The Whale and Leviathan

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor
of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

Several years ago, The Observer of London reported that a bottle-nosed whale was seen swimming up the River Thames to the delight of onlookers.  The whale swam past Big Ben and Parliament as thousands of people looked on with apprehension, worried about its survival.

The sight of the whale delighted the Londoners because this was the first time a bottle-nosed whale has been seen swimming up the Thames since 1913.  No one knows the reason that caused the whale to swim the shallow waters of the Thames since they are generally found in the deep waters of the North Atlantic.   Marine experts believe that when whales become sick or injured, they often become disoriented and swim away from their pod.

A rescue effort to save the stranded whale failed.  Rescuers used a crane in an attempt to return the whale to the sea.  The whale was placed on a barge but it died before it could be transported to deep waters.

The size of the great whales has always been a fascination to people of antiquity.  Superstitious people who could not explain the mysterious monster that lived in the vast oceans created myths and legends to explain its existence.  The rare sight of a whale in London evoked biblical images of the book of Jonah and of the prophet who was swallowed by the big fish.

Writing in The Observer of London, a reporter wrote: “In the Old Testament book of Jonah, the authorised version’s ‘great fish’ that swallows the prophet eventually tunes its radar to the right frequency, receives the word of God and, after a long weekend in the depths, saves the errant holy man by spewing him up onto dry land, whence he goes on to rescue the reprobates of Nineveh from the wrath of the Almighty” (to read the whole story, click here).

The author of the article also wrote: “Leviathan’s strange and forlorn visit to London was a moment of reality television that provoked only the finest emotions – pity and wonder, and finally sorrow – among thousands of onlookers.”

The descriptions above show the power of imagination.  When something so rare is seen, the imagination of writers waxes fertile and the most beautiful and amazing poetic liberties take place creating statements that have nothing to do with reality, much less with the realities of the biblical text.

First, the Old Testament never says that Jonah was swallowed by a whale. In fact, the word “whale” does not appear in the Old Testament except in the King James Version in  Job 7:12 and Ezekiel 32:2 where the NIV translates the Hebrew word as “the monster of the sea” and the NRSV translates the same words as “the dragon” in the sea.

Second, the word “Leviathan” appears five times in the Old Testament (Job 3:8; 41:1; Psalm 74:14; 104:26; Isaiah 27:1).  Leviathan has often been identified with a dragon which was considered to be the enemy of light.  It has also been identified with the crocodile, the whale, a large sea animal, and with monsters of the deep.  But none of these descriptions fits with what the Old Testament says about Leviathan.

The Psalmist says that the Lord defeated Leviathan: “You crushed the heads of Leviathan” (Psalm 74:14).  Psalm 74:14 portrays Leviathan as a monster with many heads.  On the other hand, Isaiah 27:1 gives a different picture of Leviathan: “On that day the LORD with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.”

Thus, the poetic imagination of the reporter who described the bottle-nosed whale in the Thames with biblical language was as fertile as the imagination of the people of the Old Testament describing something they could not understand.

What would motivate a reporter to wax eloquent at the sight of that majestic mammal?  Maybe his own words can explain his poetic feelings.  In describing what brought the crowds to watch the whale, the reporter wrote, “Those who lined the Embankment to watch the whale’s doomed journey maybe felt a genetic twinge of nostalgia, too. When we crawled out of the ocean those billions of years ago, the whale was among the mammals we left behind.”

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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