Mark 1:12-13 (NRSV)
12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Job 41:1-34 (INL)
1So you’ll drag out the sea-dragon, Leviathan—with hook and line you’ll sink him?
2So you’ll poke a twig through his terrible nose, pierce his cheek with a thorn?
3So he’ll plead with you in soft-spoken words? 4You’ll cut him a deal as your slave?
5You’ll sport with him like a sparrow then, and strap him down for your daughters’ delight?
6You’ll let businessmen barter for his hallowed hide, while merchants take their share?
7You’ll riddle that hide with harpoon holes, his head with fishing spears?
8You’ll place your palm upon him, then? Bethink you that battle—add naught!
9What! All expectations of him fail; one falls at the eye-sight of him.
10A cruel one, indeed, I roused him up. Who cares to contend with me?
11To whom am I indebted now? All under heaven is mine.
12I’ll not silence his bellow, nor boasts of his deeds, nor the dignity of his design.
13Who could remove his outermost robe, or break through his battle dress?
14Who loosed the gates of his grinning face—fearful fangs far and wide?
15Shield-ranks seal the skin of his back; 16one by one, they are woven air-tight.
17Each to another they clasp and cleave and cannot be cut apart.
18He sneezes and light bursts brightly forth; He blinks as the break of dawn.
19Fire from his face-cavern and sparks fly forth; 20smoke from his seething snout,
21His billowing breath kindles hot coals; a blaze comes forth from his maw.
22Brute force abides in the strength of his neck, but nimbly bounds before.
23The flakes of his flesh together cleave—cast firmly, cannot be moved.
24His breast cage is clad in solid rock, cast like stone from far below.
25At his rising the angels fear; they falter at his crash.
26He who finds him fails with blade—or bolt or pike or flying spear.
27He reckons hard-wrought iron as straw, bronze as rotten wood.
28No arrow’s offspring makes him run; rocks from slings reduced to rubble.
29Bludgeons counted blades of grass, he grimly laughs at shaken spears;
30Jagged shards his belly gird; with barbed broom he sweeps the mud.
31The deep he brings to cauldron-boil, like chemist’s brew he stirs the sea;
32A highway shines in his watery wake; a white-haired wave it seems
33He is unrivaled on the earth—without any fear is he formed.
34He beholds all those who are lofty-born; of the proud he alone is Lord.
A Word About Scripture Translations
Before I read the second scripture passage, I feel like I need to make a few comments on scripture translations. That’s because the translation we’re using today is my own, directly from the original Hebrew. Some of you may be wondering, “What’s wrong with the NRSV?” It’s what we use most weeks, it’s what our pew Bibles are…and some of you may even be wondering, “What’s wrong with the good old fashioned King James version? After all, if Jesus and his disciples spoke King James English, it ought to be good enough for us!
Nothing is wrong with the NRSV, or the King James. I consulted both of them and several others as I translated. But you should also know that the Book of Job contains, hands down, the most difficult and problematic Hebrew in the entire bible. There are several words in our scripture passage today that appear only once in the entire Bible, and nowhere else in any ancient Hebrew text. That means that any translation of them is an educated guess at best, and at worst, completely made up.
In some ways, my translation may be more accurate than the King James or the NRSV, because I had access to more recent, cuting-edge scholarship than was available to previous translators. But in other ways, my translation may also be less accurate because I translated with an eye toward the poetic and the artistic. Job is Hebrew poetry at its finest, but it loses much of its poetic quality in translation, so I’ve tried to recapture some of that.
In any case, if you are studying the Book of Job or reading it independently, I encourage you to use a variety of translations, and take all of them (including mine) with a grain of salt. Perhaps the unfathomable mysteries of the book of Job are–not without irony–its greatest message after all.
I Caught a Fish and it Was This Big
Every fisherman has a big fish story. And they all start with the words, “I once caught a fish this big…” I thought today I might show you a few famous ones you probably didn’t know about.
bigfish1 bigfish2 bigfish3 bigfish4 bigfish5 bigfish6 bigfish7 bigfish8 bigfish9
You might say that Job chapter 41 contains the biggest fish story of all time: God’s big fish, Leviathan. The Hebrew word לִוְיָתָן (Livyatan)is from an even older word that means garland or wreath (think twisted coils). This is how he sometimes appears in early art (Rome, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Codex Gr. 749). Unlike his counterpart, Behemoth, Leviathan shows up a few other places in scripture. Isaiah 27 describes the day (in the future) in which God will punish Leviathan and slay him with a sword (however, this may be a coded reference to a foreign nation that Isaiah is prophesying against) (Dore Illustration).
Psalm 74 describes the day (in the past) in which God killed Leviathan, breaking his heads (plural) into pieces and feeding him to the people. And Psalm 104 describes Leviathan as God’s creation, which he made to play with in the sea. In the Jewish Talmud, God plays with Leviathan three hours each day, as a break from judging people and feeding the world. So is Leviathan God’s future enemy, past enemy, God’s friend and playmate? None of these descriptions quite match the others, and unfortunately, Leviathan’s extensive treatment in Job doesn’t help much, either.
Fishing for Leviathan
There is a serpentine sea-monster in the mythology of just about every ancient culture. In Norse Mythology, it’s Jormungandr, the serpent who rings the world, and eats his own tail. In Egyptian and Greek Mythology, it’s Ouroboros. In Mayan mythology, it’s Quetzalcoatl. Notice the similarity between this and last week’s image of Behemoth, Leviathan, and Ziz from the Abrosian Bible.
There’s another mythological strand that connects even more closely to the Biblical Leviathan. In Egyptian mythology, the monster Apep is the embodiment of Chaos. Each day, Apep lies in wait just below the horizon and swallows the sun god, the bringer of light. Light is associated with order, and darkness with chaos.
There’s also a Native American legend about a snake swallowing the sun.
At some point in his development, Leviathan takes on similar characteristics. Listen to Job’s words in chapter three. This is the first of Job’s speeches after he loses everything:
Let the day perish in which I was born, and the night that said, A man-child is conceived. Let that day be darkness! May God above not seek it, or light shine on it. Let gloom and deep darkness claim it. Let clouds settle upon it; let the blackness of the day terrify it. That night—let thick darkness seize it! Let it not rejoice among the days of the year; let it not come into the number of the months. Yes, let that night be barren; let no joyful cry be heard in it.
And then, remarkably, Job invokes Leviathan, saying:
Let those curse it who curse the Sea, those who are skilled to rouse up Leviathan. Let the stars of its dawn be dark; let it hope for light, but have none; may it not see the eyelids of the morning—because it did not shut the doors of my mother’s womb, and hide trouble from my eyes.
So Job (not God!) is the one who first asks for Leviathan to be roused, to come forth and swallow the light, plunging the world (and Job) into complete darkness and chaos.
Fast forward to Anglo-Saxon England during the medieval period, where the giant fanged mouth of Leviathan, described in Job 40, gets mixed together with the Norse legend of Fenrir, also a god of Chaos who, incidentally, also swallows the sun (1908 drawing by W.G. Collingwood). Fenrir morphs into Leviathan to become “Hellmouth,” his jaws depicted as the very gates of hell. (Winchester Psalter of about 1150). Images of Hellmouth become popular throughout Medieval Europe (Bourges Cathedral, ca. 12th century) and right down to our own day (Sarlacc from Return of the Jedi)
John Calvin and other 16th century reformers speculated that Leviathan was a whale. Herman Melville, in his classic novel Moby Dick, unsurprisingly does the same. Thomas Hobbes named his famous book about civil government “Leviathan,” and the original book cover quotes Job 41:24. Other modern interpreters (including the footnotes to the NRSV) have concluded that Leviathan must be a crocodile, generally on the basis of the verses in Job that describe the creature’s scaly back. Creation-science advocates point once again, implausibly, to the dinosaur. Of course, neither crocodiles, nor whales, nor dinosaurs (or any actual creature) are known to breathe fire, so all attempts to classify Leviathan are somewhat problematic. In fact, I think it’s quite intentional that Leviathan defies classification. Isn’t that the point of the poem–that Leviathan cannot be captured or comprehended? What is classification, if not a 20th century way of capturing something?
He Alone Is Lord
At the very beginning of Job’s long speeches that span most of the book, he asks that Leviathan be summoned. Later, he demands that God appear before him as well. At the end of the book, both God and (through his words) Leviathan show up. God’s speech to Job has three movements. In the first, God speaks of creation–the earth, the sea, the snow, the rain–and then he goes on to describe several lesser animals–the lion, the mountain goat, the donkey, the ox, the ostrich, the horse, the hawk. If we were going to include whales, elephants, crocodiles and hippos, I would think this would be where they might fit best.
In the second movement of God’s speech, he describes the foremost wonder of his creation, the strong and mighty Behemoth. I’ve already said last week that I think Behemoth is symbolic, and represents humanity, or Job in particular. Sometimes the monster we find at the end of the book is our own self. To put it differently, there is something strong, wild, and untamed within each of us.
And now in the third and final movement of God’s speech, we come to the climax, the most magnificent monster of all. All expectations of him fail; one falls at the eye-sight of him. At his rising the angels fear; they falter at his crash. He is unrivaled on the earth—without any fear is he formed. He beholds all those who are lofty-born; of the proud he alone is Lord.
Have you figured out who Leviathan is yet? One more clue. Job has asked for Leviathan to be roused, and God says, A cruel one, indeed, I roused him up. Who cares to contend with me? Note that God doesn’t say, “I roused him up. who cares to contend with him?” He says, I roused him up…who cares to contend with me? If Behemoth represents Job, then I think Leviathan, here, represents God himself. Often in the Bible, God is associated with the highest heights. But occasionally it goes the other way. Romans 11:33 – O how deep are God’s riches, and wisdom, and knowledge! How unfathomable are his decisions and unexplainable are his ways! Leviathan brings the deep to a cauldron boil and makes the deep look white-haired (the classic representation of God as “ancient of days”).
Job says, right after invoking Leviathan, “Let the stars of its dawn be dark; let it hope for light, but have none; may it not see the eyelids of the morning.” God, through Leviathan, is responding directly to Job’s request when he says, “He sneezes and light bursts brightly forth; He blinks as the break of dawn.” In other words, “You summoned me, Job. You summoned Leviathan to snuff out your light and plunge you into darkness. But Leviathan doesn’t do that. I’m bringing you light instead.”
Leviathan on the Weather Channel
There is an aspect of God that we don’t like to think about. It’s the wild, untamed, terrifying side of God, which is somewhat reflected in us, his creation. But it is magnified to an exponential degree. The aspect of God represented by Leviathan is the God who creates earthquakes, volcanoes, thunderstorms, and just this week, Tropical Cyclone Pam–which has, ironically, been dubbed the “Vanuatu Monster” for all the destruction it has caused in the island of Vanuatu.
There was a time (less frequent now) when terrifying weather events like these were called “Acts of God.” I think that expression reflects a period in our history when we had no other way of understanding such powerful and destructive forces except by connecting them to monsters or deities. We still can’t control the weather, although despite our protests we are much, much better at predicting it than we were a century ago. It’s kind of like the ancient maps I talked about a few weeks ago…when you actually explore the uncharted places, the “monsters” disappear from future maps. Today, we’re more likely to call earthquakes and hurricanes “natural disasters” than “Acts of God.” They are no less destructive, no less terrifying, but most of us no longer see them as divine punishment for our sins, or as evidence of some cosmic battle between good and evil. They are simply one aspect of God’s creation, one frightening aspect of God. We want God to be a God of order, but he is God of order and chaos alike.
Job, faced with calamity after calamity, cried out, asking where was God in the midst of his suffering? When disasters strike, natural or otherwise, we often ask the same question. It is hard for us to see God in the face of Leviathan. But I think God actually showed up long before the whirlwind, long before the monster speeches. Sometimes we’re so paralyzed by the big scary divine monsters that we miss what God is also doing through the people all around us. Fred Rogers, the creator of Mr. Roger’s neighborhood (and an ordained Presbyterian minister) put it this way:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”