Theology of Sea Monsters

sea monsterIntroduction

In my senior year of college, a favorite professor of mine opened my eyes when he started talking about the sea monsters of the Bible. I thought he was crazy, saying there were sea monsters in the Bible. That is something you read about in the Greek mythologies or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

But as I listened to his lectures and looked in the text for myself, I saw not only were they there, but they are also used to speak theological truths about God.

Sea Monsters at Creation

The first time we encounter sea monsters in the Bible is in Genesis 1:21. In the previous verse, God calls for the waters to be filled with fish and the sky to be filled with birds. In verse 21, we see the fulfillment of God’s words, along with a very interesting phrase: “God created the great sea creatures.”

The Hebrew word used here (tanninim) describes a great and powerful beast, often a serpent, dragon, or sea creature. In other ancient Near Eastern cultures contemporary to the Israelites, these sea monsters play a large role in creation myths. In some of these stories, sea monsters represent chaotic or rebellious forces; the gods must do battle with and suppress these monsters as a part of creation. Unlike the ANE myths, however, God does not do battle with the chaotic sea monsters; he already has dominion over them as they are part of his good creation.

Serpents in Egypt

The word translated as “sea monsters” in Genesis 1—the Hebrew tanninim—is next found in Exodus 7, this time translated as “serpent.” In Exodus 7:9, the Lord commands Aaron to thrown down his staff, which then turns into a tannin (serpent). The Egyptian magicians replicate Aaron’s action by turning their own staffs into tanninim. However, Aaron’s serpent swallowed the serpents of the Egyptians, showing that the Lord controls all tanninim—even those produced via the power of Pharaoh.

Sea Monsters in the Prophets

The sea monsters make several appearances in the Old Testament prophetic books. In Ezekiel 29–32, the prophet is told to give a lengthy judgment against Pharaoh and Egypt. In two instances (29:3 and 32:2), Ezekiel describes Pharaoh as a tannin, a monster coming from water. The prophet uses this imagery to show Pharaoh and Egypt as being against God, and pointing to the prophesied day when both are destroyed.

In Jeremiah 51:34, another pagan king is described as a tannin—this time Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar is pictured as devouring Israel like a sea monster. In this action, he is seen to be evil, wicked, and against God. But his time will come soon enough, and God will show his dominion over Nebuchadnezzar.

Two times do the tannin make an appearance in Isaiah. In Isaiah 51:9–11, the prophet records how the Lord delivered Israel from Egypt during the Exodus. This event is wrapped in similar imagery mentioned above: Egypt was the sea monster/dragon that was chopped up and pierced. Then, in Isaiah 27:1 the prophet provides eschatological hope for Israel, saying that one day the “fleeing serpent” will be destroyed and the nation will be redeemed.

Sea Monsters in Poetry

The tanninim also find their way into the poetic books. In Psalm 74, the psalmist is pleading for the Lord to act by saving Israel and defeating the enemies. In verses 12–17 an appeal is made for God to work like he did in the Exodus. God is portrayed as almighty, strong enough to break the multi-headed sea monsters. He is stronger than all that Egypt threw at him in the Exodus, he is stronger than all the forces of chaos and rebellion, and he is certainly stronger than the Babylonian invaders the Israelites are currently facing.

In Psalm 91, the psalmist describes the one who abides in the Lord, saying that he will “tread on the lion and the adder / the young lion and the serpent (tannin) you will trample underfoot” (verse 13). It shows the power of the Lord, that he causes those who seek refuge in Him to have power over all kinds of threats. It is interesting to note that this is one verse away from verses 11–12, which is the passage Satan quotes in the temptation narrative (Matthew 4); The Adversary recognized the promises made to the Lord’s chosen, but chose not to include the Lord’s dominion over forces of evil.

Finally in Psalm 148, the psalmist describes a day when the entire earth will recognize the glory and dominion of the Lord. All the people on the earth (verses 11–12), all the heavenly lights (verses 3–4), all the mountains and growing plants (verse 9), and even the “great sea creatures” (verse 7) will declare the glories of God. This highlights the eschatological victory of God, that one day all the forces of chaos and evil will be subjected to the dominion of God.

Conclusion

Throughout the Old Testament we find appearances of tanninim, which we have translated as sea monsters and serpents. While this list is not exhaustive, we highlighted most of the major uses of tanninim. This list could have been greatly expanded to include other ANE images of chaos and rebellion found in the OT, such as Leviathan, Rahab, and even the sea (yam).

In ANE cultures, the tanninim were evil, chaotic elements that needed to be conquered by the gods. But in the Bible, the tanninim are rather something already under the control of the Lord from the beginning. The tanninim are not agents of rebellion, but rather part of God’s good creation. Sometimes, like the empires of Egypt and Babylon, they seem to be great, mighty, and unstoppable. But the day is coming when God’s rule and reign will be completely revealed and God will be seen as the unquestioned and sovereign king over all.

Brandon Schmidt

I am Brandon Schmidt: writer, husband, father, brother, reader, and laugher.

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