Epic imagery

Question: I was in a conversation with several unbelieving college friends who dismissed the Bible as unreliable and merely mythical because it presumes the existence of monsters like Leviathan and fiery dragons. I wasn’t sure how to answer them.

— Name withheld, Massachusetts

Answer: Leviathan is a name of a large beast in the Old Testament. The term seems to be used both symbolically and also literally to refer to actual beasts in the sea. For example, in Psalm 104 we read, “There is the sea, great and wide, which teems with creatures innumerable, living things both small and great. There go the ships, and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic therein” (25-26). In this case it seems that some actual sea creature such as a whale or giant squid is being indicated.

However, in other cases, Leviathan seems more mythical. The Book of Job speaks of Leviathan as a large sea creature: “Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook? ... Can you fill his skin with harpoons?” (40:25, 31). But then it adds, his eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn. “Out of his mouth go flaming torches; sparks of fire leap forth. Out of his nostrils comes forth smoke, as from a boiling pot and burning rushes. ... and a flame comes forth from his mouth. ... terror dances before him” (Job 41:11-14). Here are described things that seem more mythical or satanic.

The Book of Isaiah says that, at the end of time, God will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea (27:1). In this case we also see how Leviathan is also termed a serpent and dragon.

So we are left with a number of understandings of Leviathan. One the one hand the term may merely refer to an actual sea creature such as a whale or giant squid. But since it is a large and fearsome creature living in the mysterious depths of the sea, it comes to symbolize more: Satan and satanic qualities, which God will vanquish one day. As such terms like “dragon” and “serpent” also get attached to the image.

Thus, ancient biblical texts take up such themes and imagine Satan’s power as like a large beast but exceeding it with preternatural powers.

To say that the use of this technique discredits Scripture is unreasonable. We use this same technique in our own age. We speak of figures like Superman, the Incredible Hulk or Darth Vader, who have combinations of real human qualities but also qualities and powers far beyond what a real man has. In so doing we are not foolish or unreliable. We do not think these superheroes or villains literally exist. Rather we are speaking to archetypal human longings and experiences such as the need to be saved, and the longing to triumph over evil.

Like what you’re reading? Subscribe now in print or digital.

There is a regrettable tendency of many opponents of Scripture to take up a literal interpretation of the text. Like any form of writing or speech, some degree of sophistication is required in interpreting and understanding the text. Attention to the genre being used, context and literary form are essential.

The use of symbolism, analogy, metaphor, simile, storytelling, archetypes and so forth are common in all literature. While Scripture does recount actual historical events, it also includes other forms of teaching such as parables and stories which use epic imagery.

Leviathan, while having symbolic qualities, speaks to a very evil reality: Satan. Satan does worse than breathe fire; he spews lies that trap and destroy many lives.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to msgrpope@osv.com.