of God’s creation). But it also adds some new details, with Leviathan dwelling in the “lowest waters,” between its fins rests the “middle bar of earth,” and that other great sea monsters (התנינים הגדולים) are its food. These features further establish Leviathan as a primordial creature upon whom creation balances (“between its fins rests the middle bar of the earth”), adding to its dramatic ferocity as a creature to be revered.
Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 10:7
God prepared a great fish to swallow Yonah. … The fish told Yonah: “You should know that my day has come, when Leviathan, king of the fish, will eat me. He eats a fish each and every day.” Yonah told the fish: “Lead me to Leviathan, and I will save both you and me from death.”
The fish led him to Leviathan. When he came to it he told Leviathan: “I have come to see your home in the sea. You should know that when Mashiach comes I shall come to capture you with a net, to make of you a feast for the righteous.” And he showed him the seal of Avraham, our father. The Leviathan fled many miles from the fish which bore Yonah within it.
Yonah then told the fish: “I have saved you from death, so show me all that there is in the sea.” The fish showed him the great sea, the ocean which spans the entire world. . . .
God immediately sent a female fish to the fish which Yonah was in, and she told him: “Give forth the prophet who is within you, within your organs, for God has so commanded. If you want to give him up, fine; if not, I will swallow both you and him.”
The fish answered: “Who says that God commanded this?” The female fish answered: “Leviathan knows this as well.” They went to Leviathan, and asked him, and he said: “God has so commanded this. I myself heard that God said this.”56
This fascinating midrash incorporates Leviathan into the story of Jonah. While Jonah is in the belly of a large fish, he learns that one of the fish’s greatest fears is that it will be eaten by Leviathan. Jonah, concerned for his own wellbeing inside the belly of the fish, works out a scheme to protect the fish in exchange for a tour of the celestial sea. The story includes the Messianic themes previously discussed, such as Leviathan becoming a meal for the righteous.
Leviathan in Liturgy and Halakhic Practice
Akdamut on Shavuot
Leviathan contends with Behemoth;
They are locked in combat with each other.
Behemoth gores mightily with its horns;
The sea-monster counters with potent fins.
The Creator slays them with his great sword,
And prepares a banquet for the righteous,
Who sit in rows at tables of precious stones,
While before them there flow streams of balsam,
And they indulge themselves and drink full cups
Of the precious old wine preserved in vats.
You upright, having heard this hymn of praise,
May you be in that blissful company!57
This special piyyut (liturgical poem) is a central part of the Torah Service for Shavuot, the holiday in which we celebrate the giving of the Torah. Toward the end of this long liturgical piece, there is a mention of an eschatological battle between Leviathan and Behemoth, resulting in a Chaoskampf in which God slays them with his great sword and prepares a banquet for the righteous. The fact that this imagery was included within a core liturgical source associated with Shavuot demonstrates just how central this theme had become within Jewish thinking.
Blessing Upon Leaving the Sukkah
Jewish ritual practice also contains numerous Messianic references and allusions, especially in relation to imagery associated with Sukkot. Therefore, it should not be surprising that in connection with this holiday we find another direct reference to Leviathan, and its imagery associated with the future eschaton. In the blessing we recite on the last day of Sukkot, before leaving the Sukkah for the final time, we recite one of my favorite brachot:
May it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our ancestors, that just as I have fulfilled [the mitzvah] and dwelled 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!58
For those uninitiated into rabbinic tradition, this prayer may at first be a little jarring. But given the contextual background we have covered in this paper, it should be clear that this prayer is actually a reference to the coming Messianic age and draws upon imagery found in previous biblical, apocryphal, and rabbinic sources. According to the Talmud (b. Bava Batra 74b), Leviathan will be slain and its flesh will be served at the Messianic banquet for the righteous, and its skin will be used to cover the place where the banquet will take place. This prayer includes the Messianic banquet allusion of Akdamut, but adds the use of Leviathan’s skin.
Leviathan in the New Testament and Christian Tradition
Within the canonical apostolic writings, Leviathan appears only in the Book of Revelation (chapters 12, 13 and 16:13 and 20:2). I have reserved discussion of Leviathan in the New Testament until now because although Revelation draws upon the imagery and mythology already discussed, it also departs from it in a significant way.
In the Tanakh and apocryphal writings, and carried over into Jewish eschatology with modifications, Leviathan is associated with primeval chaos, which God overcomes and subdues. However, in the Book of Revelation and later Christian tradition, the dragon does not simply represent chaos but is directly associated with Satan:
3 Another sign was seen in heaven there was a great red dragon with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads were seven royal crowns.
4 Its tail swept a third of the stars out of heaven and threw them down to the earth. It stood in front of the woman about to give birth, so that it might devour the child the moment it was born. . . .
7 Next there was a battle in heaven—Mikha’el and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back.
8 But it was not strong enough to win, so that there was no longer any place for them in heaven.
9 The great dragon was thrown out, that ancient serpent, also known as the Devil and Satan [the Adversary], the deceiver of the whole world. He was hurled down to the earth, and his angels were hurled down with him.59
He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan [the Adversary], and chained him up for a thousand years.60
Revelation’s description of the dragon draws heavily upon the earlier imagery of Leviathan with its seven heads, association with the sea, and its ferocity; but also adds significant apocalyptic symbolism, for example, the red color, twelve horns, and seven royal crowns. This modification also includes linking the dragon with the beast in Daniel 7:7 and with narratives of Satan’s expulsion from heaven. Revelation also assimilates Chaoskampf imagery with God and the accompanying angels defeating the dragon and hurling it to the earth in cosmic defeat.
Following Revelation’s association of the dragon directly with Satan, later Christian sources and imagery regularly employed dragon symbolism to represent Satan and evil. Legends of Christian saints battling dragons become commonplace (for example, the well-known legend of St. George and the Dragon), representing not only a victory in a physical sense, but also a spiritual defeat of Satan and his evil exploits.
Due to this association of the dragon with Satan, however, Revelation introduced a divergence from the way Leviathan is understood in previous biblical and apocalyptic sources, and from later Jewish theology. Although both Jewish and Christian traditions share a common conception of Leviathan’s ultimate messianic defeat, there are notable differences in the way these traditions conceive of this defeat, its meaning and relevance, and its ultimate significance. For example, although the New Testament and subsequent Christian tradition often employ messianic banquet imagery, one does not usually find an association of Leviathan with this banquet as previously found in biblical/apocryphal or later rabbinic sources. And as a direct result, one does not find within Christian theology other messianic associations with Leviathan, as found in Jewish eschatological tradition.
It is, of course, not a huge theoretical or theological leap to go from Leviathan as an embodiment of primordial chaos to the later Christian understanding of Leviathan as a personification of Satan and evil. But it did introduce a departure from Jewish messianic and eschatological development as previously explored, and resulted in different theological understanding and eschatological nuance.
The Jewish people often absorbed, borrowed, and made use of ideas and ways of thinking that originated outside of Israel. For the fundamentalist, or the strict literalist, this can be an uncomfortable idea. Some might argue that if an idea originated outside of Israel then it cannot be Jewish thinking. Or that any such borrowed thinking reflected in biblical or Jewish texts is tainted or a residue of “pagan” influence. But those who argue such a case must ignore the overwhelming amount of preexisting mythology found throughout the entire Bible, and the way these mythological ideas are used, applied, and transformed for a specific purpose. Leviathan is but one example of this. As Fishbane notes, “Over time, the primary evocations of myth are stylized and reworked into sophisticated composites, harmonized with local [spiritual] practices, or retold in new contexts.”61 Such references are so numerous that it would take a much greater work to adequately address all these various allusions. Rather, this paper only focused on one particular myth—that of the primordial sea-monster, Leviathan.
Although primordial chaos-monsters were common throughout the ancient Near East, and material and cultural evidence demonstrates that the biblical Leviathan (in both name and description) drew upon earlier Ugaritic and other Canaanite mythologies, what followed was a process of development and transformation that resulted in something original and uniquely Jewish. What we found within biblical descriptions of Leviathan largely mirrored conceptions common throughout the wider ancient world, with one primary exception. What may be the greatest Israelite development was the projection of the slaying of such creatures (Chaoskampf) into a future eschatological era. This is significant because no longer is the defeat and control over chaos (as represented by the defeat of mythological sea creatures) something that happens in the past, but rather an event for the faithful to look forward to in the future, and a sign of end-time events. The New Testament apocalypse of Revelation is an example of this evolution.
By the time we get to the apocryphal and pseudepigraphic works, there is another development that is again uniquely Israelite, particularly an evolution originating in Psalm 74:14 that the flesh of these primordial monsters will serve as food for the righteous. Within rabbinic tradition conceptions and details regarding Leviathan evolved even further. One example is the eating of Leviathan’s flesh. No longer was the meat only to be eaten by the righteous, but the context of the meal became a Messianic banquet. Additional messianic associations included a great eschatological hunt led by Gabriel, what was done with the skin (serving as a covering for a divine Sukkah and for the walls of Jerusalem), and other stories and descriptions (like the association of Leviathan within the story of Jonah). This, of course, evolved differently from later Christian tradition, where Leviathan was no longer associated with the messianic banquet of the righteous.
The case of Leviathan demonstrates that over time such concepts, which may have originated outside of Israel, were assimilated and developed beyond common ancient Near Eastern conceptions. By the time we get to the late-biblical period, and into the early rabbinic and Christian eras, it is no longer the same primordial monster of earlier cultures. Leviathan became a uniquely Jewish character and idea, with its own origin, mythology, stories, and details. And through this process it became a central component of Jewish eschatology and Messianic expectation. So much so, that reference to Leviathan is included in the liturgy of our most central Jewish holidays, as witnessed earlier in the blessing upon leaving the sukkah on Shemini Atzeret or in the Akdamut for Shavuot.
Joshua Brumbach serves as Senior Rabbi of Simchat Yisrael in West Haven, CT, President of the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council, and adjunct faculty at Messianic Jewish Theological Institute and The King’s University. He is currently completing a doctorate at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership where his dissertation will focus on Protest Theology in Midrash Tehillim. He is the author of two biblical commentaries and numerous articles.
1 A play on wording in a description for Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them on J.K. Rowling’s website, https://www.jkrowling.com/book/fantastic-beasts-find/.
2 David N. Gottlieb, Second Slayings (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias, 2019), 2.
3 Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakhor (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1989, 11.
4 Yerushalmi, 8.
5 Moshe Halbertal, People of the Book (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 2.
6 “Leviathan and Behemoth,” JewishEncyclopedia.com.
7 “Leviathan,” in The New Westminster Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Henry Snyder Gehman (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970), 558.
8 Hermann Gunkel and Heinrich Zimmern, Creation and Chaos in the Primeval Era and the Eschaton: A Religio-historical Study of Genesis 1 and Revelation 12, trans. K. William Whitney Jr. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), xxvii.
9 Alexander Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis: The Story of Creation, 2nd edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), Tablet IV, lines 104–105, 137–138.
10 Dictionary of Demons and Deities in the Bible, 2nd edition, eds. Karel van der Toom, Bob Becking, Pieter W. van der Horst (Grand Rapids: Brill/Eerdmans, 1999), 514.
11 Dictionary of Demons, 834–836.
12 New Westminster Dictionary, 558.
13 New Westminster Dictionary, 558.
14 “Leviathan,” in Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Leviathan-Middle-Eastern-mythology.
16 Michael Fishbane, The Exegetical Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998) 86–87.
17 Fishbane, 87.
18 Fishbane, 90.
19 New Westminster Dictionary, 558.
20 Fishbane, 92.
21 Fishbane, 89.
22 JPS, 1985 version.
23 Gunkel and Zimmern, xxvii.
24 Benjamin D. Sommer, “Isaiah,” in The Jewish Study Bible, eds. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 817.
25 See especially the previous verse (26:21).
26 Sommer, 817.
27 Israel W. Slotki, Isaiah, Soncino Books of the Bible (London: Soncino, 1972), 122.
28 JPS, 1985 version.
29 According to Jewish tradition, Leviathan has seven heads.
30 Fishbane, 91.
31 Fishbane, 91.
32 Fishbane, 91.
33 My own revision of the JPS 1917 version.
34 The Jewish Study Bible, eds. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 1384.
35 Abraham Cohen, The Psalms, Soncino Books of the Bible (London: Soncino, 1964), 341.
36 JPS, 1985 version.
37 Edward L. Greenstein, “Job,” in Jewish Study Bible, 1501.
38 JPS, 1985 version.
39 Victor E. Reichert, Job, Soncino Books of the Bible (London: Soncino, 1963), 213.
40 Fishbane, 90.
41 Robert Alter, The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (New York: Norton, 2010), 171.
42 Greenstein, 1553–1554.
43 The New Oxford Annotated Apocrypha (NRSV), eds. Bruce Metzger and Roland E. Murphy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 313–314.
45 New Oxford Annotated Apocrypha, 184–185.
46 New Oxford Annotated Apocrypha, 185.
47 The William Davidson Talmud (Koren/Steinsaltz) accessed online via sefaria.com.
48 William Davidson Talmud.
49 b. Bava Batra 74a–75a.
50 William Davidson Talmud.
51 William Davidson Talmud.
52 “Leviathan and Behemoth,” JewishEncyclopedia.com.
53 b. Bava Batra 74b–75a.
54“Leviathan and Behemoth.”
55 William Davidson Talmud.
56 Yaakov ben Yitzchak Ashkenazi, Artscroll, The Weekly Midrash, Vol. 2 (Brooklyn: Mesorah, 1993), 1073–1074.
57 Birnbaum translation, accessed via sefaria.com.
58 The Complete Artscroll Siddur, ed. Nosson Scherman (Brooklyn: Mesorah, 1999), 725.
59 Complete Jewish Bible (CJB).
61 Fishbane, 86–87.