One of the reasons I would conclude that Leviathan is likely to be a mythical creature is because its mythical properties can be seen quite well in Job 41—especially when God says that, “When he raises himself up, the mighty are afraid; at the crashing they are beside themselves” (Job 41:25).
I’d like to draw our attention here to the Hebrew word ’elim, which is the word that gets translated into “mighty.” While mighty can be an appropriate translation here, Bible translators point out that it is also acceptable to translate this word as “gods.” As William Reyburn explains,
The use of “gods” within the context of the increasing awesomeness of this creature is fully natural. Therefore the Hebrew may be interpreted to mean “gods,”…. [The New Jerusalem Version] has “divine beings.” We may translate the first line as “When he (Leviathan) rises up, even the gods are frightened.” (1)
Now if this is what Job was communicating (and it very well may be so) then it becomes very easy to see Leviathan as a mythical creature; for the “gods” would not shiver in their boots at the sight of a crocodile (as some suggest Leviathan was)—but a dragon-like creature that matched Job’s actual description? Well that’s a different story. Not to mention that Leviathan has its roots in a Canaanite story where it is thought to be seen as a being at war with the gods.
But why would Job be talking about the gods? Isn’t he and the rest of the Bible monotheist? Yes, absolutely. The Bible completely teaches that there is only one God, Yahweh, who has created everything that exists, both in the physical realm and the spiritual realm. Nothing can exist without Him. However, the Bible also paints a portrait with passages like Deuteronomy 32:8-9 and Psalm 82 to show us that God has given power and authority to spiritual beings that he created to rule over the nations. Bible writers knew these spiritual beings by all different kinds of names: principalities and powers, angels, demons, and yes, even the term, “gods.” By no means are they like Yahweh—they don’t come anywhere close—but since they have spiritual power and reign over humanity, their recognition as “little-g-gods” is quite common throughout the Bible.
This further shows us why Israel’s chief sin was idolatry. They didn’t just turn away from God to go worship statues made by their own hands, rather they kept getting seduced by real fallen spiritual entities that God had made and kept turning to worship them instead of God. With all of this in mind, it is not unbiblical or heretical for the book of Job to make reference to “the gods.” Job is a monotheist just like all the other Bible writers.
But there is perhaps another reason we are more apt to see the book of Job make reference to the gods and to Leviathan; for it’s possible that Job was not an Israelite. While the book’s “use of the divine name Yahweh indicates it was written, or at least edited, by a member of God’s people,” (2) all we really know about Job is that he “was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1).
In his book, The Star of Bethlehem, Michael Allan Pettem concludes that Job was not an Israelite because of the different astrological signs Job mentions. Since astrology was strictly forbidden among Israelites, you don’t see much mention of the names of heavenly objects in the Old Testament. Even the sun and the moon in Genesis 1:16 are called the “greater light” and the “lesser light.” But Job throws caution to the wind and talks about constellations like Pleiades and Orion (Job 38:31). Pettem goes on to explain that,
The distinction between Job and Israelites has great importance. Those who transmitted the Bible see that no righteous Israelite ever pronounce the names of the stars, except in praise of the power and greatness of God or in ridicule of the king of Babylon or in ridicule of the worship of star gods. But Job on the other hand, who is not an Israelite, can dispute with God at length, and God answers him, and both make reference to several explicitly named heavenly bodies. This way of speaking was appropriate to a righteous man who was not an Israelite. His astronomical knowledge is respected, and God enters into the dispute also using it. Here is important Old Testament background for understanding how Matthew can accept that the Magi follow a star. They, like Job, are not Israelites. They, like Job, can be good men and know the stars. (3)
Others like Carl Friedrich Keil chime in on Job’s outside references as well, stating that, “direct references to events in the history of Israel are contrary to the character of the book [of Job], which, with remarkable consistency, avoids everything that is at all Israelitish.” (4)
With this thought in mind, I suggest that God’s conversation with Job about Leviathan comes from a similar light. Here, God is talking to Job about Leviathan as though it’s a part of his belief system, while subjecting that system to Job’s monotheistic belief in Yahweh; for God’s ultimate point in bringing up Leviathan is that nothing can compete or compare with Him, even this ultimate mythical creature of the deep. Job has now come to the full realization that God can do all things and that no purpose of His can be thwarted (Job 42:2).
This is an adapted excerpt of my artistic/academic book, Kaiju of Biblical Proportions. Available on physical, Kindle, and audiobook.
(1) Reyburn, A Handbook on the Book of Job. pp. 763-764.
(2) Barry, John D. et al. “Introduction to Job.” Faithlife Study Bible. Bellingham, Lexham Press, 2016.
(3) Pettem, Michael Allan. The Star of Bethlehem: Science, History, and Meaning. Bellingham, Lexham Press, 2018.
(4) Keil, Commentary on the Old Testament. p. 327.