The next three posts will be dedicated to the three mythical beasts that are first mentioned in the Bible and repeatedly obsessed over in later texts: Leviathan, King of the Fish; Behemoth, King of the Land Animals; and Ziz Shadai, King of the Birds. This post is dedicated to the first of the three, so please give your warmest welcome to Leviathan, the giant fish that holds the world on its fins.
The most extensive description of the Biblical Leviathan is in the book of Job. God, who proved to be quite the douche at the beginning of the book, delivers towards its end (starting around chapter 40) the most dickish monologue a deity could ever hope to deliver. “Gee, Job. Did YOU create a world? No? What about the bottom of the sea? Ever been there? Not even that? Sucks to be you, Job. Sucks to be you.”
Among the many things in which He is great (and Job is not), God counts the Leviathan. He describes it as a huge sea-monster, with thick skin that is impervious to weapons, with sharp teeth and flaming eyes, surrounded by light and boiling sea-water. Additional mentions of the Leviathan can be found in Isaiah 27:1, Psalms 74:14 and Psalms 104:26, where the word mostly refers to something big, dangerous and sea dwelling without elaborating further. Since slaying ancient sea-serpents (like these ones) is a favourite past-time among deities, we can assume that the Biblical Leviathan is not that different.
In the Talmud, starting in tractate Baba Batra 74a, the sages relate tall-tales of the high seas. In regards to Leviathan, they say:
R. Johanan related: Once we were travelling on board a ship and we saw a fish that raised its head out of the sea. Its eyes were like two moons, and water streamed from its two nostrils as from the Tigris and the Euphrates.
The cosmology of Midrash Conen (mentioned in this post) also mentions Leviathan’s place in the world – between the sea of our world and the lower seas of Tevel, the world below:
The length of the world [our world, Heled] is 500 years and its breadth is 500 years, and it is round, and the great sea called Ocean surrounds it. This great sea stands on the fins of Leviathan, and Leviathan himself is within the lower seas, and he appears in the lower seas as a small fish is in our seas.
Other Midrashim tell not only of the size and might of Leviathan, but also of its authority among the fish. In a Midrash on the book of Jona, Leviathan arbitrates among the various fish who want to swollow the prophet, and every creature of the sea is said to obey his command – the most common of which is “swim into my mouth and let me eat you”. The fish who eventually swollows Jonah is also doomed to swim inside the mouth of Leviathan, until Jonah rebukes Leviathan and sends him running. According to the Talmud, the sea-goat (a creature that might merit its own post some day) is also said to travel hundreds of miles each day only to be eaten by the hungry Leviathan.
The Talmud (Shabbat, 77) tells of one small creature, the Kilbith, of whom Leviathan is mortally afraid. Interpreters usually believe that the Kilbith is some sort of a small parasitic worm living inside the intestines of fish.
God’s pet and future dinner
Where Leviathan differs from your generic god-eating sea monster is in its function. This is hinted in Psalms 104:25-6, which was translated as “…This great and wide sea, … there is that leviathan, that thou hast made to play therein“. The Jewish reading of this verse is slightly different: “Leviathan, that thou hast made to play (or to sport) with“. So Leviathan is assumed to be some sort of entertainment for God. The different narratives are in disagreement over what sort of entertainment a giant sea serpent might provide.
In the previously mentioned Midrash on the book of Jonah, the Lord is said to come and play with Leviathan once in a while; this closeness to God is what grants Leviathan his power over the fish.
However, more traditional narratives agree that the best entertainment a sea-monster can offer is the relaxing sport of fishing. And so, comes judgement day (take a look at the beginning of the previous post to see what it’s supposed to look like), God will have mercy on all those righteous folk who did not watch athletic competitions or gladiatorial combat, which were forbidden because of the Pagan ritual elements they involved. To entertain them in Eden, He will organize for the righteous a great hunt of the Leviathan, led by God and the angel Gabriel.
Gabriel is to arrange in the future a chase of Leviathan; for it is said: Canst thou draw out Leviathan with a fish hook? Or press down his tongue with a cord? (Job 40:25) And if the Holy One, blessed be He, will not help him, he will be unable to prevail over him; for it is said: He only that made him can make His sword to approach unto him (Job 40:17).
The hunt, of course, is only the beginning of what is to be done with the poor creature. According to the sages, the entire purpose of Leviathan is to be the main course in the feast of righteous at the Garden of Eden. The Feast of Leviathan is one of the most prevalent images of the Jewish utopia; it, too, is mentioned in Baba Batra 75, and almost in every Jewish apocalyptic text ever written. The feast usually features the tasty flesh of other mythical creatures: Behemoth (or Shor HaBar) and Ziz. For drinks, God will provide fine wines as old as the world itself. But wait, there’s more! After the feast, everyone will get to go home with some highly-collectible Leviathan souvenirs:
At that time, the Lord will prepare tables and slaughter Behemoth and Leviathan and Ziz Shadai, and hold a great feast for the righteous… and the Lord will dim the light of the sun and the moon, and He will bring forth the skin of Leviathan and will turn it into tents for the rightous, for it is said, “can you fill tents [or tabernacles] with his skin?” (misinterpretation of Job 41:7). Whoever is worthy of a tent, a tent is made for him. Whoever is worthy of a necklace, a necklace is made for him. Whoever is worthy of a crown, a crown is made for him. What is left of that skin is spread on the roof of the temple, and its light shines from one end to of the world to the other. (Bar Yohai’s Apocalypse)
The sad case of Mrs. Leviathan
Another tradition regarding Leviathan is its creation. The first chapter of Genesis, in the order of creation, God is said to have created on the fifth day what the Masoretic text calls taninim, which was translated as whales in the King James version and as great creatures of the sea in the NIV. These were often understood by commentators to refer to Leviathan. This is what Midrash Conen has to to say on the subject:
And on the fifth day, the Lord took light and water and created out of them Leviathan and his wife, and all the fish of the sea, and lodged the world upon the fins of Leviathan.
So it would seem our tasty, glowing sea monster is not a bachelor. What ever did become of his wife? Thankfully, the Talmud has an answer:
All that the Holy One, blessed be He, created in his world he created male and female. Likewise, Leviathan… He created male and female; and had they mated with one another they would have destroyed the whole world. What [then] did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He castrated the male and killed the female preserving it in salt for the righteous in the world to come….
Why? If you wish, say: [It is because a] female [fish] preserved in salt is tastier. If you prefer, say: Because it is written: There is Leviathan whom Thou hast formed to sport with (Psalms 104:26), and with a female this is not proper.
This post comes nowhere near to summarizing all the various traditions related to Leviathan. More modern readings of the Biblical and Talmudic texts usually take on a more metaphorical approach, treating Leviathan to the the evil thoughts and sinful urges a person has, the Chase of Leviathan as an internal conflict that cannot be overcome without the aid of God, and the Feast of Leviathan as the spiritual reward of overcoming one’s vile urges.
Personally, I’d rather eat a giant salted fish while sitting in a tent made out of its glowing skin.