Fire-breathing and water thrashing

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | August 15, 2014

Biblical dragons vary in appearance, but signal danger to God’s people

“Here be dragons” or, in Latin: Hic sunt dracones.

On the feast of the Assumption, we often hear a vision about a woman in the sky and a dragon waiting to snatch her newborn child (Rv 12:1-4).

Of course, we know this image reminds us of Mary and her son, Jesus. What we don’t always hear is the later part of the story, after the child is taken up to God’s throne. It’s the battle between Michael and his angels and the dragon’s minions. The dragon loses and, back on earth, tries to avenge itself on the woman. She flees into the desert on eagle’s wings. The dragon then tries to drown her in a flood, which is swallowed up by the earth.

While this part of Revelation is often used to refer to Mary, it has a longer history of also referring to the church and the children of God battling evils of the world, personified by the dragon.

Bible scholar Pheme Perkins explains how Revelation’s woman shows how God’s church suffers at the hands of the already defeated dragon, what Perkins calls “the messianic suffering of the faithful.” She notes how the woman refers to God’s people in both the Old and New Testaments, since being saved by eagle’s wings is “a sign of divine protection in the Old Testament.” Also, the raging water the dragon uses reminds us of Israel’s rescue from “the raging hostility of Pharaoh.” Finally, the dragon’s anger is turned against the woman’s offspring or “the righteous who ‘give witness to Jesus.’”

Dragons appear often in the Bible. And biblical dragons don’t always look like dragons. Instead, a biblical dragon can be a sea monster, serpent or even a jackal. That last one is probably a mistranslation of the Hebrew word for dragon, or more exactly, for “sea monster”: tannin. A similar Hebrew word — tannim — is the plural for “jackals,” so the two words are sometimes both translated as “dragons.”

However, what’s important to remember is that biblical dragons always refer to chaotic danger, most often as enemies of God’s people.

For example, when God is angry in Dt 32 and refers to evil people, he says, “Their wine is the venom of serpents, the cruel poison of vipers” (v. 33). In many translations, “serpents” becomes “dragons.”

And when Job complains to God, God reminds him that God alone created “Leviathan,” a sea monster who is often compared to a dragon. The “great sea monsters” (including Leviathan) first appear in the story of creation in Genesis (1:21). Later, the scale-covered Leviathan is described in a very dragon-like way: “When he sneezes, light flashes forth … out of his mouth go forth firebrands; sparks of fire leap forth. … His breath sets coals afire; a flame pours from his mouth” (Jb 41: 7-14). Yet the psalms tell us God made Leviathan as a playmate (Ps 104).

So, in appearance, biblical dragons can be sea monsters, serpents, snakes or jackals (who are monsters of the desert). Then there is the frightful Behemoth, also found in Job, who sounds like a huge ox, but seems to live in rivers (Jb 40:15-24). (Some sources say Behemoth is a rhinoceros.)

When these biblical monsters, as does the dragon in Revelation, refer to enemies of God, they become even more monstrous. So Isaiah speaks of the “coiled serpent” and “the dragon in the sea” (27:1) when God delivers Israel from an armed enemy. Whether this particular monster means Babylon, Egypt or Canaan varies. Bible scholar John Collins explains that Leviathan (also known as the “sea dragon” in Canaanite myth) “could be used for any threat to human welfare.”

Understanding that a dragon in the Bible usually refers to enemies, we can see how the word “dragon” or “serpent” fits into the story of Aaron’s staff devouring the serpents of Egypt’s magicians (Ex 7:8-13).

And the Babylonians are clearly the enemy in two dragon stories about the prophet Daniel. In one, the pagan idol Bel (a dragon) is believed to come alive to eat food offerings every night. Daniel proves that Bel’s priests actually sneak into its temple and eat the offerings. In the second, in the same chapter, Bel is a different dragon idol who seems to be a live animal. Daniel tricks it into eating a fake animal made of hair and pitch, which ignite in the creature’s belly and destroy it. This is what lands Daniel in the lions’ den (Dn 14).

Also, Isaiah refers to Egypt’s Pharaoh as a dragon (51:9) when he calls upon the Lord to deliver his people from exile.

(In case, you’re wondering, the Hebrew word for dragon is not used for the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Instead, it’s a word meaning “whisperer,” sort of like the hiss of a snake.)

So whenever we find a dragon in the Bible, we can usually find enemies of God’s people nearby. That might be enemies of the past — from Egypt to Babylon; or enemies of God’s people in the present day, as with Satan and his fellow fallen angels. However, we know the triumph is already won. The child in Revelation, who does indeed symbolize Christ — just not the Christ Child, but Christ risen from the tomb — was snatched up to God’s throne (ascended in glory). And that’s the plan for all the woman’s children: the children of God and the church.

 

Sources: “The Collegeville New Biblical Commentary”; “The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia” at Bible-history.com; “Strong’s Bible Concordance”; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; and “Encyclopedia Judaica”at jewishvirtuallibrary.org.

 

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