Monday, April 29, 2013

Why Dinosaurs are NOT in the Bible: Leviathan and Behemoth

Gustave Dore's portrayal of
Psalm 74
[Edit: Due to the popularity of this post in conjunction with my dialogue with Ken Ham and Purdom, I've made some minor updates.  Primarily, I have followed AiG's request to use a term like "plesiosaur" rather than "dinosaur" when referring to their interpretation of Leviathan]

Creationists like Ken Ham (“Peace be upon him”) have duped a generation of evangelicals into believing dinosaurs are mentioned in the Bible.  In fact, it seems most of the involved Christians I know in the Southern Baptist circles I have spent my life actually believe Leviathan and Behemoth in Job are ancient descriptions of a plesiosaur and sauropod.  According to Ken Ham:
"[V]ery few animals are singled out in the Bible for such a detailed description. Contrary to what many may think, what we know now as dinosaurs get more mention in the Scriptures than most animals!"
The following will serve as an object lesson in how evangelicals can be guilty of bending and torturing scripture to subject it to their own agenda.  That’s the definition of liberalism (*gasp*).  Let’s look at some of the other passages Ham conveniently chooses not to mention.

According to the Bible Leviathan:

1)      Has glowing eyeslike rays of the dawn” (Job 41.18)
2)      Breathes fire " (Job 41.19-21)
3)      Has multiple heads (Ps. 74.14 “[God] You crushed the heads [plural] of Leviathan [singular]”)
4)      Will be destroyed by God at the eschaton (Isaiah 27.1 “In that day the LORD…will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.”)

If you believe Leviathan is a plesiosaur, you must be willing to swallow the existence of an eye-glowing, fire-breathing, multiple-headed, natural animal which will still be living by the time the end of the world comes around in order that God may “punish” him with death. (Apparently God is angry with this multi-headed “dinosaur.”)

As you are trying to choke down that pill let’s ask if there is a better alternative out there.  The fact is Leviathan’s epithets contained in the Hebrew Bible (titles like “slithering serpent” and “twisting serpent”) can be found word-for-word in the surrounding literature of the Ancient Mediterranean.  In those texts he is associated with creation, shares the etymology Ltn, breathes fire and has seven heads.   Those texts define him as a chaos deity (explaining Psalm 74’s affinities for Babylonian chaoskampf like that found in the Enuma Elish tablets and Isaiah’s metaphorical second slaying of the creature at the return of Christ).  Let’s compare a text written by one of Israel’s pagan neighbors with the leviathan of the Bible: [i]

The Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible contains leading scholarship in Semitic studies.  Below is a portion of its entries on Leviathan and Behemoth:

Frankly, if you are going to argue that a creature like Leviathan is a plesioaur, and that the author of Job received revelation of this, you have to concede that Baal worshipers like those at Ugarit were receiving the same fire-breathing, seven-headed revelation.

The spectre of a mythological dragon looms heavy on the evangelical mind.  But just because the Biblical authors use this type of imagery, does it mean that we must believe these creatures exists in the natural world?

Here is a question:  In Psalm 74 God crushes and kills Leviathan as part of the act of creation (the Near Eastern idea of chaoskampf). But Isaiah has him being killed a second and final time at the eschaton (27.1). This is an exegetical dilemma which must be explained.  Apparently the authors of scripture are doing more than just describing a mere natural animal.  They are using the creatures Leviathan and Behemoth as a symbol for something.  We are the ones who miss the meaning due to our refusal to contextualize the text.

Why are Dragons Found in Every Ancient Culture in the World?

As an aside note to the external non-biblical data, creationists are quick to demonstrate their particular interpretation of the Biblical data by making the argument that dragons can be found worldwide in ancient cultures.  The claim is that this evinces the cohabitation of man and dinosaurs in ancient memory.  I think people who do this are actually on to something here, but not in the direction they take it.

There is a much simpler, much more boring explanation: We have been finding fossils of dinosaurs for thousands of years and have been inventing all sorts of monster mythologies to account for these fossils. (Sorry Rob Skiba: there were no real centaurs in history and Santa doesn't exist either.)  Such is the thesis of Adrienne Mayor from Stanford.  Her books trace ancient fossil hunting history and mythology in regions like Native North America, Greece and Rome.  It’s not just dragons. People in the ancient world are known to have offered fossil remains of griffins, centaurs, cyclopes, and giants too.  If you are an ancient Roman at a construction site and your team exhumes a T-Rex, you are going to believe in a past age of dragons.  If you are an ancient Scythian nomad and you encounter protoceratops remains you are going to interpret them as a griffin.  If you are an ancient Sioux who finds himself upon pteranodon remains you are going to invent the thunderbird legend.  In many cases it is certain that ancient people were offering extinct animal fossils as the origin of mythological creatures, and it is more than coincidence that these myths happen to originate in places with a lot of fossil beds.  Some of those fossil beds were named and Hadrian is known to have collected some near Troy.  Many were venerated in temples like in the temple of Hera on Samos.  The cyclops myth has been shown to likely derive from Greek misinterpretation of Mammoth skulls. Solinus flat out says these bones were exhumed from ravines.   The people of Samos excavated a creature they called a Nead. Aelian claims the giant Neads once roamed Samos and that its ancient bones were on display in his day.  The point is fossil hunting isn't new.
The trunk cavity of a mammoth
skull would be easily mistaken
as an eye socket.

Regardless of your views on creation, let’s stop protecting ourselves from the Bible and stop demythologizing the text to fit into our modern agendas. We need to attempt to read the text in its Ancient Near Eastern context – the context God Himself chose to inspire it in.

[i] C.f. Aicha Rahmouni, Divine Epithets in the Ugaritic Alphabetic Texts (Netherlands: Brill 2008), 142ff.

1 comment:

  1. Catholic Study Bible argues for a primordial chaos monster if I remember correctly. Amplified version argues for a crocodile description with hyperbole(at least for the Job account). Good stuff.