The oldest references to the leviathan originate in the biblical accounts and is that of a large aquatic creature of some kind. To ask for a description of the leviathan outside the Biblical references, is to ask about something before it was known or named. The Bible refers to it as a fearsome beast having monstrous ferocity and great power. The Hebrew word for “Leviathan” has the root meaning of “coiled” or “twisted.” The book of Isaiah speaks of “Leviathan the fast-moving serpent, Leviathan the squirming serpent; . . . the sea monster”. Whatever this monster of the sea is (or was), its strength and wild nature were well known.
“In that day the Lord with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, even leviathan that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea.” Isaiah 27:1
There are a handful of references to the leviathan in the Old Testament. Most passages describe the leviathan as a real creature, familiar to people (who, of course, kept their distance) by reputation if not by sight. In Psalms God is praised as the One who created the habitat for the leviathan:
“So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts. There go the ships: there is that leviathan, whom thou hast made to play therein.” Psalm 104:25–26
Only a great God could have created Leviathan and then made a place big enough for it to “frolic” safely.
In Isaiah 27:1 the leviathan is used as a symbol for the wicked kings of the earth who withstand God’s people. The great power that wicked nations wield can be terrifying, but God assures His children that evil, no matter how monstrous, will be defeated. Psalm 74:14 contains a similar reference to God’s victory over Leviathan; in that psalm, the pharaoh of Egypt is the reference.
Job 41 gives the most detail about Leviathan as an actual sea creature. In that chapter, God describes Leviathan, emphasizing the animal’s size, strength, and viciousness. The leviathan cannot be tied down or tamed (Job 41:1, 5); it is frightening to even look at (verse 9); it is best left alone (verses 8, 10). The leviathan has a graceful form (verse 12) but is incredibly well protected with scales (verses 13, 15–17). Its chest is as impenetrable as its back (verses 15, 24). It has fearsome teeth (verse 14), and death awaits anyone who approaches its mouth (verses 18–21). Even mighty men are terrified of the leviathan (verse 25).
No sword, spear, dart, javelin, arrow, stone, club, or lance can defeat it (verses 26, 28–29). It cannot be caged, because it breaks iron like straw (verse 27). On land, the leviathan leaves a trail of ruts; in the water, it produces a deep, churning wake (verses 30–32). God’s description of the leviathan concludes with a statement that it is the true king of the beasts: “Nothing on earth is its equal—a creature without fear” (verse 33).
Based on the biblical description, it seems more likely that Leviathan is a large sea reptile, possibly a species of dinosaur such as the plesiosaurus. Job’s acquaintance with a dinosaur is not far-fetched at all, given that the book of Job is set in a very early time of history.
The point God makes in Job 41 is that Leviathan is under God’s sovereign control. Job had been questioning God (Job 26—31), but God turns the tables and uses the leviathan’s might to emphasize Job’s weakness and frailty. If God created Leviathan (an animal Job cannot stand before), then how great is God? Why is Job even trying to grapple with the Almighty?
Leviathan was a dangerous creature that caused seasoned warriors to turn and run. Leviathan is no myth, but rather a real creature of the sea, subject only to its Creator. As God says in His description of Leviathan..
“None is so fierce that dare stir him up: who then is able to stand before me? Who hath prevented me, that I should repay him? whatsoever is under the whole heaven is mine.” Job 41:10–11