Monday 11 November 2013

From the Deep - Fire-Breathing Sea Monsters - Leviathan in Job 40-41

William Blake, Leviathan and Behemoth
Job 40:25 - 41:25
   25] Can you draw out Leviathan with a hook? With rope press down his tongue?  26] Can you place a rope in his nose? And with a hook pierce his cheek? 27] Will he multiply supplications to you? Will he speak to you softly? 28] Will he make a covenant with you? Will you take him as an eternal slave? 29] Will you play with him like a bird? And bind him for your young girls? 30] Will partners bargain over him? Will they divide him among merchants? 31] Can you fill his skin with barbs? And with a fishing-spear his head? 32] Place your hand upon him - remember the battle, do no more.

    1] Thus his hope has been made false, will he not be cast down even at the sight of him? 2] None is so fierce as to rouse him - and who before Me can stand? 3] Who has come before Me, I shall repay him - under the whole heavens, he is Mine.

    4] I will not be silent over his parts, his strength and graceful form. 5] Who can strip off his outer garment? Who can penetrate his doubled jaw? 6] The doors of his mouth, who can open? ringed about by his fearsome teeth? 7] His shielding scales are his pride, tightly sealed together; 8] each is so close to the next that no air can pass between. 9] One cleaves to the other, they cling together and cannot be parted.

    10] His snorting flashes light; his eyes are like the glimmerings of dawn. 11] From his mouth streams firebrands, sparks of fire shoot out. 12] From his nostrils smoke pours, as from a steaming, boiling pot. 13] His breath ignites coals, and flames come from his mouth.

    14] Strength resides in his neck; power leaps before him. 15] The folds of his flesh are tightly joined; they are firm and immovable. 16] His chest is cast hard as rock, hard as a lower millstone. 17] When he rises up, divine beings are terrified; at his thrashing they retreat.

    18] The sword that reaches him has no effect, nor does spear, dart or lance. 19] He regards iron like straw, bronze like rotten wood. 20] Arrows do not make him flee; sling-stones are like chaff to him. 21] Like straw seem clubs to him, he laughs at the quivering javelin.

    22] His undersides are jagged shards, leaving the mud like a threshing-sledge. 23] He makes the depths boil like a cauldron, the sea he makes like an ointment-pot. 24] Behind him is a luminous wake, he makes the deep seem white-haired.

    25] Nothing on earth is his equal – made as he is, without fear. 26] He sees all that are haughty; he is king over all proud beasts.

Finally, at the end of the book of Job, God speaks, and reveals the horrifying mystery of creation, culminating in the mighty Leviathan that none but God can stand against.

We find here the longest, most vivid description of Leviathan in the Jewish canon, as detail after detail is poured out to create the image of the monstrous creature.

He has a "doubled jaw", "ringed about with fearsome teeth". He's covered in "shielding scales" and causes the deep to "seethe like a cauldron". Most interestingly for those of us that grew up with stories of European dragons like Smaug from the Hobbit, when the Leviathan opens its mouth "sparks of fire shoot out" and "ignite coals".

What can we learn from the idea that Leviathan breathes fire?

With the second Hobbit movie coming this December, The Desolation of Smaug', we're going to be seeing a great deal of fire-breathing dragons - yet there is a contrast between Tolkien's monster and the Biblical Leviathan that I find illuminating (if you'll pardon the pun).

Smaug describes himself in terms remarkably similar to our text above:

"My armour is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!"

Probably inspired by Job, Tolkien has Smaug describe himself in terms of weapons and forces of nature - shields and spears are common motifs in both.

Unlike Leviathan, Smaug is described as burning with rage and is connected to the earth, in particular the wealth of the earth - gold and jewels. In this context, breathing fire is a natural extension of Smaug's roots. Fire is essential to the process of smelting and refining, naturally associated with rage and anger. Of course Smaug breathes fire.

But Leviathan is not connected to any of those things.

Leviathan is a creature of the water - note the fishing imagery, "can you draw out Leviathan with a hook?" - whose emotional tone is left flat and unclear (with the exception of the pride he has in his scales in 41:7). This makes his fiery breath all the more remarkable. Leviathan is a monster of the primordial deep, whose breath is like firebrands. In his body, the creature unifies the opposite powers of fire and water, heat and cold.

In Jewish tradition, it isn't just the sea monster that unites opposites. God too unites opposites - the fire and ice of Gabriel and Michael, creating good and evil, balancing mercy and strict justice.

It seems to me that we too, as created human beings, are commanded to hold opposites together.

We are composed of flesh and blood like the animals, and yet have intellect and free will like the angels. We are creatures of eros and hunger, selfishly concerned about our own survival above all else, and yet are capable of self-sacrifice and acts of supreme goodness.

Holding these opposites together can be the height of divinity, and it can be the depths of monstrosity, in the image of God or in the path of Leviathan.

The question is whether we elevate our baser selves to a higher good, or bring down our highest selves to selfish needs. Love and sexuality can serve a higher purpose, we can eat ethically and with social awareness - or we can apply our intellect to destroy the world.

Capturing Leviathan

The book of Job tells us that only God can capture Leviathan, only God can truly hold opposites together and somehow make them work. Human beings can only try to grapple with the tension, wrestle with two opposite notions and navigate the creative gap between them.

Next week on 'From the Deep' - The Book of Job - What's with all the monsters?

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

No comments:

Post a Comment