The Three Jewish Monsters Charged With Saving the World

How is the balance in nature maintained? Well, with the help of three monsters from Jewish mythology, of course! One that lives in the sea, one that moves through the air and another that roams the earth. Naturally, no other creature dares to mess with these guys…

Chen Malul
Leviathan, Ziz and Behemoth. Ambrosiana Bible, 1238, Ulm, Germany. Ambrosiana Library, Milan

There is an entire subgenre of disaster movies devoted to terrifying monsters like King Kong or Godzilla, who are hell-bent on destroying everything around them. The monster is typically either created or set free by human intervention, wreaking havoc and chaos on the citizens of the world, or at the very least, New Yorkers.

Medieval Jews saw these matters differently, however. Long before anyone noticed the catastrophic damage human civilization was causing to the environment, the people of the Middle Ages (Jews, Christians and Muslims), whose worldview was dominated by a religious viewpoint, perceived nature as a harmonious system in which no single factor could overtake the others and thereby disrupt the world balance and tilt the scales towards disaster.

This thinking is reflected in the traditions surrounding the three great beasts mentioned in the Bible and Jewish mythology. Each represents a different category of animals: a beast of the sea, a beast of the land and a beast of the air. And each one, in its own terrifying way, maintains nature’s delicate balance.

The Destruction of Leviathan, Gustav Dore, 1865. This work depicts God destroying the legendary Leviathan as described in Isaiah

“In that day the Lord with His sore and great and strong sword shall punish Leviathan the piercing serpent, even Leviathan that crooked serpent; and He shall slay the dragon that is in the sea”

(Isaiah 27:1)

The first great monster-beast is the Leviathan, who rules the creatures of the sea and is mentioned in the Book of Job and elsewhere in the Bible. Leviathan is sometimes referred to as a being that challenged the rule of God, much like the taninim (mentioned in Genesis 1:21 and translated alternatively as “great sea creatures”, “great sea monsters” or “great whales”). Bible scholars see this as proof that the biblical Leviathan is a remnant of even more ancient mythologies, for example that of the Ugaritic culture, whose lore influenced and penetrated the Bible. Christianity adopted the image of the Leviathan as a symbol of satanic power and of evil. The gradual evolution of this theme has had a lasting cultural effect – think Moby Dick, the great white whale of Herman Melville’s classic novel.

Jews in the Middle Ages, however, were able to reconcile with the Leviathan and made the beast one of the three guardian monsters presiding over the world order. And so it was transformed from a kind of mighty sea serpent or giant crocodile (some even described it as a terrible dragon) into a fish of gigantic proportion that ensures that none of the other fish in the sea overtakes and destroys their brethren. In modern Hebrew, the word leviathan means “whale”.

The second monster-beast rules over the creatures of the air, in simple terms – birds. But to complicate things slightly, we’ll just let you know it has two names: Ziz and Bar Yochnei. Unusual names for sure, but both appear in the Bible. Ziz is mentioned in Psalms 80:14 in the original Hebrew (the word is generally lost in translation to English).

Although it is not clear who or what is the ziz mentioned in the Hebrew biblical text, the Jewish sages understood this mysterious name as belonging to a miraculous bird that was so big, its wingspan could block out the sun. As in this midrash in Genesis Rabbah 19:4:

“Rabbi Yehudah bar Simon said the bird Ziz is pure and when it spreads its wings it covers the sun … and Adam was created after all to rule over all.”

In Jewish mythology, Ziz is identified with the legendary bird Bar Yochnei mentioned in the Talmud: “Once an egg of the bird called Bar Yochnei fell, and the contents of the egg drowned sixty cities and broke three hundred cedar trees” (Bekhorot 57b). If you missed the hint, what the sages are saying is that if one egg of this bird could do all that damage, just imagine how big the bird must have been!

The third monster rules over the creatures of the land. In Hebrew writings is it called Behemoth and is described as a gigantic bull.

“Behold now Behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox.

Lo now, his strength is in his loins, and his force is in the navel of his belly.

He moveth his tail like a cedar; the sinews of his stones are wrapped together.

His bones are as strong pieces of brass; his bones are like bars of iron.

He is the chief of the ways of God; He that made him can make His sword to approach unto him.

Surely the mountains bring him forth food, where all the beasts of the field play.

He lieth under the shady trees, in the covert of the reed and fens.

The shady trees cover him with their shadow; the willows of the brook compass him about.

Behold, he drinketh up a river and hasteneth not; he trusteth that he can draw up the Jordan into his mouth.

Will any take him with his sight, or bore his nose with a snare?”

(Job 40:14–24)

Since the 17th century, biblical scholars have identified the Behemoth with the hippopotamus. Etching by William Blake of the Behemoth and Leviathan

However, with all due respect to the supremacy of the three monsters over other beasts, it was important to subordinate them to God because none were mightier or stronger than Him or could threaten His unwavering rule. Therefore, Jewish lore tells us that the first two beasts (Leviathan and Ziz) were created on the fourth day, and the Behemoth on the fifth day.

Needless to say, the three monsters are busy all year round. At the beginning of the summer, autumn and winter seasons they take part in a special ceremony. Each sounds a special warning to all the other animals –  the Behemoth roars, the Ziz screams and the Leviathan stirs the sea – in case any creature feels tempted to multiply or grow excessively and thus bring life in the world to an end.

These three mighty beasts were also given a messianic role. A fierce battle between the Leviathan and Behemoth is described as taking place in the End of Days. At its climax, both will be killed, and their meat will be served to the righteous at a spectacular banquet in heaven.

No doubt, the significance of the three monsters sounds strange to our modern ears. But perhaps there is still something to learn from them regarding the balance of nature. After all, experts have been warning us now for decades of the excessive dominance of one animal in particular – the human – who has been wreaking havoc on the entire ecosystem for a quite a while now: on land, in the air and in sea.


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