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Genesis 1:20-23 - DAY 5

The word "leviathan" seems to be a general term for any large sea animal. The name "Leviathan" occurs 6 times in the Old Testament. Let’s look at these passages.

Job 3:8

Job 3:8 says, "May those who curse days curse that day, those who are ready to rouse leviathan" (NIV). The KJV has "their mourning" but the marginal note says, "Or, Leviathan." The Hebrew is clearly, /tywl, "leviathan." Job wishes that soothsayers would have conjured up leviathan to swallow up the day of his birth (NIV note). When there was an eclipse of the sun or moon the ancients believed leviathan swallowed them so total darkness prevailed until he released his prey (Delitzsch, 1976, 78). Job may be calling on the giants Ohya and Ahya who battled Leviathan before they were destroyed in Noah’s flood according to the Book of Giants (TDOT 1995, Vol.7, 506). There is an interesting Aramaic incantation text that says, "I shall deliver you with great magic from Leviathan, the sea monster" (Ibid, 505).

Job 3:8 may be referring to the constellation Draco. In ancient times the sky was seen as a mirror image of the earth below. So the leviathan in the sea or nether world had a counter part in the sky, Draco who would swallow the sun or moon when there is an eclipse.

Job 41:1

Job 41:1 says, "Can you pull in the leviathan with a fishhook" (NIV). This whole chapter describes this terrible sea creature probably a giant crocodile. It is said to have a tongue (verse 1), a nose and jaw (v.2), limbs (v.12), mouth ringed with fearsome teeth (v.14), and a back tightly fitted with scales (v.15). It describes smoke coming from his nostrils. This is poetic language and is probably like seeing our breathe which looks like smoke in cold weather. There is a similar description of God coming in a thunderstorm in Psalm 18:8. Bartram observed an alligator "that as it comes on the land a thick smoke

issues from its distended nostrils with a thundering sound. This thick, hot steam, according to credible description which is presented here, produces the impression of a fire exiting beneath, and bursting forth" (Delitzsch 1976, 374). The sneezing of fine water particles in the sun spreads light. Eyes of animals at night can shine or glow. The crocodile’s eyes and eyelids glow red under water like the red at dawn or dusk. It is not talking about real fire coming out of its mouth. This is poetic language (See Revelation 19:12, and Daniel 10:6). In the Dead Sea Scrolls 11Q10 a targum of Job translates leviathan as "Crocodile" (Martinez 1994, 152).

Psalm 74:14

Psalm 74:14 says, "Thou brakest the heads of leviathan in pieces, and gavest him to be meat to the people inhabiting the wilderness" (KJV). Here leviathan has more than one head in the Hebrew. In Ugaritic it is clear that leviathan (ltn) had seven heads. In the story of Baal and Mot it says, "for all that you smote Leviathan the slippery serpent (and) made an end of the wriggling serpent, the tyrant with seven heads?" (Gibson 1978, 68; ANET, 137-8; KTU 1.5, I.1-3). In Sumerian poetry there is mus-sag-imin, the seven headed serpent. In Old Akkadian the seven-tongued serpent, hubullu may also have seven heads (TDOT Vol.7, 507). There is even a Sumerian carving of a seven-headed monster (ANEP fig. 671,& 691). The many-headed Greek hydra who was killed by Hercules may come from the ancient Near East stories of Leviathan. Could the idea of a many headed sea monster come from seeing a giant squid or octopus, and assuming the tentacles were heads. It seems that the word "leviathan" is a general term for any large sea animal. In Job 41 it clearly has one head, but in Psalm 74 it has many heads, probably a giant squid. In the Book of Revelation 13:1 the beast arising from the sea has seven heads. This seems to be alluding to the leviathan of seven heads tradition.

Greek Texts

In the Odyssey there is a description of a sea monster called "Scylla." "Her legs 'and there are twelve' are like great tentacles, unjointed, and upon her serpent necks are borne six heads like night-mares of ferocity and triple serried rows of fangs and deep gullets of black death. Half her length, she sways her heads in air" (Fitzgerald 1961, 212; Book 12:88-94; LCL 104, 439). This seems to describe the giant squid, Architeuthis which Ellis says is "probably responsible for more myths, fables, fantasies, and fictions than all other marine monsters combined" (1994, 122). Therefore it seems most likely that the stories of a seven-headed sea serpent arose from seeing the giant squid, Architeuthis.

The Hydra who was killed by Hercules is probably a giant octopus. The hydra is said to have nine heads, and when one was cut off, two more grew in its place (Ibid, 260). Pliny the Elder lumps the squid and octopus together as polyp in his book Naturalis Historia. Let’s look at some actual sightings.

1555 AD

In 1555 Olaus Magus wrote a book called Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus in which he describes a monstrous fish as follows, "Their forms are horrible, their heads square, all set with prickles, and they have long sharp horns round about like a tree rooted up by the roots: They are ten or twelve cubits long, very black, with huge eyes. The Apple of the Eye is of one cubit, and is red and fiery coloured, which in the dark night appears to Fisher-men afar off under waters, as a burning fire, having hairs like goose feathers" (Ellis 1994, 124). De Montford says its "huge protruding eyes actually seemed to flash fire" (Ibid, 265). The giant squid has the largest eyes of any animal. One observer said it skin was "brilliant carmine red" (Ibid, 129).

1633 AD

In 1632 a sea monster was said to have seven tails with eyes (Ibid, 126).

1673 AD

In 1673 another sea monster is described as having two heads and ten horns.

1845 AD

An 1845 description says there was "boiling of the water on both sides of it" and moved like a snake (Ibid., 366-7).

1879 AD

In 1879 a giant squid washed ashore and was "churning the water into foam by the motion of its immense arms and tail—ejecting large volumes of water" (Ibid., 136). Frederick Aldrich, an expert on giant squid examined a 20 foot long immature specimen that he believed could grow to 150 feet in length (Ibid, 128).

Psalm 104:26

Psalm 104:26 says, "There go the ships: there is leviathan, whom thou hast made to play therein" (KJV). Clearly the habitat of leviathan in this context is the sea. The ships sail in deep water so this can not be a crocodile. This may refer to the whales , or more likely dolphins who like to play following ships. Apollonius Rhodius in the third century BC wrote in his book The Argonautica, "and the fishes came darting through the deep sea, great mixed with small, and followed gamboling along the watery paths" (Book 1.574). Apollonius describes the fish playfully following the ship as sheep follow a shepherd.

Aelian writes, "There are Sea-monsters (off the coast of India) half a stade in length (300 feet), and so powerful are they that, when they blow with their nostrils, they often hurl up a wave from the sea to such a height that ignorant and inexperienced people take it for a waterspout (hurricane)" (1959 Book 17:6). This is clearly the description of a whale. The spout of a whale may also have been seen as smoke from its fiery mouth by ancient mariners.

Isaiah 27:1

Isaiah 27:1 says, "In that day of the Lord with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, even leviathan that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea" (KJV). This is very similar to the Ugaritic description of Leviathan that was quoted earlier. The terms "Rahab" and "tannin" are also used in parallel to Leviathan.

In other ancient literature the Book of Enoch says, "On that day, two monsters will be parted 'one monster, a female named Leviathan, in order to dwell in the abyss of the ocean over the fountains of water; and (the other), a male called Behemoth, which holds his chest in an invisible desert whose name is Dundayin, east of Eden" (I Ethiopic Enoch 60:7-8).

In the targums and Rabbinic literature the "great whales" (KJV, but "tannin" in the Hebrew) in Genesis 1:21 are said to be the Leviathan and its mate. Leviathan, the gliding serpent is male, and Leviathan, the winding serpent is female according to Reb. Judah. God castrated the male and killed the female preserving her in the salt water for the righteous to eat in the world to come (Bowker 1979, 104; see 2 Ezra, also called 4 Ezra 6:49,52: 2 Baruch 29:4 in Charlesworth 1983).


The Leviathan may be a composite of several sea monster. Ancient Near Eastern pictures abound with composite monsters. The snake-dragon of Babylon pictured on its walls, has a snake’s body with horns, lions forelegs, and a birds hindlegs (Black and Green 1992, 166). Sometimes dinosaur bones are mistaken as monsters.

One thing for sure is that leviathan is not a dinosaur. In the Hebrew it is clearly a general term for a large sea creature. It may live in the ocean or river. It may be a living animal or a composite mythical creature. The context will usually determine the meaning.


In Isaiah 51:9 "Rahab" is used in parallel to tannin, sea monster. In Isaiah 30:7 and Psalm 87:4 "Rahab" is used as a designation for Egypt which is symbolized by a giant crocodile (Heidel, 104-5). In Isaiah 27:1 the leviathan is also used in parallel to tannin. Some equate these monster to the constellations Draco, Hydra, and Serpens (ISBE, Vol.1, 309). Some ancients saw the clouds as a personification of a dragon (Job 26:12; Heidel, 104-5). Some equate Rahab with the mythical sea monster Tiamat who was split open to make heaven and earth by Marduk (Job 16:12).

Lock Ness Monster?

The most famous picture taken of the Lock Ness monster was in 1934. It has later been revealed that this picture is a fake, staged by a filmmaker named Marmadule Arundel Wetherell (Ellis, 22).

There have been other sightings and carcasses that have been mistaken for sea monsters or dinosaurs. In ancient times even up to the eighteenth century people believed in mermaids, but what they were really seeing were Manatees whose face looks human.


Some think that a plesiosaur was caught in the net of a Japanese fishing boat in 1977. While the pictures look impressive, the scientific data points to a decaying basking shark. The carcass was 32 feet long and weighed about 4,000 pounds. Ellis states, "Before the carcass was discarded, one of the crewmen lopped off a piece of a fin, which contained horny fibers (ceratorichia) that characterized the elasmobranchs, and these were later identified as those of Cetorhinus maximus" which is the scientific name for the basking shark (Ellis, 69).

Alwyne Wheeler of the British Museum of Natural History agrees that this was a basking shark. He states, "Sharks are cartilaginous fish. When they start to decompose after death, the heads and gills are the first to drop from the body—fishermen have been foiled by the similarity of shark remains to a plesiosaur" (Ellis, 68-9).

Dr. Petit showed how the soft tissues of a basking shark decompose into the shape of a plesiosaur and seem to be hairy. "In the selachians the fibers of the surface muscles break up into whiskers when the skin rots" and seems to by hairy like stiff fur (Heuvelmans 1968, 135).  

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