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414. Continuing the Description of Leviathan

15 “His strong scales are his pride,
Shut up as with a tight seal.
16 One is so near to another
That no air can come between them.
17 They are joined one to another;
They clasp each other and cannot be separated.

18 His sneezes flash forth light,
And his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning.
19 Out of his mouth go burning torches;
Sparks of fire leap forth.
20 Out of his nostrils smoke goes forth
As from a boiling pot and burning rushes.
21 His breath kindles coals,
And a flame goes forth from his mouth.


Verses 15-17 describe Leviathan’s serrated back, another part of his anatomy. Again we face an interpretive problem at the outset, because this part is called his gaavah in verse 15. In other places it is translated “pride/majesty” (it is another one of the g-a words). Gaavah, like the bad of verse 12, seems to be used metaphorically here—in this case to refer to Leviathan’s “back.” We have the English phrase “to get one’s back up” in defensiveness and pride; that seems to be the use of the word gaavah (19x) here. The remainder of this mini-section gives us a description of this “back.” My translation is:


    “His back consists of rows/grooves of shields/scales, but shut up/pressed tightly as a seal. They           are so near as to be on top of each other; no air comes between them. Each one clings to his             brother/neighbor; they stick together and can’t be separated.”


Many common Hebrew words are pressed into service here in picturesque ways. The "rows" or "grooves" are aphiq (19x), the word rendered “tubes” in 40:18 in describing the strength of Behemoth’s bones. They were like “tubes of bronze.” So, Leviathan’s back has grooves or tubes in it, but these grooves are not simply hollowed places but rather furrows in which are planted rows of shields. I imagine Leviathan’s back like a primitive stegosaurus, with tightly packed sharp plates protruding upward. These plates are called “shields” (the common magen), which provides a vivid picture.

But the important thing is how these shield-like appendages, rooted in the furrows of Leviathan’s back, are held in place. God talks about them being “shut up” or “secured” or “enclosed” (the common verb sagar) with the tightness (the common adjective tsar, usually translated “narrow” or “tight”) of a seal (chotham, 14x). We imagine that once a seal has been impressed in the wax and then affixed to a document nothing can come between it and the surface of the document. The “shields” on Leviathan’s back are “fixed” or “secured” in this way.


Verses 16-17 just reinforce the dramatic nature of that picture. Two phrases, at the beginning of each verse, give us the sense of the tightness and inseparability of these “shields.” We have, literally, “one with one” (verse 16) and “a man with his brother” (v 17). There is no air (the common ruach) between these awesome plates (v 16). They stick together, using the verb dabaq, used most famously to describe the “cleaving” of Adam and Eve to each other (Genesis 2:24) and cannot be separated (parad). One other verb is used, this time in an unusual way, in verse 17. We literally have, “they capture (lakad) and cannot be parted (parad),” but if we see the lakad as “to catch,” we have the striking picture of these powerful, protruding shields as solidly held together, seizing each other like one would an enemy captured in battle. We are charmed by the suggestive nature of the images to describe Leviathan’s back.


Verses 18-21, describe Leviathan’s breath, mouth and nose.  We leave the world of backs and shields, of cleaving and capturing, and now enter into the arena of mouths and noses, breath and light, torches and glistening things. Like a primeval dragon, Leviathan expels flames and breathes smoke. We are utterly captivated when we see the first word of verse 18. It is a hapax noun, atishah, that seems to be an example of ancient onomatopoeia—capturing the experience of sneezing. Rather than “atchoo”—we have atishah. This powerful creature’s “sneezings” flash forth (the common halal) light, almost as if we are seeing the gleaming expectorant come flying out of Leviathan’s mouth. Normally halal is translated “to praise” or “to boast” or “to make mad,” but on a few occasions, as here, it is best rendered “flash forth” (e.g., Isaiah 13:10). The KJV used a word no longer in common usage when it translates this verse, “By his neesings a light doth shine.” One might think that teeth gleam, but here it is “his sneezings” that shine or gleam.


We take a break for a second in the last half of verse 18 as we move to his eyelids, which are described using the identical phrase as in 3:9. His eyes are “like the eyelids of the morning.” The “eyelids (aphaph, 10x) of the morning” is an inviting phrase to describe the first appearance of light, often wreathed by clouds, that appears in the east each day. His eyes have that soothing, even tender, appearance to them. So suggestive.


We are still in the region of Leviathan’s mouth in verse 19, but instead of his magnificent sneezes (atishah) we have flaming torches. Fire and light, rather than cold and darkness, characterize the mouth of Leviathan. The verbs of verse 19 are simple: the common halak (“to go/walk”) and malat (95x, “escape”).  A literal rendering is:


    “From his mouth go flaming torches; sparks of fire escape.”


One might have expected the common verb yatsa (“to emit/go out”) to describe the flaming torches from its mouth, but the author will use that verb in both verses 20 and 21. Don’t repeat yourself too often! But we aren’t sure as a result whether the flaming torches emerging from its mouth spring forth like a blowtorch or  just come forth with very little energy. We would think that the violent expulsion would be in view here, but the verb doesn’t encourage that translation.  

Flaming torches are lappid (14x/2x Job). The word appears most frequently (4x) in the Book of Judges, where the torches of Gideon’s troops (7:16, 20) and the torches Samson uses to burn the tails of foxes (15:4) are in view. Though this picture is clear, we are a bit confused by the second half of the verse.  The word rendered “sparks” is a hapax kidod, connected here with the word “fire.” We think, therefore, that it must mean “spark.” These sparks “escape” (malat) rather than “shoot out.” Malat appears 95x, 5x alone in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah where Lot is urged to “escape” from imminent disaster (e.g., Genesis 19:17, 19). Though “escape” has an active dimension in the Sodom story, it suggests an almost involuntary action on Leviathan’s part. He doesn’t “expel” the flames; they “escape.”


Verse 20 moves to Leviathan’s nostrils. If flames have just “walked” from the mouth, our author now says that smoke emerges from the nose. The verse is unbalanced; there are six Hebrew words, with five of them referring to smoke from the nose and one to bulrushes. Literally, we have:  


    “From his nostrils emits smoke as from a breathing pot. . .and bulrushes.”


The word for “nostrils” (nachir) is also a hapax, but it is no doubt derived from the 2x-appearing nachar (Job 39:20; Jeremiah 8:16), which describes the snorting of horses. The strong, but common, verb yatsa (“emit/go out”) appears, as well as the common term for “smoke” (ashan, 25x). Another passage that speaks of “smoke in the nostrils” is Isaiah 65:5, but there the usual word for “nose” (aph) appears.  


This smoke is described as coming out “as from a breathing pot.” The pot is a dud (7x), which either means “kettle” or “basket,” but it is prefixed by the preposition ke (“as/like”) to give us a comparison. The result, however, is that we have the word kedud, which sounds almost identical to the kidod of the previous verse. No doubt that is the reason the word dud was selected out of many for pot or cauldron (e.g., kiyyor, qallachath, parur). Note the fascinating appearance of these four words together in I Samuel 2:14.


But our picture is very precise here. Smoke emits from a “breathing” pot. Most translations have “boiling,” and that isn’t a bad rendering, but the word here is naphach (12x), a word for “breathing” or “blowing.” God, for example, “breathed” (naphach) into the nose (aph) of the creature He made, and the creature became a living soul (Genesis 2:7). Leviathan’s nose is like a pot  breathing, seething, smoking, boiling, billowing, bubbling up with the smoke. Then, as if an afterthought, God adds the word “and bulrushes” (agmon, 5x). We have just seen that word in 41:2 to describe the material out of which a hook is made to catch Leviathan. The entire scene, of smoking fire pots and bulrushes is reminiscent of the “smoking fire pot and flaming torch” that passed between the two parts of the animal Abram had severed (Genesis 15:17).


Smoke and fire characterize the materials coming from nose and mouth of Leviathan. Verse 21 continues the powerful theme just explored by piling up more terms for breath and flames. We have:


    “His breath sets coals on fire; a flame shoots from his mouth.” 


The link with the previous verse is through the common verb yatsa—“to emit, shoot forth.” Things just keep shooting from the mouth/nose area of Leviathan. Here we have one more word for breath (the common nephesh) and two more words for light or flame. The verb lahat (11x, “to set on fire, kindle, set ablaze”) appears in the first clause and then labab (12x, “blade” or “flame”) in the second. Thus we have a threefold feast of terms for burning, all beginning with the same sound:  lappid, lahat, labab. When we combine it with the kedud/kidod of verses 19-20 and the naphach/nephesh relating to breath or breathing in verses 20-21, we not only have a rhythmic but also an alliterative feast in verses 18-21. L-K-N capture the “sounds” of the light, flame and smoking pot.  

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