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I'm trying to brush up on my apologetics skills, but this is one question I haven't found a clear answer to.

I've seen a few explanations for this — a dinosaur, crocodile, whale etc., but none of them seem to answer the question of why the creature is described as breathing fire (this is described in quite a lot of detail):

Job 41
18 Its snorting throws out flashes of light;
       its eyes are like the rays of dawn.
19 Flames stream from its mouth;
       sparks of fire shoot out.
20 Smoke pours from its nostrils
       as from a boiling pot over burning reeds.
21 Its breath sets coals ablaze,
       and flames dart from its mouth.

No known animals could have breathed fire. I considered that it could be a legendary animal known by the people of the time, but then why would God himself talk about it as a real animal? Another possibility could be that the book of Job is more of a parable to teach specific lessons than a historically accurate story.

I'd like to see if anyone else has come across other explanations for this question.

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I'm not sure this is apologetics. Might be better suited to Hermeneutics. –  Andrew Leach Jan 28 at 13:36
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Although many scientists claim that dinosaurs did not coexist with man, there is a lot of evidence to the contrary. Thus, the Leviathon could simply be an animal that has become extinct in the past several centuries or more. You might check out this article on Genesis Park. They also have a lot of evidence for dinosaurs and man coexisting: genesispark.com/exhibits/evidence/scriptural/… –  Narnian Jan 28 at 13:39
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Likewise, the Creation Museum has quite a bit of information either on their site or the parent organization's site about not only how, but why dinosaurs (which could possibly include dragons) must have existed with men. –  warren Jan 28 at 15:35
    
Thanks ppl, I'll be sure to check out the links. Also, thanks Andrew for beautifying my question :-) The reason I felt this falls under apologetics is that a non-Christian could potentially try and use it in an argument against the Bible, asking questions like "How can you believe in the Bible when it talks about fire breathing sea monsters?", for example. If I'm going to defend the Faith, I like to back myself up for these types of questions with as much knowledge as possible. –  RKG Jan 28 at 19:27
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@RKG I would simply answer that when it comes to creatures of the deep sea there is much we don't know. Giant Squid, for example, have never been seen alive; we have only seen dead ones washed up on shore. "Fire breathing" is also not that far fetched if you know a few things about biology. –  fredsbend Jan 30 at 21:28
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2 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

You might like to take a look at the related questions What does the Bible have to say about dinosaurs? and Are Dinosaurs mentioned in the Bible? for some dinosaur-specific ideas; and Do Catholics consider Job to be historical? for, well, exactly what the question title says.

Job is a bit of a tricky book in many ways. It is certainly held up as a preeminent example of "literary" writing in the Bible, regardless of the historicity of the events described. The content and style are sophisticated, in particular the central unresolved ambiguity of the text.1 This sort of thing makes us think that the work might be comparatively "late" (plus certain textual hints), whereas the book seems to be set in an "early" period (no mention of the Law, generally patriarchal flavour in the way Job's life is described). This leads us to a couple of tentative conclusions:

  • Since the book has many identifiable literary qualities, we could also expect to see others: perhaps this passage is using hyperbole, symbolism, intertextual reference, etc. This is a short leap in the case of Job, whereas with some other Biblical texts, it's hard to say "oh yes, the author is clearly being figurative" without feeling a bit silly.

  • Since the book is framed as taking place either very long ago (using the tropes of patriarchal narratives) or not in any particular time (like a fable), we could compare it to other contemporary stories for help in understanding how the text works.

  • The main moral concept of the text is clear: as Affable Geek wrote in an earlier answer on the monsters of Job, "Basically, they are big and strong, but God is bigger." This is solid, and we can use it as a basis for understanding the detail of how the author of Job presents his message.

Monsters, like Leviathan and Behemoth, are fairly common in the epic literature of the ancient near east. The Enuma Elish, so often related to the Genesis creation accounts, recounts various beasts created by Tiamat:

She spawned monster-serpents,
Sharp of tooth, and merciless of fang;
With poison, instead of blood, she filled their bodies.
Fierce monster-vipers she clothed with terror,
With splendor she decked them, she made them of lofty stature.
Whoever beheld them, terror overcame him,
Their bodies reared up and none could withstand their attack. 2

Another famous example is Humbaba/Huwawa from Gilgamesh,

...the warrior whose face is a lion's grimace, and whose breast is like a raging flood. No one dare approach his brow, which devours the reedbeds. On his tongue, like that of a man-eating lion, the blood never dries. You do not have enough strength for the warrior, such is his might. 3

We even get a mention of fire, though not fire-breathing precisely, in the Lugal-e of Ninurta:

The Asag leapt up at the head of the battle. For a club it uprooted the sky, took it in its hand; like a snake it slid its head along the ground. It was a mad dog attacking to kill the helpless, dripping with sweat on its flanks. Like a wall collapsing, the Asag fell on Ninurta, the son of Enlil. Like an accursed storm, it howled in a raucous voice; like a gigantic snake, it roared at the Land. It dried up the waters of the mountains, dragged away the tamarisks, tore the flesh of the Earth and covered her with painful wounds. It set fire to the reedbeds, bathed the sky in blood, turned it inside out; it dispersed the people there. At that moment, on that day, the fields became black scum, across the whole extent of the horizon, reddish like purple dye - truly it was so! 4

All of these monsters are definitely big and scary - the terror they impart is the main point. This does match the theme of the Job passage. The reason behind mentioning Leviathan at all is to show the distance between God and Job: Leviathan is incredibly dangerous and incomprehensible to a human, but God is greater still. Other parts of God's speech to Job have a related purpose, such as to show that God knows things which are mysterious to Job, or that God's sovereignty extends over cosmic territory. So here, Leviathan - reminiscent of the famous monsters of other writings - is reframed not as a threat to the divine order, but as a subordinate part of it.

So we see a literary explanation for the supernatural characteristics of the beast. The author is appropriating a familiar image, the fearsome cosmic monster, in order to serve his purpose of teaching the unequaled sovereignty of God. Every phrase that makes Leviathan bigger and scarier also makes God bigger still. Conventional animals do not breath fire: but Leviathan is not a conventional animal. As Matthew Henry said,

Probably these hyperbolical expressions are used concerning the leviathan to intimate the terror of the wrath of God, for that is it which all this is designed to convince us of. Fire out of his mouth devours, Ps. xviii. 7, 8. The breath of the Almighty, like a stream of brimstone, kindles Tophet, and will for ever keep it burning, Isa. xxx. 33. The wicked one shall be consumed with the breath of his mouth, 2 Thess. ii. 8. 5

These descriptions also help the reader to perceive the connection with monsters like the Asag, who are also described with a kind of "cosmic hyperbole".

It is true that other aspects of Leviathan and Behemoth are reminiscent of real living creatures (hippo? whale? serpent?) or even of dinosaurs. There may be some attempt by the author to unify the cosmic-mythological Leviathan with various known natural creatures, which would more squarely place it in the company of ostriches and donkeys (Job 39) rather than being God-like. But it goes against the spirit of the text to treat Job 41 as a zoologist's description of some existing species. The whole point is that Leviathan isn't a normal sort of creature, but an incomprehensible epic threat.

Does it matter that Leviathan is not a real creature, like an ostrich? I don't think it does. If Job were being written for the first time today, its author could perfectly well say that God eats Death Stars for breakfast and uses Barad-Dur as a toothpick. These are perfectly comprehensible cultural references that are not in the least bit harmed by being fictional.6 We get the point.

Further, there is no need to come up with any outlandish speculation about dinosaur-dragons roaming Mesopotamia. (And so Asag, Humbaba, and company would all be based on folk legends about these real creatures.) That is a theory which explains some things - the answer to "why is Leviathan said to breathe fire?" is "because he actually did". But the theory creates far more problems than it solves. In addition to the obvious archaeological problems, it is bad theology. It is far better to try to read Job as the author probably intended - as a literary, philosophical, and intertextual story about God and humanity - than to project anachronistic notions onto the book.


1. Not to be overly snotty about it, but this is one of the things that people often cite as distinguishing "proper literary stuff" from "formulaic tripe". I'm thinking of people like Roland Barthes, who exalted paradox, enigma, unresolved tension, and in general any writing that requires the reader to do work (The Pleasure of the Text, S/Z, etc.).
2. Enuma Elish, tablet 2, translated by L. W. King (London, 1902).
3. Gilgameš and Ḫuwawa (Version B), 90-95. From the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, t.1.8.1.5.1.
4. Ninurta's exploits, 168-186. ETCSL, t.1.6.2.
5. Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 3 (1708-1710), commentary on Job 41.
6. Nitpicking about the relative sizes of Barad-Dur and the Death Star, the nutritional value of the latter, or the nature of divine dentition, misses the point. Indeed, it does not make material sense, but neither is it intended to be read in that way.

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thanks for this detailed answer, I appreciate your effort it writing this. Your reasoning makes a lot of sense. –  RKG Jan 28 at 19:21
    
Absolutely spectacular answer! You should have more upvotes by now. –  fredsbend Jan 30 at 21:20
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Quick answer: It may be a future creation...

I've read the Leviathan chapter many times. Its something hugely interesting to me.

Consider this seemingly unrelated scripture:

Psalm 139:16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance, and in Your book all the days [of my life] were written before ever they took shape, when as yet there was none of them.

On this principle we might say that God is speaking of a Creature that does indeed exist to him, but not yet created (ie, some future creation). Just as God foretold the existence of humans in writing (and indeed has us all in writing ahead of time) it might be also true of this creature.

Every creature listed prior to the Behemoth and Leviathan were literal. It hardly makes sense that a sudden shift to the metaphorical would be made, as a comparison to the power of it's creator. (Job 41:10)

Compare Genesis 9:2 to Job 41. Job 41 does not describe a creature consistent with the statement:

"And the fear of you and the dread and terror of you shall be upon every beast of the land, every bird of the air, all that creeps upon the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are delivered into your hand.".

If this creature existed during the time of Noah onnward, then this promise would be a lie. Of course, we know God doesn't lie. It seems likely (based on below proof) this is a future creation for a time when it will be most appreciated (and needed). It would possibly be under a different covenant / agreement than Noah or the one we are under.


Please note: I like quoting the amplified bible, but please mentally overlook references to "crocodile" in this excerpt.

JOB 41:

Can you draw out the leviathan (the crocodile) with a fishhook? Or press down his tongue with a cord? 2 Can you put a rope into his nose? Or pierce his jaw through with a hook or a spike? 3 Will he make many supplications to you [begging to be spared]? Will he speak soft words to you [to coax you to treat him kindly]?

Sounds like it would make a great fish story! "I caught something THIS big!". Already we see a challenge in the writing. Do you dare...?

4 Will he make a covenant with you to take him for your servant forever? 5 Will you play with [the crocodile] as with a bird? Or will you put him on a leash for your maidens?

Obviously implying that it cannot be tamed, like other creatures.

6 Will traders bargain over him? Will they divide him up among the merchants? 7 Can you fill his skin with harpoons? Or his head with fishing spears?

Obviously implying it cannot be hunted and sold like other creatures.

8 Lay your hand upon him! Remember your battle with him; you will not do [such an ill-advised thing] again!

One of my favorite verses. The bible's way of saying "You'll get your @$$ kicked by this thing." But seriously, its obviously made to be a testimony to how weak humans are in comparison to God's creations.

9 Behold, the hope of [his assailant] is disappointed; one is cast down even at the sight of him!

Are we being metaphorical? We see a FUTURE prediction here."Behold, the hope of [his assailant] is disappointed; one is cast down even at the sight of him!" Likewise, we can deduce that nobody has seen him, based on this verse. Otherwise the explanation would not be needed.

10 No one is so fierce [and foolhardy] that he dares to stir up [the crocodile]; who then is he who can stand before Me [the beast’s Creator, or dares to contend with Me]?

11 Who has first given to Me, that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heavens is Mine. [Therefore, who can have a claim against God, God Who made the unmastered crocodile?]

This is an important verse. While this is commonly believed to be a crocodile, I could easily take one down even with a handheld weapon. If this were a crocodile or some creation we are accustomed to dominating, then verse 10 would be a very weak comparison of "who then is he who can stand before Me". Literally, this might be a very unique creature made to humble humans, quite possibly a future creature during a future time of judgement.

12 I will not keep silence concerning his limbs, nor his mighty strength, nor his goodly frame.> 13 Who can strip off [the crocodile’s] outer garment? [Who can penetrate his double coat of mail?] Who shall come within his jaws? 14 Who can open the doors of his [lipless] mouth? His [extended jaws and bare] teeth are terrible round about. 15 His scales are [the crocodile’s] pride, [for his back is made of rows of shields] shut up together [as with] a tight seal; 16 One is so near to another that no air can come between them. 17 They are joined one to another; they stick together so that they cannot be separated.

Do we assume something that exists, or a much bigger version of something that exists? Its possible this might be a highly altered version of a crocodile, or something resembling it in many ways. The next few verses invalidate the idea of a cold-blooded creature anyway.

18 His sneezings flash forth light, and his eyes are like the [reddish] eyelids of the dawn. 19 Out of his mouth go burning torches, [and] sparks of fire leap out. 20 Out of his nostrils goes forth smoke, as out of a seething pot over a fire of rushes. 21 His breath kindles coals, and a flame goes forth from his mouth.

Definitely not a crocodile. Now we are in "Dragon" description.

22 In [the crocodile’s] neck abides strength, and terror dances before him. 23 The folds of his flesh cleave together; they are firm upon him, and they cannot shake [when he moves]. 24 His heart is as firm as a stone, indeed, as solid as a nether millstone. 25 When [the crocodile] raises himself up, the mighty are afraid; because of terror and the crashing they are beside themselves.

Again, not a creation we presently see, and yet we know that a mythical creature would not be used to testify to God's literal power as the creator.

26 Even if one strikes at him with the sword, it cannot get any hold, nor does the spear, the dart, or the javelin. 27 He counts iron as straw and bronze as rotten wood. 28 The arrow cannot make [the crocodile] flee; slingstones are treated by him as stubble. 29 Clubs [also] are counted as stubble; he laughs at the rushing and the rattling of the javelin.

Notice we speak of weapons, but its really creation against creation. We are speaking of man and his inventions standing against a very powerful invention of the Creator. Its obviously created to humble people.

30 His underparts are like sharp pieces of broken pottery; he spreads [grooves like] a threshing sledge upon the mire. 31 He makes the deep boil like a pot; he makes the sea like a [foaming] pot of ointment. 32 [His swift darting] makes a shining track behind him; one would think the deep to be hoary [with foam]. 33 Upon earth there is not [the crocodile’s] equal, a creature made without fear and he behaves fearlessly.

So here we see God praising the power of this creation of his. For a creature to heat up water, and to leave a shining trail (and judging by references to it's lightning and fire breathing), this would have to be a very unique and special project, something holding many properties we often utilize for our own boastful little inventions: Electricity, combustion, etc. The words "Upon the earth there is not it's equal" verify that.

34 He looks all mighty [beasts of prey] in the face [without terror]; he is monarch over all the sons of pride. [And now, Job, [a]who are you who dares not arouse the unmastered crocodile, yet who dares resist Me, the beast’s Creator, to My face? Everything under the heavens is Mine; therefore, who can have a claim against God?]

Again, a mythical beast to make a literal point? If it were pretend, it would be meaningless as a testimony to the literal power of the creator. This creature is obviously made (or will be made) as a means of humbling.

In conclusion Many believe in a future resurrection of people to flesh, a time of judgment, to separate the good from the bad (entirely different subject). There are probably different spans of time (ages) in which different groups of people and possibly creations are brought back to existence for a first and second time.

I've always considered this passage to be an exceptional one, something to look forward to. While I certainly don't have any hunter's instinct, I'd love to see this thing from a safe distance one day!

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Thanks 1Up, the idea of a future creation is a very interesting answer that I hadn't thought of or seen before. –  RKG Jan 31 at 9:07
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