Is Leviathan Really Just a Crocodile?

November 17, 2010 — 6 Comments


For class this semester, one of the book we covered was Job. As usual, I did some supplemental reading, and since the New Studies in Biblical Theology is rapidly becoming my favorite series of books, I chose the one on Job. In Now My Eyes Have Seen You, Robert Fyall is exploring the meaning of the Behemoth and Leviathan figures. From the subtitle, images of creation and evil in the book of Job, you might guess where he is going.

But maybe not.

Typically, interpreters in the evangelical tradition have tended to interpret Behemoth and Leviathan naturalistically. There is some variation, but usually Behemoth is thought of as a hippopotamus and Leviathan as a crocodile, or maybe a bit radically, as a dinosaur that was still around in Job’s time but has since died off. To some extent, this interpretation is simply assumed rather than argued for extensively.

However, it is not without problems. Remember that chapters 40-41 in Job are essentially the climax of the book where God finally answers Job’s complaint.  George Bernard Shaw has cynically insisted “that God, when challenged about his justice and providence, really needs to do better than retort: ‘You can’t make a hippopotamus can you?'” (cited on p. 127). Indeed, if that were all that is being communicated at the end of Job, it is certainly problematic. If Leviathan is a crocodile, does that mean that someone like crocodile hunter Steve Irwin (R.I.P.) understands the divine mystery better because he wrangles crocodiles in many ways described in Job 41?

Fyall helps to remedy this conclusion on the basis of the imagery provided throughout the book of Job. He is not responding to the difficulty of a natrualistic interpretation alone, or to simply answer cynics like Shaw, but rather to draw out the understanding that we would bring to the text if we were more familiar with ancient Near Eastern mythology and poetic literature. When read purely as natural phenomena, Behemoth and Leviathan seem to be non sequiturs to Job’s questions.

You could say that the overall point is that Job cannot understand how God created and manages the natural world, therefore he cannot really understand how God manages suffering and evil. God is God, and Job is not. I would say this certainly is a very broad overview of what is going on in Job, but Fyall goes a step further and clarifies the imagery.

He argues effectively that what God is saying is not just that He runs the natural world, but the supernatural one as well. Remember that Job starts with images from the heavenly court where the sons of God (certainly supernatural beings) present themselves before God and Satan emerges with a challenge. We would expect some return to this scene at the end of the narrative for some finality.

Fyall argues that we get it. He traces the development throughout the book of Job, but the burden of his argument is in developing 38-41. On the first two of those chapters he notes:

Chapter 38 has not been merely poetry about the universe but rather on unfolding of the mystery inherent in creation itself. Chapter 39 especially deals with untamed nature and shows not so much that animals are evil, but that animal life is shot through with a savagery which mirror ultimate cosmic evil. (p. 130)

In chapters 40-41, Fyall sees the descriptions of Behemoth and Leviathan as drawing from physical characteristics, but ultimately pointing to the embodiment of the powers of death and evil. He sees the image of death as resonating with the Canaanite god of death (named Mot), and sees the image of evil in Leviathan as ultimately pointing to Satan. In commenting on Job 41:13-29 he says:

Now God goes on to give a detailed description which expresses with stunning clarity who Leviathan really is. Job had been tormented by shadowy and nameless terrors but now Yahweh has named and exposed the real enemy…The language is very similar to, and indeed a parody of, the style of theophany passages. If Leviathan is the great enemy who aspires to Godhead, then his coming must be eerily like that of God himself. Arguably, the most significant verse in Job is 9:24c: ‘If it is not he, then who is it?’ That question is now being answered here. By bringing together a mass of allusions from earlier in the book, God is revealing to Job the nature of his adversary. (p. 163, To see the theophanic parallels yourself, compare Job 41:13-29 to Psalm 18 and Habakkuk 3. To see where Leviathan is mentioned elsewhere in Scripture, see Psalm 74:12-17; Psalm 104:26; and Isaiah 27:1.)

In this lengthy quotation, you can see Fyall’s overall conclusions. He sees chapter 41 as answering 9:24c and the final image of Satan that has been traced from the beginning of the  book (through 3:8; 7:1; 9:8; 38:8-11; 9:13; 26:12-13) Job 3:8 and Job 40-41 form an inclusio (a fancy word for literary bookends). In 3:8 Leviathan is roused (Satan given permission to harm Job) and in 40-41 are God’s explanation of the matter. Satan is certainly powerful (as depicted in Job 41) but he also only a creature (hence the naturalistic explanations) and he is under the firm control of God himself (very much on a leash so to speak, 41:5).

To see how this may open up your own understanding of the book, take your Bible and read Job 1-3. Then skip to 38-41. When you read chapter 40 describing Behemoth, think supernatural fallen creature who holds the power of death (remember too this is pre-Resurrection). When you read chapter 41, think of it as a description of the embodiment of evil in the created order, or more easily, Satan. Then finish with chapter 42 and see if Job’s response doesn’t make a little more sense, as well as the overall imagery in those last chapters.

Certainly this does not establish the point that this interpretation is to trump all other understandings, but it does give an added dimension to Job that isn’t that there when Behemoth and Leviathan are just animals. If you find this intriguing, definitely get a hold of this book and follow the argument for yourself. It doesn’t require an understanding of Hebrew, and it is not a very long or hard to follow argument.


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6 responses to Is Leviathan Really Just a Crocodile?

  1. This is a typical Evangelical answer out of fear for the truths of dinosaurs and the challenge of evolutionists. It is easier to spiritualise an answer so as not to get embroiled in debats. I have found evangelicals do the same with Revelation. Sorry a very week and predictable response have seen this often when evangelicals come up against Job. We must never be scared on confronting the truth!

    • John,

      I’m glad you’ve been granted the ability to see motive in both the author of the book’s heart and mine as well. It must be nice to have that kind of gnostic ability.

      But, in all seriousness, I don’t think you’ve really reckoned with either argument in the post, or an argument like the one in the book. Were it to be a true interpretation of Job (which I think it is) then the question of both dinosaurs and evolution remains unanswered. If Job makes no reference to dinosaurs, it doesn’t mean they didn’t exist, or that they didn’t exist at the same time humans did.

      Rather, this is an attempt to under Job exegetically on its own terms. The question of dinosaurs is really a separate question altogether. It is also one that in the end, really doesn’t make that much of a difference in the grand redemptive scope of things, whereas Job’s story does tell us much about the nature of God and redemption.

      I hope you’ll reconsider your hasty dismissal of the argument and actually reckon with the details next time!


  2. Question: What about the rest of the animals in the passage? If this is true, then where do you draw the line? Not ruling it out completely, because I can kinda see what you’re saying, but I’m not convinced.

  3. Nate,

    You don’t know me from Adam, but I have great interest in Job. I am just about to finish teaching it at my home church. I read your comments with some intrigue, although I am not convinced the the references are metaphorical or mythological. The previous post brought up the important point that something is lacking in the hermeneutic of the author that explains why certain animals should be interpreted naturally while others (only two) should not. In fact, some of the references that you point to in Job that are supposed to be a reference to Satan seem nothing more than references to the waves of the see. The strongest support for something other than a naturalistic interpretation is probably Job 3:8, but the meaning of the passage is less than certain. Even that passage could easily be a reference to a real creature. Interestingly enough, I don’t think Satan is a major player in the book of Job, other than at the beginning. Job does not even know Satan’s role in his sufferings; he attributes them to God (which he was right to do). I believe Satan’s part in the story is done after chapter 2. The contest is no longer between God and Satan; it is between God and Job. I have no problem with a naturalistic end to the book. I don’t know the identity of the two animals, but I don’t need to. Whatever they are, they represent a great threat to man, but no threat to God. The represent the climax of the untamed world. If man cannot control and take care of these creatures, how much less is he in the position to handle the moral order. Job is in no position to question and accuse God.

    For what it is worth,


  4. Chuck Kirchhoff October 20, 2013 at 1:03 am

    Just a follow-up comment. After rereading Job 41, it strikes me that leviathan only has one head in the poem. When I read about the leviathan as described by God, I sense that he is speaking poetically about a real creature. I don’t get the sense he is referring to a mythical creature.


    • Chuck,

      It’s been quite a while since I’ve read this book, so I don’t remember a lot of the nuances of the argument. I’d suggest checking out Fyall’s book in detail. It’s a great series, and his argument was persuasive to me. You might not find it so, but if you have a great interest in Job, this is a book you need to read.


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