Biblical references to the mysterious sea monsters—Leviathan and Rahab—seem bizarre and are largely ignored by most Christians. How are we to understand such references? And do they have anything to say to contemporary Christians? I think they do, since they represent a complementary depiction of creation from that of Genesis 1-2—one that is often overlooked. Such references indicate that untamed chaos has a God-ordained place within creation.
Harvard Jewish scholar Jon Levenson sees two different forms of chaos in the Old Testament: (a) inert matter lacking order and so requiring differentiation (e.g. potter and clay metaphor, Gen. 2:7-9) and (b) chaos as a living being with its own will and personality that is at cross purposes with God and must be overcome before God can create the cosmos. This borrowed imagery comes from the creation myths of Israel’s neighbors. Genesis 1 can be understood in the context of (a). However there are a number of creation references within the Wisdom literature (e.g. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, and Psalms) that are articulated in terms of (b).
There are several ways in which the sea and its monsters are depicted in the Bible. One usage is that God simply confines the sea (i.e. no sea monsters are mentioned, or the waters are not personified, e.g. Prov. 8:29; Ps. 33:6-9; Sir. 16:26-27). Another way makes more graphic reference to the (Babylonian) Tiamat and (Ugaritic) Yam imagery in the context of creation, for example Psalms 74:13-14. In the first usage, it is clear that God does not eradicate the sea (or waters) but allows them to function within boundaries or limits. The latter portrayal is also present in Job, where there is also often explicit reference to Leviathan/Rahab (Job 26:8-13; Job 38:8-11). While God’s power is very evident in these texts, there is still a persistence to the presence of the sea and/or its monsters. The sea may be confined, but it is not tamed. In Psalms 104:24-26, Leviathan is not only part of creation (see Gen. 1:21) but was also formed, or made, for “sport”! Only God can confront these creatures (Job 40:19; 41:10-11) that no human (or other gods, Job 41:9, 25) can tame. A further—and most rare—usage is the eschatological reference to Leviathan in Isaiah 27:1 and 2 Esdras 6:52. Moreover, in Revelation 21:1 (“..and the sea was no more..”), John the Seer also envisages a time when chaos will finally be defeated. The ‘sea,’ the locus of chaos, will ultimately cease to exist. Until “that day” we are to live within an untamed world. For now, the boundary between chaos and order will be unpredictable and subject to times of stability as well as moments of violent disorder.
This portrayal of chaos as a turbulent sea, or personified as a monster that no one other than God can tame, is very different from uniform disorder or static randomness. The texts support the view that God has sovereignly chosen not to eliminate chaos (yet), as, presumably, this would not lead to the kind of cosmos that God intended. Why? Because order requires chaos, you cannot have one without the other. Indeed, perfect order would be boring and would not give rise to creativity, spontaneity, or development. Chaos and chance can also bring about good change, new possibilities, not just destruction. Yet, unconfined chaos is too tempestuous to allow, since the conditions necessary for the emergence of order and life are too fragile (cf. the Great Flood). God gives freedom for chaos to be the ‘other’ only within certain boundaries.
Having painted a broad canvas on the usage of the sea and its monsters in the Wisdom literature, let us briefly return to Job. The book of Job is both profound and enigmatic. Scholars have wrestled with its poetic contents, bizarre prose prologue, and surprising epilogue. There are diverse views on many aspects of the story, including God’s two speeches at the conclusion. While this is not the place to explore the depths of this book, or the wider problem of suffering (theodicy), creation is, as we have already seen, a persistent theme within Job.
In Chapters 38-41 God (finally) responds to Job in a somewhat incongruous way by presenting him with a tour of the natural world. Many readers (and scholars) would claim that God seems to be insensitive to Job and his suffering, and God’s response seems to avoid the issues of Job’s complaint. Certainly the response is not what Job—or the reader—expected. Old Testament Scholar Terrence Fretheim takes a more positive route. Fretheim argues that God’s response is one that genuinely addresses Job’s concerns and is focused on nature because therein lies a key point that God wants Job to appreciate. After all, two of Job’s original calamities were natural disasters (1:16, 19). God says that Job does not understand the way in which God’s world works. Job interprets the disorder within nature as defective and/or mismanaged creation, rather than precisely the kind of world that God intended. Consequently, although the world is good, well-ordered, and reliable, it is also wild, untamed, and not risk-free to humankind. God, then, challenges Job to recognize the proper nature of the creation and that suffering may be experienced in just such a world, quite apart from sin and evil. In so doing, Job may better appreciate what his place and role is within God’s world, even in the midst of suffering.
God’s first reply (38:1-40:2) is an exhaustive catalogue of his creative and sustaining acts. That speech can be divided into two sections: (a) cosmic and the physical order (38:4-38) and (b) God’s providence for wild animals 38:39-39:30 (namely: the lion, raven, mountain goat, deer, wild donkey, wild ox, ostrich, war horse, hawk, and eagle). Like Genesis 1, it is not just the regions that God defines, but also what goes on within them. The writing style is a series of rhetorical questions, typical of wisdom literature, to which the implied answer is ‘no.’ This serves to highlight human ignorance and powerlessness in contrast to the extensive and complex creation that God created and continually sustains. These questions put Job in his place as someone who has “words without knowledge” (38:2) and yet who dares to argue with God (40:2). God’s second speech (40:6-41:34) has a strong emphasis on two mysterious creatures Behemoth and Leviathan. While these two animals could be thought to refer to the hippopotamus and crocodile, respectively, their darker, symbolic reputation cannot be overlooked. This is especially manifest in the context in which Leviathan and the Sea has been used earlier within Job. Nevertheless, by taking these mythical beings as representatives of ‘chaos’ does not make them—or the disorder they depict—morally evil. They are simply a part of the diverse and wonderful world that God has created. Still, chaos is truly awesome and beyond any human control. Fretheim asserts that it is not helpful to suggest that chaos is fully within divine control. While God has set a boundary to Leviathan’s activity, that limit does not entail divine micromanagement. Rather, God lets his creatures function freely within their divine restrictions. What this reveals is that there are elements of God’s good creation that are complex and ambiguous—not everything is neat and tidy, as Job presupposes it should be. Fretheim concludes:
This creational being and becoming is well-ordered, but the world does not run like a machine, with a tight causal weave; it has elements of randomness and chaos, of strangeness and wildness. Amid the order there is room for chance… Given the communal character of the cosmos—its basic interrelatedness—every creature will be touched by the movement of every other. While this has negative potential, it also has a positive side, for only then is there the genuine possibility for growth, creativity, novelty, surprise, and serendipity.
In summary, a morally neutral chaos has a creative place within God’s dynamic world, with both the potential for good and bad for creatures. This element of disharmony is an integral and essential part of a world that is in the process of ‘becoming.’ Volcanoes are needed to replenish our atmosphere in order to sustain life; this requires a planet with active geology. The Earth has plate tectonics with earthquakes and tsunamis. Our sun-heated atmosphere sustains life, but it also gives hurricanes, tornadoes, and cyclones. These messy, disorderly natural disasters have a role to play in our dynamic world. Order and chaos are inseparable; the violence of physical processes and the birth-death-decay cycle are features of God’s good world. Yet these events also have the capacity to bring suffering to humans and animals—even for righteous people, such as Job. While untamed chaos has a God-ordained place within creation, God nevertheless declares all this as “very good” (Gen. 1:21, 31).