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Rejoining Tetragrammaton

Here is one more attempt at trying to explicate the mystery of Leviathan and Behemoth. This is a work in progress, but for those among you interested in myth and esoterica and/or Judaism, you may forgive its rough edges. Writing this took me most of yesterday evening and much of the morning, a work that’s been percolating in my mind for about a year now. Thanks to Joanna Drusin for initially requesting this d’var torah in writing.

This essay is somewhat unapologetically anachronistic, by which I mean, I’m taking the myth and context of multiple traditions and using them to understand the meaning of related myths in another early or later tradition. In doing so, this d’var is creative and while not totally devoid of insight, should not be taken as a surrogate for a sophisticated academic reading of the sources. With this warning, onwards.

From Midrash Konen, 25:

“God found the Upper Waters and the female Lower Waters locked in a passionate embrace. ‘Let one of you rise,” He ordered, ‘and the other fall!’ But they rose up together, whereupon God asked: ‘Why did you both rise?’ ‘We are inseparable,’ they answered with one voice. ‘Leave us to our love!’ God now stretched His little finger and tore them apart; the upper He lifted high, the Lower He cast down. To punish their defiance, God would have singed them with fire, had they not sued for mercy. He pardoned them on two conditions: that, at the Exodus, they would allow the Children of Israel to pass though dry-shod; and that they would prevent Yonah from fleeing by ship to Tarshish.” (Hebrew Myths, Graves and Patai, p.40).

In the Sumerian cosmology, in the beginning, everything was water, pure undelineated water. In B’reishit, there was Tohu and Bohu (often translated as waste or chaos and void, respectively. I prefer depth and expanse. The two were so inextricably bound that nothing else could exist. And yet something did. And that thing was Spreading Out, reaching, filling, moving, creating whatever was necessary for further infinite expressions. In a word, something Emergent. What was God’s spirit doing hovering over the abyss? I believe I have an idea, that will be made clear later in this d’var.

Raphael Patai cites Hermann Gunkel’s explanation in Schopfung und Chaos in Urzeit und Endzeit (1895) that Tiamat is an early cognate of the biblical Hebrew words, T’hom and Tohu. The important premise is thus that the creatures alternately known as Tiamat, Leviathan, Rachab, and Behemoth are mythic incarnations and equivalents of important aspects of the cosmos, central to the worldview of our ancestors (and which is now almost entirely forgotten…) — the Lower Waters and the Upper Waters. (By the end of the d’var we hope that the relationship between the two will seem clear and obvious. And the ramifications for understanding apocryphal events such as the flood and cosmic reconciliations such as the Age of the Messiah, will be made clearer (from a mythic perspective).

“Depth”, Tohu, is referred to as Tehom — the abyss, its destiny within a few verses is to become the Lower Waters. Expanse is called, Bohu becomes the Upper Waters. Alternately, depending on the midrash or the myth, the two, Tohu and Bohu were allies or lovers. Whichever, the important lesson, the iqar, is that Tohu and Bohu were so closely linked that creation was impossible unless they could be divided.

Tehom, in midrash is described as the sweet Underground Waters, the Lower Waters forbidden to rise and unite again with the Upper Waters. In Sumerian myth, Enki/Ea, god of Wisdom, emerges out of the sweet water abyss, called the Abzu. (The “begetter” ur-god in the sumerian pantheon, is Apsu the beloved of Tiamat. Apsu is killed by Ea.) Graves and Pattai, speculate that for doctrinal reasons, these details are washed over in B’resihit and the abstract concepts of Tehom, Tohu and Bohu, stand in for what in these other myths are cosmogonic battles of creation.

And yet Tohu and Bohu do reappear in a less abstract form, if not as gods, then as cosmically huge monstrous creatures: Bohu as Behemoth and Tohu/Tehom as Tiamat, a great serpent also referred to alternately as Leviathan, Rachab. (Graves and Pattai add other biblical serpents: the Tanin, Aharon’s serpent/rod, and the Nachash, the tempting snake in Eden, to the list). Tiamat may be the only mythic creature/character from Mesopotamian myth to be referred to with the same name in the Tanakh. In the Enuma Elish, however, Tiamat is not only seen as a great serpent. She is Mother Tiamat, the primordial God Tiamat, who allied by incestuous marriage with her son Kingu must be defeated by Marduk. After Tiamat’s defeat, her body forms the material for the earth’s crust and the planets).

Although the sages were confused whether the female Leviathan and male Behemoth were creatures with male Leviathan and female Behemoth consorts (like the other animals), other legends maintained that the Leviathan and Behemoth were each others mates (despite the differences in their monstrous anatomies).

“Yet others hold that Leviathan was to have been Behemoth’s mate; but that God parted them, keeping Behemoth on dry land and sending Leviathan into the sea, lest their combined wight crack Earth’s arches.” (4 Ezra vi. 47-52; Enoch I.X. 7-8)

The sages imagined the Leviathan to be a great sea serpent or crocodile, the largest of the sea creatures, but strange older legends left a legacy of contradictions. When the Leviathan moved, the earth shuddered in earthquakes. This reflected the ancient idea that the Leviathan is in the bedrock, in the farthest depths — the abyss. The Behemoth is imagined to be the largest of the land animals, a giant hippopotamus intriguingly called the “Ox of the Pit’, dwelling in the land of the Thousand Mountains beyond the river Sabbatyon.

Being incarnations of the Upper and Lower Waters. Both the Behemoth and the Leviathan drink pure water, both relying on fresh water — attesting to their primordial roots in a universe created out of pure fresh water.

“…[Leviathan] drinks from a tributary of the Jordan, as it flows into the ocean through a secret channel.” (many sources to cite, see Hebrew Myths, Graves and Patai, p.50)

“Summer heat makes him [Behemoth] so thirsty that all the waters flowing down the Jordan in six months, or even a year, barely suffice for a single gulp. He therefore drinks at a huge river issuing from Eden, Jubal by name.” (Mid. Konen, 26; Pesiqta Rabbatai, 80b-81a; Lev. Rab 13.3; 22.10; Num. Rab 21.18; PRE, ch. 11)

The importance of this ancient symbolism, although arcane, is still entirely relevant as they represent the powerful relationships with nature and natural cycles that were (and remain still) at the core of our tradition and worldview. Consider the lost holiday, of the Simchat Beit haShoeva, the most festive day in the whole calendar when water was pured over a rock in an underground chamber on the temple mount. It was the most festive day in the whole Jewish calendar! A full explanation of why would require delving into the meaning of the Even ha-Shetiyah… the foundation stone (even ma’su hobim hayta l’rosh hapina). But the following aggadoth/midrashim provide some context:

“God also forbade Tehom, the sweet Underground Waters, to rise up — except little by little and enforced obedience by placing a sherd [the even ha-shetiya] above her, on which He had engraved His Ineffable Name. This seal was removed only once only; when mankind sinned in Noach’s day. Therupon Tehom united with the Upper Waters [!] and together they flooded the earth.” (Yer. sanh. 29a bot.; Mid Shemuel, ch. 26; Yalqut Reubeni i:4 f.; ii: 109; cf. Enoch LIX. 7-10; PRE, ch. 23; all based on Gen VII. 11.)

“Since then, Tehom has always crouched submissively in her deep abode like a huge beast, sending up springs to those who deserve them, and nourishing the tree roots. Though she thus influences man’s fate, none may visit her recesses.” (Genesis xlix. 25; ezekiel xxxi. 4; xxvi. 19; xxxi. 15; job xxxviii 16)

“Tehom delivers three times more water to Earth than the rain [the Upper Waters]. At the Feast of Tabernacles [Sukkot/Simchat Beit hs-shoeva], Temple priests pour libations of wine and water on God’s altar. Then Ridya, an angel shaped like a three year heifer with cleft lips, commands Tehom: ‘Let your springs rise!’, and commands the Upper Waters: ‘Let rain fall!'” (Gen. Rab. 122, 294; B. Taanit 25b)

…Think of our Upper Water prayer begun in this same period and recalling this event: “mashiv haruch umorid hagashem” (may the winds flow and the rains fall) — a prayer prior to the rainy season to help ensure the refreshing of the land over the Winter. However, unlike our prayer today, the temple prayers were delivered with a more cosmic worldview. These libations were being made at the central portal to the Lower Waters, the stone cap above which was the single most precious object in the universe — that which separated the upper and lower waters — the first thing ever created! And the equivalence between Leviathan and the primeval Lower Waters is further betrayed by the mysterious agaddoth that when the Leviathan moves, earthquakes are generated.

“When hungry, [Leviathan] puffs out a smoky vapour which troubles an immense extent of waters; when thirsty, [Leviathan] causes such an upheval that seventy years must elapse before calm returns to the Deep, and even Behemoth on the Thousand Mountains shows signs of terror.”

The Leviathan generates earthquakes when it moves because the Leviathan resides just below the navel of the world.

“Some say that a gem bearing the Messiah’s name — which floated with the wind until the Altar of Sacrifice had been built on Mount Zion, and then came to rest there — was the first solid thing God created. Others, that it was the Foundation Rock [Even Shtiyah] supporting his altar; and that when God restrained Tehom’s waters, He engraved His forty-two-letter Name on its face, rather than on a shard. Still others say that He cast the Rock into deep water and built land around, much as a child before birth grows from the navel outward; it remains the world’s navel to this day”.

That we have this tradition of omphalos, the navel of the world, connects us to a host of other people with similar origin myths. Currently, I am trying to understand the omphalos as it connects to the idea of tzimtzum. I’ve spoken earlier with friends how I think per Rav Aryeh Kaplan that the cosmogony of tzimtzum is a cosmic analogy of contractions in a womb, the “thread” of the tzimtzum being an umbilical cord, and that it is not necessary to think of it in terms of fertilization. The even ha’shetiyah would then be an early image of what in the Lurianic period would become the vessels and the klippot shards. Just as the even ha’shettiyah protects the world from being overwhelmed by the waters below, the vessels were supposed to protect creation from being overwhelmed by the primal creative light passing through the thread. Common to both traditions are shards, but in one there is water, and in the other, energy. I have to think about this more — and with your help. Because I don’t believe this idea has been published anywhere and it is so central to the central cosmologies of our people, ancient and now modern (even if by modern, I’m referring to kabbalah and chassidut).

So what was God doing hovering above the abyss? I strongly suspect that the midrashim are pointing to an ancient lost legend that the spirit of god hovering over the abyss was the creation of the Even ha’shetiyah, the foundation stone.

But back to the future,

At the dawn of the Age of the Messiah, the sages imagine the Leviathan and the Behemoth will be slaughtered, providing delicacies for the righteous, their skins providing covering over their tents of celebration.

“While those who sit in its shade will be judged righteous, and in it will be banded together, to protect them from evil, to nourish them, in the succah of curtains [made of Leviathan’s skin] to eat, to carry them [from exile] to good pasture [in Eretz Yisrael], to pay it’s reward…” (from Ba’al T’hi, Shacharit service, chazzan’s repetition of the Amidah, second day of Sukkot, p. 296-7, machzor zichron shmuel, artscroll).

In reviving these symbols per their ancient meaning, I would propose an alternate suggestion for the fate of the Leviathan and the Behemoth in the Age of the Messiah. Just as the Upper and Lower Waters were brought together in the time of Noach, so they are brought together again, however, it is we who have changed. In the Messianic Age, we breath water and the flood is not destructive — it is a creative force, just as we have analogized Water to be Torah. (Alternately, in the Messianic Age, we join with the waters above, i.e. the Moon, possibly populating the moon with waters from earth. Is the heavenly Jerusalem on the Moon?)

Should the Israelites, now the Jews, be more correctly knows as people of the moon, the moon representing the primeval pure waters, the purifying waters that are always replenished, symbolizing in the waxing and waning cycles of fertility, and of the earth’s fertility? How the calfs and the red heifers relate to water purification and moon symbolism, I’m not certain, but Raphael and Pattai think there’s a connection, and the description of the angel Ridya I think suggests something too. I’m wondering whether these sacrifice/offerings are rehearsing the origin myth of the separation of the waters, which in other myths was the slaughter of Apsi/Bohu/Behemoth. In the Sumerian tradition, man is formed from the blood of Apsu. If Apsu represents Upper Waters and Adam (a-dam) is formed of the blood of the Upper Waters could then some purification be made by returning Man to his upper water source? Or slaughtering an animal representing the Upper Waters in the place of Man? I’m not sure, but it’s something I have to think about more with your help.

Credits for most of the sources used above are referenced out of Robert Graves and Raphael Patai’s Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis (McGraw Hill: New York, 1964)

Behemoth and Leviathan (1825, reprinted 1874) by William Blake, an engraved illustration that appears in Blake’s The Book of Job.

Behemoth and Leviathan 1825, reprinted 1874 by William Blake 1757-1827

Behemoth and Leviathan 1825, reprinted 1874 by William Blake 1757-1827

About Aharon N. Varady


Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes . He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words.

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