Fantastical Beasts of the Bible Part 3: Leviathan, the King of All Beasts

I’ve saved the most incredible fantastical beast for last! The Biblical description of Leviathan leaves us utterly astounded! The majority of what we know about Leviathan comes from Job 41 where he is described as the complete opposite of the peaceful Behemoth. In this chapter God describes the undisputed king of all His ferocious creations:

Job 41:1-11 says, “His limbs are enormously strong, yet graceful. No one can penetrate his double layer of armor, much less skin him. No one can pry his jaws open; they are surrounded by terrible teeth. The scales on his back are like rows of shields sealed together so tightly that not even air can pass between them. They are impenetrable. When he sneezes it flashes light. His eyes are like the red dawn. Lightening and flames of fire flash from his mouth. Smoke streams from his nostrils like a boiling pot. He shoots flames from his mouth than can kindle coals. He has tremendous strength in his neck. His skin is as solid and impenetrable as metal. His heart is rock hard like a millstone. When he rises up, even the most mighty are terrified. No sword, spear, dart, or javelin have any effect on him. To him, iron is like straw and bronze is like rotten wood. He isn’t afraid of arrows, and stones from a sling shot are like grass. Clubs are like grass and he laughs at the swinging of javelins. His belly is covered with scales like sharp glass and he plows the ground as he drags through the mud. Leviathan makes the deep water boil like a cauldron and he stirs the deep like a pot of ointment. In the sea he leaves a shining, white wake behind him. There is nothing on earth equal to him. He is fearless. He is the most proud of all the creatures. He is the king of beasts.” Psalm 104 also says that Leviathan played in ancient shipping lanes.

Such an incredible account leaves many of us wondering what in the world kind of a creature this Leviathan was?!? As with Behemoth, we are left with only 3 options:

  1. Leviathan is mythological- not real.
  2. Leviathan is a real animal that exists somewhere on this earth today.
  3. Leviathan is some type of real, but now extinct animal.

Let’s take these options again, one at a time with Leviathan in mind.

Option #1: Leviathan is mythological, not real.

We had a pretty extensive discussion of the mythological view in the article about Behemoth, so I won’t repeat all of that here, but we’ll touch on some other elements of this argument. If you’re interested in discussing the view that Leviathan was based on pagan myths and ancient Ugaritic texts you can check out part two of this series: Fantastical Beasts of the Bible Part Two: Will the Real Behemoth Please Stand Up.

Those who ascribe to the mythological view might also say that Leviathan is being used as a literary metaphor. In fact, references to Leviathan are found elsewhere in the Bible, characteristically as metaphors to depict the enemies of God and Israel. Examples would be Psalm 74:14, and Isaiah 27:1. But using Leviathan as a metaphor in other books does not mean that he’s not a real creature. Dozens of other real animals are also used as metaphors in the Bible: the lamb, the snake, and the lion- just to name a few.

Instead, it is clear that Leviathan is (or was) a real creature, and he is also used as a metaphor in other contexts. In the context of Job, God has been referring to real animals in the entire book leading up to the mention of Behemoth and Leviathan. What sense would it make to introduce two mythological creatures in the same context? As Brian Thomas writing for the Institute for Creation Research points out in his article Was Leviathan Real, “Metaphors don’t deflect spears or scare the daylights out of onlookers. In fact, leviathan must have really done these things for God to meaningfully compare it to His own might.”

This brings me to my next point. God is demonstrating to Job that if no one can stand up to His creation Leviathan (a creature which Job is apparently aware of in his day) then who can possibly stand up to Him- the Creator of this beast?

The Lord says to Job in Job 41:1-11, “Can you catch Leviathan with a hook or tie down his tongue with a rope? Can you put a rope through his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook? Will he beg you for mercy or pity? Will he make an agreement with you to be your slave for life? Can you make him a pet like a bird or put a leash on him for your little girls to play with? Will merchants try to buy him to sell in their shops? Can his hide be hurt by your spears or harpoons? If you try to touch him, you’ll certainly remember the battle that follows. You won’t try that again! It’s useless to try to catch him. People faint at the very sight of him. Since no one is fierce enough to challenge Leviathan, who could possibly stand against Me? Who has given Me anything that I need to pay back? Everything under heaven is Mine.”

Think about it for a minute. What would Job say to the Lord if He used the lengthy description of a creature that didn’t even exist to demonstrate His might? Would Job be impressed by that? Or might Job say, “That’s great and all Lord, but I’m not following you? Such a creature doesn’t even exist.” See what I mean? The entire demonstration would be pointless. The mythological view doesn’t make sense within the context of the lesson that Job is learning.

Option #2: Leviathan is a real animal that exists on earth today.

Many Bible translation notes and commentaries identify Leviathan as a crocodile. I really won’t spend much time on this other than to point out that although the crocodile does bear some similarity to the description of Leviathan, it is obviously lacking several important features.

Brian Thomas writes, “While crocodiles do match several of leviathan’s attributes, they fall short of disrupting shipping lanes, breathing fire, generating luminescent wakes, being utterly unapproachable, and having impenetrable hides.” Herodotus also mentioned how ancient Egyptians captured crocodiles and even tamed them. Thompson and Bromling write, “Although the hide that covers the crocodile’s back is extremely thick and difficult to penetrate, this is not true of his belly. The crocodile is most vulnerable to spears and javelins on his underside…”

Option #3: Leviathan is some type of real, but now extinct animal.

While Behemoth can be easily recognized as some type of massive herbivorous dinosaur, Leviathan is not such an easy creature to identify in the fossil record. We have plenty of fossils that attest to the existence of a Behemoth-like creature, but the same does not hold true for Leviathan. In fact we are faced with an even bigger conundrum. If Leviathan was a real animal that existed at some point in history, what are we to make of some of his most impressive abilities? Specifically, his ability to breath fire.

These are abilities we probably wouldn’t be able to ascertain from the fossil record anyway. Do we have any animals today that might speak to this type of phenomena? Henry Morris thinks so, “To say that the leviathan could not have breathed fire is to say much more than we know about leviathans (or water dragons or sea serpents). Fire flies produce light, eels produce electricity, and bombardier beetles produce explosive chemical reactions. All of these involve complex chemical processes, and it does not seem at all impossible that an animal might be given the ability to breathe out certain gaseous fumes which, upon coming in contact with oxygen, would briefly ignite.”

No fossil that exists today seems to fit the description of the Leviathan. Obviously, that doesn’t mean it’s not out there to be discovered. However, Brian Thomas notes in his article that Leviathan’s bones may have been displayed in ancient Rome, “In his book The Authenticity of the Book of Jonah, historian Bill Cooper relayed a passage from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, ‘The bones of this monster, to which Andromeda was said to have been exposed, were brought by Marcus Scaurus from Joppa in Judaea during his aedileship and shown at Rome among the rest of the amazing items displayed. The monster was over forty feet long, and the height of its ribs was greater than that of Indian elephants, while its spine was 1-1/2 feet thick.’” Thomas continues, “Marcus Scaurus transported and displayed the bones in Rome’s  largest theatre about 64 BC. Cooper also relates Pliny’s note of a washed-up carcass with 120 teeth, each between 9 and 6 inches long, and Pausanius’ mention of ‘an enormous sea monster’s skull which was kept at a sanctuary in Asklepios.’ Many other accounts, plus paintings and carvings, convey encounters with monstrous marine reptiles.”

I don’t know about you, but the thought of some incredible fossil specimen lying out there just waiting to be discovered and offer even more archaeological corroboration for the Bible is pretty exciting! Until then, the astonishing Biblical description of Leviathan that our Creator gives in His own words in the book of Job, is all we know about this mysterious king of beasts.