Monday 2 September 2013

From the Deep - Playing with Leviathan - Psalm 104

Psalm 104:24-26 
    24] How manifold are your works, O Lord! In wisdom You have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. 25] So is this great and wide sea, where there are innumerable creeping things, living things, small and great. 26] There go the ships; and Leviathan that You created to play with.

כד מָה־רַבּוּ מַעֲשֶׂיךָ ׀ ה' כֻּלָּם בְּחָכְמָה עָשִׂיתָ מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ קִנְיָנֶךָ: כה זֶה ׀ הַיָּם גָּדוֹל וּרְחַב יָדָיִם שָׁם רֶמֶשׂ וְאֵין מִסְפָּר חַיּוֹת קְטַנּוֹת עִם־גְּדֹלוֹת: כו שָׁם אֳנִיּוֹת יְהַלֵּכוּן לִוְיָתָן זֶה יָצַרְתָּ לְשַׂחֶק־בּוֹ:

It's been a little while.

My baby daughter is 4 weeks old and doing all the things a 4-week old should do (they mostly involve bodily functions). Meanwhile, with minimum sleep I return to Mythic Writing and my ongoing series 'From the Deep', to delve once more into the mythic layer of the Bible.

Psalm 104 is a praise of the orderliness and greatness of God's creation. It holds a special place in my heart now, not just because of the Leviathan reference, but because we used the first two verses as part of our Simchat Bat ceremony to celebrate the birth of our daughter.

The psalmist praises how God "established the earth on its foundations" (v5), gives drink to every creature (v11) and so on. Psalm 104 is full of the joy of the natural world. In the context of all this splendour, verses 25-26 are another part of the greatness of creation - the marvelous sea with all its creatures, including the Leviathan, created for God to 'play with'.

What does it mean that the sea monster Leviathan, that we have seen as the manifestation of chaos, was created by God to play with?

I've discussed Psalm 104 already on this blog here, but it's this playful image that I want to focus on here. While the Psalm seems to have a similar view of Leviathan to Genesis 1, in which the sea monsters are just one part of God's ordered universe, but this image of play is unique here. What does it mean?

The verb SaCheK (to play) can have various meanings. While it can sometimes have a sense of mockery (see Proverbs 1:36, Job 30:1), and the similar verb TzaCheK can even have sexual connotations (Genesis 26:8). Here there seems to be a different implication. With the conjunction 'Bo', the verb seems to have much more or a sense of real play, like a child playing with a pet (see Zechariah 8:5, with children playing in the streets, or Job 40:29, that we will discuss on From the Deep in due course).

So Psalm 104 is implying that not only does the sea monster have a special place in God's creation, as Gen 1 implies, but Leviathan is something like God's favourite pet.

What does this mean for us?

We have seen that Chaos can be useful, a necessary part of the ordered universe, how God sometimes uses sea monsters to defeat chaos. But here we learn that chaos can also be creative, playful, a source of joy. Even God plays, even God flirts with the forces of disorder.

I don't know if I consider myself an artist exactly, but I certainly try to be a creative person, whether in prose, poetry or simply the sermons I give in shul, and it seems to me that Psalm 104 is speaking to the creative process itself that underlies God's universe.

If someone tells me to write a poem, I might sit at a blank piece of paper for hours with no idea where to start. But if I'm told to write a sonnet on the theme of the first snows of the year, these rules can provide me with a starting point and help me complete the creative process.

Creativity does not come from unbridled chaos, nor from overwhelming limitations - both are necessary, both freedom to do as we are moved, and restrictions to guide us along the way.

It is in the play between God and Leviathan that true creativity emerges. Shana Tova, have a happy new year!

Next week on 'From the Deep' - Psalm 148 - Praising God.

'From the Deep' has been made possible by Nishma, a summer of learning in the JTS Beit Midrash.


  1. Health and prosperity for you and your family! Shana Tova!