Leviathan: Definition, Identity, and Sources
What is Leviathan? Leviathan is a sea creature, whose identity is shrouded in mystery, and so has become the subject of legend and fantasy. Indications are that at least some of the ancient authors who mention the creature believed that it was real. In Judaism and Christianity today, the ocean-dwelling animal is variously understood as being anything from an unidentified monster or beast, to a known animal, like a whale or alligator.
What does the word "leviathan" mean? The name "leviathan" is the actual pronunciation of the Hebrew word itself. On rare occasion, original-language words will go untranslated by scholars because there is so much ambiguity concerning the word's identification. That said, the Hebrew root word is la-wah, the meaning of which conveys the ideas of "folding" or "bending," which is believed to describe a twisting or coiling neck, perhaps of significant length.
What sources are there to identify the leviathan? The mysterious creature is mentioned in three book of the Hebrew Bible (i.e. the Christian "Old Testament"), Job, Isaiah, and Pslams (see texts below). Not only is the identity of the creature debated, but also whether the authors are using the word literally or figuratively.
What is the earliest reference to Leviathan? Job 41:1-34 in the Hebrew Bible is the earliest mention of Leviathan, although some speculate the author may be borrowing the imagery from other ancient stories. (Note: many scholars believe Job was written before Genesis; some speculate that the story occurs in, or around the time of, Abraham.) Verse one reads:
"Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook or press down his tongue with a cord?" (ESV)
The point of the chapter is that God is sovereign over all of creation, even Leviathan. Verse five reflects the chapter's main point. It rhetorically asks the reader, if they can do what God can do to Leviathan. It reads:
"Will you play with him as with a bird, or will you put him on a leash for your girls?" (ESV)
Some suggest the author isn't arguing for the sea creature's existence, but holding up a mythological being thought to have great power to say, in effect, "God is greater than that."
How does the prophet Isaiah use the word? Isaiah chapter 27 mentions Leviathan in the first verse: "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 (ESV)." There is not uniform agreement among scholars concerning how the prophet is using the term. Some believe he is referring to the sea creature, yet more are persuaded that he is using leviathan to figuratively depict the enemies of Israel.
How does the Psalmist use the word? The word Leviathan is found in Psalm 104:26, "There go the ships, and Leviathan, which you formed to play in it (ESV)." The pslam is a reflection on the creation account, found in Genesis, chapters 1-2. The nature of the relevant stanza (v. 24-26) is praise to God, and the sea creature is mentioned without negative connotation, but a being that God made.
Other interpretations of leviathan
How has Christianity traditionally understood the creature? There has been a wide range of interpretation. Less common is the view that Leviathan was sinister in nature, controlled somehow by Satan (e.g. Thomas Aquinas, Peter Binsfeld, who associated the creature with the seven deadly sins). Some young-earth creationists believe it is a dinosaur, emphasizing the twisting, coiling neck. Most Christian scholars share one of the two majority views: (1) it's an unidentified sea creature, perhaps presently extinct, but not spiritually sinister, or (2) it's a known animal, like a whale or crocodile.
How has Satanism used leviathan? Similar to the view that certain Christians held in the Middle Ages (as mentioned above), the teaching of Anton LaVey conveyed a sinister understanding of Leviathan's nature. In The Satanic Bible, Leviathan is listed as one of the Four Crown Princes of Hell. The Church of Satan uses the Hebrew letters at each of the points of the Sigil of Baphomet to represent Leviathan. In demonology, the Leviathan is one of the seven princes of Hell (envy) and its gatekeeper.
1. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Vol. II, "Leviathan")
2. Bible (various editions and translations)
3. Wikipedia, "leviathan"