lethargic_man: (recent)
[personal profile] lethargic_man

Notes from Limmud 2005

Sea Monsters and Giants

Roni Tabick

In Judaism do we have a mythology? If we do, where does it come from, and how do we deal with it in the modern world?

There is a sea-monster mentioned in the Bible, לויתן, the Leviathan (לוי means "to coil"), though the word "Leviathan" does not occur in the Torah.

(In modern Hebrew לויתן Leviathan means "whale"; but this is one of four words (the others being בהמות Behemoth, חשמל ḥashmal ["amber" in the KJV, "electrum" in JPS 1916; "electricity" in modern Hebrew], and I didn't catch the last as Roni was speaking fast during this little digression) that Eliezer ben-Yehuda deliberately used for specific meanings where the original meaning is unknown.)

Genesis 1:21
And G-d created the great-sea-monsters (תנינים) and every kind of creature that live in the waters, and every kind of winged birds, and G-d saw that it was good.
בראשית א כ׳ב
ויברא אלקים את התנינם הגדלים, ואת כל נפש החיה הרמשת אשר שרצו המים למינהם, ואת כל עוף כנף למינהו, וירא אלקים כי טוב׃

What is תנינם, and why is it separated from every other kind of sea creature? First, the word doesn't always mean sea-monster: when Moses throws his staff on the ground and it becomes a snake, the word used is תנין.

The word is also used by Ezekiel (29:3) to describe Egypt: "the crocodile in the river". The Biblical mindset does not distinguish clearly between fish and reptiles (they're both scaly things).

Roni sees the quotation from Genesis as a rejection of mythology in some ways: the sea monsters aren't anything special; they're just one type of the creatures out there.

Psalms 104:24-26
O LORD, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches. So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts. There go the ships: there is that leviathan, whom thou hast made to play therein.
תהלים ק׳ד
מה־רבו מעשיך ה׳, כלם בחכמה עשית; מלאה הארץ קנינך׃ זה הים גדול ורחב ידים, שם־רמש ואין מספר, חיות קטנות עם־גדלות׃ שם אניות יהלכון, לויתן זה־יצרת לשחק־בו׃

What is meant by playing/sporting with the Leviathan? Shoshanna suggested a comparison with Satan "sporting" with Job in the Book of Job.

Ancient Battles

Isaiah 51:9-10
Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the LORD; awake, as in the ancient days, in the generations of old. Art thou not it that hath cut Rahab, and wounded the dragon? Art thou not it which hath dried the sea [ים], the waters of the great deep [תהום]; that hath made the depths of the sea a way for the ransomed to pass over?
ישעיה ל׳א
עורי עורי לבשי עז זרוע יהוה - עורי כימי קדם דרות עולמים; הלוא את היא המחצבת רהב מחוללת תנין׃ הלוא את היא המחרבת ים מי תהום רבה, השמה מעמקי ים, דרך לעבר גאולים׃

ים normally means "sea", of course, but here later quotations imply it may be a monster as well.

Habbakuk 3:7-10
I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction: and the curtains of the land of Midian did tremble. Was the LORD displeased against the rivers? was thine anger against the rivers [נהרים]? was thy wrath against the sea [ים], that thou didst ride upon thine horses and thy chariots of salvation? Thy bow was made quite naked, according to the oaths of the tribes*, even thy word. Selah. Thou didst cleave the earth with rivers. The mountains saw thee, and they trembled: the overflowing of the water passed by: the deep uttered his voice, and lifted up his hands on high.
חבקוק ג׳
תחת און ראיתי אהלי כושן, ירגזון יריעות ארץ מדין׃ הבנהרים חרה יהוה - אם בנהרים אפך, אם בים עברתך: כי תרכב על סוסיך מרכבתיך ישועה׃ עריה תעור קשתך, שבעות מטות אמר* סלה; נהרות תבקע ארץ׃ ראוך יחילו הרים, זרם מים עבר; נתן תהום קולו, רום ידיהו נשא׃

A brief digression, shamelessly raided from my mail archive, on these three words, שבעות מטות אמר shəvuōth matōth Ōmer, which are very difficult to translate. The Soncino chumash offers the following, with commentary:

JPS 1916:Thy bow is made quite bare; sworn are the rods of the word. Selah.

You what? Other versions I found at bible.gospelcom.net:

KJV: Thy bow was made quite naked, according to the oaths of the tribes, even thy word. Selah.
NIV: You uncovered your bow, you called for many arrows.
RSV: Thou didst strip the sheath from thy bow, and put the arrows to the string. Selah
NASB: Your bow was made bare, The rods of chastisement were sworn.
Darby: Thy bow was made naked, The rods [of discipline] sworn according to [thy] word. Selah.
YLT: Utterly naked Thou dost make Thy bow, Sworn are the tribes - saying, `Pause!'

Hmm, that last one sounds interesting. :-)

Anyhow, the commentary offered an alternative meaning altogether, that this was not originally part of the text at all, but a marginal note to indicate that in the (now long discontinued) triennial cycle of Torah readings, this part of Habakkuk was to be used as the Haftarah (reading from the Prophets) for the festival of Shavuot and the סדרות (pericopes) of Mattot and Emor...

Interesting, I thought.
Psalms 74:11-14
Why withdrawest thou thy hand, even thy right hand? pluck it out of thy bosom. For God is my King of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth. Thou didst divide the sea [ים] by thy strength: thou brakest the heads of the dragons [תנינים] in the waters. Thou brakest the heads of leviathan in pieces, and gavest him to be meat to the people inhabiting the wilderness.
ישעיה ל׳א
למה תשיב ידך וימינך, מקרב חוקך כלה׃ ואלקים מלכי מקדם, פעל ישועות בקרב הארץ׃ אתה פוררת בעזך ים, שברת ראשי תנינים על־המים׃ אתה רצצת ראשי לויתן, תתננו מאכל לעם לציים׃

The Leviathan has several heads? Or maybe there are many of them and each has a single head.

"Thou didst divide the sea [ים] by thy strength" also refers to the parting of the Red Sea.

Or [Sharonah Fredrick] a reference to Babylonia: Yam was a Babylonian god, and this implies the Israelite G-d is more powerful than the Babylonian.

Psalms 89 9-11

O LORD God of hosts, who is a strong LORD like unto thee? or to thy faithfulness round about thee? Thou rulest the raging of the sea: when the waves thereof arise, thou stillest them. Thou hast broken Raḥab [רחב] in pieces, as one that is slain; thou hast scattered thine enemies with thy strong arm.

Is this a Jewish story? We don't tell our children about G-d trampling down Raḥab like carrion! Other mythologies had similar stories; Judaism built upon stories from other cultures. It doesn't exist in a vacuum.

It's also about chaos and order. The water is always moving and changing. The unknown, the danger, is in the sea. The end of the world is by water.

Shoshanna: G-d is controlling here the depths (תהום) and the breadths (רחב).

Sharonah: The Israelites saw themselves as part of the battle between Good and Evil: a Manichaean perspective.

Future Battles

Isaiah 27:1

On that day the LORD with his hard, great and strong sword shall punish Leviathan the elusive serpent, even Leviathan that twisting serpent; and he shall slay the Dragon [תנין] that is in the sea.

What happened in the past will happen in the future. As G-d fought Leviathan in the past so shall He do so in the future

The Sea Contained

G-d set boundaries for the sea, and the sea can't pass them any more.

Jeremiah 5:22:

Fear ye not me? saith the LORD: will ye not tremble at my presence, which have placed the sand for the bound of the sea by a perpetual decree, that it cannot pass it: and though the waves thereof toss themselves, yet can they not prevail; though they roar, yet can they not pass over it?

Psalms 104:6-9:

Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed for ever. Thou coveredst it with the deep as with a garment: the waters stood above the mountains. At thy rebuke they fled; at the voice of thy thunder they hasted away. They go up by the mountains; they go down by the valleys unto the place which thou hast founded for them. Thou hast set a bound that they may not pass over; that they turn not again to cover the earth.

Proverbs 8:27-29:

When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth: When he established the clouds above: when he strengthened the fountains of the deep: When he gave to the sea his decree, that the waters should not pass his commandment: when he appointed the foundations of the earth:


Job 3:6-9. (Job is talking here about the day of his birth.)

As for that night, let darkness seize upon it; let it not be joined unto the days of the year, let it not come into the number of the months. Lo, let that night be solitary, let no joyful voice come therein. Let them curse it that curse the day, who are ready to rouse up Leviathan. Let the stars of the twilight thereof be dark; let it look for light, but have none; neither let it see the dawning of the day:

Job 7 11-12:

Therefore I will not refrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul. Am I a sea [ים], or a sea monster [תנין], that thou settest a watch over me?

This is Roni's proof text that Yam means a sea monster - why does the sea need watching over? (Though Brandon pointed out that the seas are contained at the end of the Flood!)

Job 26 10-14:

He hath compassed the waters with bounds, until the day and night come to an end. The pillars of heaven tremble and are astonished at his reproof. He divideth the sea with his power, and by his understanding he smiteth through the proud. By his spirit he hath garnished the heavens; his hand hath formed the crooked serpent [נחש]. Lo, these are parts of his ways: but how little a portion is heard of him? but the thunder of his power who can understand?

Job 38 8-11:

Or who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb? When I made the cloud the garment thereof, and thick darkness a swaddlingband for it, And brake up for it my decreed place, and set bars and doors, And said, Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further: and here shall thy proud waves be stayed?

Job 40-41: Description of Behemoth and Leviathan:

Behold now Behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox. Lo now, his strength is in his loins, and his force is in the navel of his belly. He moveth his tail like a cedar: the sinews of his stones are wrapped together. His bones are as strong pieces of brass; his bones are like bars of iron. He is the chief of the ways of God: he that made him can make his sword to approach unto him. Surely the mountains bring him forth food, where all the beasts of the field play. He lieth under the shady trees, in the covert of the reed, and fens. The shady trees cover him with their shadow; the willows of the brook compass him about. Behold, he drinketh up a river, and hasteth not: he trusteth that he can draw up Jordan into his mouth. He taketh it with his eyes: his nose pierceth through snares.

Canst thou draw out Leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down? Canst thou put an hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn? Will he make many supplications unto thee? will he speak soft words unto thee? Will he make a covenant with thee? wilt thou take him for a servant for ever? Wilt thou play with him as with a bird? or wilt thou bind him for thy maidens? Shall the companions make a banquet of him? shall they part him among the merchants? Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish spears? Lay thine hand upon him, remember the battle, do no more.

Behold, the hope of him is in vain: shall not one be cast down even at the sight of him? None is so fierce that dare stir him up: who then is able to stand before me? Who hath prevented me, that I should repay him? whatsoever is under the whole heaven is mine. I will not conceal his parts, nor his power, nor his comely proportion. Who can discover the face of his garment? or who can come to him with his double bridle? Who can open the doors of his face? his teeth are terrible round about. His scales are his pride, shut up together as with a close seal. One is so near to another, that no air can come between them. They are joined one to another, they stick together, that they cannot be sundered. By his neesings a light doth shine, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning. Out of his mouth go burning lamps, and sparks of fire leap out. Out of his nostrils goeth smoke, as out of a seething pot or caldron. His breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth out of his mouth.* In his neck remaineth strength, and sorrow is turned into joy before him. The flakes of his flesh are joined together: they are firm in themselves; they cannot be moved. His heart is as firm as a stone; yea, as hard as a piece of the nether millstone.

When he raiseth up himself, the mighty are afraid: by reason of breakings they purify themselves. The sword of him that layeth at him cannot hold: the spear, the dart, nor the habergeon. He esteemeth iron as straw, and brass as rotten wood. The arrow cannot make him flee: slingstones are turned with him into stubble. Darts are counted as stubble: he laugheth at the shaking of a spear. Sharp stones are under him: he spreadeth sharp pointed things upon the mire. He maketh the deep to boil like a pot: he maketh the sea like a pot of ointment. He maketh a path to shine after him; one would think the deep to be hoary. Upon earth there is not his like, who is made without fear. He beholdeth all high things: he is a king over all the children of pride.

* This is a fire-breathing creature: definitely not a real creature. In our culture we don't think of dragons as being sea creatures; but they also are in Aztec and Mayan mythology.

† In Christian thought, the Leviathan represents pride. (Which in Christian thought is synonymous with Hell.)

Land, Sea and Air

Psalms 50:

I know all the fowls of the mountains: and the wild beasts of the field [זיז שדי ziz sadai] are mine.

In the Talmud זיז שדי is described as a giant bird.

So now we have three mythological creatures, representing land, earth and air.

Rabbinic texts

Bava Batra (not included in the talk; can't include here as the handout's gone walkies).

Avoda Zarah 3b:

R. Isaac remarked that there was no laughter for the Holy One, blessed be He, except on that day (the end of days). But is there not, indeed? Yet Rab Judah said in the name of Rab the day consists of twelve hours; during the first three hours the Holy One blessed be He, is occupying Himself with the Torah, during the second three He sits in judgment on the whole world, and when He sees that the world is so guilty as to deserve destruction, He transfers Himself from the seat of Justice to the seat of Mercy; during the third quarter, He is feeding the whole world, from the horned buffalo to the brood of vermin; during the fourth quarter He is sporting with the Leviathan, as it is said, There is Leviathan, whom Thou hast formed to sport therewith [Psalms 54:26]. Said R. Nachman b. Isaac: Yes, He sports with his creatures, but does not laugh* at His creatures except on that day.

* Same root as "sport": צחק.

(In the Apocryphal Book of Enoch, Behemoth is described as male and Leviathan as female.)

Leviticus Rabbah 13:3

R. Judah b. R. Simeon said: Behemoth and the Leviathan are to engage in a wild beast contest before the righteous in the Time to Come, and whoever has not been a spectator at the wild beast contests of the heathen nations in the world will be accorded the boon of seeing on in the World to Come*. How will they be slaughtered? Behemoth will, with its horns, pull Leviathan down and rend it, and Leviathan will, with its fins, pull Behemoth down and pierce it through. The Sages said: And this is a valid method of slaughter? Have we not learned the following in a Mishna: All may slaughter, and one may slaughter at all times [of the day], and with any instrument except with a scythe, or with a saw, or with teeth [in a jaw cut out of a dead animal], because they cause pain as if by choking, or with a nail [of a living body]? R. Abin b. Kahana said: The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Instruction [Torah] shall go forth from Me (Isaiah 51:4), i.e. an exceptional temporary ruling will go forth from Me.

* He is saying: don't go to the Roman circuses

† And who said Yiddish humour didn't exist in the Talmud?

Other Mythologies

Enuma Elish, "When on High" (Akkadian creation epic)

Tablet IV 129-140:

The lord [Marduk] trod on the legs of Tiamat
with his unsparing mace he crushed her skull
(and) when he had severed the arteries of her blood,
the north wind bore it to unknown fields.
When his fathers saw this, they were joyful and rejoiced,
They brought him gifts of homage.
Then the lord rested and contemplated her corpse,
Intent on divining the form and doing skillful works,
He split it like a dried fish
Set up one half and made it the firmament,
Drew a skin over it, posted guards
And instructed them not to let its water escape..

Tiamat is related to Hebrew תהום tehom; the -at is a feminine ending.

Ugaritic Texts, C13 BCE

(No texts have been found from the immediate area of Canaan.)

Has some enemy shown himself against Baal,
Is there hostility against the one who rides on the clouds?
Have I not smashed El's darling, Yam?
Have I not made an end to Nahar, the great god?
Have I not crushed Tannin? Yes, I crushed him!
I shattered the wounded snake,
the powerful (?) one with the seven heads...


Another Canaanite cycle features Hadad (Baal) fighting a seven-headed sea monster named Lotan.


The sun god Ra and his eternal battle with the serpent Apep.

(Later on Apep gets associated with other Egyptian gods and vanishes.)


Date: 2006-03-22 02:49 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
Jeremy Gordon once talked about it. It was actually meant for teenagers but I found it interesting as well. I had not so much text in front of me. He explained that the prophets have the idea that we eat the sea-monsters when the messianic time arrived. The text you provide here does not see anything about messianic time nor that the people in the wilderness are necessarily Jewish. I think you are right. Those sources seem not to be Jewish sources.

Re: sea-monster

Date: 2006-03-22 03:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
He explained that the prophets have the idea that we eat the sea-monsters when the messianic time arrived. The text you provide here does not see anything about messianic time

I think that's midrash, not prophetic, but you're right; there is this idea that the Leviathan and Behemoth will kill each other, and then we will eat their flesh in a succah made from the skin of the Leviathan. (And then we'll bentsh and at the end I'll go "ואמרו אמן start again" and the world will begin all over again, and it'll all be my fault. :o))

nor that the people in the wilderness are necessarily Jewish. I think you are right. Those sources seem not to be Jewish sources.

Pththp! You can't get more Jewish than the Book of Psalms! What Roni is saying, I think, is that the culture of the Israelites in First Temple times was very different to Jewish culture nowadays.

Re: sea-monster

Date: 2006-03-22 06:47 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
I just don't understand why we shall suddenly break all the kosher laws we are demanded in the Torah by God.

Re: sea-monster

Date: 2006-03-22 07:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
There's an old idea that the laws will be changed in Messianic times; for example, that all the festivals will be cancelled except Purim. If the Torah laws come from G-d, it's G-d's prerogative to change them at G-d's pleasure.


lethargic_man: (Default)
Lethargic Man (anag.)

September 2017

1011 1213141516

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Thursday, September 21st, 2017 11:00 pm
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios