The Leviathan: On Laughter, Wildness, and Justice

There is a midrash about Tevet time, one that tells a curious story about a curious creature who shows up in Tanakh: the Leviathan.

Some scholars believe that the Leviathan’s name comes from the Hebrew root lamed-vav-hey to mean to twine, or join. Wreathed, twisted in folds, the Leviathan is a mysterious creature, like the Tahom we find in Genesis. Both tahom and the leviathan were understood in medieval times as two sides to a chaos coin, female and male respectively.

These two creatures had forerunners. Tahom’s ancestress was Tiammat, the deity whom Marduk defeated in a gory battle that ended in dividing her body to create the world and the heavens above. The leviathan is a descendent of a Ugaritic sea monster, servant to the sea god Yammu (you can find that sea god showing up in Jewish texts as Prince Yam).

Sea monsters are big in ancient Near Eastern mythology. Mostly, they are pictured in cosmic sea battles as the embodiment of turmoil, upheaval, and confusion. Their opponents, whether a god or some kind of heroic figure, represent order.

And in Tanakh? Of course, there are scenes of YHVH doing battle with the Leviathan, fighting and destroying the creature with aplomb (Isaiah 27:1; Psalm 74:14). And yet, Yhwh is described as the Leviathan’s creator, too.

In one vision, though, the Leviathan is not an enemy, but a companion to YHVH. In Psalm 104:26 the narrator tells the deity: “There go the ships,” he says, “and the Leviathan that You formed to sport with.” And the word he chooses for “sport” or “play” here should make us smile. Sachak, samech-chet-kuf, is a kind of twin to a word we know very well, tzachak, tzaddi-chet-kuf, the root that is the source of Isaac’s name. The words are related not only in sound, but in meaning: they are both associated with laughter.

Another place we see sachak is in Proverbs 8:30, when Lady Wisdom announces that she herself was there at the start of all creation, together with YHVH. He rejoiced in her, she says; she was his delight; she laughed before him.

God, apparently needs laughter and wildness together. The Leviathan is just that, a creature that twines and turns, that folds and unites.

A midrash:

God created in the sea big fish and little fish. The size of the biggest fish was one hundred parsangs, two hundred, three hundred, even four hundred. If it was not for God’s merciful tikkun, the big ones would have eaten the smaller ones. What tikkun did God make? God created the Leviathan. On every first of Tevet, Leviathan would rear his head and make himself great and snort in the water and stir it up, and the fear of him would fall on all the fishes in the sea. If this were not so, the small could not stand before the great.

The Leviathan roars and snorts to make sure that the large fish will back off, so that they won’t eat too many smaller fish—without this roar, all the fish in the ocean would consume one another. The Leviathan offers us a wild force of nature that acts to balance the forces of nature.

So where could we go with this creature, a creature that seems to represent uncertainty and confusion, a creature of chaos who brings order into the teeming seas, a creature who makes God laugh?

We are all dealing with a world of chaos, a world in which big fish eat little fish, a world in which justice seems elusive and a compassionate order a dream.

At the darkest time of the year, do we need the roar of the Leviathan to stir us up, to remember that we, too, must do battle for righteousness, for justice, for a world of compassion? And in order to keep ourselves sane, to make sure we do not despair, should we, must we remember to give space for play and for laughter?

Is Purim not around the corner?

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