The article of the month

IS THAT IN THE BIBLE? by Father Anthony Giambrone, O.P.

Call Me Job

Some nine million years or more ago, long before the days of Job, a colossal apex predator roamed the waters ­covering the land mass that is now Peru, preying on creatures the size of sharks and whales. Its teeth were more than a foot in length, and its full staggering size is still unknown and debated. Scientists have christened this monstrous creature, whose immense fossilized skull was discovered in 2008, the Livyatan melvillei: Leviathan, a preternaturally giant fish, more menacing than Melville’s Moby Dick.

Prodigies like this massive, mysterious lord of the ­ancient seas, or like the titanic 200,000-pound sauropods who walked in late Cretaceous Argentina, capture the mood of dumb bewilderment and religious awe aroused by God’s word from the whirlwind in Job 40-41 better than do the crocodile and hippo pedantically suggested for “Leviathan” and “Behemoth” by the footnote in the Revised Standard Version translation of the Bible. Few annotations could be less helpful. Pharaohs hunted hippos and speared crocodiles for sport, but it is God alone who ventures to play with these terrible beasts who reign over land and sea (cf. Ps 104:26). Leviathan above all is no animal to mess with: Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook…. Can you put a rope in its nose…. No one is so fierce as to dare to stir it up…. Who can confront it and be safe? Under the whole heaven, who? (cf. Jb 40:24, ff).

The point here is not to suggest that the biblical author actually had some dinosaur in mind. Like unicorns and griffins or the famous rhino by Albrecht Dürer, Leviathan is less a zoological than a mythological creature, part of the biblical bestiary. It is the primeval, serpentine denizen of the deep. Like the Babylonian sea-goddess Tiamat, deep within the threatening, churning waters, Leviathan is the twisting chaos-monster that, in ancient Canaanite myths, opposes the divine work of ordering the world at the dawn of creation. Yet, as such, Leviathan is also more than a myth. This is the “ancient serpent” that later tradition will also know by other names. It is Satan returned, who upset Job’s life at the book’s beginning, now unmasked as the dragon who reigns as king over all that are proud (Jb 41:26).

As the climax to the Lord’s devastating interrogation of Job as plaintiff, Leviathan rides in on the ultimate ­unanswerable battery of rhetorical questions. The effect of the questioning is clear: Job’s effort to strive against the Lord is exposed as a wild madness, much wilder even than the hell-bent lust for vengeance driving Melville’s Captain Ahab. For Ahab only insanely sought to wrestle with a great bull whale; Job is seeking to wrestle with that raging bull whale’s maker. Is God therefore simply boasting that he sits atop the cosmic food chain? That he is an even bigger bully than a prehistoric predatory beluga whale? No. God’s final defense is rather to ask: Are you able to grapple with your true Accuser? Have you observed this terrifying creature Leviathan well? Then let the Creator of all mind his own work, as he best knows how to do it. This is God’s manifest message.

More subtle and significant is what God implies about his management of Job’s particular case, however. It is the Lord alone who knows how to safely handle the great ­monster angling to prey on Job’s frail life; this is what, all along, the great God has been doing. Job accepts the defense that puts him on the defensive, sees the folly of his words, and wisely withdraws his impossible suit.

Father Anthony Giambrone, o.p., is a Dominican priest of the Province of Saint Joseph and professor of the New Testament at the École biblique de Jérusalem.