Leviathan is a Biblical sea monster referred to in the Old Testament (Psalm 74:13-14; Job 41; Isaiah 27:1). The word leviathan has become synonymous with any large sea monster or creature. In the novel Moby-Dick it refers to great whales, and in Modern Hebrew, it means simply "whale".
The word "Leviathan" appears in five places in the Bible, with the Book of Job, chapter 41, being dedicated to describing Leviathan in detail:
The word Leviathan is also mentioned in Rashi's commentary on Genesis 1:21: "God created the great sea monsters - Taninim." Jastrow translates the word "Taninim" as "sea monsters, crocodiles or large snakes". Rashi comments: "According to legend this refers to the Leviathan and its mate. God created a male and female Leviathan, then killed the female and salted it for the righteous, for if the Leviathans were to procreate the world could not stand before them."
The festival of Sukkot (Festival of Booths) concludes with a prayer recited upon leaving the sukkah (booth): "May it be your will, Lord our God and God of our forefathers, that just as I have fulfilled and dwelled in this sukkah, so may I merit in the coming year to dwell in the sukkah of the skin of Leviathan. Next year in Jerusalem."
A commentary on this prayer in the Artscroll prayer-book (p. 725) adds: "The Leviathan was a monstrous fish created on the fifth day of Creation. Its story is related at length in the Talmud Baba Bathra 74b, where it is told that the Leviathan will be slain and its flesh served as a feast to the righteous in [the] Time to Come, and its skin used to cover the tent where the banquet will take place."
There is another religious hymn recited on the festival of Shavuot (celebrating the giving of the Torah), known as Akdamut, wherein it says: "...The sport with the Leviathan and the ox (Behemoth)...When they will interlock with one another and engage in combat, with his horns the Behemoth will gore with strength, the fish [Leviathan] will leap to meet him with his fins, with power. Their Creator will approach them with his mighty sword [and slay them both]." Thus, "from the beautiful skin of the Leviathan, God will construct canopies to shelter the righteous, who will eat the meat of the Behemoth [ox] and the Leviathan amid great joy and merriment, at a huge banquet that will be given for them." Some rabbinical commentators say these accounts are allegorical (Artscroll siddur, p. 719), or symbolic of the end of conflict.
In a legend recorded in the Midrash called Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer it is stated that the whale which swallowed Jonah narrowly avoided being eaten by the Leviathan, which generally eats one whale each day. In a hymn by Kalir, the Leviathan is a serpent that surrounds the earth and has its tail in its mouth, like the Greek Ouroboros and the Nordic Midgard Serpent.
Legend has it that in the banquet after the end of conflict, the carcass of the Leviathan will be served as a meal, along with the Behemoth and the Ziz. Leviathan may also be interpreted as the sea itself, with its counterparts Behemoth being the land and Ziz being the air and space.
The Biblical references to Leviathan have similarities to the Canaanite Baal cycle, which involving a confrontation between Hadad (Baal) and a seven headed sea monster named Lotan. Lotan is the Ugaritic orthograph for Hebrew Leviathan. Hadad defeats him. Bibilical references also resemble the Babylonian creation epic Enûma Elish in which the storm god Marduk slays his grandmother, the sea monster and goddess of chaos and creation Tiamat and creates the earth and sky from the two halves of her corpse.
The body of the Leviathan, especially his eyes, possesses great illuminating power. This was the opinion of R. Eliezer, who, in the course of a voyage in company with R. Joshua, explained to the latter, when frightened by the sudden appearance of a brilliant light, that it probably proceeded from the eyes of the Leviathan. He referred his companion to the words of Job xli. 18: "By his neesings a light doth shine, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning" (B. B. l.c.). However, in spite of his supernatural strength, the leviathan is afraid of a small worm called "kilbit", which clings to the gills of large fishes and kills them (Shab. 77b).
Avoda Zara (3b): "Rav Yehuda says, there are twelve hours in a day. The first three hours God sits and learns the Torah, the second three hours he sits and judges the world. The third three hours God feeds the entire world... the fourth three hour period God plays with the Leviathan as it is written: "the Leviathan which you have created to play with"".
Moed Katan (25b): "Rav Ashi said to Bar Kipok: what will be said at my funeral? He answered: "If a flame can fall a cedar, what hope does a small tree have? If a Leviathan can be hooked and hauled to land, what hope has a fish in a puddle?"
Some biblical scholars considered Leviathan to represent the pre-existent forces of chaos. In Psalm 74:13-14 it says "it was You who drove back the sea with Your might, who smashed the heads of the monsters in the waters; it was You who crushed the heads of Leviathan, who left him as food for the creatures of the wilderness. (JPS edition)" God drove back the waters of the Earth (Genesis 1:2 "And the earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters." ([NAS])
A number of interpreters suggest that Leviathan is a symbol of mankind in opposition to God, claiming that it and beasts mentioned in the books of Daniel and Revelation should be interpreted as metaphors. The usage of Leviathan in the Old Testament books (Isaiah 27:1) would seem to be a reference to a Semitic mythological beast mentioned in literature of Ugarit, a city-state in North Syria. According to Canaanite myth, the Leviathan was an enemy of order in Creation and was slain by the Canaanite god Baal. The word Leviathan to the ancient Jews became synonymous with that which warred against God's kingdom. This especially included nations warring against Israel such as Assyria and Egypt. (The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Old Testament,1985, SP Publications Inc.)
Leviathan also appears in the Book of Enoch, giving the following description of this monster's origins there mentioned as being female, as opposed to the male Behemoth:
And that day will two monsters be parted, one monster, a female named Leviathan in order to dwell in the abyss of the ocean over the fountains of water; and (the other), a male called Behemoth, which holds his chest in an invisible desert whose name is Dundayin, east of the garden of Eden. - 1 Enoch 60:7-8
Leviathan became associated, and may have originally been referred to, in the visual motif of the Hellmouth, a monstrous animal into whose mouth the damned disappear at the Last Judgement, found in Anglo-Saxon art from about 800, and later all over Europe.
Leviathan is also sometimes said to have been of the order of Seraphim. According to the writings of Father Sebastien Michaelis, Balberith, a demon who allegedly possessed Sister Madeleine at Aix-en-Provence, obligingly told the priest not only the other devils possessing the nun, but added the special saints whose function was to oppose them. Leviathan was one devil that was named and was said to tempt men into committing sacrilege. Its adversary was said to be St. Peter.
In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake wrote:
Like the Leviathan, the Nile crocodile is aquatic, scaly, and possesses fierce teeth. Job 41:18 states that Leviathan's eyes "are like the eyelids of the morning". Major difficulties of this view are that in Job chapter 41 Leviathan is described as breathing fire like a dragon, and that the crocodile does not seem to fit the descriptions of Leviathan given in other Bible passages, such as in the book of Psalms.
During sea-faring's Golden Age, European sailors saw Leviathan as a gigantic whale-like sea monster, usually a sea serpent, that devoured whole ships by swimming around the vessels so quickly as to create a whirlpool.
Some Young Earth Creationists have alleged that Leviathan was either a dinosaur, such as Parasaurolophus, or a giant marine reptile, such as Kronosaurus . The current consensus among Young Earth Creationists is that the giant crocodilian, Sarcosuchus, best fits the description in the Bible.
Others suggest that the Leviathan is an exaggerated account of a whale.
Partly due to the influence of Herman Melville's classic, Moby-Dick, the Leviathan has come to be associated by many with the sperm whale. An example of this is in Disney's depiction of Pinocchio's being swallowed by Monstro, a sperm whale, despite the fact that in the original Italian book Pinocchio was swallowed by a "Pesce-cane", translated as "dog-fish" or "shark".
George Oppen's seminal 1962 poem "Leviathan" addresses the leviathan of the all-consuming force of history, which Oppen felt posed a very real and immediate threat to human survival.
In the Dungeons and Dragons novel Darkwalker on Moonshae, set in the Forgotten Realms world, the author, Douglas Niles, presents the Leviathan as a giant sea creature that fights the forces of evil in his book.
In Steven Brust's novel To Reign In Hell, Leviathan (female in this case) is one of seven elder inhabitants of Hell who conspire to prevent Yahweh from creating the Earth as a sanctuary for himself and those loyal to him. Like Satan and the other members of the alliance, Leviathan was originally an angel, but was mutated by the Flux, in her case becoming a sea-beast.
A card named Leviathan was printed in the expansion The Dark for Magic: the Gathering. At the time of its printing it was the "largest" creature card in the game. Other later creatures of great size, mostly oceanic, have occasionally had 'leviathan' as a creature type (as does one earlier, smaller creature retroactively declared to be a "miniaturized" leviathan).