LEVIATHAN (Heb. לִוְיָתָן, livyatan; Ugaritic ltn, presumably pronounced lōtanu, or possibly, lītanu). In the Bible and talmudic literature the leviathan denotes various marine animals, some real, others legendary, and others again both real and legendary. The word leviathan seems to derive from the root lwy, "to coil," which is further confirmation of its serpentine form. In the Bible it is used interchangeably with several other sea monsters – tannin ("dragon"), rahav, and yam ("sea"; of which the last-named alternates with neharim ("flood") in Hab. 3:8) – all of whom are represented as supernatural enemies of God. This hostility directly reflects a myth widely known in pre-biblical sources of a primordial combat between the creator deity and the forces of the sea, personifying chaos, which the former must overcome to create and control the universe (see *Creation). The Hittites knew it as the struggle between the dragon Illuyankas and the mortal Hupashiyas (Pritchard, Texts, 125–6; COS I, 150–51). In Mesopotamia it appears in several forms, of which the most famous is the battle of Marduk and Tiamat in the creation epic (COS I, 390–402). More relevant is a cylinder seal from Tell Asmar of the 24th century B.C.E., which pictures two men fighting a seven-headed serpent (reproduced in IDB 3, 116). The leviathan itself may have been found in a Mesopotamian incantation designed "to revive a serpent" (see van Dijk in bibliography). The closest Near Eastern parallel to the biblical materials, however, and probably their actual source, is the Ugaritic myth(s) of Baal and Anat pitted against various sea monsters, one of which is named Lotan (Pritchard, op. cit.; COS I, 265). Not only is this merely another form of the name leviathan, but the same epithets used of leviathan are here prefigured of Lotan, e.g., btn brḥ and btn ʿqltn as compared with naḥash bariah and naḥash ʿaqallaton of Isaiah 27:1.

[Peter Machinist]

In Bible and Talmud

In the Bible Leviathan is a multi-headed (Ps. 74:14) sea serpent, appearing in Isaiah 27:1; Psalms 74:14; 104:26; Job 3:8; and 41:1ff. The detailed description in Job (40:25–32) applies to the *crocodile, although a rabbi, maintaining that the reference is to the leviathan – the legendary animal prepared for the righteous in the hereafter – concludes that "the leviathan is a permitted fish," and regards its maginnim (Job 41:7) as scales, one of the characteristics of a permitted fish (Tosef., Hul. 3:27). On the other hand, tannin, which generally denotes the crocodile, sometimes applies to the whale, as would appear from Genesis 1:21. The verse: "Even the tannin [keri: tannim] draw out the breast, they give suck to their young ones" (Lam. 4:3) may refer to the whale, the female of which suckles its young (according to another view, the reference is to the *jackal). The whale is intended in the literal meaning of the verse describing the great sea: "There go the ships; there is leviathan, whom Thou hast formed to sport therein" (Ps. 104:26). At times the long-headed whale (Physeter catodon), which is as much as 20 meters (about 65 ft.) long and feeds on large fish and even sharks, reaches the shores of Israel. This may be the basis of the biblical story about "a great fish" that swallowed Jonah (2:1). On rare occasions the largest of the whales, Sibbaldus (Balaenoptera) musculus, appears off the Israel coast after entering the Mediterranean through the Straits of Gibraltar.

By tannin and leviathan the Bible also intends animals which "in days of old" are said to have rebelled against the Creator, who thereupon destroyed them (Ps. 74:13–14; cf. Isa. 51:10; Job 3:8; 7:12) – similar to the Ugaritic myths mentioned above. Relics of the bones or footprints of prehistoric reptiles may have been found by the ancients (such footprints have been discovered at Bet Zayit in the vicinity of Jerusalem) and these may have served as the inspiration for the myth of the destruction of these gigantic creatures. Some of these verses were used as a basis for the well-known aggadah about the leviathan and the shor ha-bar ("the wild ox") intended for the righteous in the hereafter. The passage: "There is leviathan, whom Thou hast formed to sport with" has been homiletically interpreted to mean that God sports with the leviathan (Av. Zar. 3b), while the descriptions of the *behemoth and the leviathan in Job (40:15–41:26) have been construed as referring to the fight between these animals, after which the Almighty will prepare from them a feast for the righteous (BB 74b–75a; Lev. R. 13:3; 22:10). This struggle is picturesquely depicted in the *Akdamut, the Aramaic piyyut which is said on Pentecost and which describes the great reward in store for the righteous. In later popular works the words leviathan and shor ha-bar became synonyms for the reward of the righteous in the world to come.

[Jehuda Feliks]


I. Broydé and K. Kohler, in: JE, 8 (1904), 37–39; H. Wallace, in: BA, 11 (1948), 61–68; T.H. Gaster, in: IDB, 1 (1962), 708; 3 (1962), 116; M.D. Cassuto, in: EM, 4 (1962), 485–6; C.H. Gordon, in: A. Altmann (ed.), Biblical Motifs (1966), 1–9; J. van Dijk, in: Orientalia, 38 (1969), 541; Lewysohn, Zool, 155–8 (nos. 178–80), 355 (no. 505); H.L. Ginsberg, Kitvei Ugarit (1936); M.D. Cassuto, Ha-Elah Anat (19532); J. Feliks, Animal World of the Bible (1962), 51, 94, 108; Gutman, in: HUCA, 39 (1968), 219–30. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: C. Uehlinger, in: DDD, 511–15, incl. bibl.; J. Day, in: ABD, 4:295–96.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.