In the last post, I talked a little bit about Livyatan, the hyperpredatory sperm whale named after the Biblical leviathan. It briefly mentioned that Livyatan is likely not the real leviathan, so I thought it might be fun to take a couple of posts to delve into possible identifications of leviathan.
The majority of our knowledge about leviathan comes from Job 41. There are three other verses in the Bible that also mention leviathan. These are Psalm 74:14, Psalm 104:26, and Isaiah 27:1. However, these three verses are all brief and add little to our knowledge of leviathan, beyond what can be understood from Job 41 itself.
Before we begin talking too much about leviathan, it should first be pointed out that Job is a book of poetry and is therefore prone to exaggeration.
“Boo!! Hiss!! Are you saying that Job, a book of the Bible, is wrong!!”
No, not at all. I am simply noting that poetic passages do not describe things literally. Rather, they focus on feeling, emotion, and imagery, and if those feelings, emotion, and imagery are best characterized by exaggeration, then poetry will exaggerate. Let me use an example right in the book of Job itself.
Aside from leviathan and its equally famous colleague, behemoth, Job describes several creatures. Here is one coming from Job 39:19-25:
Do you clothe his neck with a mane? Do you make him leap like the locust? His majestic snorting is terrifying. He paws in the valley and exults in his strength; he goes out to meet the weapons. He laughs at fear and is not dismayed; he does not turn back from the sword. Upon him rattle the quiver, the flashing spear, and the javelin. With fierceness and rage he swallows the ground; he cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet. When the trumpet sounds, he says ‘Aha!’ He smells the battle from afar, the thunder of the captains and the shouting.
Quite an evocative description, isn’t it? Such a fierce, battle-ready beast with a mane may make one wonder if people in the ancient Middle East bred lions for battle. However, that is not the creature being described here. I deliberately skipped the first part of verse 19. This mighty creature who is ready to charge into battle, thrilling at the smell of blood, is… a horse. Not quite how one might expect to describe a horse, and that is my point. Poetry is free to exaggerate when necessary, so we should approach the description of leviathan with a grain of salt, knowing that we may actually be reading an exaggeration rather than a precise description of a creature.
Having said that, I am confident of two things. The first is that the leviathan is a real creature. Note how God describes it to Job in 41:1-2:
Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook or press down his tongue with a cord? Can you put a rope in his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook?
God goes on to describe more attributes of leviathan, but verses such as these make it clear that God is talking about something of which Job knows and something with which he can interact. A metaphorical or mythical creature is not something that Job can attempt to pierce with a hook or catch with a fishhook, so leviathan must be a real creature.
The second things of which I am confident is that leviathan is not a Nile crocodile. This is probably the most “conservative” explanation for leviathan. By that I mean that it is the explanation that does not require any “new” or “extinct” creature to explain. However, the Nile crocodile, while fierce and powerful, simply does not match up to leviathan. No, not because leviathan is “too powerful” to be the Nile crocodile: remember, we have to take the description of leviathan with a grain of salt. No, it cannot be leviathan because the Nile crocodile does not breathe fire.
Fire-breathing is probably the most “outlandish” aspect of leviathan. It has been pointed out by other creationists that fire-breathing is not outlandish. After all, bombardier beetles shoot boiling chemicals out the back of their abdomens: is it impossible to conceive of a creature breathing fire? Actually, it is very difficult. First of all, the bombardier beetle is small: an inch long at most. Scaling something like its defense mechanism up to a huge creature would be difficult. I am not saying impossible, but it is not an easy thing to conceive. Second, the bombardier beetle has separate chambers for its combustion: it does not blow the boiling water out of its mouth. How can something as devastating and dangerous as combustion occur in the exact same chamber that is used for eating and breathing without damaging the creature itself?
Let us examine the description of leviathan’s fire-breathing to see if it describing actual fire-breathing or if it is an exaggeration. It is described in verses 18-21:
His sneezing flashes forth light, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn. Out of his mouth go flaming torches; sparks of fire leap forth. Out of his nostrils comes froth smoke, as from a boiling pot and burning rushes. His breath kindles coals, and a flame comes forth from his mouth.
Despite the incredible nature of fire-breathing, I think it is pretty clear that leviathan really, truly did breathe fire. Even if we allow for some exaggeration, it is clear that it is not merely foggy or steamy breathe mistaken for smoke (that would fail to explain “his breathe kindles coals”). Instead, every component of fire is mentioned: light, smoke, heat, and flames. If God were exaggerating a mundane ability, it is strange that He would describe it precisely as fire.
Having said that, I want to point something out. It is all too easy to assume that fire-breathing is leviathan’s “main feature.” We may envision it as a dragon, whose first attack against a charging knight is to spew a mighty fireball that scorches the knight to a crisp instantaneously. Leviathan probably did not use fire so easily nor so effectively. If creatures that use chemical weapons are any indication, it is probably a “last resort.” Take bombardier beetles, skunks, spitting cobras, and such. They do not “open up” a confrontation by spewing their chemicals all over the place: they reserve it for emergencies or if an intruder is not deterred by other means. It may very well be that leviathan behaved similarly: it only used its fire when it was absolutely necessary rather than as an “opening shot.”
Of course, thinking of fire-breathing this way makes it sound like fire-breathing is a defense, as opposed to a primary weapon. Why would a creature as mighty as leviathan need a defense? Well, remember that grain of salt: leviathan may not be as devastatingly powerful as it sound’s like. Second, it may be that leviathan was actually vulnerable in certain circumstances. More on that in the next post.
Thoughts from Steven