Are Dragons and Sea Monsters in the Bible? #197
Hello friends and welcome to another amazing episode of the Bible Mystery Podcast – Today’s Bible Mystery is all about dragons and sea monsters…behemoths and leviathans. Oh wait…my bad – I think I time travelled a little bit to ONE YEAR AGO, because that is when the first version of the podcast you are currently listening to launched, and in its first iteration, this podcast was known as the ‘Bible Mystery Podcast,’ and was endorsed by none other than Sherlock Holmes and Alfred Hitchcock themselves!! Okay, okay…maybe that’s not actually true, but the other part is. The Bible Mystery Podcast was born in July of 2019, lasted several months, morphed into the Bible Questions Podcast, which ultimately, in January 2020, became the Bible Reading podcast, and it has been blazing or stumbling forward since then. Some of you have been here through all three versions, and I appreciate that! Today’s Bible readings include Joshua 16 and 17, Psalms 148, Jeremiah 8 and Matthew 22.
I love a good mystery, and especially love a good Bible mystery. Of the 8 books I’ve written, two are on Bible mysteries, and one is on Sherlock Holmes and faith. That’s why today’s topic appeals to me – the Bible is full of mysteries, and I want to attempt to solve, or at least understand them, as often as possible. The last few weeks we have been reading about the Anakim/Rephaim again and again, and I am chomping at the bit to do an episode on those mysterious people, so hopefully that will be coming soon – maybe even tomorrow, since that will be the last mention of the Rephaim in our readings for some time. Today, however, our focus is on more aquatic creatures – sea monsters and dragons. Surely such creatures are NOT in the Bible are they? And the startling answer is…yes – they are! Consider this morsel from today’s focus chapter(and note the translations)
Praise the Lord from the earth,
all sea monsters and ocean depths, (Christian Standard Bible)
Praise the LORD from the earth, ye dragons, and all deeps: (King James Version)
Praise ye the Lord from the earth, ye dragons and all depths: (1599 Geneva Bible, which contains this footnote: Meaning, the great and monstrous fishes, as whales and such like)
Everything on earth, join in and praise the Eternal;
sea monsters and creatures of the deep, – (The Voice Translation)
7 Praise ye Jehovah from the earth, Dragons and all deeps, (Young’s Literal Version)
Ye of erthe, herie ye the Lord; dragouns, and alle depthis of watris. (Wycliffe 1382 translation)
And finally, I went on a very, very long rabbit trail to find a scanned copy of the OLDEST English language version of the Psalms that is still extant – the Vespasian Psalter of the 800s) It says: Hergath Dryhten of eorthan draecan 7 (and) alle nioynisse. Praise Lord of Earth Dragons and all from the abyss. (Vespasian Psalter – earliest translation of the Psalms into any English – Old English in this case)
What is up with all of that? Dragons? Sea Monsters? Sea creatures? Let’s go read the whole of Psalms 148 and see if it sheds any light on the mystery.
Well – great Psalm! But I’m not sure we’ve figured out yet if dragons and sea monsters are in the Bible. For that – we have to back a long long way etymologically. Further back than Wycliffe, the Vespasian Psalter and even the Greek New Testament…all the way back to the Hebrew of the Psalms – so let’s crank up our time machine and go. What word does the psalmist use here that has perplexed translators for hundreds of years? The Hebrew word in question is: “תַּנִּין tannîyn, tan-neen.” Fascinating word that is used multiple times in the Bible, but what does it mean? Well – we have to go back, back, back even further – I hope our time machine has enough dilithium crystals to keep going. (Yes, I know I mixed my science fiction metaphors there… your time machine may use Chronon Transduction, but mine uses dilithium, because I am not an official Gallifreyan) Anyway – we have to travel back to the beginning of the beginning – all the way to Genesis 1 to begin to get an idea of what “תַּנִּין tannîyn, tan-neen.” means. Let’s go!
Here we arrive at the first use of our lovely Hebrew word in the Bible:
So God created the large sea-creatures and every living creature that moves and swarms in the water, according to their kinds. He also created every winged creature according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. Genesis 1:21 CSB.
Now, I love the CSB, and use it frequently, but that is a boring translation, so let’s look at the KJV:
And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good. Genesis 1:21 KJV
Still not quite interesting enough for me! How about the YLT: And God prepareth the great monsters, and every living creature that is creeping, which the waters have teemed with, after their kind, and every fowl with wing, after its kind, and God seeth that [it is] good.
Ah…that’s better – we are back to monsters, but we still haven’t solved our mystery, have we! Let’s see if a few more verses can help us solve our mystery. Here are six more passages in which the Hebrew word “תַּנִּין tannîyn, tan-neen.” figures prominently. Perhaps from this context, we can get closer to a solution:
- So Moses and Aaron went in to Pharaoh and did just as the Lord had commanded. Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a serpent. Exodus 7:10
- On that day the Lord with his relentless, large, strong sword will bring judgment on Leviathan, the fleeing serpent—Leviathan, the twisting serpent. He will slay the monster that is in the sea Isaiah 27:1
- Wild animals— jackals and ostriches—will honor me,
because I provide water in the wilderness,
and rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people. Isaiah 43:20
- Wild donkeys stand on the barren heights panting for air like jackals.
Their eyes fail because there are no green plants. Jeremiah 14:6
- 3 Even dragons have drawn out the breast, They have suckled their young ones, The daughter of my people is become cruel, Like the ostriches in a wilderness. Lamentations 4:3 YLT – the CSB reads ‘Jackals’ here.
- Because of this I will lament and wail; I will walk barefoot and naked.
I will howl like the jackals and mourn like ostriches. Micah 1:8
So – what have we learned here? Well, quite a bit actually, but before we process it, I should note that the Bible was not written to be a modern biological textbook, nor an astronomical text book, etc. We need to remember that most of the passages we are discussing today were written 2500-3000 years ago. People thought quite differently then. Thus when Scripture uses a word like ‘star,’ it doesn’t necessarily mean exactly what we think of when we hear the word star. The Bible does not draw a distinction between heavenly bodies like planets and stars, but simply calls each one a ‘star’ (or the Hebrew/Greek equivalent) precisely as every other language group would have done 2500-3000 years ago. I think we have a similar situation here with our examination of sea monsters/dragons in the Bible. Looking at our above description – no one single creature on earth has all of the traits listed. Moses and Aaron tossed down their staffs, and they became tan-neen. Tan-neen were created by God in the depths of water, living in the sea. Tan-neen also apparently live in the dessert. They nurse their young (which reptiles do NOT!) and they howl! There is no single creature that does this in all of the history of the earth! Does that mean that we have discovered an error in the Bible?! Of course not!
Our Hebrew word “תַּנִּין tannîyn, tan-neen.” is apparently a generic word – much like our word ‘beast’ or ‘creature’ or ‘monster.’ If I say the word monster – quick, what are you thinking of? Some of you are thinking of a Frankenstein like monster, others a wolf-man, others still an animal like monster, and still others are thinking of an evil human as a monster. Our modern word ‘monster’ can accurately mean all of those things and more…as can our words creature, thing, brute, beast, freak, etc. I believe that is what is going on here. We don’t – we can’t know the exact creature that is identified by the word tan-neen anymore than a modern reader could know what exact creature is meant by the words thing, horror, monster, etc. I can certainly see how some ancient Hebrews would have viewed whales or jackals or cobras or other scary creatures as ‘beasts. That said, I actually think monster, sea monster, beast, or creature is a fine translation, with ‘creature’ being the most generic, and perhaps the safest…if not the most interesting.