What Is the Leviathan in the Bible?

From ancient to modern times, “leviathan” can mean anything of monstrous scale, maritime power, and mythic force. But identifying the real creature is no simple task.

Jun 5, 2024By Allen Baird, PhD Theology, BA Biblical Studies and Philosophy

what is leviathan bible


The name “Leviathan” has its origins in the ancient Middle East. But it has wormed — or wyrm-ed — its way into modern English. As a general noun, the word now applies to any entity that is extremely large and powerful. There is also a hint of the terrifying and turbulent in how we use it. Abstract concepts, such as dominant economies or vast bureaucracies, can be described as leviathans. But what (if anything) is the physical creature that spawned this modern meaning? Will the real Leviathan please stand up?


Leviathan: A Creature of Water and Power

building great leviathan great eastern william parrott 1858
Building the ‘Great Leviathan’ (the ‘Great Eastern’), by Willian Samuel Parrott, 1858, Source: Greenwich Museums


Even in our modern use of the name “Leviathan,” there is often an overlap between the abstract and the actual. For instance, examples of military sea power, especially in the form of gigantic carriers and deadly destroyers, are often called leviathans. This association with the sea is telling and takes us back to the word’s biblical use.


William Blake painted The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan (1805-9) to portray the maritime supremacy of the British navy over the French and Spanish. More recently, the Leviathan gas field has become the name of a huge natural gas reservoir off the coast of Israel, discovered in 2010, deep in the Mediterranean Sea. There are many other maritime examples.


Leviathan as a Nile Crocodile

crocodile illustration book dead imhotep priest horus
Drawing of a crocodile illustrating the Book of the Dead of the Priest of Horus, Imhotep (Imuthes), 332-200 BCE, Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art


Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

Some Bible dictionaries, and Bible footnotes, like those in the Revised Standard Version, propose that “Leviathan” may originally have referred to crocodiles. Study tools like the Thompson Chain-Reference Bible make this suggestion too. They are not dogmatic but they desire to find a natural candidate that removes the Leviathan from the realm of the fabulous and therefore — in their eyes — the fictitious.


Crocodiles certainly have the scales and other similar attributes to those described in Job 41 (vs. 15, 30).


“The scales on its back are like rows of shields tightly sealed together… Its belly is covered with scales as sharp as glass. It plows up the ground as it drags through the mud.”


Further, Egypt is portrayed as a sea-serpent several times in the Old Testament (for example, Ezekiel 29:3; 32:2). What predatory beast could better symbolize Pharaoh than a Nile crocodile? But crocodiles, unlike the Leviathan, are not ocean-dwelling. And, although large and dangerous, crocodiles may lack the sheer physical immensity to justify the sublime level of language used to describe the Leviathan in biblical texts.


Leviathan as a Huge Whale

perseus andromeda charles andre van loo
Perseus and Andromeda, by Charles André van Loo, 1735-40, Source: Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg


Serpentine fish such as the frilled shark, the fangtooth, and the viperfish are often suggested as possible origins for the Leviathan. But they lack the great size of legend. Whales do not. They are the largest animals that have ever existed, outmatching even the great dinosaurs. When the fossil of an extinct, massive “sea monster” — a sperm whale — was unearthed in the Peruvian desert, paleontologists called it Livyatan melvillei!


Melville’s novel Moby-Dick tells the tale of a sort of modern-day dragon hunt which was inspired by a terrifying, true story. Of course, there is a famous biblical account that gives prominence to such a creature, proving that the ancient Hebrews were familiar with large maritime mammals. This is the famous story of Jonah and the Whale.


The problem is the most accurate translation of the words for what swallowed Jonah is simply a “big fish” (Jonah 1:17). The text also explains that this huge fish was specially prepared or appointed by God, so it may have been uniquely adapted or one-of-a-kind. The New Testament uses one word to describe the creature, usually translated as “great fish” in modern translations (Matthew 12:40). This is the same word that is used in Greek mythology to describe the sea monster killed by Perseus as he saved Andromeda.


Leviathan as an Anachronistic Dinosaur

sea monsters llesiosaurus and ichthyosaurus geoffrey martin
Fig. 68: In the Days of the Sea Monsters (Plesiosaurus and Ichthyosaurus), by Geoffrey Martin, 1913, Source: Wikimedia Commons


There is an obvious problem with identifying Leviathan as a dinosaur. Dinosaurs became extinct millions of years before homo sapiens walked the earth. The biblical authors could not have known about dinosaurs, never mind observed or interacted with them. Even if we allow for ancient folk memories and oral traditions of extinct beasts, the timespan separating dinosaurs from humans is still too vast.


However, some Christians from the Creation science and Young Earth creationist positions challenge the consensus of the scientific community. They believe dinosaur and human coexistence explains the origin of dragon myths. Some even claim that Noah took dinosaurs with him on the ark. Others doubt that all dinosaurs are in fact extinct, as there have been many animals that scientists have thought extinct, only to be rediscovered. Instances of this kind are called a Lazarus taxon by paleontologists.


It is true that animals resembling dinosaurs were reported in ancient and medieval history. However, the animals described by travelers like Marco Polo were more than likely crocodiles. Also, the claim about Noah and the ark seems irrelevant when it comes to the Leviathan since such an ocean-dwelling animal could survive any flood without human help.


Leviathan as a Mythic Dragon

untitled engraving sea monsters attacking sailing vessel 1684
Engraving of Sea Monsters Attacking a Sailing Vessel, 1684, Source: Rare Maps


The idea of the Leviathan as a purely mythic monster is not outside the realm of possibility. After all, the Bible mentions other animals of this type (depending on the translation), from unicorns (Deuteronomy 33:17) and satyrs (Isaiah 13:21; 34:14) to the regenerating phoenix (Job 29:18; Psalms 103:5). Many of these creatures were common topics for medieval legends and iconography.


There are two further arguments for treating the Leviathan as a work of fantasy and fable rather than fact. Firstly, there is a verse in the Book of Psalms that seems to refer to the Leviathan as having more than one head. Speaking of God, it says:


“It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan and gave it as food to the creatures of the desert.” (Psalm 74:14)


This immediately brings to mind Greek stories of the Hydra of Lerna, the multiheaded, serpentine water monster that Hercules killed in the second of his Twelve Labors. But many commentators take the meaning of this verse in context to refer to the heads of the Egyptian corpses that lay on the shore of the Red Sea after they chased the Israelites fleeing captivity (Exodus 14:30).


spiritual form nelson guiding leviathan william blake
The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan, by William Blake, 1805–9, Source: The Tate Gallery


Another argument for the Leviathan as a mythic dragon is some of the feats it performed, as written in the Book of Job. It seems that the beast described here has laser eyes and fiery breath!


“Its snorting throws out flashes of light; its eyes are like the rays of dawn. Flames stream from its mouth; sparks of fire shoot out. Smoke pours from its nostrils as from a boiling pot over burning reeds. Its breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from its mouth.” (Job 41:18-21


This sounds more like Godzilla or the dragons of Tolkien than any animal that could conceivably find a basis in reality! However, the references to smoke and steam shooting out as the creature’s breath is reminiscent of the blowholes in whales and similar aquatic mammals. As they rise to the water surface to breathe, they blow spray from this hole at the top of their heads. This so-called blow takes the form of a white shower or misty spirit and can be visible from far away.


It might also be the case that ancient watchers thought they saw one animal when they were observing many at once. For example, some marine animals perform a behavior called running or porpoising. This occurs when a group swims near the surface and jumps out of it at high speeds. Such a phenomenon may have looked like the multiple curves of a single, snake-like animal to the ancients. This could explain adjectives used to describe the Leviathan in one of the best-known Old Testament references.


“In that day, the LORD will punish with his sword— his fierce, great and powerful sword— Leviathan the gliding serpent, Leviathan the coiling serpent; he will slay the monster of the sea.” (Isaiah 27:1) 


Leviathan as a Religious Metaphor

leviathan antichrist liber floridus 1120
The Antichrist on the Leviathan, from Liber Floridus, 1090-1120, Source: Ghent University


The peoples of the Bible were pre-scientific, but not stupid. They observed many sorts of sea animals from a distance even though they could not know our scientific terms for what kind of creatures they saw or the behaviors they exhibited. But these people were sophisticated from a literary standpoint. They knew how to employ metaphors and symbols.


The leviathan became a metaphor for many things in the Bible over and above (but not necessarily against) its existence as a living animal or, more likely, a group of animal types. These include:


1. God’s omnipotence — The most in-depth and ancient description we have of the Leviathan is in Job 41. It is God who raises the topic of Leviathan in a discussion with Job to serve as a case study of divine power. There is nothing in this account to suggest that these creatures are evil. They were, after all, created by God (Genesis 1:12) to play before him and even to praise him (Psalms 104:26; 148:7).

2. The forces of chaos — For ancient people, the sea represented chaos. It was ruled over and personified by a chaos monster who took the form of a serpent or dragon. A hero would battle this creature in a chaoskampf, a struggle against chaos, to bring about order. This myth is contained in the Bible from the start (Genesis 1:2) and is a theme repeated in the Psalms (74:13-15; 89:9-10; 93:3-4 etc.)


leviathan and behemoth
Behemoth and Leviathan, by William Blake, 1825: Source: The Tate Gallery


3. Tyrannical nations and governments — Remember how Thomas Hobbes named his 1651 treatise on the power of the state Leviathan? He explicitly quoted Job 41:33 and focused his work on defending an absolute monarchy. Before Hobbes, Egypt was compared to a sea monster (Isaiah 30:7; Ezekiel 29:3; 32:2), as was the empire of Babylon (Isaiah 14:4, 20).

4. Spiritual evil — At the start of the Bible, evil takes a serpentine form (Genesis 3:1). At the end, the devil is described twice as a great dragon and an ancient snake (Revelation 12:9; 20:2).


Are all these uses of the Leviathan metaphor contradictory? It’s better to think of them as rich and multilayered. For a recent, relevant equivalent of this in Western literature, think of the many meanings attached to the white whale in Moby-Dick. Is the creature symbolic of dangerous nature, an obsessive quest, social triumph and economic expansion, immortal myth, an embodiment of evil, human limitations, or an unknowable God? All are true. And yet, at bottom, Mody Dick remains a sperm whale, the largest toothed predator alive.


Leviathan in Science and Myth

destruction leviathan gustave dore
The Destruction of Leviathan, Gustave Dore, 1865, Source: Wikimedia Commons


It is only fair to judge people according to the standard of their own time, not ours. The species taxonomy of the Bible is pre-scientific. Biblical authors’ understanding of the biology of the creature they called “leviathan” will necessarily have been pre-scientific. But just because it is pre-scientific, that does not mean it is fictional or unreal. To conclude, we need to remember these points:


  • There is no biblical equivalent to our modern scientific concepts of genus and species. They are not equivalent to the broader Biblical concept of “after its kind.” Phrases like “great sea creatures” in Genesis 1:21 allow for a very broad classification that includes animals of all sorts in one grouping.
  • It seems likely that more than one modern species forms the basis for that beast the Bible calls the Leviathan. Several different creatures may have been described in different places under the catch-all name “Leviathan” — depending on the geographical and literary context. In this way, the name Leviathan functions more like the phrase “water monster” than a single species like “Nile crocodile.”
  • Biblical authors described what they saw, not what we now know from science. But what they saw was still real. For example, what they thought was steam from a fiery mouth was in fact blowhole spray. The event occurred, but their interpretation of the event was of their own age, not ours.


beached whale
The Whale Beached between Scheveningen and Katwijk, with Elegant Sightseers, by Esaias van de Velde, 1617, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Whatever the Leviathan creature was, it was enormous in scale, largely aquatic, and serpentine in form. The mere sight of it — or a pod of them together — was enough to provoke fear and awe, and inspire poetry. While they saw beasts they named “Leviathan” with their own eyes, the biblical authors saw the ultimate meaning of this creature not as biological but theological — an expression of God’s creative power and redemptive prowess. Their God was so great because he was the ultimate dragon maker, dragon tamer, and dragon slayer.


For further reading, see God’s Conflict with the Dragon and Sea: Echoes of a Canaanite Myth in the Old Testament by John Day, Wifp & Stock, 1985

Author Image

By Allen BairdPhD Theology, BA Biblical Studies and PhilosophyAllen earned his degrees from the Queen’s University of Belfast, Northern Ireland, along with a teaching qualification in adult education. His interests lie in short story writing and relating the biblical material to modern literary genres such as horror, sci-fi, and fantasy.