Leviathan in Revelation

One is hard pressed to find a few words go by without some kind of allusion to a Bible passage. John is pulling references from left and right. With this in mind, it’s not unthinkable to see the Leviathan of the Old Testament resurface, especially given the fact that Isaiah said God would deal with Leviathan in the end-times. And sure enough, we see him boldly and chaotically enter into the story.

And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. (Rev 12:3)

This seven-headed dragon seems an obvious callback to Leviathan, though this time he is identified as “that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Rev 12:9). He and his kaiju entourage have come to Earth and are wreaking chaos upon it. They are the opposite of God and therefore, the opposite of order. They want the violent and moral ruin of humanity. The creature that Isaiah prophesied God would slay now shows his many faces in Revelation 12, and no one can miss it.

Of course, Satan isn’t the only seven-headed creature in Revelation; for one of Satan’s minions, the first beast, rises “out of the sea, with…. seven heads” (Rev 13:1). In fact, this creature seems even more intentionally linked to Leviathan because of its association with the sea. This beast however, isn’t any less an allusion to Satan, for it is, in a sense, a mirror of Satan. This first beast leads people to worship both himself and the dragon known as Satan (Rev 13:4), further evidencing their connection as the same force, or at the very least, the same theme.

And yet we rarely seem to make these connections—though it’s easy to see why. While it makes sense that John would put an apocalyptic passage from Isaiah into his own apocalypse, there are so many hybrid creatures in his book already that we can easily get lost in the description. We’re so busy counting heads and trying to assign numerological meaning to things that we forget to stand back and stare at the dragon. The Greeks would have recognized him as Hydra, but those who knew their Bible knew that this was the thing Hydra was based off of: Leviathan himself.

This doesn’t mean it’s inappropriate to look for meaning in the dragon and the first beast’s seven heads (for such creatures do not wear crowns and metaphor is therefore implied), but to ignore the image in its whole is to miss the wider portrait John is drawing. The author, in his genius, is painting revelatory layer after layer to create an apocalyptic masterpiece of allegory.

The name Satan is attached to the dragon, whom Leviathan serves. Therefore, everything that Satan represents is found in Leviathan. He wars with God, though God holds all power over him and can (and will) crush him.

He is here to destroy creation and is the embodiment of all that the sea ever stood for in the ancient world. As Heiser points out,

In the ancient world the sea was a thing of dread. It was unpredictable and untamable. It was a place upon which humans couldn’t live. Consequently, the sea was often used as a metaphor for chaos, destruction, and death. The power and chaotic unruliness of the sea was symbolized in both the Old Testament and a wide range of ancient Near Eastern literatures with a dragon or sea monster, variously known as Leviathan and Rahab (e.g., Pss 74:14; 89:10).

Sea imagery conveys these ideas from the very beginning of the Bible. The waters of the primeval deep (Gen 1:2) must be calmed and restrained by God. The defeat of the gods of Egypt happens when the sea obeys its Maker (Exod 14). Jesus walks on the sea and instantly brings it into submission. To the ancient mind these incidents symbolized power over chaos and everything that might bring harm and death to humanity. (Heiser, Michael S. The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible. Bellingham, Lexham Press, 2015, p. 382-383.)

In contrast to the sea, God is order—the antithesis of chaos. This is easily seen in the fact that Revelation paints the waters before God’s throne as “a sea of glass, like crystal” (Rev 4:6). As Gordon Fee notes, “it has clearly been tamed.” (Fee, Gordon D. Revelation. New Covenant Commentary Series. Eugene, Cascade Books, 2011, p. 71.) And even when this “sea of glass” is enraged, it’s not turned into chaotic, unruly waters; rather, it remains a “sea of glass,” but becomes “mingled with fire” (Rev 15:2).

And so, in order to end chaos once and for all, God must slay the twisting, fleeing, Satanic Leviathan. He is thrown into a lake of fire (Rev 20:10), along with Death itself (Rev 20:14), and the entire cosmos finally becomes all it was meant to be and more. God makes “a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Rev 21:1)—and along with that, everything the sea represented. Chaos is dead. Leviathan is dead. Satan is dead. Even death itself is dead. God has crushed Leviathan’s seven heads and has given “him as food for the creatures of the wilderness” (Psalm 74:14). All that lives on is of God and His order, which includes His people who take on new resurrected bodies.

This is an adapted excerpt from my book, Kaiju of Biblical Proportions.

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