TWO STRANGE BEASTS: LEVIATHAN AND BEHEMOTH IN SECOND TEMPLE AND EARLY RABBINIC JUDAISM
Two strange beasts indeed, with roots initially in Scripture. Behemoth, as ”Beast” rather than simply the plural of “beast,” occurs but once, in Job 40. Leviathan occurs more frequently (Job 41, but also in Isaiah and Psalms). The “strange” nature of these beasts has led to much zoological speculation and consequent isagogical debate about the integrity of those Job chapters and their relation with the rest of the Book of Job.
This doctoral dissertation does not deal in depth with the Scriptural references, however, except as background to references in subsequent literature. That subsequent literature is divided into Second Temple Judaism (4 Ezra, 2 Apocalypse of Baruch, 1 Enoch, the Apocalypse of Abraham, and the Ladder of Jacob) and various aggidic tractates of Rabbinic Judaism.
Themes that Whitney identifies as characterizing the Behemoth and Leviathan traditions include a combat motif (YHWH crushing Behemoth and Leviathan, whether in primordial or eschatological context), a banquet tradition (YHWH serving the corpses of Behemoth and Leviathan as part of an eschatological banquet for the faithful), an identification with forces of chaos which threaten to disrupt the established order of the world. As utilized particularly in the rabbinic literature, these traditions take on symbolic import, and are identified with “the seemingly uncontrollable forces with impinged upon the lives of pious Jews in this period.” (152) Though aspects of the tradition are refined and reapplied, Whitney posits a basic continuity underlies the various applications, namely the underlying commonality of a creation tradition expressed in terms of stability and order which included vanquishing of all forces of chaos.
In one sense, that may not seem a significant advance over Gunkel’s seminal work over one hundred years ago. Whitney’s contribution, however, lies in a consolidation of various subthemes and in delineating a commonality of import, all the while extending the focus far beyond biblical texts and times.
As meticulous as Whitney’s study was, a few questions do occur. One is the wide range of both dates, especially of the rabbinic materials cited, ranging from the first or second century A.D. to the fourteenth century, and language groups, ranging from Hebrew to Aramaic to Greek or Slavonic literature. Though that range does indeed affirm that the Behemoth and Leviathan symbols were alive and widely used, it seems a stretch to draw definitive conclusions from sparsely occurring references in such widely divergent materials. Another question concerns what seems an overly facile conflation of differing aspects of the B/L tradition: Behemoth and Leviathan were not always identified as the beast of the dry land and of the sea, respectively; at times there are two distinct (even in terms of gender) Leviathan figures? at times Leviathan is described more as a pet (cf. Psa 104) rather than as a vanquished force of chaos? The underlying hermeneutical question, admittedly not part of Whitney’s discussion, is the matter of biblical appropriation of mythic symbols alive in the ancient Near Eastern world.
Though Whitney’s study may seem arcane, far removed from pulpit and even Bible classroom, he has gathered related materials from a wide range of sources about strange beasts otherwise easily passed over. In the process he has identified themes important to our Christian faith and theology. The student of Scripture will be enriched by wrestling with those issues and themes.