Thursday, January 04, 2007

Leviathan II: Demon of the Sea, Messianic Meal

[Illustration: Serpentine sea creature from Die Bucher der Bibel, by E.M. Lilien]

We have already gotten a sense of Leviathan in Biblical myth, but now the great sea dragon deserves a second look for how the myth is further developed in Talmud. A generally reliable principle in the rabbinic reading of the Bible is that the Sages usually begin by amplifying and elaborating upon what is already found in the Bible. Like a pearl forming around a grain of sand, the Sages build upon what is already there adding layers of teachings. Some times, however, the Sages seize upon a seemingly incidental aspect of a Biblical tradition to elevate and forefront it in remarkable ways. Thus we find this elaborate and fascinating passage in Baba Batra which uses multiple Biblical citations to construct its narrative of the final end of death, chaos, entropy and evil (personified by Leviathan) in the World-to-Come:

Rav Judah said in the name of Rav: All that the Blessed Holy One created [in all] his world is male and female. Likewise, Leviathan the slant serpent and Leviathan the torturous serpent he created male and female; and had they mated with one another they would have destroyed the whole world. What [then] did the Blessed Holy One do? He castrated the male and killed the female preserving it in salt for the righteous in the World to Come; for it is written: “And he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.” And also Behemoth on a thousand hills was created male and female, and had they mated with one another they would have destroyed the whole world. What did the Blessed Holy One, do? He castrated the male and cooled the female and preserved it for the righteous for the world to come; for it is written: "See now his strength is in his loins" — this refers to the male; "and his force is in the stays of his body," — this refers to the female. There also, [in the case of Leviathan], he should have castrated the male and cooled the female [why then did he kill the female]?... [Because a] female [fish] preserved in salt is tastier…Then here also [in the case of Behemoth] he should have preserved the female in salt? — Salted fish is palatable, salted flesh is not.

This is one of several mythic accounts of how God will eventually subdue moral and human chaos in the End of Days. To convey this in mythic terms, Rabbinic tradition identifies three personified (zooified?) chaos beasts. Behemoth is Leviathan's land-based counterpart. Ziz, the avian monster, appears a number of times in legends, but is the least prominent of the "Big Three."

First, the Sages read the Biblical accounts in such a way that they detect two Behemoth - the Hebrew word itself is plural - being described. And since Isaiah uses two titles for Leviathan - "slant serpent" and "torturous serpent" - Rav Judah is reading this to mean there are actually two monsters. The bi-sexuality of the creatures reflects the worldview of the Sages, who see the universe as both sentient and permeated with male and female forces (See the earlier entries, "The Sacred Feminine I and II").

In keeping with the notion that unifying males and female forces has cosmic consequences, once coupled these chaos monsters would undo creation and return it to primordial darkness (sort of like what almost happened when Zuul the Gatekeeper and Vinz Clortho the Keymaster got together in "Ghostbusters," only without the Staypuff Marshmellow Man - what, you think Dan Ackroyd was making up all that Mesopotamian stuff out of thin air?). Therefore God ensures the survival of our world by keeping these forces apart. But there is a purpose in God's decision not to totally purge the chaotic and evil from creation (See the entry "A Necessary Evil").

And most surprising of all, when the final rectification comes, we will participate in perfecting the work of creation by literally "consuming" the chaos, both utterly dominating but also assimilating it into ourselves in a "nutritious" (rather than harmful) manner. This idea that in Messianic times we will banquet upon the Beast is derived from an enigmatic verse, Ps. 74:14, "...it was You who crushed the head of Leviathan, who made him food for the people of the desert." Baba Batra continues:

When R. Dimi came he said in the name of R. Johanan: When Leviathan is hungry he emits [fiery] breath from his mouth and causes all the waters of the deep to boil; for it is said: "He makes the deep to boil like a pot." And if he were not to put his head into the Garden of Eden, no creature could stand his [foul] odor [Other legends explain that Eden has an insanely pleasant smell that can endure on things for generations; here it is used as a kind of cosmic deodorant]; for it is said: "He makes the sea like a spiced broth." When he is thirsty he makes numerous furrows in the sea; for it is said: "He makes a path to shine after him."...Rabbah said in the name of R. Johanan: The Blessed Holy One will in time to come make a banquet for the righteous from the flesh of Leviathan; for it is said: "Companions will make a banquet of it…." Companions must mean scholars, for it is said: "You that dwell in the gardens, the companions hearken for your voice; cause me to hear it…." Rabbah in the name of R. Johanan further stated: The Blessed Holy One will in time to come make a tabernacle for the righteous from the skin of Leviathan; for it is said: "Can you fill tabernacles with his skin?" If a man is worthy, a tabernacle is made for him [in the World-to-Come]; if he is not worthy [of this] a [mere] covering is made for him, for it is said: And his head with a fish covering. If a man is [sufficiently] worthy a covering is made for him; if he is not worthy [even of this], a necklace is made for him, for it is said: "And necklaces about your neck." If he is worthy [of it] a necklace is made for him; if he is not worthy [even of this] an amulet is made for him; as it is said: "And you will bind him for your maidens." [the meaning of the Hebrew word for an amulet is "binder"] The rest [of the Leviathan hide] will be spread by the Blessed Holy One upon the walls of Jerusalem, and its splendor will shine from one end of the world to the other; as it is said: "And nations shall walk at your light, and kings at the brightness of your rising."
Baba Batra 74b – translation based on the Soncino Talmud.

Notice that in the end nothing is wasted and nothing is lost, either from us nor from what afflicts us. While not everyone is equal in merit, everyone gets a "portion" of the World to Come. And as for Leviathan, well, what once threatened to destroy us will in time sustain us; what once menaced the universe will ultimately serve to illuminate it.

Learn more in The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism.


Blogger Zeke said...

Noted that Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan connected the Leviathan with the mysterious word "Teli" in Sefer ha Yetzirah and Sefer ha Bahir.

Looking forward your book!

10:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmm, physically consuming chaos? wouldn't that be bad, not good at messianic times? I guess you can get ahead of the game by eating eel sushi which is like small leviathans lol. (ok bad joke and prob not kosher)

8:39 PM  

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