“Evil is Make-Believe” – Book of Job p5

III. Behemoth and Leviathan:  Real or Mythological

A big problem in looking at Yahweh’s second speech is that there are two different ways to look at this passage.  The Behemoth and Leviathan can be seen as mythological creatures taken from the mythology of the surrounding nations and they can also be looked at as real creatures that Job has seen and experienced.  Depending on how one interprets these creatures can determine how one should interpret the purpose of that speech.

Some argue that the Leviathan was a real creature known as the crocodile.  They believe that although it was a real creature Yahweh still used it as a symbol of all the cosmic forces that are opposed to Yahweh.  It is also considered a symbol for Satan as the “king over al the children of pride” (41:34).[1] 

In the Ancient Near East, it was not uncommon for the people to call real things by mythological names.  Egypt is called Rahab, a mythological creature, in Isaiah 30:7.  It is possible that in Job 41 the crocodile could be called by the mythological name of the Leviathan.[2]  The problem with labeling both the Behemoth and Leviathan as mythological creatures is that the Behemoth is not mentioned in any pagan mythology. 

Israel borrowed its creation mythology from other nations, and if the Behemoth is not mentioned in any other nation’s mythology, then it must not be a mythological character.  Some have tried to identify it with other mythological creatures such as the “ferocious bullock of El” or “El’s calf,” but those arguments are weak at best, built heavily upon assumptions.  Late Hebrew speculation speaks of the Behemoth as mythological but they do not refer to any ancient sources, and it is very likely they came away with this idea from Job 40 itself.[3]

Furthermore, the first speech deals with flesh and blood animals and how man falls within Yahweh’s creation.  The second speech also makes this same point, and so it would only make sense that the Behemoth and Leviathan are also real creatures in order to make Yahweh’s argument viable.  If the Behemoth and Leviathan are mythological then that does not follow with the motif of man’s place within creation.  Also, in poetic literature, it was common to use hyperbole in the Old Testament, especially in Job. 

Because this is found in the first speech, some scholars argue that it should be found in the second.  Many of the fearsome characteristics of the Leviathan can be explained by the poetic language.  The flashes of light (41:18) are from when the crocodile sneezes and rays from the sun sparkle on the mist.  When the creature breaks the surface of the water to come up for breath and spews out its pent up breath this looks like sparks of fire and the light hitting its reddish eyes make them appear as rays of the dawn.[4]  Harapollon (Hieroglyphica i.65) says the Egyptians used the crocodiles’ eyes as symbols of dawn because its whole body was submerged except for the eyes that break the water’s surface.  However, some interpret this literally as flames emanating from his eyes.[5]

Another argument that refutes the Behemoth from being mythological is that the Behemoth is not described as being aggressive and terrifying as other animals are described in creation myths, but rather, peaceful and gentle wading in the stream (40:20-22).  Also, other creation myths that were from Babylon and Ugaritic epics tell stories about the past deeds of these creatures, but the creatures described here are described in the present. 

Yahweh speaks of these creatures as if they were creatures that Job had witnessed and experienced, not as creatures that lived a long time ago.[6]  If these animals were mythological, then Yahweh asking Job to tame the animals would seem unfounded.  It is also very possible that Job had encountered crocodiles.  Crocodiles were numerous in Egypt and they could be found on the banks of some of Israel’s streams such as the Yukon and Kishon.  There was even a town named Crocodilopolis north of Caeserea (Strabo 6:27).[7] 

Despite these arguments, there are still many scholars who see the Behemoth and Leviathan as mythological creatures.  When these creatures are seen as mythological, Yahweh’s speech has a different nuance to it.  Yahweh talked about the animals in the first speech to show He was the creator and sustainer of the natural world and he spoke of the Behemoth and Leviathan in His second speech to show He was Lord of the moral universe.  These two animals symbolize evil political powers.  Psalms 74:12-15 symbolizes Israel’s crossing the Red Sea and Isaiah 27:1 symbolizes Yahweh’s defeat of the Evil One at the end time.  Both of these passages use the Leviathan to speak of these events.  Yahweh shows his dominance over these two creatures and thus shows his victory in the moral arena.[8]

The Leviathan is a giant sea monster that was created in pre-Israelite Canaanite mythology.  In the Ancient Near East, when people first starting formulating their beliefs of creation, they saw creation as “conflicts between divine powers.”  For example, the changing of the seasons was seen in Canaanite religion as a recurring battle between the god of life and fertility, Ba’al and the god of drought and death, Mot.  In the urban areas of Egypt, Canaan, and Babylon it was believed there had been a primordial battle between a god of chaos and a god of cosmic order. 

The Israelites took these beliefs and transformed them to fit their beliefs about God.[9]  It is important to note that the Israel’s understanding of the world was not influenced by the chaos conflict myth.  It merely belonged to the “treasure-house of poetry, on which poets and prophets liked to draw in order to clothe their thoughts in rich apparel.”[10]  The story of God taming chaos is how the Ancient Near Eastern people understood the world.[11]  Yet, the myths were not invented to describe how the world came into being.[12]  The allusion to the Leviathan is a reference to a mythical seven headed dragon from Ugaritic texts that, in those traditions, their god slays.[13]  The Leviathan myth in Israel said there was a dragon that oppressed humanity and “blasphemed deity” but was finally overthrown.[14] 

According to this creation mythology the Leviathan is seen as a living being that personifies chaos (much like other beasts such as Rahab, Tannim, Behemoth, and Yam) that needs to be defeated so God can continue creation.[15]  Here is one example of an Ugaritic tale of Ba’al defeating the Leviathan:

Though thou didst smite Ltn [Leviathan] the Primeval Serpent,

And didst annihilate the Crooked Serpent,

The Close-coiling One of Seven Heads,

The heavens will dry up, yea, languish;

I shall pound thee, consume thee, and eat thee,

Cleft, forspent, and exhausted.

Thou shalt indeed go down into the throat of Mot, the Son of El.[16]

The Leviathan in this myth is described as a seven headed serpentine creature that was defeated in combat by Baal.  This language mirrors very closely Isaiah 27:1:

In that day,

       the LORD will punish with his sword,

       his fierce, great and powerful sword,

       Leviathan the gliding serpent,

       Leviathan the coiling serpent;

       he will slay the monster of the sea.

In another instance, a cylinder seal was found in Tell Asmar in Mesopotamia that shows two deities subduing a seven headed dragon.  This is the type of Canaanite myth the Old Testament, particularly Job 41 refers to.[17]

But even though the Leviathan is a mythological creature, the description of the Leviathan is also based on real models and many of its attributes were taken from real creatures like the crocodile, which was known to the people in the East and made its home in the Nile.[18]  Others such as Hartley say that these creatures do not represent political powers, but Yahweh brought up these creatures to show how Job could not conquer the earthly creature much less its cosmic counterpart.[19]  The Apocrypha also talks of the Leviathan as a mythological creature.  Enoch 60:7-9 states, “On that day (the day of Judgment) two monsters will be produced, a female monster named Leviathan to dwell in the depths of the ocean over the fountains of the waters…”[20]  Job calls the Leviathan in 3:8 to swallow the day of his birth and return that day back to the realm of chaos removed from Yahweh.  With this in mind, one can see that it cannot be a real animal; it has to be a creature of chaos in order to perform the duty Job called it to do.[21] 

IV. Conclusion

Yahweh’s speeches try to address many of the concerns that Job had brought up in chapter 3-31.  Job had charged Yahweh with mismanagement of the cosmos and Yahweh wanted to set the record straight.  Yahweh answers Job not because Job has sworn his innocence (ch 31) but out of concern for his servant.  In doing so, Yahweh is expressing His graciousness to His servant.[22]  Yahweh talking to Job has given Job a better understanding of Yahweh’s creation and of Yahweh himself.  Now, even though still does not know the answers to all of his questions Job knows the who behind his suffering and is able to cope with his pain.

[1] Mckenna, 401-402.

[2] James D. Strauss, The Shattering of Silence:  The Book of Job, (Joplin, MO:  College Press, 1976), 432.

[3] David Wolfers, “The Lord’s Second Speech in the Book of Job,” Vetus Testamentum 40 no 4 (O 1990):  475.

[4] Hartley, 532.  Marvin H. Pope, Job:  Intro, Translation, and Notes, Anchor Bible, Doubleday and Co., (Garden City, NY, 1965), 342.

[5] Pope, 341.

[6] Gordis, 571.

[7] Hartley, 530.

[8] Elmer Smick, “Another Look at the Mythological Elements in the Book of Job,” Westminster Theological Journal 40 no 2 (Spr 1978):  226.  There is some debate whether or not Psalm 74:12-15 is talking about crossing the Red Sea.  It is this author’s opinion that it is.  Cf. Hermann Gunkel, Creation and Chaos in the Primeval Period and the Eschaton:  A Religio-historical Study of Genesis 1 and Revelation 12, trans. by K. William Whitney Jr, (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2006), 28.  For an opposing opinion cf. Albert Arnold Anderson, The Book of Psalms, gen ed. Ronald E. Clements, (Greenwood, South Carolina:  Attic Press, 1972), 543.  The Leviathan is depicted as a force of evil to be conquered in Jewish Messianic Art, (Joseph Gutman, “Leviathan, Behemoth, and Ziz:  Jewish Messianic Symbols in Art,” Hebrew Union College Annual 39 (1968):  219-230).  Cf. Carson, 374.

[9] Klaus Nürnberger, “The Conquest of Chaos:  The Biblical Paradigm of Creation and its Contemporary Relevance,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 98 (July 1997), 49.  For a more in depth study on the Biblical account of creation by chaos as seen in Genesis 1 see Bruce K. Waltke, “Creation Account in Genesis 1:1-3.”  Bibliotheca Sacra 133 no 529 (Ja-Mr 1976):  28-41; Bruce K. Waltke, “Creation Account in Genesis 1:1-3.”  Bibliotheca 132 no 528 (O-D 1975):   327-342; Bruce K. Waltke, “Creation Account in Genesis 1:1-3.”  Bibliotheca 132 no 527 (Jl-S 1975):  216-228; Bruce K. Waltke, “Creation Account in Genesis 1:1-3.”  Bibliotheca 132 no 526 (Ap-Je 1975):  136-144; Bruce K. Waltke, “Creation Account in Genesis 1:1-3.”  Bibliotheca 132 no 525 (Ja-Mr 1975):  25-36.  Also, to see the practical application of the chaos creation account see Nürnberger, 45-63.

[10] Anderson, Book of Psalms, 543.

[11] James Luther Mays, Psalms, Interpretation Commentary, (Atlanta:  John Knox, 1986), 245.

[12] Jakob H. Grønbæk, “Baal’s Battle with Yam – A Canaanite Creation Fight,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 33 (1985):  27

[13] Bernhard W. Anderson, Creation Versus Chaos:  The Reinterpretation of Mythical Symbolism in the Bible, (Philadelphia : Fortress Press, 1987), 102.  In the past the Ltn or Lotan has been made synonymous with the Leviathan but that may not be the case.  Emerton explores more deeply the connections between the Hebrew Leviathan and the Ugaritic Lotan (J. A. Emerton, “Leviathan and LTN:  The Vocalization of the Ugaritic Word for the Dragon,” Vetus Testamentum 32 no 3 (1982):  327-331.)

[14] Gunkel, 58.

[15] Michael Deroche, “Is XLV 7 and the Creation of Chaos,” Vetus Testamentum 42 no 1 (1992):  11-12.

[16] Anderson, Creation versus Chaos, 134.

[17] Howard Wallace, “Leviathan and the Beast in Revelation,” Biblical Archaeologist 11 no 3 (S 1948):  63.

[18] Neiman, 133.

[19] Hartley, 530.

[20] Wallace, 66.

[21]Henry Rowold, “Mī hū’ – lī hū’ : Leviathan and Job in Job 41:2-3,” Journal of Biblical Literature 105 no 1 (Mr 1986):  105-106.

[22] Hartley, 487.

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