Sightings of Sea Monsters
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".
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Proving that the Psalmist had observational knowledge of these sea monsters, and quite specifically the leviathan, consider another of his passages.
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).
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.
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.
Follow that by this description a few chapters later:
For contrast I have to give the King James translation of the same verse.
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.
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.
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.
artist renderings of a Basilosaurus show the feet to be more
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.
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 NationalGeographic.com, 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