QUESTION: I am wondering about two creatures mentioned in the Old Testament scriptures—Behemoth and Leviathan. Are these real animals, and are there any Jewish teachings that might shed some light on the subject?
ANSWER: Where the Scriptures are silent or vague, folkloric explanations abound. Some Bible scholars think that because of its physical description, Behemoth may have referred to the hippopotamus, and they have also speculated that Leviathan may have meant crocodile.
Behemoth is mentioned only in Job 40:15. Leviathan, on the other hand, is mentioned several times: in Job 41:1; Psalm 74:14; Psalm 104:26; and Isaiah 27:1. Most of these Leviathan passages probably would allow for the crocodile interpretation, but Isaiah 27:1 seems to hint at something, or someone, more unique and more sinister. It seems to refer to Satan himself (see Revelation 12:9).
In any case, Jewish folklore, while it is entertaining, does not seem to shed much light on the true identity of these creatures. Many fanciful ideas about them have come down through the centuries, and here are a few:
Based on Psalm 50:10, Behemoth was created out of 1000 mountains. The Lord deprived him of the ability to procreate so that he would not overpopulate the earth. He appears daily in Paradise just to delight his Creator, and there he drinks from a stream called Yuval, consuming in one gulp the equivalent of a year’s water supply from the Jordan River. In addition, Behemoth’s daily ration of food consists of the produce from 1000 mountains. At the end of days, Behemoth and Leviathan will fight and kill one another, and the righteous will eat Behemoth’s flesh.
Leviathan is also known as Tannin, Rahab and Yam. He is purported to be the most magnificent of the sea creatures and ruler of the seas.
Though sometimes mistaken for a whale or crocodile, he is really a huge water dragon. When God created him on the fifth day of Creation, he made a female as well, but seeing that their procreation would destroy the world, he killed the female. Her flesh is pickled in brine also to be served to the righteous in the world to come. Leviathan is guardian of the deep. He sits on the ocean floor like a giant bathtub plug to stop the oceans from draining into the abyss. He drinks the Jordan River as it flows into the sea, and his food is fish and sea creatures. At the end of their designated lifespans, all living things in the ocean must report to Leviathan, whereupon he devours them. His breath is terrible, one belch being sufficient to wither all the forests of the world and turn every city to dust.
Leviathan is beautiful. His fins and eyes emit light that at times is brighter than the sun. His skin is iridescent and also glows. When Adam and Eve received their coverings of skin from God (Genesis 3:21), these were actually made from the skins of the female Leviathan.
The banquet meal of the righteous where they partake of Leviathan is said to be the last meal of the physical life, ushering in a life that is purely of the spirit. Even as Leviathan is being consumed, his skin will be stretched out over Jerusalem the holy city to cast a phosphorescent glow over all, and everyone will be changed to enjoy everlasting youth and beauty and wisdom.
While most of these legends sound rather preposterous, some seem perhaps to have been built around kernels of eschatological truth, such as the New Jerusalem and the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.