L is for Leviathan

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There are a great many similarities in the stories of the world’s beginning between ancient cultures. There are elements that pop up consistently between these accounts, one of which is the prevalence of chaos and water in the time before the world’s forming. In the epic of Gilgamesh and other ancient Mesopotamian stories, the chaos of water was accompanied by a nasty water beast named Tiamat, god of chaos and destroyer. Now that is a name that’s gotten some press and attention from the roleplaying game community over the years. The dark and seething primordial mess is a terrifying concept and for eRly humanity, it was the desperate fear of the unknown. In the genesis account of creation, the chaos is mentioned and even the watery origins of form and matter, but we lack a monster. All we have is God.

What does come up in the Old Testament that connects to the same kind of stories is the presence of the sea beast Leviathan. Mentioned only three times, it opens up some great questions to biblical scholars.

“I will not fail to speak of Leviathan’s limbs, its strength and its graceful form. Who can strip off its outer coat? Who can penetrate its double coat of armor? Who dares open the doors of its mouth, ringed about with fearsome teeth? Its back has rows of shields tightly sealed together; each is so close to the next that no air can pass between. They are joined fast to one another; they cling together and cannot be parted. Its snorting throws out flashes of light; its eyes are like the rays of dawn. Flames stream from its mouth; sparks of fire shoot out. Smoke pours from its nostrils as from a boiling pot over burning reeds. Its breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from its mouth. Strength resides in its neck; dismay goes before it. The folds of its flesh are tightly joined; they are firm and immovable. Its chest is hard as rock, hard as a lower millstone. When it rises up, the mighty are terrified; they retreat before its thrashing. The sword that reaches it has no effect, nor does the spear or the dart or the javelin. Iron it treats like straw and bronze like rotten wood. Arrows do not make it flee; slingstones are like chaff to it. A club seems to it but a piece of straw; it laughs at the rattling of the lance. Its undersides are jagged potsherds, leaving a trail in the mud like a threshing sledge. It makes the depths churn like a boiling caldron and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment. It leaves a glistening wake behind it; one would think the deep had white hair. Nothing on earth is its equal— a creature without fear. It looks down on all that are haughty; it is king over all that are proud.” (Job 41:12-34 NIV)

I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty dragon-y to me. Some would reference this passage as evidence of dragons or dinosaurs in humanity’s past, but I think there is something different yet interesting going on here. This Leviathan, monstrous and powerful, is a piece of creation not the source. In the Tiamat story, the great chaos beast’s blood is the beginning of humanity whereas in the story of genesis, the great chaos beast is merely another element of creation under God’s control. The great conflict and dichotomy of chaos and order or good versus evil only really works if the two forces are equal, but that is not so this tale.

“How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number— living things both large and small. There the ships go to and fro, and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.” (Psalm 104:24-26 NIV)

“But God is my King from long ago; he brings salvation on the earth. It was you who split open the sea by your power; you broke the heads of the monster in the waters. It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan and gave it as food to the creatures of the desert. It was you who opened up springs and streams; you dried up the ever-flowing rivers. The day is yours, and yours also the night; you established the sun and moon. It was you who set all the boundaries of the earth; you made both summer and winter.” (Psalm 74:12-17 NIV)

In the Old Testament, the chaotic monster is a being made by God and within His thrall and command. Not only that, He designed it to “frolic” in the seas, he takes joy in it! The fact that the enemy of creation itself, the most ferocious opponent in the natural order whether of history or merely story, is within God’s control is comforting as you already know how the story ends. If even Leviathan can’t stand against the power of God, then there is hope for the way things will pan out. In our games, there is often the question of whether good will really win out over evil. There is something amazingly hopeful knowing that good will win out in the future, the question really changes in to what role we will play in that victory. In a game it’s an interesting question, in life it’s an even more interesting question, but if Leviathan/Tiamat/all the forces of chaos can’t stand against God’s might and his goodness, what could that mean in our games. Does it render our choices or adventure meaningless when we know the outcome, or does it emphasize the importance of the role that we play in a completely different manner?

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