Leviathan (Hebrew for “Twisted; coiled”) was a Biblical sea monster referred to in the Old Testament (Psalm 74:13-14; Job 41; Isaiah 27:1). The word leviathan has become synonymous with any large sea monster or creature. In the novel Moby-Dick it refers to great whales, and in Modern Hebrew, it means simply “whale”.
According to legend, Leviathan originally had a mate, Taninim (Hebrew for “sea monster, crocodile or large snake”).
God created a male and female Leviathan, then killed the female, for if the Leviathans were to procreate the world could not stand before them.
The Leviathan was a monstrous fish
created on the fifth day of Creation. The Leviathan will be slain and its flesh served as a feast to the righteous in [the] Time to Come, and its skin used to cover the tent where the banquet will take place.”
There is another religious hymn recited on the festival of Shavuot (celebrating the giving of the Torah), known as Akdamut, wherein it says: “…The sport with the Leviathanand the ox (Behemoth)…When they will interlock with one another and engage in combat, with his horns the Behemoth will gore with strength, the fish [Leviathan] will leap to meet him with his fins, with power. Their Creator will approach them with his mighty sword [and slay them
both].” Thus, “from the beautiful skin of the Leviathan, God will construct canopies to shelter the righteous, who will eat the meat of the Behemoth [ox] and the Leviathan amid great joy and merriment, at a huge banquet that will be given for them.” Some rabbinical commentators say these accounts are allegorical (Artscroll siddur, p. 719), or symbolic of the end of conflict.
In a legend recorded in the Midrash called Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer it is stated that the whale which swallowed Jonah narrowly avoided being eaten by the Leviathan, which generally eats one whale each day. In a hymn by Kalir, the Leviathan is a serpent that surrounds the earth and has its tail in its mouth, like the GreekOuroboros and the Nordic Midgard Serpent. Legend has it that in the banquet after the end of conflict, the carcass of the leviathan will be served as a meal, along with the behemoth and the ziz.
Leviathan may also be interpreted as the sea itself, with its counterparts behemoth being the land and ziz being the air and space. Some scholars have interpreted Leviathan, and other references to the sea in the Old Testament, as highly metaphorical references to seafaring marauders who once terrorized the Kingdom of Israel. Others liken the mention to Tiamat and other similar monsters who represented the sea as a foe to the gods in myths of nearby cultures.
The Biblical references to Leviathan appear to have evolved from the Canaanite Baal cycle involving a confrontation between Hadad (Baal) and a seven headed sea monster named Lotan. Lotan is the Ugaritic orthograph for Hebrew Leviathan. Hadad defeats him. Biblical references also resemble the Babylonian creation epic Enûma Elish in which the storm god Marduk slays his mother, the sea monster and goddess of chaos and creation Tiamat and creates the earth and sky from the two halves of her corpse.
Creation of Leviathan According to a midrash, the leviathan was created on the fifth day (Yalkut, Gen. 12). Originally God
produced a male and a female leviathan, but lest in multiplying the species should destroy the world, He slew the female, reserving her flesh for the banquet that will be given to the righteous on the advent of theMessiah (B. B. 74a).
The enormous size of the leviathan is thus illustrated by R. Johanan, from whom proceeded nearly all the haggadot concerning this monster: “Once we went in a ship and saw a fish which put his head out of the water. He had horns upon which was written: ‘I am one of the meanest creatures that inhabit the sea. I am three hundred miles in length, and enter this
day into the jaws of the leviathan’” (B. B. l.c.). When the leviathan is hungry, reports R. Dimi in the name of R. Johanan, he sends forth from his mouth a heat so great as to make all the waters of the deep boil, and if he would put his head into paradise no living creature could endure the odor of him (ib.). His abode is the Mediterranean Sea; and the waters of the Jordan fall into his mouth (Bek. 55b; B. B. l.c.).
The body of the leviathan, especially his eyes, possesses great illuminating power. This was the opinion of R. Eliezer, who, in the course of a voyage in company with R. Joshua, explained to the latter, when frightened by the sudden appearance of a brilliant light, that it probably proceeded from the eyes of the leviathan. He referred his companion to the words of Job xli. 18: “By his neesings a light doth shine, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning” (B. B. l.c.). However, in spite of his supernatural strength, the leviathan is afraid of a small worm called “kilbit”, which clings to the gills of large fishes and kills them (Shab. 77b).
In a legend recorded in a Midrash called Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer it is stated that the whale which swallowed Jonah narrowly avoided being eaten by the Leviathan, which generally eats one whale each day. Legend has it that in the banquet after the end of conflict, the carcass of the leviathan will be served as a meal, along with the behemoth and the ziz.
From the KJV book of Job
41:1 Can you draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which you let down?
41:2 Can you put an hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn?
41:3 Will he make many supplications to you? will he speak soft words to you?
41:4 Will he make a covenant with you? will you take him for a servant for ever?
41:5 Will you play with him as with a bird? or will you bind him for your maidens?
41:6 Shall the companions make a banquet of him? shall they part him among the merchants?
41:7 Can you fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish spears?
41:8 Lay your hand on him, remember the battle, do no more.
41:9 Behold, the hope of him is in vain: shall not one be cast down even at the sight of him?
41:10 None is so fierce that dare stir him up: who then is able to stand before me?
41:11 Who has prevented me, that I should repay him? whatever is under the whole heaven is mine.
41:12 I will not conceal his parts, nor his power, nor his comely proportion.
41:13 Who can discover the face of his garment? or who can come to him with his double bridle?
41:14 Who can open the doors of his face? his teeth are terrible round about.
41:15 His scales are his pride, shut up together as with a close seal.
41:16 One is so near to another, that no air can come between them.
41:17 They are joined one to another, they stick together, that they cannot be sundered.
41:18 By his neesings a light does shine, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning.
41:19 Out of his mouth go burning lamps, and sparks of fire leap out.
41:20 Out of his nostrils goes smoke, as out of a seething pot or caldron.
41:21 His breath kindles coals, and a flame goes out of his mouth.
41:22 In his neck remains strength, and sorrow is turned into joy before him.
41:23 The flakes of his flesh are joined together: they are firm in themselves; they cannot be moved.
41:24 His heart is as firm as a stone; yes, as hard as a piece of the nether millstone.
41:25 When he raises up himself, the mighty are afraid: by reason of breakings they purify themselves.
41:26 The sword of him that lays at him cannot hold: the spear, the dart, nor the habergeon.
41:27 He esteems iron as straw, and brass as rotten wood.
41:28 The arrow cannot make him flee: sling stones are turned with him into stubble.
41:29 Darts are counted as stubble: he laughs at the shaking of a spear.
41:30 Sharp stones are under him: he spreads sharp pointed things on the mire.
41:31 He makes the deep to boil like a pot: he makes the sea like a pot of ointment.
41:32 He makes a path to shine after him; one would think the deep to be hoary.
41:33 On earth there is not his like, who is made without fear.
41:34 He beholds all high things: he is a king over all the children of pride.