What Was the Leviathan?

by Bob Burridge ©2018

In the last sections of the Book of Job, God was helping Job understand that we humans don’t have answers to the large questions about the nature of the world around us. God’s ways are not fully revealed to us so we need to remain humble about what we believe, and what we think we know. Those who had been advising Job had wrongly evaluated his sufferings. They lacked the humility we ought to have as mere creatures. They attributed the tragedies that came into his life as judgments of God because of what they assumed were Job’s unconfessed sins. They were wrong. God had other purposes in what happened to Job. The things the Creator said to him remain humbling lessons for us today as we read this book.

In Job 40:15-2 God points to the “Behemoth” as one of the creatures he had created to display the power and glory of its Creator. The description of the animal and its habitat seems to best fit with it being the Nile Hippopotamus. [See the article, “The Behemoth in Job 40:15-24“.]

Then in Job 41:1-10 we are introduced to the “Leviathan“, another creature that displays the awesome power of its Creator. God was speaking to Job, and he said,

1. “Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook or press down his tongue with a cord?
2. Can you put a rope in his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook?
3. Will he make many pleas to you? Will he speak to you soft words?
4. Will he make a covenant with you to take him for your servant forever?
5. Will you play with him as with a bird, or will you put him on a leash for your girls?
6. Will traders bargain over him? Will they divide him up among the merchants?
7. Can you fill his skin with harpoons or his head with fishing spears?
8. Lay your hands on him; remember the battle–you will not do it again!
9. Behold, the hope of a man is false; he is laid low even at the sight of him.
10. No one is so fierce that he dares to stir him up. Who then is he who can stand before me?

This same creature is mentioned earlier in Job 3:8, “Let those curse it who curse the day, who are ready to rouse up Leviathan.” In this context Job had cursed the day of his birth after so many losses and tragic sufferings came along. He called down gloom and darkness. He even mourned that he was born, or that he didn’t just died at birth. Like those who curse their days, he was ready to stir up “Leviathan”, this mean creature.

The Leviathan is briefly mentioned in other places in the Old Testament as well.
Psalm 74:14, “You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.”
Psalm 104:26, “There go the ships, and Leviathan, which you formed to play in it.”
Isaiah 27:1, “In that day the LORD with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.”

There have been many theories about what this Levithan was.
The Hebrew word rendered as “Leviathan” in most English translations is “Liv-yatan” (לׅוְיָתָן). In the Hebrew text, this section actually begins at Job 40:25 instead of 41:1 as in our English versions. The Brown-Driver-Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament points out that this is a compound word with a background in other languages. The first part is “lev-i” (לוי), which means “turn, twist, wind”. The second part is “tan”(תַּן) which comes from the Hebrew root word “tanah” (תַּנַה) which means “to recount, rehearse”, something repeating, reoccurring, or being brought back to memory. When these two roots are combined they convey the idea of something repeatedly twisting. It’s more a “repeatedly twisting creature” than a “twisted creature” as some have referred to it.

Notice the characteristics of this creature in the context of Job 41:
– We are unable to subdue the Leviathan (verses 1-2)
– He is unlikely to listen to our pleadings (verses 3-4)
– He will not be played with or tamed as a pet (verse 5)
– He is not a marketable commodity people would pay to possess (verse 6)
– He is not vulnerable to our weapons (verse 7)
– If we try to lay hands on him, we will regret it (verse 8)
– People feel no hope of safety when he is spotted near them (verse 9-10)

This is obviously a very powerful and dangerous animal. He has been identified by some as a whale, the orca, an alligator, crocodile, a purely mythological creature, a dinosaur, or a mere literary symbol. It’s doubtful that mythological or literary symbol ideas fit the context here. This is obviously some real creature that displays the Creator’s unchallengeable power, not something merely imagined.

The alligator and crocodile are animals that twist very fast, powerfully bending their bodies right and left again and again to attack what’s next to them or behind them. Living in Florida by many small lakes I have seen this behavior in alligators many times. They are powerful and when they are avoiding being captured they become wildly “repeatedly twisting” creatures. This seems to fit best with the meaning of the Hebrew root words, the described characteristics in the text, and the flow of thought in the context designed to make Job aware of the unquestionable and untamable power of God.

The conclusion that this most likely fits the alligator or crocodile is shared by many commentators: John Gill, Adam Clarke, Jamiesan-Fausset-Brown, Albert Barnes, Keil & Delitzsch, the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, and others.

We are humbled by the fact of an all powerful God. As Creator he put creatures in our world to remind us of the might of the one who made them, one who can’t be resisted or subdued. Even in times of tragedy and suffering we should rest with confidence in the arms of that unbeatable and all wise God.

When you’re where you don’t want to be, remember our sovereign God brought you to that place. Consider what he would want you to do while there. In that place, confidently do what God says is right, knowing that the one who directs you and who directs all that’s around you, is your strength and your loving Good Shepherd. He cannot be overcome or defeated.

[Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.]

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