Man has explored the sea since before history began. There lies adventure and danger as well as riches and rewards. This has called young men (and some young women) wanting to prove themselves to its excitement. Inherent to this adventure has been the fascination with the mysteries of the sea. It assuredly teems with life of great variety. Hidden beneath the waves man has always known there are massive creatures, some of them deadly and hostile. Creatures that could easily smash the fragile vessels that men rely on for survival. These same creatures live and move effortlessly in an environment where man cannot. The sea with its roiling surface and unknowable icy depths provides the ultimate example of chaos. It's waves constantly claw their way trying to overwhelm the solid land yet are held in check by an invisible force. What lies under that dark surface? What allows the solid land to stay afloat on top of it?
The sea has become an influence on mythology in nearly every culture. Almost universally ancient peoples have developed belief in a complex mythos involving sea creatures and ancient Israel was no exception. This post will explore some of what the Hebrew Bible has to offer on the subject.
This post will focus on the Israelite understanding of these monsters of the deep including the most famous example of all, Leviathan. I was taken a bit by surprise myself with how quickly this post spiraled out of control. There are a variety of Hebrew terms associated with sea monsters. These terms are paralleled, frequently in poetry, to other terms. In the end this seems to have brought me into an enormous word study around reptiles in general. The degree of specificity of these terms is a matter of conjecture. For some of the terms it is unclear if the original authors would have considered them literal creatures or mythical or if this distinction would even have held meaning for the authors. Our understanding of the meaning of each of these words is a mixture of tradition, contextual clues, and comparison to other closely related words in other cultures. It is important to understand that knowing the exact meaning of a particular word to a particular author is nearly impossible. There is no reason to believe that Moses and Isaiah did not see significant changes in the meanings of specific terms in the centuries that separated them. Likewise the religious leaders who would anciently translate the texts to Aramaic and Greek in the Targum and the Septuagint may have had no better understanding of the meanings of these terms than we do today.
I think when discussing ancient understanding of animals we must remember that Moses did not watch PBS and Jonah never saw Shark Week on the Discovery Channel and King David never got to see the bear habitat at Hogle Zoo. Ancients did not have a complex taxonomy for wild animals. Many animals they would have heard of in legends from travelers but never seen, leading to serious difficulty in identifying an animal when encountered. For certain dangerous animals the observer was likely to be focused on surviving the encounter rather than accurately taking notes on head shape, proportionality, or distinctive markings. The monsters of the deep have always had a double portion of this confusion. The water itself conceals much of the beast's shape often leaving little but a dark outline, perhaps an eye, or a glimpse of teeth or fin. Imagination coupled with an often high stress situation filled in the remaining details. This should be balanced with the additional understanding that ancient peoples had closer and more frequent contact with animals than most modern people experiance. Complex, detailed, and specific vocabulary becomes much more common dealing with domesticated animals, game animals and game fish all of whom were a frequent part of life and culture.
Because I found this post a bit unwieldy, I have limited my subject to those verses that deal more directly with sea monsters and will be including an appendix of further scriptures in case any one wants to read further. I had originally planned to discuss each major creature in turn but the more example verses I gathered, the more I realized how intertwined these animals are. Therefore I will begin with a glossary then move through important passages and themes surrounding these beasts.
- Tehom This sea monster was a personification of water itself probably female. It represented chaos.
- Leviathan A great fire breathing sea monster possibly the same beast as Lothan in Ugaritic culture.
- Rahab A sea monster associated with Egypt
- Yam A common word meaning sea, however in Ugaritic culture Yam was a sea god defeated by Baal. At some points in the Hebrew Bible it seems it may be understood as a personification and another name for Tehom.
- Tannin A generic term for dragon or sea monster. Sometimes confused with the word for jackal tan, which in plural tannim looks quite similar as in Isaiah 43:20 or Lamentations 4:3.
- Nachash A general term for snake
- Pethen From a root meaning protector. A specific type of snake, perhaps a cobra.
- Tsepheh A venomous snake of some kind. The name is a possible onomatopoeia of a hissing sound.
- Epheh Another type of venomous snake
- Saraph A fiery serpent, sometimes flying. Interestingly also a class of divine being.
In the Beginning
Our journey with sea monsters begins in the second verse of the Bible. "And darkness was on the face of Tehom". Creation stories are replete with battles of sea monsters. The god Baal battles the beast Yam (a name that means sea). The Babylonians had a myth about Marduk battling a sea goddess Tiamat which is a closely related word to Tehom. In the Babylonian epic Enuma Elish Marduk defeats Tiamat and tearing her in half takes half of her and forms the sky and half forms the sea. The Genesis 1 account is strikingly similar. Tehom is not listed as an item created by God but is already there in existence when creation is begun. Verses 6-8 describe God splitting the waters in two and forming the sky and the seas with the two halves. This is reinforced in later passages such as Genesis 7:11 and 8:2 which discussing Noah's flood references the "fountains of Tehom" and "windows of the heavens" supplying the water that floods the earth. Likewise in the Genesis 49 blessing of Joseph, verse 25 speaks of "blessings of heaven above" and "blessings of Tehom below". It parallels these with a woman's body as breasts and womb, perhaps as a fertility blessing, but definitely harkening back to the goddess imagery of Tiamat being split in half to form these items.
Close on the heels of Tehom in the Genesis 1 account is the introduction of Tannin formed in verse 21 which KJV renders as "great whales". As the footnotes in the LDS edition make clear the word is better understood as sea monsters. In this particular instance it is simply noted as created by God, unlike Tehom. Like Tehom we learn much more from later poetical works. In Psalms 148:7 for example:
Praise the LORD from the Earth, ye tannins and all tehoms
The entire Psalm is a beautiful recounting of creation with reference to the waters being placed above and Yahweh setting a decree defining the limits of the sea. The great sea monsters are given ability to "praise" and are listed as things created by Yahweh 1. Proverbs 8:24 similarly declares God as be pre-existent to the Tehoms. Also Proverbs 8:27 have the LORD setting boundaries around Tehom.
As discussed above Tannin means sea monsters almost certainly. However the one really odd wrinkle in all this the story of Moses' staff. In Exodous 4 God first introduced Moses to the sign of casting his staff on the ground which then becomes a nachash or snake. In Exodous 7 when the sign is actually given, instead of becoming a nachash it becomes a full blown tannin or sea monster. I remain unclear if this is just the result of lots of practice producing more spectacular results, or if the term Tannin might refer to a more mundane creature under certain circumstances. The disconnect in terms between the bush scene and the throne room scene is interesting and may be the result of different textual traditions or maybe embellishment. This is also one of the very few times the word appears outside of a poetical text (Genesis 1 can be argued to be poetical given its structured refrains and lofty language)
The story of Jonah is deeply tied to the sea. Famously, Jonah in a moment of divine displeasure is cast into the sea and swallowed by a great fish. This beast is described only with the ordinary term "fish" and nothing but its size would indicate it to be a monster. However the interesting part of this story is in its heavy symbolism, the fish takes Jonah down to the "belly of Sheol", to the "roots of the mountains", a clear contrast to the "tops of the mountains" where the presence of the Lord resides. From Chapter 2:
4 Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple.
5 The waters compassed me about, to the soul: Tehom closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head.
6 I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord my God.
Here we have the monster Tehom residing in the belly of hell and swallowing the drowning prophet in a symbol of complete despair and removal from God, and the Temple. This reflects language found in Psalm 36:6 where the tsadakah (righteousness or mercy) of The LORD is compared to the "Mountains of God"2 and mishphat (judgement or justice) of the LORD is compared to a great Tehom. The next verse then becomes all the more powerful.
7 When my soul fainted within me I remembered the LORD: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple.
The parallel with Alma 36 cannot be missed here as at the moment of greatest despair the prophet remembers the Lord and is brought back up from the pit. Christ would use this story to explain his own death and resurrection. Tehom then becomes the symbol of physical and spiritual death, the uncreation. It is the monster that the work of God must slay.
In another story of despair and redemption we get some of our longest and most detailed look at these sea beasts.
In 3:8 we have a terrible miss by the King James translators. Job in despair wishes to have never been created and curses the day of his birth. This climaxes in the statement:
- Let them pierce 3 it that curse the day, those that are trained to awake Leviathan!
In verse 7:12 Job asks the question
12 The Yam am I? Or a Tannin? That thou settest over me a guard.
Job is referring here to the concept of holding back the sea from overflowing the dry land but also includes here a Tannin in this watched state.
In Job 9:13 we have a new monster mentioned:
13 God does not turn back his anger. Under him bow the helpers of Rahab.
Rahab is a powerful monster often associated with Egypt, perhaps it is an Israelite understanding of the Egyptian God Apophis. He will show up again in chapter 26. Job is again recounting creation themes describing God. It discusses his power over Hell and his binding of the waters
12 with his power he breaks Yam, with his understanding he smashes Rahab
In Job 28:14 Job describes the valuable things that can be extracted from the earth but then speaks of the rarity of Wisdom. He concludes it is beyond any price and not found in the "land of the living". He then turns to the sea:
14 Tehom says he is not in me, Yam says not with me.
Here again the realm of these beast is contrasted with land of the living making the sea and hell synonymous. The beasts in an obvious poetic setting are given the ability to speak. Habakkuk 3:10 will likewise give Tehom a voice and also hands. Likewise in Psalm 42:7 we have "Tehom" calling to "Tehom" with noise like "waterspouts"4. Again implying that there are more than one of these creatures and that they have a social system of sorts and communication.
This association with the realm of the dead happens again just a bit later in Job 38:16. Here God speaks and is recounting his story of creation.
16 Hast thou gone into the source of Yam? Hast thou walked among the mystery of Tehom?
17 Have they been opened to you, the gates of death? And the gates of the shadow of death have you seen?
So again the sea with its icy unreachable depth is a symbol for Hell. Something God is explicitly able to enter and return from but that lies far outside the realm of mans ability. Later in that chapter in verse 30 he will declare that the ice he has created has frozen the face of Tehom.
The most spectacular part of Job in discussing sea monsters is chapter 41 where we have a full 34 verses describing Leviathan. In explaining his power God speaks of fishing out the beast with a hook, forming a covenant with him and binding him as a servant. It also speaks of making him a pet or selling him at the fish market. We learn he has teeth and air tight scales in verse 14. Starting in verse 18 we learn that light comes from his eyes and his nostrils. He breathes fire and boils the sea around him. He has a hide like stone that cannot be pierced by any weapon of man. In 41:32 we learn that his powerful wake turns Tehom white. The picture is of an absolutely fierce being. He seems to have a parallel in the surrounding Ugaritic culture called Lothan. Lothan was "evil" and "crooked" (as Isaiah calls Leviathan in 27:1) and had seven heads. The idea of the beast being a seven headed hydra is perhaps reflected in Psalm 74:14 "thou breakest the heads of Leviathan"
The prophet Isaiah also contributes some to our understanding of sea monsters. In 27:1
27 In that day the LORD will punish with his sore and great and strong sword, Leviathan the piercing nachash, Leviathan the crooked nachash, and he shall slay the tannin which is in the sea.
Here Isaiah refers to Leviathan as both a snake and a tannin. Later in chapter 51 he returns to the theme:
9 Awake, Awake! Put on strength O arm of the LORD. Awake as in ancient days, as in generations of old. Are not you he that cut Rahab? Wounded the tannin?
10 Are not you that dried up Yam? The waters of Tehom the great? That made the depths of Yam a road for the redeemed to cross.
Here we again have the monster Rahab who is now called a tannin. We learn from context here and other mentions in Psalms 87:4 and Psalms 89:10 it is associated with Egypt particularly. Isaiah 30:7 probably makes it the most explicit however:
7 For the Egyptians in vain and to no purpose will help, therefore for this I shall call them Rahab that sits still
This seems to be a mocking of Egypt's inept power. It is notable that this is being contrasted with several several animals from the Negev in the previous verse including a flying saraph or fiery serpent.
Also Isaiah in 63:12-13 associates Moses dividing the Red Sea with dividing the Tehom as in Genesis. This makes the passage through the Red Sea a new creation and makes for Moses an "everlasting name" as through his power he now has conquered Tehom as did God. This same theme is also found in Psalm 106:9
9 He rebuked the Red sea also, and it was dried up: so he led them through the tehoms, as through the wilderness.
Ezekiel adds a bit more Clash of the Titans style flair when we warns in 26:19
19 For thus saith the Lord God; When I shall make thee a desolate city, like the cities that are not inhabited; when I shall bring up Tehom upon thee, and great waters shall cover thee;
Here the threat of destruction to a costal city from an uncontrolled water monster has to have reflected a great deal of the uncertainty that ancient peoples coped with each day as floods and storms seemed to appear without warning and living by the sea made people more vulnerable to such things.
In Ezekiel 29:3-5 the prophet speaks in the LORD's voice and calls the king of Egypt a tannin. Pharoah proudly declares his river (the Nile) as his own, even declaring that he is the creator of it. While the name Rahab is not used it seems clear that this tied to that same designation. In the scripture the LORD hooks him like a fish and hauls not just Pharoah the tannin, but also all his fish. This seems to reflect the language in Job 9:13 with its "helpers of Rahab". The end result is Pharoah and his helpers are left in the midbar or desert to dry out and die. A few chapters later Pharoah is contrasted with the king of the Assyrians who it depicted as a great tree, a cedar of Lebanon. He is watered by Tehom. This causes him to grow to extreme heights. He is eventually felled with a great crash and taken down to Sheol (31:15) and God "clothes" Tehom, perhaps in mourning attire. Psalm 104:6 is an interesting contrast to this idea where Tehom herself is referred to as a garment covering the foundations of the Earth. In chapter 32 this theme is recapped but now in verse 2 Pharoah is called a kephir, young lion, as well as a tannin. This same pairing also occurs in Psalm 91:13 so the idea is not unique to Ezekiel. These are very different creatures from the various serpents usually paired with tannin and it is a bit puzzling at the end of the verse it speaks of stirring up the rivers with his "feet". Perhaps these feet have reference to the lion metaphor or perhaps a tannin is visualized as having feet perhaps similar to how Tehom is given hands in Habakuk 3:10.
New Testament and Book of Mormon
While this post has been focused on the Hebrew Bible, there are clear indications that the concepts bled over into the New Testament and Book of Mormon. One obvious point of influence would be the seven headed dragon of the Revelation of John. Likewise Revelation 20:13 associates the sea and Hell. Probably some exploration could be made of the four beasts Daniel sees come from the sea in Daniel 7.
The Jaredites mention monsters of the sea in Ether 6:10 as a real concern faced in their sea voyage. 2 Nephi 1:2 similarly expresses gratitude for not being "swallowed" by the sea. Nephites will twice use "dragons" as symbols of fierce fighting in Mosiah 20:11 and Alma 43:44. 2 Nephi 9:10 personifies death and hell as a "monster".
There is a complex vocabulary and multiple traditions involving sea monsters. Some monsters are "water monsters" representing the chaos of water itself while others are more dragon or reptilian in nature. Some of these monsters may have taken the form of a seven headed hydra and were capable of breathing fire. Their fierce nature was constantly used as an example of a power beyond the ability of man to conquer. For the LORD subduing, controlling and even creating such beings was well within his power. This vivid display of the superiority of God to man made these animals powerful spiritual symbols of both physical and spiritual death, the conquering of which by God is a core message of the scriptures.
It is difficult to determine what extent the ancient world understood these creatures to be actual beings. Certainly their most common appearance is in poetry and metaphor. However it is hard to imagine that the ancients could put to sea without at least a bit of worry about the dark shapes under the water, after all even us moderns have been known to worry a bit about what might rise up to meet us.
Some verses where key words are used
- Gen 1:2,7:11,8:2,49:25
- Ex 15:5,8
- Deut 8:7,33:13
- Isaiah 51:10
- Isaiah 63:13
- Ezekiel 26:19,31:4,31:15
- Amos 7:4
- Jonah 2:6
- Habakkuk 3:10
- Ps 33:7,36:7,42:8,71:20,77:17,78:15,104:6,106:9,107:26, 135:6,148:7
- Job 28:14,38:16,38:30,41:24
- Prov 3:20, 8:24,27,28
- Ex 7:9,10,12 miracle of rods. Previously it became a nachash
- Ez 29:3 32:2 Pharoah as the dragon of Nile to be defeated.
- Gen 1:21 creation
- Dt 32:33 venom paralleled with pethen
- Ps 91:13 paralleled with pethen
- Je 51:34 Nebuchadnezzar is dragon swallowing Israel
- Ne 2:13 dragon well place name
- Job 7:12 am I a tannin to have a watch on me.
- Ps 74:13 leviathan breaks heads
- Isaiah 27:1 leviathan is both nachash and tannin
- 51:9 Rahab is a tannin
- Ps 148:7 praise the Lord ye dragons
- Dt 32:33
- Job 20:16
- Ps 91:13, paralleled with tannin
- 58:5 paralleled with Nachash
- Is 11:8 paralleled with tsiphony
- Is 11:8 parallel with pethen
- Is 14:29 nachash to tsepheh to saraph
- Is 59:5
- Jer 8:17
- Prov 23:32
- Isaiah 30:6 59:5
- Job 20:16
- Job 3:8 KJV missed translation
- Job 40:25 Hebrew
- Job 41:1 English
- Psalms 74:14
- Psalms 104:26
- Isaiah 27:1
- Ps 87:4
- Ps 89:10
- Isaiah 30:7
- Isaiah 51:9
- Job 9:13
- Job 26:12
Note Genesis 1 uses Elohim, not Yahweh in its story causing some difficulties for the documentary hypothesis here. ↩
The Hebrew here is mountains of El which KJV renders simply as "great" but clearly is meant as a reference to deity and is commonly translated as God elsewhere in the Bible. ↩
This same verb is used later in Job 40:24 and 26 (verse 26 is Job 41:2 in KJV) to describe piercing Leviathan so it seemed pierce was a better choice here as well. ↩
"Waterspout" is a guess at the meaning of the word tsinor used here. Other translations go with "waterfall". The only other use of this word is to describe the tunnel David's men climbed to attack the Jebusites and take Jerusalem. 2 Samuel 5:8. ↩