The Two Lovers

On this trip, I had the pleasure of sharing a day trip between D.C. and N.Y.C. with a friend of an acquaintance. As it happens, by which I mean, by the tender coincidences blessed upon me in the happenstance of creation, this fellow, Eli K-W, also happens to love Jewish myth and has lately been quite active reinventing biblical aggadah (stories) in the medium of shadow puppetry. We successfully navigated to the city using an exegetical reading of signage along U.S. 1 until we reached the New Jersey Turnpike and the Lincoln Tunnel. In between miraculous cell phone retrievals from our car’s roof after an hour of hard driving and a lovely afternoon with my grandfather’s youngest brother and his wife in Yardley, Eli and I also shared our thoughts on yiddishkeit and talked about the Leviatan (the Leviathan).

UPDATE 6/5: It is something of a testament to my interest (obsession?) over the Leviatan myths that I realized only today that I had provided something a fuller treatment in a post I wrote already over two years ago, “Rejoining Tetragrammaton.” You can read on below for a good enough summation of my thoughts but it lacks source references and quotes. So please go to the earlier post first if you’re interested in these myths. What appears below is a rewritten article I wrote originally as the about page for this blog when it was called — guess — “The Leviathan and the Behemoth.” In the post below I write with some more detail on what I find relevant in the Enuma Elish and I do mention Hermann Gunkel as the source for the idea that Tiamat is a cognate for the biblical hebrew Tohu/T’hom, and I should have mentioned this in that earlier post. So besides being topical, these posts will help me in a later synthesis I need to write. I think what’s important to note in any case is that all of this has been written about with greater academic rigor, sophistication and nuance in scholarly literature — what I’m trying to do is articulate how this myth may still be relevant (read: useful) in a Judaism that is both mythically and environmentally conscious. The Leviatan/Behemot myths ARE interesting specifically because they are so well linked to an ancient natural cosmology that seems to have identified and personified aspects of what we now call the Water Cycle.


The Leviathan is one of the oldest and most obscure creation myths in the Torah. For me, the myth must be understood in the context of other midrashim concerning the Behemot (Behemoth). Together, I believe the Leviatan and Behemot represent two aspects of the ancient Israelite cosmology: the snowy pure waters above shamayim (the heavens) and the sweet waters below the aretz (the earth). The origins of the Leviathan myth are old and can be traced even into Sumerian mythology thousands of years before the birth of ancient Israel.

Being so old, the meaning of the myth has morphed over time. In perhaps its oldest known incarnation, the Leviatan (Kur and Tiamat in Sumerian mythology, Tiamat and Rakhab elsewhere in the TaNaKH) is a primordial chaotic force which must be defeated or tamed by wisdom in order to allow for creation to proceed. According to Hermann Gunkel, the primordial mother deity Tiamat (representing chaos in Sumerian myth) is abstracted in the Torah’s Genesis as T‘hom (the abyss). Following from Raphael Patai’s reading in his Hebrew Myths (with Robert Graves) the body of the Leviathan forms the earthly depths and is alternately represented as a tremendous underwater mountain, as a dragon, as a cosmic serpent (sustained by fresh waters flowing underground from terrestrial streams), as the abyss of the cosmos (the blank slate before creation), or as purely abstract chaos.

Meanwhile, midrashim represent the Behemot as an impossibly ginormous hippopotamus or water buffalo, supported on earth by the four pillars of its gigantic legs, dripping with condensation from the fresh waters above the earth, or simply as the primordial Void. The esoteric Sefer Chanoch preserves the ancient tradition that the Behemot and the Leviatan are each others mates. If we accept Patai’s reading, then Behemot, in his earlier Sumerian incarnation, was the ur-deity, lover of Tiamat, the fresh water god, Apsu.

In the Enuma Elish, Apsu, is killed by the newborn God of Wisdom, Ea (an early cognate of the YHVH) in order for creation to proceed. After this, Tiamat, and Kinghu (her new lover) and their children (representing the chaotic unstructured waterworld) battle with Ea to return the world to its chaotic state. The two lovers must be separated (violently in the myth) in order to be defeated (this time by the hero of Ea, Marduk) and a new age to begin.

Besides the explicit tradition preserved in Sefer Chanoch, the relationship between Apsu/Kingu and Tiamat, Leviatan and Behemot was all but lost. Whispers of it, however, remained in the two creatures relationship to fresh water, their below and above relation to the world as giants, and the Leviatan’s enduring association with the chaotic Ocean and saltwater despite her reliance on fresh water.

The Talmud alternately presents the notion that to preserve space in the world, God slaughtered the male counterparts of the created Leviatan and Behemot and pickled them for later feasting by the righteous when the sukah of peace is spread out across the world at the dawn of the messianic age. The idea that the primordial deities needed to be slaughtered for creation not to be filed with cosmic monsters also recalls the motivation of Ea’s fratricide in the Enuma Elish.

Much much later, Hobbes invoked the image of Leviathan to represent the gigantic nature of state bureaucracy. The Behemot and his relationship to Leviatan was forgotten. This past century, fundamentalist Christians have revived the Behemot as textual proof for the existence of dinosaurs during the age of Man.

Putting aside Hobbes and the creationist ideas, when I think of the leviathan and the behemoth, I can’t help but join the ancient mythic ideas in my mind with Andy Goldsworthy’s observation of serpentine forms in the movement of water on the surface of land, as well as the ancient Jewish mystical belief that all forces must be reconciled and unified for their to be a cosmic healing, a Tikkun Olam.

In contrast to the midrashim describing a final battle at the end of days when God slaughters the surviving Leviatan, Behemot, and Ziz (another ginormous birdlike creature), I imagine Behemot and Leviatan as once close, inseparable friends whose love for one another was so profound it excluded the possibility of any other relationships forming. While the midrashim imagine the Leviatan slaughtered and skinned with the tzakkim (righteous) feasting on her flesh of the Leviatan and sheltered under her luminous skin, I imagine a peaceful unification after a tragic separation spanning the history of all creation. In this way as well, I can reconcile the aspiration to be righteous with my practice of not eating the flesh of other creatures 🙂

This binary relationship expressed in verticality (above/below), or terrestrial vs. marine, or inner vs. outer expansiveness (depth/void), also helps me imagine two other invisible reactives, thought of at odds: the invisible hand of the market, and the complicated ecology of nature. As a planner, my power derives from my position as an expert to provide intelligence for people making market decisions, decisions that will have wide repurcussions on an environment (that in turn impacts the market). I am a mediator between two invisible forces, surrogates for the hand of God: the Market and Nature.

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, the Yiddish Forverts, 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. If you find his work helpful to your own or you'd simply like to support him, please consider donating via his Patreon account.

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