In comparison to other strange beings in the Holy Scripture, this one enjoys a unique privilege. It is extensively described in an entire chapter – 41 – of the Book of Job. Of course, there are a few references to this monster. Reviewing them, we will rediscover that kind of ambiguity we noted in a previous article in the case of the gigantic being that swallowed the prophet John. An ambiguity which, however, is allowed by the author of the Holy books of the Bible, God, not to leave us in confusion, but, on the contrary, to challenge and guide our minds, thirsty for truth, towards the symbolic, i.e. spiritual meaning of this creature.
Let’s read the Bible
In Psalm 103, we contemplate an image that urges us to admire the greatness of the Creator through the wonders of His world:
“How great are thy works, O Lord? Thou hast made all things in wisdom: the earth is filled with thy riches. So is this great sea, which stretcheth wide its arms: there are creeping things without number: Creatures little and great. There the ships shall go. This sea dragon which thou hast formed to play therein. All expect of thee that thou give them food in season” (Psalm 103:24-27)
The Angelic Doctor specifies that Leviathan is a symbol (or metaphor) of the devil. The overwhelming force attributed to him in the description from the Book of Job indicates the clear superiority of the fallen angel over humans.
The aquatic dragon is a term that, both in the Greek translation of the Septuagint and in the Latin Vulgate of Saint Jerome, translates the Hebrew term liv-yaw-thawn', which we know as leviathan. The fact that the translations have preferred names other than leviathan indicates the desire of their authors to suggest a being that is somewhat more familiar. However, from the verses cited in Psalm 103, we obtain an image of a playful creature that can be seen in its natural aquatic environment. So, in any case, it seems that we are dealing with a spectacular being similar to a hippopotamus, lion, or crocodile. There are other places in the Bible where this “naturalistic” image is questioned.
For example, in another psalm, 73, we read about one of God’s great deeds:
“Thou hast broken the heads of the dragon: thou hast given him to be meat for the people of the Ethiopians” (Psalm 73:14).
Once again, here we encounter the equivalence of Leviathan with the dragon. However, the surprise is significant: because if its flesh is given as food to a people “from the desert” (identified in the Vulgate, for obscure reasons, with that of the Ethiopians), at the same time, it speaks not of “head” of the monster (singular) but of its “heads” (plural). In other words, we are dealing with a multi-headed being as we only encounter in legends, myths, and stories from the folklore of various peoples. This characteristic will later allow the identification of Leviathan with the beast with seven heads rising from the sea, described in chapter 13 of the Apocalypse of Saint John. The direction in which our attention is directed is that of a spiritual being, which Saint Jerome comments on, referring to Psalm 104, already mentioned by us, as “the dragon that was cast out of Paradise, that beguiled Eve.”
Finally, the first verse of chapter 27 of the book of the prophet Isaiah describes Leviathan again, presenting it as a serpent whose destruction by God indicates the overwhelming power of the Creator over any of His creatures, no matter how terrible it may be:
“In that day the Lord with his hard, and great, and strong sword shall visit leviathan the bar serpent, and leviathan the crooked serpent, and shall slay the whale that is in the sea.”
Despite his power, Leviathan cannot act against the decisions of divine Providence. The devil, no matter how powerful, cannot act according to his own will but exclusively within the limits allowed by God. And in all this, we must consider the words of God that Saint Thomas evokes, showing that God desires the salvation of man, not his condemnation.
For the first time, in Saint Jerome’s interpretation, we encounter another suggestion: it might not be a reptile, meaning a gigantic serpent or something similar, but a whale. As we will see, this being will be assimilated in the interpretation of Saint Thomas Aquinas. At the same time, we can note the ambiguity we mentioned at the beginning of our article. Because, behold, the being called Leviathan, in a single verse from Isaiah, is both identified with the serpent and with the whale. All of these, I repeat, are not meant to increase confusion but, on the contrary, to help us detach from the literal sense and elevate our minds to the spiritual, symbolic meaning of such beings.
Doctor Angelicus’ Interpretation
Chapter 41 of the Book of Job contains a detailed description of Leviathan. Reading and rereading this chapter, we can easily conclude that the translations of the Septuagint and Vulgate are correct. Indeed, Leviathan seems to be a dragon, akin to those that, like Smaug in Professor Tolkien’s stories, spew flames:
“His sneezing is like the shining of fire, and his eyes like the eyelids of the morning. Out of his mouth go forth lamps, like torches of lighted fire. Out of his nostrils goeth smoke, like that of a pot heated and boiling. His breath kindleth coals, and a flame cometh forth out of his mouth” (Job 41:9-12).
Endowed with a power that seems to surpass that of any other creature, he cannot be confronted with any weapon:
“When a sword shall lay at him, it shall not be able to hold, nor a spear, nor a breastplate. For he shall esteem iron as straw, and brass as rotten wood. The archer shall not put him to flight, the stones of the sling are to him like stubble. As stubble will he esteem the hammer, and he will laugh him to scorn who shaketh the spear” (Job 41:17-20).
The wicked are represented in the image from the Book of Job as scales covering and supporting each other. It is about a pseudo-mystical body of those united in evil, a kind of mockery and perversion of the true mystical body of the Savior Christ – the Church.
However, all these traits that make him invincible by any earthly power are surpassed by a negative quality that gives us the key to understanding such a creature. And this key is contained in the last verse of chapter 41 of the Book of Job:
“He beholdeth every high thing, he is king over all the children of pride.”
Unlike interpreters who thought the monster described in the Bible could be a crocodile or a species of gigantic sea serpent, Saint Thomas is convinced – following Saint Jerome – that it was a whale. However, I assure you that the Angelic Doctor is not interested in zoology and rare species of giant fish. Immediately, he specifies that Leviathan is a symbol (or metaphor) of the devil. The overwhelming force attributed to him in the description from the Book of Job indicates the clear superiority of the fallen angel over humans. In practice, no earthly being can defeat him with its own powers. At the same time, to reassure us, Saint Thomas points out that, despite his power, Leviathan cannot act against the decisions of divine Providence. The devil, no matter how powerful, cannot act according to his own will but exclusively within the limits allowed by God. And in all this, we must consider the words of God that Saint Thomas evokes, showing that God desires the salvation of man, not his condemnation.
In summary, the interpretation of the author of the Summa Theologica contains two key points that he summarizes as follows:
“Since he has said many things about the properties of Leviathan as an image of the devil, he consequently explains this metaphor. As I said already, all the properties treated seem to be reduced to two. One of these is that he cannot be harmed by another, and he explains this saying, ‘He has been made to fear no one,’ that is, the devil fears no man or any other corporeal creature from the condition of the nature in which he was made by God. Another is that Leviathan has the power to do great and powerful actions, and he explains this saying, ‘he sees everything which is sublime,’ that is, the intention of the devil is to attach himself to whatever is sublime. As these properties are characteristic of pride, he shows as a consequence that the devil is not only proud in himself, but he exceeds everyone in pride and is the source of pride in others. So he continues, ‘he is the king over all the sons of pride,’ that is, over those who are slaves of pride, who all follow his leadership.”
Clearly, Saint Thomas considers Leviathan a true “patron” of the sin of sins: pride. This is why the fight to which Job is invited – and, like him, all those who want to be faithful to God – is against pride. And those who do not engage in this fight not only remain slaves to sin but, in a mysterious yet concrete way, become participants in the world of “Leviathan,” whose atmosphere is saturated/infected with the virus of pride. In this regard, the most interesting aspect of Saint Thomas’s interpretation is the solidarity in evil.
Obviously, they cannot, however, constitute a true mystical body – since their only harmony is in evil. Otherwise, like a band of thieves, they constantly fight among themselves for a larger share of the loot.
The Mystical Body of Satan
Readers of apocalyptic texts have likely immediately recognized the description of the red dragon – “that old serpent, who is called the devil and Satan” – from Chapter 12 of the Book of Revelation by the Apostle John. The image of this dragon with seven heads and ten horns standing on the sand of the sea is extraordinary. I am convinced that it is not about the sand on the shore but rather about the sand at the bottom of the sea. Imagine for a moment the huge beast, so large that the upper part of its body, with the seven heads, is above the water, while the lower part, with its gigantic tail and colossal paws, rests on the sand at the bottom of the water. In this spectacular image no detail is without purpose.
Water is the “world” (do you remember the interpretation of Saint Maximus the Confessor regarding the prophet Jonah swallowed by the monster and taken to the depths of the waters?).[i] And the sand, Saint Bede the Venerable tells us, represents the multitude of those who are subjected to the dragon and fulfill his plans (the sum of heretics, schismatics, and unbelievers of all kinds). In a word, those who, in place of the Savior Christ, choose the devil through their actions and deeds, their lifestyle, their unbelief. But what does all this have to do with Leviathan?
Saint Thomas Aquinas proposes an interpretation starting from those elements in the Book of Job that emphasize the impregnable resistance of the monstrous creature:
“His body is like molten shields, shut close up with scales pressing upon one another. One is joined to another, and not so much as any air can come between them: They stick one to another and they hold one another fast, and shall not be separated” (Job 41:6-8).
This is how leviathan can be understood in the sense of a spiritual, symbolic interpretation, which identifies him with the Devil.
In other words, Leviathan is clad in armor that cannot be pierced. The key point is its composite nature: it is composed of plates that are glued together. This detail allows for an interpretation similar to that of Saint Bede regarding the sand on which the red dragon in the apocalypse stands. Here it is, in the words of Saint Thomas:
“When the Lord has described these characteristics of the head of Leviathan, he proceeds to the order of his body which he describes as like a fish having scales. So according to the great size of his body, he should have great scales like shields, so he says, ‘His body is like cast metal shields welded together,’ which are without joints, for wooden shields are joined by tying them together. But the devil is compared to all evildoers as the head to the body, and so sinners who defend others in evil are like the shields of the body of the devil. He shows as a consequence that his scales are not only large but also pressed close together like a fish with many scales. So he shows this saying, ‘compact with the scales closely joining each other,’ by which he shows the great number of evil men. He shows their perverse accord in evil when he says, ‘One is joined to another,’ because as on the body of some fish each scale is not joined to the other at random but there is an order among them; so also in the crowd of evildoers, all do not form a society with all of them, but rather certain men with certain men.”
As the multitude of sand grains submerged in the ocean of the world is trampled by the devil – represented in the image of the red dragon, similarly, the wicked are represented in the image from the Book of Job as scales covering and supporting each other. The association of the wicked, who protect each other in the commission of evil, is incredible. It is about a pseudo-mystical body of those united in evil, a kind of mockery and perversion of the true mystical body of the Savior Christ – the Church. Obviously, they cannot, however, constitute a true mystical body – since their only harmony is in evil. Otherwise, like a band of thieves, they constantly fight among themselves for a larger share of the loot.
For me and my generation colleagues who lived under the communist rule of the single party for decades, this was not just a story but a terrible reality. Not only did the Romanian Communist Party censor anything that did not align with its materialistic doctrine, but it also exerted formidable pressure for every citizen to become a member. From a very young age, we were all enrolled in the category of “șoimii patriei” – approximatively translatable as “hawks of the homeland” (this happened when we were 8-10 years old), and as we grew, we automatically became “pioneers” (up to 14 years old). In high school, we became members of the “Communist Youth Union,” and when we became adults, we were pressed to join the Party. Those who refused such “honors” were marginalized, excluded, persecuted, and sometimes even ended up in prison. The communist party was one of the most terrible embodiments of solidarity in evil, both among communist leaders and those governed – trampled upon – ruthlessly and without mercy.
This is how leviathan can be understood in the sense of a spiritual, symbolic interpretation, which identifies him with the Devil. At the same time, the fact that one of the basic treatises of modern political life, signed by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), bears its name cannot but make us think. Nothing is accidental, isn’t it?
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