Shuck and Jive

Monday, October 09, 2006

Rahab, Leviathan & Behemoth: The Chaotic Trinity

William Blake created this enchanting piece.

Yahweh with his finger holds down Behemoth and Leviathan, the forces of chaos. His angels are the pillars of heaven and earth. Humans between earth and dome praise Yahweh.

Rahab, Behemoth, and Leviathan are three characters in the Hebrew scriptures who play a part in the creation mythologies. Rahab (not to be confused with Rahab the prositute who helped the Hebrew spies enter Jericho in the book of Joshua) appears in the following texts:

Job 9:8-18, Job 26:7-27:3, Psalm 87, Psalm 89, Isaiah 30:2-12, and Isaiah 51:4-14.

Psalm 89 is a song of praise to Yahweh, who (like Marduk in the Enuma Elish), created heaven and earth by the crushing of Rahab:

9You rule the raging of the sea;
when its waves rise, you still them.
10You crushed Rahab like a carcass;
you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm.
11The heavens are yours, the earth also is yours;
the world and all that is in it—you have founded them.
In Job 9:8-18, Yahweh is the one

8who alone stretched out the heavens
and trampled the waves of the Sea;
9who made the Bear and Orion,
the Pleiades and the chambers of the south;
10who does great things beyond understanding,
and marvellous things without number.
Connected with this act of creation, is the humbling of Rahab:
13‘God will not turn back his anger;
the helpers of Rahab bowed beneath him.

In Job 26, we find a clear account of Yahweh creating by stilling the "Sea". The Sea is not simply the ocean, but it represents the watery chaos that is held back by both the dome and earth. Rahab symbolizes this chaos:

7He stretches out Zaphon over the void,
and hangs the earth upon nothing.
8He binds up the waters in his thick clouds,
and the cloud is not torn open by them.
9He covers the face of the full moon,
and spreads over it his cloud.
10He has described a circle on the face of the waters,
at the boundary between light and darkness.
11The pillars of heaven tremble,
and are astounded at his rebuke.
12By his power he stilled the Sea;
by his understanding he struck down Rahab.
13By his wind the heavens were made fair;
his hand pierced the fleeing serpent.
Rahab is not finally defeated. Rahab reappears or is incarnated in political forces who oppose Israel. In this Psalm of praise to Jerusalem (Zion), Rahab is one of the many empires who are ultimately under the control of Yahweh:

Of the Korahites. A Psalm. A Song.
1On the holy mount stands the city he founded;
2 the Lord loves the gates of Zion
more than all the dwellings of Jacob.
3Glorious things are spoken of you,
O city of God.

4Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon;
Philistia too, and Tyre, with Ethiopia
‘This one was born there,’ they say.

5And of Zion it shall be said,
‘This one and that one were born in it’;
for the Most High himself will establish it.
6The Lord records, as he registers the peoples,
‘This one was born there.’

7Singers and dancers alike say,
‘All my springs are in you.’ Psalm 87

Rahab also has a future. Isaiah sees Rahab in the presence of Egypt. Isaiah condemns the political leaders who seek an alliance with Egypt

2who set out to go down to Egypt
without asking for my counsel,
to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh,
and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt;
3Therefore the protection of Pharaoh shall become your shame,
and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt your humiliation.
Seeking an ally with Egypt is seeking an ally with Rahab (the force of chaos, whom Yahweh has and will again, humiliate):

7For Egypt’s help is worthless and empty,
therefore I have called her,
Rahab who sits still.’
The creation and the crossing of the Red Sea are linked in this passage from Isaiah. As Yahweh defeated the forces of chaos in creating and in liberating the Hebrew people, Yahweh can be called upon to help in current times of trouble. In Isaiah 51, the prophet pleads with Yahweh to wake up and help:

9Awake, awake, put on strength,
O arm of the Lord!
Awake, as in days of old,
the generations of long ago!
Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces,
who pierced the dragon?
10Was it not you who dried up the sea,
the waters of the great deep;
who made the depths of the sea a way
for the redeemed to cross over?
11So the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Who is Rahab?
  • the chaos which Yahweh has defeated in creating heaven and earth,
  • the forces of bondage that enslaved the Hebrew people under Pharoah,
  • the political forces that currently oppose the Hebrew people.
Key point: In Hebrew mythology, Rahab is still with us. Rahab is crushed yet still able to appear.

Leviathan and Rahab are similar, almost interchangeable. Leviathan appears in the following texts:

Job 3:3-13, Job 40:20-41:6, Psalm 74:9-19, Psalm 104:21-31, Isaiah 26:17-27:6, and (with Behemoth) 2 Esdras 6:44-54.

In Job 3, Job laments his birth. Here are the words of a real poet. He not only wishes he were never born, but that earth and heaven never existed. He prays for the return of Leviathan to reverse the creation:

3‘Let the day perish on which I was born,
and the night that said,
“A man-child is conceived.”
4Let that day be darkness!
May God above not seek it,
or light shine on it.
5Let gloom and deep darkness claim it.
Let clouds settle upon it;
let the blackness of the day terrify it.
6That night—let thick darkness seize it!
let it not rejoice among the days of the year;
let it not come into the number of the months.
7Yes, let that night be barren;
let no joyful cry be heard in it.
8Let those curse it who curse the Sea,
those who are skilled to rouse up Leviathan.
9Let the stars of its dawn be dark;
let it hope for light, but have none;
may it not see the eyelids of the morning—
10because it did not shut the doors of my mother’s womb,
and hide trouble from my eyes.

Yahweh teases Job as he answers from the whirlwind. "Who are you, little man?" Yahweh seems to say. "Are you big enough to defeat Leviathan? Will you put it on a leash for your girls?" Leviathan is not just a sea monster, but the symbol of chaos itself:

41‘Can you draw out Leviathan with a fish-hook,
or press down its tongue with a cord? 2Can you put a rope in its nose,
or pierce its jaw with a hook? 3Will it make many supplications to you?
Will it speak soft words to you? 4Will it make a covenant with you
to be taken as your servant for ever? 5Will you play with it as with a bird,
or will you put it on a leash for your girls? 6Will traders bargain over it?
Will they divide it up among the merchants?

In Psalm 74, the Psalmist prays for deliverance from enemies. The Psalmist praises Yahweh who has defeated chaos before and (hopefully) will come through again. Notice the similarities with Enuma Elish. Yahweh forms from the carcass of the defeated Leviathan streams, food, the stars, etc.

12Yet God my King is from of old,
working salvation in the earth. 13You divided the sea by your might;
you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters. 14You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness. 15You cut openings for springs and torrents;
you dried up ever-flowing streams. 16Yours is the day, yours also the night;
you established the luminaries and the sun. 17You have fixed all the bounds of the earth;
you made summer and winter.

In Psalm 104, the Psalmist reduces Leviathan to a sea monster whom harmlessly sports in the sea. Because of Yahweh's power, Leviathan is not the symbol of chaos, but another creature:

24O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures. 25Yonder is the sea, great and wide,
creeping things innumerable are there,
living things both small and great. 26There go the ships,
and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.

As we move to Isaiah, Leviathan represents the chaos that Yahweh will defeat. Leviathan is the dragon still present in creation.

20Come, my people, enter your chambers,
and shut your doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while
until the wrath is past. 21For the Lord comes out from his place
to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity; the earth will disclose the blood shed on it,
and will no longer cover its slain.

27On that day the Lord with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.

2On that day: A pleasant vineyard, sing about it! 3 I, the Lord, am its keeper;
every moment I water it. I guard it night and day
so that no one can harm it; 4 I have no wrath. If it gives me thorns and briers,
I will march to battle against it.
I will burn it up. 5Or else let it cling to me for protection,
let it make peace with me,
let it make peace with me.

Leviathan and Rahab represent the Sea, the watery chaos past, present, and future. Creation is the struggle of life over against chaos and destruction, bondage and oppression. Even though they are defeated, they return. Creation is an on-going struggle between the forces of life and the forces of death.

In 1865 Gustav Dore engraved this image of "The Destruction of Leviathan" by Yahweh.

Rahab and Leviathan represent the Sea. Behemoth is on land. He seems to resemble a Hippopotamus. Behemoth is mentioned only in the following passage from Job and in the apocryphal work 2 Esdras. From Job 40, Yahweh is speaking from the whirlwind about Behemoth, who in this text, has been tamed by Yahweh and in this text is the first thing Yahweh created:

15‘Look at Behemoth,
which I made just as I made you;
it eats grass like an ox. 16Its strength is in its loins,
and its power in the muscles of its belly. 17It makes its tail stiff like a cedar;
the sinews of its thighs are knit together. 18Its bones are tubes of bronze,
its limbs like bars of iron.

19‘It is the first of the great acts of God—
only its Maker can approach it with the sword. 20For the mountains yield food for it
where all the wild animals play.

In 2 Esdras, Leviathan and Behemoth make an appearance together. This text written after the Genesis 1 account, sounds a lot like it.

44Immediately fruit came forth in endless abundance and of varied appeal to the taste, and flowers of inimitable colour, and odours of inexpressible fragrance. These were made on the third day.

45 ‘On the fourth day you commanded the brightness of the sun, the light of the moon, and the arrangement of the stars to come into being; 46and you commanded them to serve humankind, about to be formed.

47 ‘On the fifth day you commanded the seventh part, where the water had been gathered together, to bring forth living creatures, birds, and fishes; and so it was done. 48The dumb and lifeless water produced living creatures, as it was commanded, so that therefore the nations might declare your wondrous works.

49 ‘Then you kept in existence two living creatures; one you called Behemoth and the name of the other was Leviathan. 50And you separated one from the other, for the seventh part where the water had been gathered together could not hold them both. 51And you gave Behemoth one of the parts that had been dried up on the third day, to live in it, where there are a thousand mountains; 52but to Leviathan you gave the seventh part, the watery part; and you have kept them to be eaten by whom you wish, and when you wish.

53 ‘On the sixth day you commanded the earth to bring forth before you cattle, wild animals, and creeping things; 54and over these you placed Adam, as ruler over all the works that you had made; and from him we have all come, the people whom you have chosen.

These texts from Job, Psalms, Isaiah, and 2 Esdras, help us to get a sense of the variety of creation mythologies in the Bible. Rahab, Leviathan, and Behemoth represent to me the chaotic trinity. They are the forces of chaos whom the forces of creation (represented by Yahweh) have conquered, tamed, and transformed to form and sustain life. But they are never finally defeated. They reappear and need continually to be conquered, tamed, and transformed into energy that can create rather than destroy.

As we form a theology of creation for the 21st century, Rahab, Leviathan, and Behemoth will have a role to play. They remind us that creation is ongoing. It is a struggle and a choice between forces of life and forces of destruction. As I write this, the world is responding to North Korea''s testing of a nuclear weapon. North Korea is one of nine nations with nuclear weapons [Russia, The United States, The United Kingdom, China, Pakistan, India, France, North Korea, and (as yet undeclared), Israel].

The power to destroy all higher forms of life on Earth is in the hands of human beings. We have a choice between creation and destruction. Yet even if we do the stupid thing and destroy ourselves with weapons of destruction, the creative forces of the universe will continue without us. The choice is ours whether we will participate with the Holy Trinity of creation or the Unholy Trinity of destruction.

There are more creation stories to consider. The story of Adam, Eve and the Serpent is one. The second is the Queen of Creation, the Wisdom Woman, or Sophia.

To Life!


  1. This is all very...interesting.

    I was wondering if you could clear a few things up for me:

    1. Can you explain why all of these references to pagan cosmogonies (I'll grant, for the sake of argument, that both the Hebrew material and the ANE material are indeed cosmogonies) occur in poetry, but none of them occur in in narrative sections?

    2. What impact (if any) does genre have on the way you correlate the material in Genesis 1-2 and the material you find in these diverse references to Rahab / Behemoth?

    3. What should we make of the fact that the genre of the Hebrew Bible in which these supposed parallels occur does not match the genre of the ANE source materials?

    Chris the literalist (where literal interpretation of the Scripture begins with literary understanding of the genre)

  2. I'm interested in your thoughts on the gendering of this trinity and Tiamat. Is there anything to the difference of Tiamat as a mother goddess and the male or neuter nature of Rahab, Leviathan and Behemoth?