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The Isaiah Project: Chapter 27, or, Leviathan

Hello again,

Sea monsters! Some of Isaiah's best stuff, in my opinion. Translation and essay below; recordings here; peace be with you.

The Vision Isaiah Saw: Chapter 27

1. On That Day God will bring a reckoning with his massive sword, harsh and strong,
Upon Leviathan the piercing serpent,
Upon Leviathan the twisted serpent,
And slay the monster in the ocean.

2. On That Day, sing to her:
‘a vineyard of pure red wine.

3. I am God who guards it;
every instant I will water it so no one can come near it;
I will guard it night and day.

4. No anger burns in me.
Who will meet me in battle with thorns and choke-weed?
I will charge among them;
I will immolate them all at once.

5. Or let him cling to my strength.
Let him make peace with me,
peace, between him and me.

6. In the coming days Jacob will put down roots; Israel will bloom and burst forth, and the surface of the world will be filled with its bounty.

7. Did he strike like the one who struck him? Or murder his murderer like he was murdered?

8. When she rushes forth he’ll wrangle with her with a battle-cry . . . he grinds her down with his harsh breath in the day of the East wind.

9. And so, in this, Jacob’s evil is purged. This is all the fruit of clearing his sin away, when he makes all the altar-stones like stones of chalk — pulverised. The statues of Asherah will not be raised, nor will the sun gods.

10. Because the fortified city is alone; home is rejected and left behind like a desert wasteland. Calves will find pasture there; they will rest their heads there and eat up every one of its branches.

11. When its crop withers, it will be broken off. Women will come to set it alight:
This nation has no understanding, and so
They will find no pity in the heart of him who made them;
he who sculpted them will show them no mercy.

12. And it happens On That Day: God will knock them out from the rushing of the river up to Egypt’s river valley, and you will all be reaped and gathered into one, you sons of Israel.

13. It happens On That Day: at a blast from a massive horn they’ll come, they who perished in Assyria’s land, and they who were cast out into Egypt’s land, and they’ll prostrate themselves before God on his sacred mountain, in Jerusalem.

-- -- --

I hate to disappoint, but I don't think Isaiah necessarily believed in sea monsters. I'm not certain he didn't either -- I just don't think that's the point of this chapter. 'Leviathan' is a Hebrew name; it probably comes from the root לוה (LVH), meaning 'twist' or 'coil.' There are parts of the Hebrew Bible where the word Leviathan does seem to describe a writhing water-snake (like Job 41:1, or Psalm 104:26), but elsewhere it's a more abstract metaphor for oppression and violence (e.g. Psalm 74:4).

Whether the serpent is real or imaginary, it always stands in for a roiling kind of chaos -- for those moments of overwhelming devastation against which our puny attempts at sanity are laughably powerless. In Job 3, the title character's upstanding life has been torn senselessly asunder by unrelenting and undeserved catastrophe. His children dead, his body diseased and disfigured, Job stands in the ruins of his once neatly ordered existence and invokes Leviathan to curse the day he was born. It's an image of complete undoing, an apparent victory of meaninglessness over meaning and of suffering over joy.

Where did that image come from? Maybe from the genuinely fearsome water-wallowing beasts -- crocodiles, say, or hippopotamuses -- with whom the ancient Jews would have been familiar. But more probably this is an invocation of Canaanite and Babylonian mythology. Unlike the monotheistic Jews, the Babylonians thought that heaven and earth were formed by one among many deities who had to battle older forces of anarchy and win the right to rule.* Leviathan stands in here for those wild powers over whom Babylon's gods had to triumph so that a rationally ordered universe could exist.

Against this vision of a cosmos torn from the hands of the void, Judaism asserted that God is without rival or competitor. The fearsome powers of the natural world are all within his control and in fact part of his creation: in his reply to Job, God scoffs that he can hook Leviathan by the nose like an angler skewering a prize catch. The ocean, the terrors that live in it, and all the havoc they collectively represent, are subject to control and eventual obliteration by an almighty God whose sword is drawn in the name of justice.

In the depths of our sorrow, that justice is hidden from us and its logic is beyond the reach of our minds. Our world, the Bible tells us, is currently being terrorised by that venomous liar whose power robs creation of coherence. The Hebrew word that I've translated as 'serpent' in Isaiah 27:1 is nāchāsh (נָחָשׁ). In Genesis 3, that name is given to the animal more sinuous and craftier than any other, the satanic power who whispered to Eve that her God was not true to his word. It is that same Satan who made Job's life a living hell and let him think that he would be better off dead. That Satan, that Serpent, is with us still and still pours all his old poison in our ears: tells us that our pain has no significance, that the God of meaning has abandoned us and will never bring order to the chaos of our despair. When some tragedy wreaks havoc on your life, when you feel it would be better not to exist than to spend one more second without answers, you are hearing the voice of the true Leviathan.

Isaiah's Jerusalem was about to face a defeat that would call into question every truth that seemed divine. Babylon was the very nation according to whom chaos and order hung in a precarious and volatile balance. Now that nation was coming to destroy the temple and the city in which, the Jews thought, God had promised to maintain order forever. So was the Jewish God truly all-powerful? Or would this triumph of Babylon and of Leviathan be permanent?

Here, in Chapter 27, is Isaiah's answer. There will come a day when 'God will bring a reckoning' and the coils of the serpent will be sliced clean through (verse 1). One God created the sea and its monsters; one hand will slay the serpent and calm the waves. God will win, says Isaiah: it was never even a question. Job didn't see how that could be; neither did the Israelites; neither, yet, do we. It doesn't matter. Satan tortured Job, and Babylon conquered Israel, only with God's temporary permission and as part of his inscrutable plan. When you feel as if your suffering makes you worthless -- when it seems no God could possibly redeem you after what you've been through -- you are being victimised by a petty usurper who is having his desperate day before the true king comes. God will bring a reckoning, Isaiah says: just hold on.

Rejoice evermore,

*See for example the battle between Marduk and Tiamat in the Babylonian 'Enuma Elish' (an ancient myth written down by around 1100 BC).

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