Leviathan

The Dragon of the Sea

On that day Yahweh with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.


Before the universe existed there was ocean. The ancient Israelites did not believe in a creation from nothing, per se, but creation from water. There was a primordial sea, chaotic and empty, which was the closest concept to ‘nothingness’ they had. From this endless sea, the first gods came to be. But there was a problem: the sea was the primeval deity, terrible and powerful. So the gods killed the sea that birthed them.

The ancient Near East held very different ideas than we do today, regarding how the cosmos came to exist and how it was shaped. For example, the Enûma Eliš, the Babylonian creation myth, identifies the primordial waters as two entities embodying fresh water (Abzû) and salt water (Tiamat). When the waters of the two entities meet, the first gods are born.

When on high the heaven had not been named, firm ground below had not been called by name, nothing but primordial Abzû, their begetter, and primal Tiamat, she who bore them all, their waters commingling as a single body1

Conflict arises, and the gods determine they must slay Tiamat. The god Marduk vows to accomplish this, and is crowned ruler of the gods as a result. From the remains of her body, Marduk proceeds to form heaven, earth, and everything in them.

[Tiamat and Marduk] strove in single combat, locked in battle. […] And subduing her, he extinguished her life. […] Then the lord paused to view her corpse, that he might divide the monster and do artful works. He split her like a shellfish into two parts: half of her he set up and ceiled it as sky, pulled down the bar and posted guards. He bade them to allow not her waters to escape.

This story was not unknown to the ancient Israelites. They were surrounded by cultures which believed it. The Israelites were taken to Babylon for many years, after all. When they wrote their own creation story, then, it was natural that they would include subtle refutations of their neighbors:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was desolate and waste, and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. […] And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome.
Genesis 1

The ‘deep’ here in Hebrew is tehom, a cognate of Tiamat. Babylon’s god Marduk had to fight and slay Tiamat in order to split her watery corpse in half to create the world within it. In contrast, Israel’s god suffers no battle, slays no eldritch deity; the tehom offers no challenge as God merely speaks the waters in half to make the world within.

That doesn’t mean the ‘combat myth’ is unseen in the Hebrew bible.

You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness. You cut openings for springs and torrents; you dried up ever-flowing streams. Yours is the day, yours also the night; you established the luminaries and the sun. You have fixed all the bounds of the earth; you made summer and winter.
Psalm 74

Psalm 74 sees God split the sea (yam) in half, breaking the many heads of the dragons (tanninim), called Leviathan. The slaying of many-headed Leviathan is the beginning of God’s creation of the world, as the ensuing context makes clear. (The order in which God creates things is similar to Genesis 1, but the splitting of Leviathan open appears in place of God separating the waters.) In this texts we are given a cluster of related terms:

  • tehom: ‘deep’ (as a deep ocean or deep sea), cognate of Tiamat, the primordial embodiment of salt water
  • yam: ‘sea’, cognate of Yamm, a deity embodying the chaotic sea
  • tannin(im): ‘dragon(s)’, chaos monsters often associated with the sea
  • Leviathan: the name of a chaos dragon, cognate of Lotan

When we look for these terms we begin to find allusions to the combat myth all across the bible.

The tanninim are mentioned in Job 7.12, where Job casually mentions that guard must be set over ‘sea’ and ‘dragon’ alike. The need for such guard against the waters and monsters of chaos is highlighted in another psalm, which describes the creation of the world:

You stretch out the heavens like a tent, you set the beams of your chambers on the waters […] You set the earth on its foundations, so that it shall never be shaken. You cover it with the deep (tehom) as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains. At your rebuke they flee; at the sound of your thunder they take to flight. […] You set a boundary that they may not pass, so that they might not again cover the earth.
Psalm 104

Perhaps in contrast to Psalm 74, this psalm also says that God, in fact, created Leviathan:

There go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.

This is a powerful statement in context of the ancient Near East. Other countries praise their deities for successfully struggling and overcoming these kinds of dragons, especially the god-monster Tiamat. Israel’s god? He made these dragons. This is why God’s monologue in Job 41 about creating the Leviathan is such an important point: God is not talking about some mortal creature like a crocodile (or even a dinosaur), which humans could capture or kill with relative ease. Rather, God is saying how he created the very embodiment of primeval non-existence; the most dangerous thing to humanity is but an invention of God’s.

The tanninim, like Leviathan, are not weak creatures. Because the sea tended to represent chaos, the tanninim were closely associated with the sea. In Babylonian religion, a major deity of the ocean was Yamm (sea), also called Nahar (flood).

[ʿAnat] lifts up her voice and cries: […] ‘Did I not crush El’s beloved Yamm? Did I not destroy El’s great Nahar? Pray, did I not muzzle the dragon?’

It is a boast that Baal (with ʿAnat’s help) could destroy this draconic deity. The Israelite’s boast is that such dragons are mere inventions of Yahweh:

So God created the great dragons and every living creature of every kind that moves with which the waters swarm.
Genesis 1

In other cultures, the myth of a deity overpowering a sea-related god or monster was not restricted to the act of creation. It was a recurring trope found in many stories, such as the Ugaritic myth of Baal’s combat with Yamm. It even spread into Europe, where it is seen in the Greek myth of Apollo’s battle with Python to rescue the city of Delphi, or the Norse myth of Thor’s battle with Jörmungandr at Ragnarok.

Likewise, the bible does not consistently gloss over the combat elements, nor does it always associate the combat myth with the act of creation. Some biblical prophets pick up the myth to describe events in Israel’s past, present, or future.

In one Ugaritic text Baal is credited with slaying a dragon that serves Yamm:

When you killed Lotan, the fleeing serpent, destroyed the twisting serpent, Shalyat the seven-headed

Psalm 74, quoted above, also specifies Leviathan as having many heads, and verbage in the so-called Isaiah Apocalypse is very similar to the Ugaritic text:

[Yahweh] will punish Leviathan, the fleeing serpent, Leviathan, the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.
Isaiah 27.1

This verbal overlap is so close that it must be said Isaiah 27 was drawing from the Ugaritic text, or both from a common source.2 In Isaiah, this defeat of Leviathan carries broad symbolic meaning, that God will remove all threats to Israel ‘on that day’ (i.e. the Day of Yahweh). It carries more precise historical meaning in some other texts, though. Isaiah 51.9 invokes the combat myth to describe the exodus. Here the tannin is named ‘Rahab’, and the splitting of the tannin’s body in half refers to the parting of the sea for the Israelites to escape the pharaoh:

Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of Yahweh! Awake, as in days of old, the generations of long ago! Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon? Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep; who made the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to cross over?

Isaiah 30.7, and Psalm 87.4 and 89.10, again refer to Egypt as ‘Rahab’, resolutely defeated by God.

Daniel 2 depicts four earthly empires as a statue of four metals. Daniel 7 combines this prophecy with the combat myth, depicting the four empires as monsters crawling out of the sea. A human-like figure is introduced as riding upon the clouds into heaven, receiving an eternal kingdom in response to his triumph over the sea monsters:

I saw one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. […] His dominion is an eternal dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingdom is one that shall never be destroyed.

The wording is reminiscent of Ugaritic myths of Baal’s combat with Yamm:

‘I tell you, O Prince Baal, I declare, O rider of the clouds. Now your enemy, O Baal, now your enemy you will smite, now will you cut off your adversary. You shall take your eternal kingdom, your eternal dominion.’ […] ‘Baal would rend, would smash Yamm, would annihilate Judge Nahar.’

The Revelation draws on Daniel’s vision to portray a ‘beast from the sea’ to symbolize an earthly empire, but the author also includes a ‘dragon’ as a separate symbol for the satan, with some apparent influence from Isaiah 27. However, the revelator specifies that the dragon has seven heads, suggesting he was aware of the ancient Ugaritic myth of Lotan that Isaiah 27 borrowed from.

Conclusion

Israel was not wholly separate from the surrounding world of the ancient Near East. While Judean devotees of Yahweh vehemently opposed the worship, or even recognition, of the deities of their neighbors, there was nevertheless a dependence on common ideas about how the world worked. They believed that God created the universe out of chaos waters, they believed that God created the chaos monsters, and they believed that God would triumph over the chaos monsters. They used these pictures to demonstrate the supremacy of their god over all others, and to describe their own place in the world.

Footnotes

1 This and the following quotations of Akkadian, Babylonian, and Ugaritic texts are adapted from J.B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 1969.

2 The Ugaritic text calls the monster ltn bṯn brḥ […] bṯn ʿqltn, while Isaiah 27.1 calls the dragon lwytn nḥš brḥ […] nḥš ʿqltwn. The two texts use identical cognates, except for the word 'serpent', where Hebrew nḥš is equivalent to Ugaritic bṯn.