Question: "What was the leviathan?"
Answer: The leviathan is a large aquatic creature of some kind. The Bible refers to it as a fearsome beast having monstrous ferocity and great power. The Hebrew word for “Leviathan” has the root meaning of “coiled” or “twisted.” Isaiah 27:1 speaks of “Leviathan the fast-moving serpent, Leviathan the squirming serpent; . . . the sea monster” (NET). Whatever this monster of the sea is (or was), its strength and wild nature were well known.
There are a handful of references to the leviathan in the Old Testament. Most passages describe the leviathan as a real creature, familiar to people (who, of course, kept their distance) by reputation if not by sight. In Psalm 104:25–26 God is praised as the One who created the habitat for the leviathan: “There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number—living things both large and small. There the ships go to and fro, and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.” Only a great God could have created Leviathan and then made a place big enough for it to “frolic” safely.
In Isaiah 27:1 the leviathan is used as a symbol for the wicked kings of the earth who withstand God’s people. The great power that wicked nations wield can be terrifying, but God assures His children that evil, no matter how monstrous, will be defeated: “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.” Psalm 74:14 contains a similar reference to God’s victory over Leviathan; in that psalm, the pharaoh of Egypt is most likely meant.
Job 41 gives the most detail about Leviathan as an actual sea creature. In that chapter, God describes Leviathan, emphasizing the animal’s size, strength, and viciousness. The leviathan cannot be tied down or tamed (Job 41:1, 5); it is frightening to even look at (verse 9); it is best left alone (verses 8, 10). The leviathan has a graceful form (verse 12) but is incredibly well protected with scales (verses 13, 15–17). Its chest is as impenetrable as its back (verses 15, 24). It has fearsome teeth (verse 14), and death awaits anyone who approaches its mouth (verses 18–21). Even mighty men are terrified of the leviathan (verse 25). No sword, spear, dart, javelin, arrow, stone, club, or lance can defeat it (verses 26, 28–29). It cannot be caged, because it breaks iron like straw (verse 27). On land, the leviathan leaves a trail of ruts; in the water, it produces a deep, churning wake (verses 30–32). God’s description of the leviathan concludes with a statement that it is the true king of the beasts: “Nothing on earth is its equal—a creature without fear” (verse 33).
So, what animal is Job 41 describing? Some commentators believe Leviathan is a crocodile. Others believe it is a whale or a shark. Based on the biblical description, it seems more likely that Leviathan is a large sea reptile, possibly a species of dinosaur such as the plesiosaurus. Job’s acquaintance with a dinosaur is not far-fetched at all, given that the book of Job is set in a very early time of history.
The point God makes in Job 41 is that Leviathan is under God’s sovereign control. Job had been questioning God (Job 26—31), but God turns the tables and uses the leviathan’s might to emphasize Job’s weakness and frailty. If God created Leviathan (an animal Job cannot stand before), then how great is God? Why is Job even trying to grapple with the Almighty?
Leviathan was a dangerous creature that caused seasoned warriors to turn and run. Leviathan is no myth, but rather a real creature of the sea, subject only to its Creator. As God says in His description of Leviathan, “Who then is able to stand against me? Who has a claim against me that I must pay? Everything under heaven belongs to me” (Job 41:10–11).