Saturday, April 14, 2007


"Canst thou draw out the leviathan with a hook, or tie his tongue with a cord?
Canst thou put a ring in his nose, or bore through his jaw with a buckle?
Lay thy hand upon him: remember the battle, and speak no more.
Behold his hope shall fail him, and in the sight of all he shall be cast down. "

-Job 40:20-28

The trial of Job is one of the most colorful episodes in all of Scripture. We read of Job, the just honest man, who loses everything he ever cared for in his life-- family, property, social esteem-- the unfortunate target of the Adversary's wiles. Throughout the course of the narrative, Job goes from being favorable in the eyes of God to a social pariah, ostracized by all including his closest friends. However, this post does not deal about Job, or the theological implications of his story; rather, I will focus on a seemingly marginal character, the Leviathan.

In the Jewish haggadah, the Leviathan is supposedly a creature of utterly immense size and immeasurable power. Created originally male and female, the Leviathan was the undisputed ruler of the seas, the lord of the ocean deep. It was aptly described as 'the plaything of God' on account of its greatness. Now the reason why the Lord slew the other half-- the female, we are told-- is because when the two should ever copulate, there was a very real possibility that all of creation would be destroyed in the process. God preserved the male because it was destined to play a part in the Final Judgment, to do battle with the Behemoth in a final affirmation of the majesty and glory of God.

The Leviathan was supposedly 3000 miles in length, and required all the fish that flowed from the river Jordan into the sea for food everyday. When Leviathan fed, its rival, the Behemoth, though undoubtedly formidable, could not placate itself until the sea monster finished satisfying its hunger. The Leviathan, however, is not invincible, for it is wary of the stickleback, a fish only three inches long yet is also the only thing that keeps it in check. He stands in awe at this tiny fish, whose purpose was precisely to keep the beast from devouring all the produce of the sea.

Leviathan is also wonderul and terrible. When he is hungry, a hot breath flows from his jaws which makes the entire ocean boil. His fins radiate brilliant light, which obscures even the very ligt of the sun. His eyes evoke the splendor of the Creator, for when the beast opens them, the sea is frequently illuminated by the light that flows from them. Leviathan also exudes a foul stench, the foulest in all creation. This is the main reason why he was placed in the sea, so that this stench could not befoul the rest of creation. Indeed, the Leviathan's odour is so strong, that even a single whiff of itis enough to render Paradise itself an impossible abode!

The real purpose of the Leviathan is to serve as a dainty for the elect in the world to come. When the trumpet summons the last hour of this world, God will command his angels to do battle with the beast-- but not sooner than he casts his glance at them do they fail and flee in terror before this plaything of God. Three times will they do this, but each attempt ends in failure. And so when all seems lost, God will command Behemoth, Leviathan's ancient rival, into combat with the ruler of the deep. Both die as a result of wounds inflicted upom each other, Behemoth from a blow from Leviathan's fins, and Leviathan by a lash of Behemoth's tail. Thus the glory of God is affirmed and vindicated, and He is shown to be the Supreme Arbiter of all things. Leviathan's flesh is then served to the chosen of God, and his skin will be used to build a brilliant canopy over the celestial Jerusalem, and the light streaming from it shall illumine the whole world for all eternity.

Although the Haggada is defintely NOT Catholic in the strictest sense, I've always thought that it managed to portray the glory of God remarkably well. I have to admit that the Haggada was a salient impetus in my interest in religion. I was fascinated by the many beasts and monsters that filled its pages, from the Ziz whose head reached into the uppermost heavens and whose wings blocked out the sun, to the reem whose exotic mating habits filled me with wonder.

I like these stories not because they are true-- God help us if what was written about the Leviathan was true-- but because they show a certain truth. G.K. Chesterton once said that the main function of fairy tales is to remind us that dragons can be slain. Not all pious legends are credible and true, but I think it is because they are precisely so incredible that they become credible. The language of the Church has always been replete with symbolism; it seems that it was only after the Tridentine Council that a radical literalism began to pervade ecclesiastical jargon.

I like these stories because they remind me of the fact that 'dragons' do exist. In our time, we often look at the merely physical and empirical qualities of an object-- we know, for example, and we theorize, how dragons can breath fire, or how they flew, whether they thrived in water or not, or perhaps even their mating habits. But that is the main problem here: the dragon is reduced to a bumble of theories and words, an abstraction and merely that. We have forgotten that it is something to be feared and respected in the first place. I am not saying that we should willfully remian in ignorance, but it is always helpful to approach things as though we were approaching them for the first time. To see things through the eyes of a child is one of the greatest acts of humility we can do in this earthly life.

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