Sightings of Sea Monsters

A representation of one extinct sea-monster: a Basilosaurus.

Genesis 1:20-23 And God said, "Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky." 21 So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living and moving thing with which the water teems, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 God blessed them and said, "Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth." 23 And there was evening, and there was morning - the fifth day. (NIV)

On the day that God created all water creatures, the text in Genesis 1 points out one specific class. The New International Version (NIV) refers to them generally as "the great creatures of the sea" while the King James (KJV) translation narrows them down to being the "great whales." The perhaps best modern translation, the New American Standard Updated (NASU), calls them "the great sea monsters." So why the great divergence on what is being referred to?

There is no question that the first of the two words in Hebrew (gadoli) should be translated "great", which legitimately carries the connotation of being incredible, powerful, above others in size and strength, and perhaps even the idea of being more important (maybe why they were singled out for mention!).

The second Hebrew word is tanniyn (or tanniym), with the root word being tann. Words don't appear in a vacuum. Many are borrowed, or shared, from neighboring languages, and often are derived from an earlier language. Later usage and sometimes translator bias can change or restrict the meaning of a word. In this case, the King James (KJV) translators echoed the usage of this same root word in Arabic. While it is legitimate to use tanniym in reference to a whale, the word is not limited to whale. Rather it is a word that references all great sea monsters, of which a whale would be one.

Both Arabic and Hebrew share a number of root words, tann being one of them. In this case it is believed that the Arabic borrowed this word from the Aramaic language. In the ancient Ugaritic texts1, in a language also associated with the region, we are shown that the word tann already was in common usage, also having the fuller meaning of great sea monsters. It is interesting that at least one reference work2, when referring to the Ugaritic text's usage of this word, calls them "mythological" sea monsters. Today, most people would discredit any reference to a sea monster, making them be mythological, perhaps fueling usage of a more general "great creatures of the sea" (which is still better than "whales") versus the more accurate "sea monsters".

A tablet with ancient Ugaritic writing

The Bible refers to sea monsters as being much more than mythological. While some would try to place all of the creation account in Genesis into the category of mythology, God clearly expressed it as a literal report of what He did. The great sea monsters certainly were created on day 5 and the fossil record bears witness to many of them. The Bible goes further in telling us that many of the sea monsters were still alive during later Old Testament times. In perhaps the oldest book of the Bible (circa 2000 BC), Job equates his so-called friends as being guards watching over him as one would do if a dangerous sea monster (tanniyn) was in the area. This would not make sense apart from immediate knowledge of such creatures.

Job 7:12 Am I the sea, or the monster of the deep, that you put me under guard? (NIV) [KJV translated this as "whale!"]

The psalmist, almost a millennium later, referred to the sea monsters (tanniyn) in a general fashion, and then gave specific reference to one type by name a verse later, namely the leviathan.

Psalms 74:13-14 It was you who split open the sea by your power; you broke the heads of the monster in the waters. 14 It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan and gave him as food to the creatures of the desert. (NIV)

While this passage may be an allusion to the parting of the Red Sea, during God's extraordinary salvation of His people - making the sea monsters represent the Egyptian army and leviathan pharaoh himself - the picture again makes sense only in regards to known creatures. The leviathan as the most fearful of sea monsters is being portrayed as the chief sea monster. It is also probable that the illustration of Leviathan being killed through having its head crushed may have been a known way to kill such a creature, as they may have been hunted for food. While the NIV translates the recipients of the food as being "creatures" of the desert, the literal Hebrew word is "peoples" of the desert. Desert areas surround many of the seas in the Middle East and are often inhabited by nomadic peoples.

Returning to the book of Job, the leviathan is described in great detail by God a number of chapters beyond Job's reference to sea monsters. God, in describing it to Job, assumes that Job has immediate knowledge of this creature. This is important to note since many claim that such references in Scriptures pertain only to mythological creatures.

Job 41:1-42:1 "Can you pull in the leviathan with a fish hook or tie down his tongue with a rope? 2 Can you put a cord through his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook? 3 Will he keep begging you for mercy? Will he speak to you with gentle words? 4 Will he make an agreement with you for you to take him as your slave for life? 5 Can you make a pet of him like a bird or put him on a leash for your girls? 6 Will traders barter for him? Will they divide him up among the merchants? 7 Can you fill his hide with harpoons or his head with fishing spears? 8 If you lay a hand on him, you will remember the struggle and never do it again! 9 Any hope of subduing him is false; the mere sight of him is overpowering. 10 No one is fierce enough to rouse him. Who then is able to stand against me? 11 Who has a claim against me that I must pay? Everything under heaven belongs to me. 12 "I will not fail to speak of his limbs, his strength and his graceful form. 13 Who can strip off his outer coat? Who would approach him with a bridle? 14 Who dares open the doors of his mouth, ringed about with his fearsome teeth? 15 His back has rows of shields tightly sealed together; 16 each is so close to the next that no air can pass between. 17 They are joined fast to one another; they cling together and cannot be parted. 18 His snorting throws out flashes of light; his eyes are like the rays of dawn. 19 Firebrands stream from his mouth; sparks of fire shoot out. 20 Smoke pours from his nostrils as from a boiling pot over a fire of reeds. 21 His breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from his mouth. 22 Strength resides in his neck; dismay goes before him. 23 The folds of his flesh are tightly joined; they are firm and immovable. 24 His chest is hard as rock, hard as a lower millstone. 25 When he rises up, the mighty are terrified; they retreat before his thrashing. 26 The sword that reaches him has no effect, nor does the spear or the dart or the javelin. 27 Iron he treats like straw and bronze like rotten wood. 28 Arrows do not make him flee; sling stones are like chaff to him. 29 A club seems to him but a piece of straw; he laughs at the rattling of the lance. 30 His undersides are jagged potsherds, leaving a trail in the mud like a threshing sledge. 31 He makes the depths churn like a boiling caldron and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment. 32 Behind him he leaves a glistening wake; one would think the deep had white hair. 33 Nothing on earth is his equal - a creature without fear. 34 He looks down on all that are haughty; he is king over all that are proud." (NIV)

It is obvious from this description that people had tried to subdue or kill these creatures even in these ancient times. Notice that God also finishes by calling Leviathan the "king over all that are proud." Here God applies a figurative title to a literal creature due to its known characteristics. It is on this basis that leviathan is later referred to as a figurative title for the devil namely one who is over all that are proud.

Isaiah 27:1 In that day, the LORD will punish with his sword, his fierce, great and powerful sword, Leviathan the gliding serpent, Leviathan the coiling serpent; he will slay the monster of the sea. (NIV)

Revelation 20:2 He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. (NIV)

Some have tried to dismiss the description of leviathan in the book of Job as being mythological, or at least aspects of it as being symbolic, since they deny that a creature could breathe fire as this one certainly was described as doing. The chemical reactions of a still living small creature prove otherwise. Von Werner Bugs (or Bombardier Beetles), clearly show that God has created creatures capable of such a complex physiology.

This incredible bug combines a couple of stable chemicals to create an
explosive blast of mini-bomblets that it can direct at will.

The leviathan certainly would have been an incredible sea-monster! Its description places it in a category of creatures to be feared. The psalmist does that very thing in Psalms 91.

Psalms 91:13 You will tread upon the lion and the cobra [a word literally meaning "to twist" i.e. serpentine]; you will trample the great lion and the serpent [tanniyn]. (NIV)

Another idea of what a Basilosaurus may have looked like.
Imagine something 55 feet long!

Even as the lion is portrayed as the king of the beasts, so the sea monster or sea serpent, leviathan, was portrayed as king of the seas. And yet, today, many margin notes in Bibles claim the leviathan to be merely a crocodile. To be fair, even some commentators of the last few centuries speculated the same, mostly because they had no knowledge of any still living creature that would fit the description. People of this era have no such excuse as we well know that the fossil record shows that large sea monsters were certainly part of God's creation. Besides, killing a crocodile is relatively easy and you could certainly fill his hide with harpoons (Job 41:7), so it's obvious that scriptures are referring to another far more formidable creature.

National Geographic photo of a Basilosaurus skeleton in a museum.

Proving that the Psalmist had observational knowledge of these sea monsters, and quite specifically the leviathan, consider another of his passages.

Psalms 104:24-26 How many are your works, O LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. 25 There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number - living things both large and small. 26 There the ships go to and fro, and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there. (NIV)

In the midst of this passage of praise, regarding God's wisdom and His creation, an almost casual reference is made to the leviathan - as easily as one would spot ships going to and fro, so too leviathan. The implication goes even further. Leviathan is portrayed as something found also in deep waters (in the "vast and spacious" seas), again making it highly improbable to be something like a crocodile (which, if found on the high seas, would be almost impossible to spot in the water).

Psalms 148:7 Praise the LORD from the earth, you great sea creatures [tanniyn] and all ocean depths (NIV)

Returning to the idea that these sea-monsters could be found in desert places, there is evidence in Scriptures that at least some of them had legs. This would enable them to come ashore for at least a time, perhaps even for food or for giving birth. While admittedly obscure, the first passage to consider occurs early in Isaiah.

Isaiah 13:21-22 But desert creatures will lie there, jackals [literally "a howler, a lonesome wild animal"] will fill her houses; there the owls will dwell, and there the wild goats will leap about. 22 Hyenas will howl in her strongholds, jackals [tanniym] in her luxurious palaces. Her time is at hand, and her days will not be prolonged. (NIV)

This passage is in regards to the destruction and desolation of Babylon. It was saying that what was once a great city would literally become like the desert, a place that you would see desert type creatures. The reference in verse 22, treated as another occurrence of "jackals" in the NIV ("dragons" in KJV) is our Hebrew word for sea-monsters. How would a sea-monster get to Babylon? It was built upon the banks of the large river Euphrates. To have these creatures wandering in the city would only require them to have legs and venturing into a now desolate place. With that image in mind, consider this prophecy in Ezekiel and how pharaoh is contrasted.

Ezekiel 29:2-5 "Son of man, set your face against Pharaoh king of Egypt and prophesy against him and against all Egypt. 3 Speak to him and say: 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says: "'I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt, you great monster lying among your streams. You say, "The Nile is mine; I made it for myself." 4 But I will put hooks in your jaws and make the fish of your streams stick to your scales. I will pull you out from among your streams, with all the fish sticking to your scales. 5 I will leave you in the desert, you and all the fish of your streams. You will fall on the open field and not be gathered or picked up. I will give you as food to the beasts of the earth and the birds of the air. (NIV)

Follow that by this description a few chapters later:

Ezekiel 32:2 "Son of man, take up a lament concerning Pharaoh king of Egypt and say to him: "'You are like a lion among the nations; you are like a monster in the seas thrashing about in your streams, churning the water with your feet and muddying the streams. (NIV)

For contrast I have to give the King James translation of the same verse.

Ezekiel 32:2 Son of man, take up a lamentation for Pharaoh king of Egypt, and say unto him, Thou art like a young lion of the nations, and thou art as a whale in the seas: and thou camest forth with thy rivers, and troubledst the waters with thy feet, and fouledst their rivers. (KJV)

When pharaoh is being likened to a lion (a real animal) there is no question that he is also being likened to a real animal when the sea-monster (KJV "whale") is being referenced. The imagery of a whale thrashing its' feet doesn't come easily for us because we envision something like a right-whale or beluga whale somehow having feet. When we understand that the word tanniyn can also reference all great sea-creatures we then can understand that many other (perhaps now extinct) sea-monsters could be in view.

Excavation of the buried sea monster at Wadi Hitan in Egypt

With everything we've examined now in mind, consider a 2005 find in the desert not far from what used to be a part of the Nile river.3 Scientists uncovered the fossilized remains of a Basilosaurus!4 This creature which they assure us was prehistoric, extinct for tens of millions of years, was of the sizing of a whale and yet was serpentine in shape. Not only this, but it also had feet!5 It is quite likely that these are the type of creatures being spoken about in the Old Testament. Obviously something catastrophically buried all of the sea creatures found at this location, likely post global flood. Perfect preservation of the intact skeleton and even related delicate mangrove plant fossils belies the myth that slow burial was possible.

Another view of part of the Basilosaurus at Wadi Hitan

The descriptions in the Bible, combined with representations in ancient art and documents (which many now dismiss as being mythical), are evidence that people were eyewitnesses to these creatures.  It is certainly probable that a creature similar to the whales-with-legs found at Wadi Hitan were still living in Old Testament biblical times in the Nile area.  Note that the "tan" in the name "Hitan" is the exact same root word carried from antiquity which referenced sea monsters. While the valley is common translated from Arabic as "the Valley of the Whales" it could quite literally be called, "The Valley of the Sea Monsters."  These are the same sea monsters that God created in Genesis 1:20.  Common reference to these creatures in historic times - especially in the Bible - clearly implies far less than the millions of years that scientists have to claim by their evolutionary theories.  Likewise, the Basilosaurus' feet where created by God and are not merely some accidental (or willful) evolutionary transition, but that's another whole article.

Most artist renderings of a Basilosaurus show the feet to be more
flipper-like as it best fits their evolutionary perspective.

End Notes:

    1. The ruins of the ancient city Ugarit were discovered in coastal Syria during the late 1920s. Archaeologists also discovered thousands of clay tablets with an unknown kind of writing on them resembling those used by the ancient Babylonians and Assyrians, known as cuneiform, but the signs were unique, and far fewer in number (30 versus hundreds). As the signs were deciphered it was found that the language was quite close to Hebrew and Aramaic. Ugarit, though an important city at one time, was destroyed by the 13th century B.C. by invading Sea People. This was not long after Israel's return to the Promised Land. The tablets revealed that the people of Ugarit worshipped many gods and goddesses, including Baal and Asherah, both of whom the Israelites are specifically command to not worship. Accounts in the tablets have contributed to scholarly understanding of things referenced in the Bible including better understanding of the ancient Hebrew language.

    2. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Copyright © 1980 by The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago.

    3. This region is an extremely fertile section of the country; it is part of a 70 by 60 square kilometer basin that was periodically flooded by the Nile thousands of years ago. (As posted on Fair Trade Egypt web site, May 2005)

    4. "Philip Gingerich of the University of Michigan excavated the well-preserved skeleton, which is about 40 million years old, in a desert valley known as Wadi Hitan (the Valley of the Whales) south-west of Cairo, spokesperson Karl Bates said. 'His feeling is that it's the most complete - the whole skeleton from stem to stern,' said Bates. The skeleton, which is 18 meters long, could throw light on why there are so many fossilized remains of whales and other ancient sea animals in Wadi Hitan and possibly how the extinct animal swam, he said. Basilosaurus isis is one of the primitive whales known as archaeocetes, which evolved from land mammals and later evolved into the two types of modern whale. But it looks like a giant sea snake and the paleontologists who found the first archaeocetes thought they were reptiles. The fossils include five species of whale, three species of sea cow, two crocodiles, several turtles, a sea snake, and large numbers of fossilised sharks and bony fish." (As posted on web April 20, 2005 by site admin of talkHistory)

    5. Photo as published on, April 14, 2005. Quote from associated captioning: "Egypt may not be the first place you'd look for whales, but once upon a time the Wadi Hitan desert was underwater and teeming with the sea giants. The first of the truly gigantic whales, Basilosaurus had the serpentine shape of a sea monster and short, sharp teeth for hunting sharks and other prey. Unlike today's whales, it had no blowhole-the ancient behemoth had to raise its head above water to breathe. What's more, Basilosaurus still had the feet it inherited from its land-dwelling ancestors, according to Gingerich, who works for the University of Michigan and is a National Geographic Society grantee."

(c) 2005/2006 by Brent MacDonald of Lion Tracks Ministries