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What is a Leviathan?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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The leviathan is a huge and fierce water monster, mentioned in several books of the Bible. Mention occurs in the books of Job, Psalms, and Isaiah, and there are several traditional Jewish prayers that also include the leviathan. Christian evaluation of the creature tends to associate the leviathan with the devil or demons, where the Old Testament view often looks at the creature as a natural creature.

Although in pictures, the leviathan is often depicted as a large water dragon, sometimes with multiple heads, many feel strongly that the word was alternate for crocodile, a creature that would have proliferated along the Nile. On the other hand, Job describes the beast as capable of breathing fire, which suggest more dragonlike characteristics. There may be some connection of the creature to Canaanite beliefs, or Ugaritic myths. A creature called Lotan dwells in the water and resembles a seven-headed dragon. In Ugaritic mythology, Baal Hadad fights with and destroys Lotan.

Leviathan is often intimately connected to the idea of chaos and destruction. In Ugaritic mythology, Lotan summons floods and tidal waves. The biblical equivalent is sometimes viewed as the opposite of creation, and is chaotic and destructive in nature. Early Christian writings take this one step further, especially the writing of Thomas Aquinas who associates the creature with envy and also calls it a demon. In constructing the punishments of hell, leviathan is called to punish the sinners who committed the deadly sin of envy and died without confession and absolution.

From a purely natural world standpoint, connecting the sea monster to the crocodile makes a lot of sense. It could certainly instantly cause death and was a thing to be greatly feared. When the creature is thought of as a simple beast, which it is in at least one Jewish prayer, and in one Midrash, a retelling — often highly metaphorical — of different instances in the Bible, the beast is God’s creation but so fearsome that God destroys the female so that the creature cannot mate.

On the other hand, a prayer mentions: “the sukkah of the skin of Leviathan,” and is said during the celebration of Sukkot or Festival of Booths. A sukkah is a temporary structure, like a tent, that Jews who celebrate Sukkot may choose to live in during the Festival. Part of the Sukkah must be made of natural materials, and crocodile skin might have been used in the past.

In Modern Hebrew, leviathan can be translated as whale, so there is also some context for considering a large sea mammal as this creature. This concept though, in most fantasy tellings is mainly lost in preference of depicting the animal as a water dragon, sometimes capable of flight. In the Final Fantasy series of video games, characters can summon this creature, which looks like a large blue dragon that rains watery destruction on monsters.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon132609 — On Dec 07, 2010

I agree. Just because things sound impossible or we don't quite understand all of the Bible, does not mean it is not literal.

I say: "I believe God's words even though they seem improbable." He's God and he can do whatever he wants. He made the universe and all unknown laws of it. Even if he decides to alter or step outside those laws, he is still acting as God and we should know who we are in comparison when we suggest God's word is not 'accurate' or 'literal.'

Who are we? Do we have infinite knowledge? Can I say there is no____ in the entire known universe, for anything? Doubt it.

By anon83046 — On May 09, 2010

You're an idiot if you take the Bible as God's literal advice, it's like Chinese Whispers, it's been so watered down you'd never find the original.

It's best to just follow Jesus' wish for a better world instead of fussing over who said what to who.

However, in the context of a giant fire breathing monster I'll let it slide into literalism.

While the idea of the way Crocodiles wait and then pull you down under the water fits the image of being dragged to hell, we know there's more than one of them.

I think it sounds more like the original Godzilla: a giant sea god that breathes nuclear death fire

By anon78452 — On Apr 18, 2010

I feel the levi-whatever was not a whale or a crocodile, for the lord, not job, speaks of how it breathes fire and smoke comes from its nostrils. also many other water dragon like things are referred to in the bible and the bible has no lies.

By anon42758 — On Aug 23, 2009

Too many do not take God's word literally for what it is. God through his Holy Spirit will and does not intend to confuse, or lead astray anyone who comes to him through his word. Those words are his words. Through his spirit he spoke to us all through his spirit filled disciples.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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