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410. Job 41:1-34 (English)/Job 40:25-41:26 (Hebrew), Meeting Leviathan


The presentation of Leviathan in Job 41 (English) yields one of the unexpected delights in the Hebrew Scriptures. Just when we were running out of steam because of the difficulty of some of the language of Job 38-40, as well as obscurity involved in describing the habits of many animals we sometimes have difficulty identifying, we have the breathtaking beauty of Job 41. Leviathan is described as a creature of enormous strength whose back is so protected that there isn’t even a space for air between the serrated rows of shields (vv 15-17). Its breath is so fearsome that flaming torches leap out of its mouth (v 19). Its neck is firm, and terror dances before it (v 22).  When it reaches its full height, even the gods or other heroic creatures become afraid (v 25). The most potent human weapons are as nothing before Leviathan. It snaps the iron and bronze like we might snap a flimsy matchstick (vv 27-28). Its majestic movements in the sea leave such a wake behind it that it looks like the sea is growing white hair (v 32). In a word, in language sounding very much like Martin Luther’s most notable hymn, “On earth it has no equal” (v 33).  


Behemoth was portrayed as a land creature, but Leviathan is a marine creature. Job will be asked in the first verse of this chapter whether he can draw out Leviathan with a fish-hook. One only does that with marine creatures. But his marine status has both charmed and confused scholars. The majority opinion in our day sees Leviathan as the crocodile, but earlier scholars like Marvin Pope and others steeped in the Ugaritic literature saw Leviathan as a mythological creature. Favoring the identification of Leviathan as a crocodile-type creature are questions in the first few verses about Job’s ability to capture or tame it. This would seemingly make sense only if the creature were one known by Job. Yet, the description of the awesome creature makes it seem more than what one encounters in the natural world. In addition, earlier questions by God didn’t really differentiate between Job’s actual ability to do things and the reality that was described. I tend to see the figure of Leviathan here as a mythological beast. one that was is mentioned in three other texts (Psalm 74:14; 104:26; Isaiah 27:1) as a foe that God seemingly overcame in the creation of the world.  


One small issue should be addressed in passing. It arises because of the fact that Leviathan receives no introduction. His name is only mentioned once (41:1/40:25) and it appears in the second of about nine questions God poses to Job in the English text of 40:24-41:9. One might at first tend to see Leviathan as just another name for Behemoth, in which case only one and not two great creatures are in view in Job 40-41. Yet, the substantially different sphere of activity and bodily description of Leviathan convince me, and nearly every interpreter, that two great creatures are in view here.


God had used a method of close questioning of Job in Job 38-39 to expose Job’s ignorance and smallness. Yet, in the description of Behemoth God seemed to give up the method of questioning in order just to describe that awesome creature. Then, without warning, God asks a series of about nine questions beginning with 40:24. The first has to do with Behemoth, we presume, but the next eight relate to Leviathan.  It is as if God realized how much He missed the inquisitorial method and decided to return to it for a bit.

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