Leviathan the God of the Sea and Rivers

The Leviathan, as mentioned in the Bible, is a huge seven-headed serpent that lurks in the depths of the sea, but did you know that this giant serpent was god in Canaanite mythology? His name Yamm, also known as Judge Nahar, this giant sea monster was the god of sea and rivers. In the Old Canaanite beliefs, the sea god’s battle with the storm god Baal brought about the Great Flood, which wiped out most life on earth. How do you think the god of the sea fought this epic battle?

Leviathan the Great Serpent
Leviathan the great sea serpent
Source: Art by William Blake

The Birth of the Leviathan

El, Father Shunem, decided the case in favour of his son; he gave the kingship to Prince Yam. He gave the power to Judge Nahar.

— Baal Cycle

Prince Yamm-Nahar, the god of the sea, was born out of the divine union of Asherah and El, the father of gods in Canaanite mythology. Yes, Yamm was one of the Elohim, the children of God, many of whom married humans and brought forth the Nephilim (Genesis 6). Moreover, the god of seas was El’s favorite son. The supreme god El gave the seas and rivers over to the sovereignty of his dearest lad as the latter’s inheritance.

The Abode of the Leviathan

There is the sea, great and wide, in which are innumerable living things, both small and large animals. There the ships go, and leviathan, whom you formed to play there.

— Psalm 104:25-26

The names Yamm, meaning “Sea,” and Nahar, “River,” refer to the same deity, the Canaanite god of the river and seas. Prince Yamm dwells in the depths of the sea. Judge Nahar lives along the breadth of inland rivers, in particular the rivers Euphrates and Tigris in Mesopotamia. The god of sea resides in waters wide and copious enough to house the breadth and length of the giant serpent that rules the seas and streams of this world. How does this sea monster of a god look like?

The equivalent of Leviathan in Greek mythology: the Hydra
Source: Painting by Francisco de Zurbarán

The Appearance of the Leviathan

“I will not fail to speak of Leviathan’s limbs, its strength and its graceful form. Who can strip off its outer coat? Who can penetrate its double coat of armor? Who dares open the doors of its mouth, ringed about with fearsome teeth?”

— Job 41:12-14, NIV

Like other gods, the god of the sea is capable of showing himself in a giant human-like figure, but he also transforms into a massive shape that does not look human at all. Such a form is known to other deities of the Canaanite pantheon as Lotan, Livyatan in Hebrew, the Leviathan in English. How exactly does this Leviathan creature look like? The Bible contains an even more detailed description of the god of sea.

According to the Book of Job, the Leviathan is a giant sea creature wrapped in scales of armor, its back protected by tight rows of shields, its chest hard as rock. No sword, spear or arrow can penetrate the outer coat of the great serpent. Even more dreadful, the massive dragon is strong, so strong it can churn the sea in whirlpools. The eyes of the huge monster in the sea glow like the rays of dawn, while the dragon’s mouth is ringed in fearsome teeth. The scary sea creature is the proudest of all proud creatures. How many heads swollen with pride would you guess this sea monster has?

Seven, that’s how many the heads of the Leviathan are. Seven heads on seven powerful necks rear their ugly heads above water, snarling and gloating through bright sinister eyes. Does the seven-headed serpent of Canaanite mythology breathe fire like the Leviathan in Job does?

The Power of the Leviathan

The flood was forty days on the earth. … The waters rose very high on the earth. All the high mountains that were under the whole sky were covered.

— Genesis 7:17, 19

The Great Flood in the Bible occurred after the fountains of the great deep were burst open (Genesis 7:11). Who threw the gates of the great deep wide open so long it brought the Great Flood? The much older Canaanite myth says that it was the sea god. The Leviathan has the power over the seas and rivers, not exempting the fountains of the great deep: The sea is the giant serpent’s realm, after all. The god of the ocean unplugged the fountains under the sea and drew so much water over the earth it caused the great deluge.

Indeed, the Leviathan has the world’s seas and oceans under his control. While the Bible says fire is the sea monster’s power, the greater Levantine mythology says it was water. The god of oceans can make the tide rise to levels thought impossible. The god of the sea can flood entire continents with his stock of water in the deep. The god of rivers can sweep the earth over with another great flood if he so wished. What prompted the god of sea and rivers to ravage the world with the first great flood?

In Canaanite mythology, the Great Flood was the result of a fight between Baal Hadad and the Leviathan.
Source: Painting by John Martin

The Archenemy of the Leviathan

“The message of Yam, your lord, of your master, Judge Nahar: ‘Give up, O gods, him whom you harbor, him whom the multitudes harbor! Give up Baal and his partisans, Dagon’s son, so that I may inherit his gold!'”

— Baal Cycle

After being enthroned by the supreme God El as king of gods, Yamm ruled the Canaanite deities with iron fist. After much cajoling from the goddess Asherah, the god of the sea and rivers only agreed to lift his harsh tyranny over her children if the mother of gods gave herself to him in marriage. Hence, the mother goddess went to the council of gods before El to break this news — which earned the vehement opposition of Baal Hadad. Lord Hadad would not allow such a marriage, and vowed to slay the tyrannical sea god. It was then that the two powerful gods faced off in a furious battle.

The Leviathan in Combat

On the same day all the fountains of the great deep were burst open, and the sky’s windows were opened.

— Genesis 7:11

Who opened the sea? Who opened the sky, causing the Great Flood? Who burst open the fountains of the deep? Who slammed wide the floodgates of heaven? In Canaanite mythology, they were Prince Yamm and Lord Hadad, locked in a ferocious one-on-one combat.

The Great Flood ensued as two of nature’s most powerful gods battle it out for supremacy. Thunder, lightning and rain came pouring down from Baal Hadad. Floodwater rose, raged and swirled from the Leviathan. Storm lashed forcefully against the seas, and the seas slapped towering waves back at the storm. The god of the ocean and the god of storms fought a fearsome battle. The whole world and all human beings on earth were caught in the crossfire, most losing their lives in the great deluge. Who won this catastrophic fight between the Sea and the Storm?

Leviathan the sea god fighting the god of storms
Source: Drawing by Gustave Doré

Demise of the Leviathan

In that day, the LORD will punish with his sword— his fierce, great and powerful sword— Leviathan the gliding serpent, Leviathan the coiling serpent; he will slay the monster of the sea.

— Isaiah 27:1, NIV

Unfortunately for the god of the sea and rivers, Baal Hadad found an ally in a craftsman god called Kothar. It was not a sword that destroyed the giant serpent; Kothar made Lord Hadad two clubs.

Bang, came the first club down on Yamm’s shoulder, twisting the sea god’s hands. Wham, came the second club on Nahar’s head, twisting the river god’s eyes. The ocean god’s joints failed; his frame collapsed. Baal dragged the Leviathan, lifted the god of ocean before him, and dealt the great monster of the sea the final blow. The sea monster fell to the ground, dead.

You broke the heads of Leviathan in pieces. You gave him as food to people and desert creatures, Psalm 74:14.

Compassion for the Leviathan

By name, Astarte rebukes: “Shame, O Mighty Baal. Shame, O Rider of the Clouds! For Prince Yam was our captive. For Judge River was our captive.”

— Baal Cycle

Apparently even such a horrific monster as the Leviathan can be worthy of somebody’s love and compassion. Of course, if the source of that compassion is the goddess of love herself, it would be little wonder. The beautiful goddess Astarte cried foul when Baal finished the sea god. Baal could have just kept the god of the sea captive, the goddess points out. However monstrous the god of sea was, there was no need to end its life, says Astarte the goddess of love and beauty.

Revenge for the Leviathan

Death was infuriated, and sent his word back to Baal. He declared that, because Baal had destroyed the Serpent Lotan, he would exact revenge by devouring Baal.

— Baal Cycle

Like Hades of the Greeks, Death is a god in Canaanite mythology. Like Hades and Poseidon, Death and the Leviathan are close siblings. Mot, the god of death, will avenge the demise of his brother Yamm. Death will take down Baal. The god of death will kill the god of storms. See the defeat of Baal in the hands of Mot the God of Death and the Underworld.

The Rebirth of the Leviathan

I saw a beast coming up out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads. … “The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and yet will come up out of the Abyss.”

— Revelation 13:1; 17:8, NIV

The Book of Revelation in the Bible prophesies the return of the beast with seven heads. The Scripture forewarns that the great Leviathan will rise again. Upon his rebirth, will the giant sea monster go on a rampage in the world’s seas and oceans anew? Will the world see another Great Flood as the god of the sea rears seven of its ugly heads over our ocean?

Who do you believe caused the great flood at the time of Noah?

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Published March 23, 2014