Monsters inspire fear, pose an existential threat, and embody the forces of chaos. For the biblical writers and their audiences, Leviathan was just that, and perhaps more.
How is Leviathan typically portrayed?
Biblical references locate Leviathan within a widespread and venerable tradition of watery serpentine beings. Such monsters embody chaos as cosmic foes of an order-imposing deity. According to Isa 27:1 the Lord will punish Leviathan, “the fleeing serpent,” “the twisting serpent,” and “the dragon”—phrases that describe the similarly named Litan of Ugaritic literature (KTU 1.5 i:1-3). Similarly, in Ps 74:13-14, the psalmist seeks relief from God, who “broke the heads of the dragon in the waters” and “crushed the heads of Leviathan.” Within this broad tradition also stand Tiamat of the Babylonian Enuma Elish, Apopis of Egyptian solar mythology, as well as other biblical figures such as Rahab (see Job 26:12; Ps 89:10; Isa 51:10).
Is Leviathan always “evil” or a threat?
Most biblical portrayals cast Leviathan in starkly negative terms. In the book of Job, Leviathan embodies the chaos behind Job’s misfortune and provides a frame for the poetic dialogues that compose the main section of the book. The dialogues open with Job cursing the day of his birth, seeking even to expunge it by enlisting those “skilled to rouse up Leviathan” (Job 3:8). The dialogues close with God questioning Job’s knowledge of Leviathan (Job 41:1-34). It will not submit to serving humans or be domesticated for play or trade (Job 41:4-6). It strikes fear into the gods (Job 41:25) and in the final analysis “is king over all that are proud” (Job 41:34). Thus, Job’s exemplary character (Job 1:1) is no match. His misfortune reflects a chaos beyond human control. Yet this chaos remains under divine control, which Job acknowledges in his final statement (Job 42:1-6).
One encounters a very different picture of Leviathan in Ps 104:26-27, not of a monster but of a fully domesticated animal. Formed to play in the sea or perhaps with the Lord (the Hebrew text supports either reading), it looks to the deity for its food. Leviathan here is no cosmic enemy to be vanquished; no threat or monster but almost a pet. Yet the language reflects the control humans clearly lack over Leviathan in Job 41:4-6. Leviathan’s transformation presents a different image of the power of the Creator. Like the modern marine park equivalent, the attraction is chaos held at bay.