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Among the scattered numinous creatures mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures (Angels, lilot, satyrs), few have captured the imagination more than the great monster, Leviathan (Leviyatan).In Job, God reminds the long-suffering, angry Job of his humble place in the cosmos with an extended meditation on the mighty creature, itself a subordinate creation of God: Can you draw out Leviathan by a fishhook? Can you press down his tongue by a rope? Can you put a ring through his nose, or pierce his jaw with a barb?....His strong scales are his pride, shut up as with a tight seal. One is so near to another that no air can come between them. They are joined one to another; they clasp each other and cannot be separated. His sneezes flash forth light, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning. Out of his mouth go burning torches; sparks of fire leap forth. Out of his nostrils smoke goes forth as from a boiling pot and burning rushes.His breath kindles coals, and a flame goes forth from his mouth. In his neck lodges strength, and dismay leaps before him. The folds of his flesh are joined together, firm on him and immovable.His heart is as hard as a stone, even as hard as a lower millstone. When he raises himself up, the mighty fear; because of the crashing they are bewildered. The sword that reaches him cannot avail, nor the spear, the dart or the javelin. He regards iron as straw, bronze as rotten wood. The arrow cannot make him flee; slingstones are turned into stubble for him. Clubs are regarded as stubble; he laughs at the rattling of the javelin. His underparts are like sharp potsherds; he spreads out like a threshing sledge on the mire. He makes the depths boil like a pot; he makes the sea like a jar of ointment. Behind him he makes a wake to shine; one would think the deep to be gray-haired. Nothing on earth is like him, one made without fear. He looks on everything that is high; he is king over all the sons of pride. ( Job 40: 25-26; 41:15-32).
One actually gets a pretty clear imagine of Leviathan: some kind of fire-breathing, sea going creature, part dragon (Out of his mouth go burning torches; sparks of fire leap forth. Out of his nostrils smoke goes forth as from a boiling pot and burning rushes. His breath kindles coals, and a flame goes forth from his mouth) and part halibut (he spreads out like a threshing sledge on the mire). Most importantly, he seems truly majestic (His sneezes flash forth light, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning...He makes the depths boil like a pot).
Why would God make such a creature? In fact, the Hebrew Leviathan (or Rahav - there seems to be two names for this creature) may be a semi-tamed version of the terrible chaos monster mentioned in surrounding pagan mythologies - Lotan, Prince Sea, or Tiamat. This dragon personifies chaos, disorder, and entropy. In most accounts, the gods must slay this primordial monster in order for cosmos, orderly existence, to become possible.
The Bible reworks this myth in monotheistic terms. God contains chaos within this creature, subduing it. Chaos is not destroyed, but delimited. When God stops His part in the creative process, He declares the universe to be tov meod, "very good" - but not perfect. The world, according to this Biblical myth, is orderly on many levels, but residual bits of chaos linger, most visibly in the realm of the moral. As Jon Levenson notes in his book on Biblical myth, Creation and the Persistence of Evil, God's mishpat, literally "justice" but with the connotation of "divine plan," is not yet fully realized. We, God's junior partners, His co-creators, have our part to do in establishing mishpat at the societal level. If we fully embrace this partnership, then God responds reciprocally (as the Zohar puts it, "A quickening below triggers a quickening above") and in time the cumulative result is that God will finally wipe away this last remnant of chaos in creation, In that day the Lord will punish, With His great, cruel, mighty sword Leviathan the Elusive Serpent-- Leviathan the Twisting Serpent; He will slay the Dragon of the sea.' (Isaiah 27:1)
and existence will be perfected. Rabbinic literature tells us a great deal more about Leviathan, but that will have to wait for a coming post, Leviathan II.