How to Train Your Dragon: Hebrew Bible Edition
So YouTube user Nathan83 has already done a phenomenal job at answering the question about how we find unicorns in the Bible, but what about dragons? Well, that is a little more complicated, but it also has bearing on something Christians are talking a lot about nowadays: creation stories. See, we are all familiar with what happened “In the beginning….” Well, that is when we are thinking of it in terms of the Genesis account(s). But every so often, we get some imagery which has to do with creation, but which doesn’t seem to fit the standard picture. Psalm 74 in verses 12 – 17 has some very creation-y language and right in the middle of it are sea monsters (dragons) and Leviathan. Let’s take a look at that section in the NASB.
12. Yet God is my king from of old, Who works deeds of deliverance in the midst of the earth.
13 You divided the sea by Your strength; You broke the heads of the sea monsters in the waters.
14 You crushed the heads of Leviathan; You gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.
15 You broke open springs and torrents; You dried up ever-flowing streams.
16 Yours is the day, Yours also is the night; You have prepared the light and the sun.
17 You have established all the boundaries of the earth; You have made summer and winter.
The Hebrew word which is here translated as “sea monsters” is tanninim, which is the plural of tannin. The most common English translations for this word are “monster, sea monster, and dragon.” Now, some people find here references to dinosaurs. And while I love this picture more than words can say,
I don’t think the Bible has anything to say about dinosaurs. No, to find out a bit more about these monsters, I think we need to look at ANE religious literature (If you have read my previous two posts, you will know that this is my answer to everything).
In the Bible and in the Canaanite myths, tanninim are not the only monsters we have around. There is a Super Friends (or Avengers if you prefer Marvel) team of primordial chaos monsters who the OT writers draw on: Rahab, Leviathan, Tannin, Tehom, and Yamm. Tannin we talked about above, so let’s take a quick survey of the others:
- In Enuma Elish the world is created from the two halves of the goddess Tiamat. The name Tiamat makes its way into the Hebrew Bible as Tehom, which incidentally is what we see in Gen 1:2. Darkness is upon the face of “Tehom.” Tehom is often translated as “the deep.”
- Rahab gets cuts to pieces in a few places, one of which is Job 26. Interestingly, while there are plenty of chaos/sea monsters in the ANE literature, the proper name Rahab likely does not have a cognate in Akkadian or Ugaritic.
- Leviathan is probably the best known of the group. He has been labeled as everything from a crocodile to a dinosaur, but his role as a serpent-like monster who was slain by Baal is clear from the extra biblical material. As C. Uehlinger says, “as a paradigmatic monster and enemy of considerable mythological attire, he [Leviathan] outweighs other representatives of chaos and evil.”
- Yamm – (unrelated to sweet potato fries which I so enjoy) was the deity of the sea/waters and was public enemy number one to Baal (A close second would be death or Mot). Yamm represented destructive powers, and in some sense is the ring leader of this group.
Now here is where this gets tricky. The Israelites knew these stories, but they didn’t simply copy them down and scratch out the Canaanite names and scribble Yahweh in on top of them. The interaction is far more complex. These terms are used in a variety of ways, and with varying degrees of separation from their original mythical origins. If they had any notion among the Israelites as historical events, they have been largely scrubbed of them. In some cases, the intent of including them at all seems to be as a polemic against the very Canaanite beliefs they are based on (ie Tannin are created by God in Gen 1:21. This likely is to show that Tannin are just another creature subject to Yahweh, not the pre-existent monsters found in the other ANE creation stories). But their use and the intent behind them is still somewhat difficult to interpret.
As an example of the challenges, let’s look at Isaiah 51:9-10 with me providing in parenthesis the relevant Hebrew words which underlie the English translation.
9Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord;
Awake as in the days of old, the generations of long ago.
Was it not You who cut Rahab in pieces,
Who pierced the dragon (Tannin)?
10Was it not You who dried up the sea (Yamm),
The waters of the great deep (Tehom);
Who made the depths of the sea a pathway
For the redeemed to cross over?
The only one of our group missing here is Leviathan. But what do we make of it? Clearly this passage is a poetic call for God to act again as He has in the past. He has worked mightily to defeat chaos before, and can do so again. But how much of the mythical language should be retained? Verse 10 sounds very much like the parting of the Reed Sea in the Exodus, but is that a separate event from what is being talked about in verse 9? I think so. Some scholars believe that in all instances these chaos monsters have been completely separated from their mythic origins, so in verse 9 they would understand Rahab and tannim to refer figuratively to Egypt. But I believe there are two separate events being spoken of. One was God’s mighty acts in creation, the second was the Exodus. I don’t find any elements of dragon slaying in the Exodus story (though I can easily see how one could use that imagery to refer to Egypt), but I do find them all throughout creation narratives. Hence it makes better sense in my opinion to understand Isaiah here as referring back to a story the Israelites would know (creation) in verse 9 and then giving a second event (the exodus) in verse 10. But you can see how challenging this could be. The question of how much myth to include (and how to understand it) is much more art than science.
And even if Rahab and Tannin here are merely being used as images for Egypt, that does not answer all of the questions about this figurative use of language. Let us assume that Isaiah knows that the stories of God defeating the sea monsters are not historical and yet he uses them for instruction. Would that have any bearing on the arguments which declare the historicity of Jonah because he is spoken of by Jesus or of Adam because he is used by Paul? It seems that the way we understand sea monsters could help us unpack other uses of story in the bible.
And the Isaiah passage is of course only one example. There are a smattering of sea monsters and dragons throughout the OT. Their roots as ANE chaos monsters is to me quite clear, but exactly how much of that mythology survived into Israelite thought is a question which requires a great deal of thought and individual examination.
But lest anyone think that the problem of dragons and unicorns only applies to the Old Testament, I would ask you to consider something. In Revelation 21:1, John declares that “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.” Unlike John MacArthur who assumes that this verse has something to say about the fact that “glorified bodies” will not need water, I think what we have here is one final appearance of our chaos monster/god Yamm. We find out that when God wins in the end, Yamm and the chaos he represents will be no longer something we have to worry about. That is a very reassuring thought.
Although, not having literal dragons cluttering up the new heaven and earth will probably be nice too.
 There are also times when the word appears where it is a simple serpent. For instance, Moses’ staff turns into a “tannin”. Context determines which of these English glosses best makes sense in each case.