Not a Dinosaur
Understanding Leviathan in the book of Job
Among the speakers in the book of Job, the Lord gives the final speech (in chs. 38–41). And the last thing he speaks about is Leviathan. What is Leviathan? Are there clues in the text or outside of the book that help us identify it? Let’s see what we see.
First, the structure of Job 38–41:
The Lord speaks (38:1—40:2)
Job speaks briefly (40:3–5)
The Lord speaks (40:6—41:34)
Literarily, Job’s words in 40:3-5 divide the sections 38:1—40:2 and 40:6—41:34. Why might such a division be significant? Because of the content of the respective sections of the Lord’s speech.
In 38:1—40:2, the Lord talks about things like creation, dividing the seas, giving rain, and providing for animals. We’re on board with those topics. They remind us of the things we’ve read in Genesis 1 as well as parts of Psalms which rejoice in God’s power over creation.
But in 40:6—41:34 we face two big topics: Behemoth (40:6-24) and Leviathan (41:1-34). I want to focus on Leviathan. There’s something climactic about this figure because he occupies the last part of the last big speech in the book.
This creature—Leviathan—cannot be easily led or played with (41:1–2, 5). Overcoming Leviathan with harpoons and spears would be impossible (41:7–8). None should dare to rouse this creature (41:9–10). Leviathan has incredible strength, terrifying teeth, and a back of scales (41:12, 14–17). Fire comes from his mouth (41:18–21). Normal human weapons cannot subdue Leviathan (41:26–29). He resides in the sea (41:6–7, 31). Nothing on earth is like this fearless creature (41:33). He is king over all the sons of pride (41:34).
Well, this creature sounds nothing short of horrifying, the stuff of nightmares. A common view that’s held about Leviathan is that he is a dinosaur. References to great strength (41:12), scales around the body (41:15–17), and his teeth (41:14) might all be mustered as evidence of this identification.
But I don’t think Leviathan represents a dinosaur.
Leviathan is best understood as a poetic depiction of the Evil One—Satan himself. Consider eight pieces of evidence that, when taken in a cumulative fashion, make a strong case for Leviathan being Satan.
First, Job’s words in 40:3–5 are a literary division between what God spoke about in 38:1—40:2 and then in 40:6—41:34. In 38:1—40:2, we read about things in creation we’re familiar with. But in 40:6—41:34 we’re encountering…something else.
Second, the language about the creature challenges human dominion. If Leviathan was an animal, then we would expect the language of Genesis 1:28 to apply to him. God created image-bearers to exercise dominion over creation, to subdue the creatures he made. But in Job 41 something is different. Leviathan is something that man cannot subdue.
Third, the creature breathes fire. In 41:18–21, the description of a fire-breathing monster strains our ability to correlate him with a known creature in the present or the past.
Fourth, the figure Leviathan has parallels with ancient Near Eastern stories. The ancient world viewed the sea as a place of chaos, untamable by man. The deep was foreboding and unforgiving. Here is a creature—a sea monster—showing fearlessness and who is a threat to those around him. Eric Ortlund writes that “YHWH is speaking to Job within Job’s cultural framework, drawing upon symbols common to the ANE [Ancient Near East] and the Old Testament, both in order to assure Job that God is more intimately acquainted with the magnitude and malignity of the evil at work in his world than Job ever could be, and to promise him that God will one day defeat it.”
Fifth, the figure Leviathan is mentioned in Psalms. In Psalm 74:14: “You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.” Heads? Yes, that’s plural. In Psalm 74:14, Leviathan is a multi-headed sea monster. And in Psalm 104:24–26, God has established the great sea where Leviathan dwells. With the sea being a place of chaos and evil, this multi-headed sea monster is more likely a personification of evil than a dinosaur.
Sixth, the figure Leviathan is mentioned in Isaiah. In Isaiah 27:1, we read, “In that day the LORD with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.” Again, Leviathan is associated with the sea—evil. But what else do we read? The words serpent and dragon. These terms are strong clues that are reinforced by Genesis 3 and by Revelation 12 and 20. Satan is the deceiving serpent, and he is the raging dragon. And in Isaiah 27:1, the day of his judgment is promised. We can use language about Leviathan outside of the book of Job to help us understand Leviathan inside the book of Job.
Seventh, consider how the book of Job begins. God speaks in Job 1–2. And with whom does he speak? Satan himself. Satan is a problem in the beginning of the book. He’s traveling throughout the earth with his malevolent purposes (1:7; 2:2). What if we thought of the book of Job as having an inclusio with the figure that is Satan? He would be referenced in Job 1–2 by name and then in Job 41 by poetic depiction. Job faces evil at the beginning of the book, and at the end of the book he learns that God has dominion over Leviathan. Though man cannot defeat evil, God can. In chapters 1–2, God speaks to Satan about Job, and in chapter 41 he speaks to Job about Satan.
Eighth, the word Leviathan appears early in Job. In 3:8, Job says, “Let those curse it who curse the day, who are ready to rouse up Leviathan.” If Leviathan is associated with evil—and the Evil One—then the first occurrence of the word is literarily interesting because it appears right after chapters 1 and 2 where Satan speaks and seeks to subdue Job.
Evidence inside and outside Scripture suggests that Leviathan represents evil, even the Evil One himself who has opposed Job and all God’s people. Robert Fyall says, "Leviathan is a guise of Satan."At the beginning of the book, the reader clearly sees that Job cannot subdue the Evil One. Satan is untamable by man, like a multi-headed sea beast in the waters of chaos. But God can overcome Leviathan. According to Jim Hamilton, "the whole book is bracketed by Yahweh’s enticing Satan to do his bidding at the beginning, and by his putting a hook in Leviathan’s nose at the end." Yahweh rules over the deep. Evil will not have the last word.
When God begins to speak in 38:1, he’s talking about his own sovereign authority and dominion. Nothing is outside his control. The Lord reigns over his creatures. But the problem in the book of Job isn’t with the animal world. The reader is rightly concerned about suffering and evil and the sinister one known as Satan. So the climactic part of God’s words in the final speech is reserved for this. The good news isn’t that God can subdue a dinosaur. The good news is that evil will answer to the Lord. Who can slay mighty Leviathan? God—who is mightier—can and will.
Eric Ortlund, Piercing Leviathan: God’s Defeat of Evil in the Book of Job (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021), 4.
Robert Fyall, Now My Eyes Have Seen You: Images of Creation and Evil in the Book of Job (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2002), 18.
James M. Hamilton Jr., God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 304.