Why Does the Bible Say God Battled Sea Monsters at Creation?

When we think of creation, we think of everything beginning with God’s spoken word—as Genesis 1 tells us. But some Old Testament writers concentrate on another aspect of creation—and a weird one at that. In Psalm 74, in the middle of God’s ordering of the sea and dry land, his establishing of the sun, moon, stars, and the seasons, we find another event: God destroying sea monsters.

Yet God my King is from of old,
working salvation in the midst of the earth.
You divided the sea by your might;
you broke the heads of the sea monsters on the waters.
You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.
You split open springs and brooks;
you dried up ever-flowing streams.
Yours is the day, yours also the night;
you have established the heavenly lights and the sun.
You have fixed all the boundaries of the earth;
you have made summer and winter (Psa 74:12–17).

Warring the Sea Monster

The reference to God breaking “the heads of the sea monster” and crushing “the heads of Leviathan” has led many on a desperate study of Old Testament zoology. But this, along with many other confusing Old Testament images, has a cultural context.

In the ancient world, the original (“primordial”) chaotic conditions of creation were often portrayed as a monstrous dragon. This is reflected in stories from ancient Babylon and Israel’s closest neighbor, Ugarit (ancient Syria, just north of Israel).

In the literature of ancient Ugarit, the god Baal battles Yamm, who is portrayed as a chaotic, churning sea and a terrifying sea dragon named Tannun or Litanu. These terms are equivalent to the Hebrew words in Psalm 74:13–14: “You divided the sea (ים, yam) by your might; you broke the heads of the sea monsters (תנינים, tanninim) on the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan (לויתן, liwyatan).”

Other parallels are found elsewhere in the Old Testament. In Ugaritic stories, Litanu is described as a “twisting serpent” and a “fleeing serpent.” Those precise phrases are used to describe the sea beast Leviathan in the Old Testament (Isa 27:1; Job 26:13).

What’s the Point?

God didn’t really fight a literal dragon at the beginning of creation. This imagery reflects the mindset of the ancient world, which viewed the sea as unpredictably violent and unable to be tamed. It frightened the ancients. Only the power of a mighty God could produce a habitable world from the chaotic sea—a deed portrayed as a battle with the untamed deep. God was victorious in this conflict, as told in Psalm 74.

This imagery was intentionally repurposed throughout the Old Testament. In Isaiah 51:9–10, the sea monster image (this time called “Rahab”) is applied to the Israelites’ escape from Egypt. It was the arm of the Lord “who cut Rahab in pieces” and “who pierced the dragon (תנין, tannin) … [and] dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep, who made the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to pass over.” This imagery—the same imagery used in creation stories—effectively describes the birth of a new nation after God’s defeat of Egypt.

Isaiah also describes the end of days with the same language: “In that day the Lord . . . will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea” (Isa 27:1). The book of Revelation, taking its cue from Isaiah 27:1, describes a time when there will be “no more sea” (Rev 21:1). The elimination of all that opposes God will only come with His final reign on earth. Only when the new heaven and new earth are brought into being will the violent sea monster truly be slain.

why is the bible hard to understandDr. Michael S. Heiser is a scholar-in-residence for Faithlife, the makers of Logos Bible Software. He is the author of The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible and has taught many Mobile Ed courses, including Problems in Biblical Interpretation: Difficult Passages I.

This article is excerpted from Dr. Heiser’s book I Dare You Not to Bore Me with the Bible.

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  1. I guess I would have to say that I am not convinced that this is an account of Creation. I would be more inclined to suggest it might be a description of some events as the flood came and covered the earth then waned.

  2. Claus-Dieter Stoll says

    In Gen 1,21 God creates the tanninim (wajjibra elohim et hattanninim haggedolim). Therefore the message of gen 1 is: the tanninim are no gods but only creatures.

  3. Well yeah and there is the imagery of two trees in the middle of the garden. One is Yeshua, the tree of life. The other is the nachash or shiny one, satan, the source or tree of the knowledge of good and evil on earth.
    Eve dialoged with the shinny one himself, satan. He offered her his fruit bamboozling her into taking it.

    • Shoshana, ‘Elohhiym planted the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Read the book and don’t assume.

  4. I’m not sure why Heiser puts the events described by the Psalmist at creation when the Psalmist himself describes the events explicitly as a work of “salvation” rather than “creation.” A work of “salvation” would only be needed at some time AFTER the fall.

    This essay is work of eisegesis.

    • I had similar thoughts…specifically, if Psa. 74 is about killing Leviathan at creation, why in Isa. 27 is ‘Elohhiym STILL killing Leviathan at the end of days in Revelation? Is He just not very good at His job?

  5. Jack Pelham says

    Did this chaos have any ACTUAL parts and pieces, or was it completely a myth with no basis in reality?

    Throughout scripture, we generally see God opposing bad guys, and not things the more mundane threats in life like the weather or entropy or shark attacks, so isn’t it pretty reasonable to go barking up the evil-beings tree when looking for an explanation for this chaos/sea?

    Regarding Psalm 74 (quoted in the article), consider this theme of division:

    You ***DIVIDED*** the sea by your might;
    you broke the heads of the sea monsters on the waters.
    You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
    you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.
    You split open springs and brooks;
    you dried up ever-flowing streams.
    Yours is the day, yours also the night;
    you have established the heavenly lights and the sun.
    You have fixed all the boundaries of the earth;
    you have made summer and winter

    I think this is consistent with Genesis 1, where I see several instances of dividing/separating in Genesis 1. The theme is hard to miss once you see it the first time:

    Light from Darkness. 1:4
    Waters above from waters below. 1:6
    Dry land (which he called earth) from gathered waters (which he called seas). 1:7
    Lights in the expanse to “separate” day from night. 1:14
    Great lights to rule (one over day, and the other over night) and to separate light from darkness. 1:14-18

    The more I study this, the more it all looks like Yahweh was dividing up a society of beings, separating them into the good and the bad, and keeping the bad at bay while he prepared to do some great work in a certain region of Planet Earth. Indeed, if this were the story of a literal ex nihilo invention of a universe, wouldn’t we be reading about God having created things as he wanted them from the beginning, rather than about him separating/dividing/sorting?

    When there is “no more sea” at the end of the story, I suspect that that is a reference to the final destruction (after what is to us a very long time) of these evil beings (the “darkness”) of Chapter 1 that remained below the firmament. In my opinion, is no coincidence that the “no more sea” result comes about after the great battle/judgment of Revelation 19, which is where I believe that the fallen princes of Psalm 182 “die like men”, along with all the other evil angel-types.

    In other words, I strongly suspect that the Post-Babel segregation of the world under the administration of elohim was not the first such order. I think it’s happening in Genesis 1, too–the “lights” in the heavens being angel-types who were put in charge over all the earthly beings, both new and old, good and evil. (I suspect somewhat that the 24 elders were righteous people from this period, and became “the waters above”, constituting what may have been an earlier iteration of first Divine Council, if not the first one.)

    If the “chaos” is not about sentient beings, then what’s it about? Hurricanes and sharks? This really seems unlikely to me.

  6. L. Preston Mercer says

    My new, favorite writer! Based on anointed, scholarly, analytical study and a great point “Reading the Bible again for the first time”. Be sure and read “The Unseen Realm” for new insights on God’s inspired Word. Studying original languages enhances our understanding, the incredible goodness of God and the work of Christ. Heiser’s work never detracts from our relationship with God but strengthens our walk and ministry. Having spent my life in academics, I appreciate the accomplishment, effort and ability to communicate clearly. A perfect addition to your personal library.

  7. William Matthews says

    From the omitted part of verse 14 this is clearly not referring to creation. “Thou brakest the heads of leviathan in pieces, and gavest him to be meat to the people inhabiting the wilderness.” There were no people inhabiting the wilderness at creation.