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HaTaniynim (התנינמ)

May 17, 2010

The world of Genesis 1 is strange territory for a zoologist. There are no Aves or Mammalia here. Instead there are fliers (עוף), creepers (רמש), beasts (בהמות), and “the life of the earth” (חיתו־ארץ). But my favorite are the taniynim.

Taniynim (תנינמ), hatantiynim hagadol, the great taniynim, are part of that vast panoply of life, “all that breathes, the life that swarms, that abounds the waters”. But what are they?
The only logical place to start is with the actual uses of the relevant words. The word תנינמ (or its singular variants, תנין and תנים, “taniyn” and “taniym”) appears fourteen times in the Bible, in fourteen verses (Genesis 1:21, Exodus 7:9, 10, and 12, Deuteronomy 32:33, Job 7:12, Psalms 74:13, 91:13, and 148:7, Isaiah 27:1 and 51:9, Jeremiah 51:34, and Ezekiel 29:3 and 32:2). (We are ignoring Nehemiah 2:13 which mentions the well or spring of the taniniym, since this usage provides no information on what a taniyn is beyond that it is a noun capable of taking a plural form.) The King James Version, and at least some of its Strong’s Numbers, reflect an unfortunate tendency to confuse the plural of “jackal” (“tan”, תנ), with the identical singular of taniym, which it then often strangely translates as a plural anyway (“dragons”). However, since inhabiting desolate ruins, howling, and nursing offspring are all jackal traits we can reject these instances with a high degree of confidence. The odd spelling of taniyn in Ezekiel, taniym, which would overlap with “jackals” describes something that is clearly not a jackal, and a spelling shift or variant from taniyn makes the most sense

Some of the taniynim are nothing more than snakes – Moses’ staff becomes a taniyn in several verses, but the same miracle is referred to elsewhere and it is said that his staff became a nachash (נחש), a serpent. Deuteronomy and Psalm 91 parallel, in typical poetic fashion, the taniyn with the “twister”, some sort of snake. But snakes do not belong with water, nor are they exceptionally large, while there is an entire category of taniynim that have both traits. Genesis and Ezekiel 29 refer to the taniynim as “gadol”, large or great. Genesis places the taniynim in the waters, as does Psalm 74, Isaiah 27, and both Ezekiel references. Job and Psalm 148 pair the taniyn with the sea.

We can perhaps identify one of these taniyn, what I will refer to as the great taniynim. Pharaoh, King of Egypt, is a well-described taniym in Ezekiel, if we assume both passages refer to the same beast. He has scales, jaws, and feet. He lives in the rivers (including the Nile), and claims them as his own. If crocodiles haven’t already sprung to mind you may want to consider reviewing your zoological trivia.

Is this all a silly exercise in identifying infrequently mentioned Biblical animals? No. The crocodile provides a bridge point to the central discussion of the taniyn. I propose that the taniynim are at least half myth. Taniynim are probably crocodiles, perhaps sharks as well. But what they really are are the shadows beneath the waves, the widow-makers of the trackless seas. They are the violence of the seas personified. Yes, there are animals out there that are taniynim, but they are taniynim because they are feared, and because they are the things sailors whisper about when a ship does not return. Even today there are stories, unverified, in all cases, by science, of sea monsters. The sea is a hostile place for terrestrial bipeds. The taniynim represent that hostility. They are, most properly, sea monsters. And since there are real animals in the sea that are monstrous, both in appetite and in size, there are real taniynim. But not all taniynim are real just because the category is, just as we could make a case that unicorns, which are not noted for existing, are mammals, which do exist.

Named monsters, that is individually named monsters, are the best candidates for myth. Real creatures come in whole species, not as individuals. Monsters, though, can be one of a kind. Leviathan (לויתן) and Rahab (רהב) both are or have associations with the taniynim, and both appear to be names in the sense that Joshua is a name, and not in the sense that “snake” is.

Leviathan (pronounced “leweeyathan” originally) appears to be derived from a word meaning “wreathe” or “coil”. The information on Leviathan is strange, at best. In Psalm 74:14 he has heads. In Psalm 104:26 he is described as a sea beast. In Isaiah 27:1 he is a serpent (both “the fleeing serpent” and “the twisting serpent”). And, in the extensive description in Job 41 (which follows the description of the Behemoth, which may also be a being of myth) Leviathan is described again as a watery creature that one might fish for if one were crazy, or as powerful as God. Leviathan is a creature with terrible teeth, limbs (so not a serpent entirely), a back like rows of shields, who breathes flame, and whose belly is covered in sharp protrusions. While parts of this description sound crocodilian the fire does not. No known organism on earth exhales fire, and Leviathan is early identified not with real creatures but with dragons.

Rahab is even less clearly described. The name appears to mean something like “arrogant” or “raging against”. Rahab also appears connected with the sea, but less surely. Job 26:12 mentions the killing of Rahab in connection with the quieting of the sea. Isaiah 27:1 and Isaiah 51:9 mention Leviathan and Rahab respectively being destroyed by God, both connect the subject with the sea, and each ends by describing God killing “the taniyn”. Presumably, in both cases, this is because Leviathan and Rahab are taniynim, and the taniyn killed in each verse is the one named. Rahab, interestingly, also has helpers in Job 9:13.

Indeed, the theme of the Lord killing taniynim is quite frequent. Psalam 74, in verses 13 and 14, rejoices in how the Lord has dealt fatal head injuries to the taniynim and Leviathan, apparently as part of the parting of the Red Sea. As mentioned, both of the verses that label Leviathan and Rahab as taniynim speak of God killing them. Rahab, in fact, is nearly always mentioned as a beast that God slew (Job 26:12, Psalm 89:10, two of the three remaining mentions of Rahab, the remaining one, Job 9:13, may indicate that God has terrified Rahab’s helpers).

And here’s where we make an actual point. Divine warfare against sea monsters is not an unknown theme in Near Eastern religious literature and myth. The Enmua Elish rather famously features Marduk fighting Tiamat for supremacy. Tiamat, who is the personification of the sea, gives birth to serpents or other reptilian monsters to prepare for the fight. Leviathan appears to be a beast of myth, slain by God. Rahab appears to be a similar monster, perhaps even intelligent enough to have a retinue. The taniynim themselves often seem to function in the role of Tiamat’s horrific brood. So why does the Hebrew Bible, which rejects the religions of the surrounding cultures, feature passages in which war on the sea and sea monsters, sometimes named beasts (presumably from other people’s myths, since they are not introduced by the Bible), is the work of Yahweh?

Because, I would argue, the Old Testament has a fairly nuanced approach to other people’s myths. The simplest approach, denial, is not one of them. There’s a good reason for this. Myths exist in part to explain something beyond the myth. If you simply deny that there are sea monsters or evil gods of maritime habit, and so, of course, your gods have never confronted or destroyed such, you are also removing the stories about how the god or gods you worship have power over the sea. A sailor might worship a god who has subjugated the very personification of the sea’s violence, but a god who simply never deals with the topic appears, correctly or not, to be weaker.

And so, instead of taking this route, the Old Testament takes a four-pronged approach to sea monsters.

First, they are mostly ignored. I have easily listed all relevant verses to them in this article, and even had time to discuss some irrelevant ones and the reason for their irrelevance. I cannot do this for any topic the Bible actually treats as important.

Second, they are created. The taniniym, including Leviathan, are all clearly made by God. They are not, as they are in some surrounding religions, primeval gods or the children of primeval gods. Instead they are mere creatures, and exist, by default, as God’s subjects, vastly inferior in power. The frequent Jewish critique of paganism, that pagans worship created things and not the Creator of things, seems applicable here.

Third, Yahweh is victorious over them. Marduk may have killed Tiamat, but Yahweh parted the seas and shattered the head of the taniniym in the parted waters. He has killed Leviathan, and thrown his carcass to the animals of the wilderness. He cut Rahab into pieces, and Leviathan flees before the Lord and His mighty sword. This is essentially subversion of the myth. It is a sort of “even if you were right you’d still be wrong”. Even if you were right, and the sea was full of monsters and ancient god-creatures Yahweh, not Marduk or Ba’al or Enki or Chemosh, would be their destroyer. Our God can, quite literally, beat your gods. In fact, in Psalm 74 the crossing of the Red Sea becomes Yahweh’s trail of conquest, leading His chosen people out of Egypt, destroying the might of an empire, and smashing the great beasts of legend as he does so. It’s as if the Psalmist wants you to engage in some quick substitution. Yahweh does have power over the sea, which He parted, and which is now also the destruction of the sea’s monsters. As far as the sea is concerned aren’t these the same thing?

Finally, and most fascinatingly, the sea monsters recognize their own dependency. They are not independent agents able to oppose God on their own power. Instead, they are but creatures, sometimes hostile, but no less subservient to God in an ultimate sense than anything else. Leviathan plays or laughs in the seas that God gave him. But the real crowning example of this is the verse that started me off down this whole path, Psalm 148:7. “Praise the Lord from the world, sea monsters and all deeps.” Praise the Lord, dread shadows in the waves. Praise the Lord, dark recesses of the sea. Marduk may kill Tiamat, may shatter the sea and its chaos, but Yahweh? The monsters praise Him.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 17, 2010 9:03 am

    i love the imagery in this piece. there is beauty & mystery in so many of God’s creatures. as humans we — or perhaps just this human, so i shall say that i — tend to forget that as God’s creation, these other mysterious beings praise him in whatever ways they are able.

    however while i may find them beautiful & mysterious in theory, i’m not certain i’d like to meet any taniynim face-to-face.


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