Dragons in the Bible

Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet (Psalm 91:13, K.J.V.)

I’ve been doing some preaching recently on Genesis chapter 1. That led me to study up on what the Bible has to say about dinosaurs. By the way, did you know the word “dinosaur” wasn’t even invented until Sir Richard Owen, who was the First Superintendent of the British Museum, coined it in 1841? The word means “terrible lizard.”

Because the King James Version translation was first published in 1611, it doesn’t use the word “dinosaur.” The K.J.V. does, however, use the words “dragon” and “dragons” a total of 35 times. 22 of those instances occur in the Old Testament, while the other 13 occur in the New Testament. The 13 New Testament instances are all found in the book of The Revelation, and each of them serves as a symbolic reference to Satan.

The Hebrew word the K.J.V. renders as “dragon” or “dragons” is tanniyn. It’s a word that translators have always struggled to convey into English. For example, Strong’s Concordance defines it as “a marine or land monster, i.e. a sea-serpent or jackal — dragon, sea-monster, serpent, whale.” Obviously, there is a big difference between a sea-serpent and a jackal, just as there is a big difference between a dragon and a whale. The Old Testament’s first use of tanniyn occurs in Genesis 1:21, where the K.J.V. translates it as “whales.”

In the K.J.V., Psalm 74:13 speaks of “the dragons in the waters,” and the following verse (Psalm 74:14) cites the name “leviathan.” Similarly, Isaiah 27:1 makes mention of “the dragon that is in the sea” and names that creature “leviathan.” Psalm 104:26 fits in nicely with these references by saying that God made leviathan to play in the sea. Finally, the entirety of Job chapter 41 provides the Bible’s description of leviathan. The creature was some type of massive sea-monster that could actually breathe fire (Job 41:18-21). Even stranger is the fact that the Psalm 74:14 verse speaks of leviathan as having heads (plural).

There isn’t a person alive who can say with any certainty what type of creature the leviathan was, but our best guess is that it was some type of aquatic dinosaur. As for the fact that it could breathe fire, perhaps that isn’t so unbelievable considering the number of cultures around the world that have ancient stories that tell of fire-breathing dragons. The national emblem of China was a dragon. Roman legions inscribed the emblems of dragons on their battle standards. Norse sailors built depictions of dragons onto the front of their ships. The Maya, the Aztecs, and the Native Americans of North America spoke of dragons. Even the small country of Bhutan, which is located in the Himalayan mountains, has a dragon on its flag. It’s simply impossible to believe that all these peoples in all these different corners of the globe creatively concocted the exact same type of creature to use in their folklore. It’s much easier to believe that people in ancient times had to deal with these frightening creatures.

And what about dragons being able to fly? Oh, the Bible mentions that type of creature, too. The verse is Isaiah 30:6. There, the King James Version speaks of a “fiery flying serpent.” It sure doesn’t take much to read that description and think, “That was a dragon that could fly and breathe fire.”

Just as The Revelation uses “dragon” to symbolically depict Satan, some of the Old Testament’s usages of “dragon” and “dragons” symbolically depict wicked rulers, wicked nations, or Satan himself. For example, in Ezekiel 29:3 God calls Egypt’s Pharaoh “the great dragon that lieth in the midst of the rivers” (K.J.V.). What we should keep in mind, though, is that there is usually a literal thing behind symbolic language. In other words, if God used a “dragon” (tanniyn) to symbolize Pharaoh, it means that such a creature really did exist.

With that said, the Old Testament actually provides a fairly thorough description of “dragons” (tanniyn). They were poisonous (Deuteronomy 32:33), dwelt in dens (Jeremiah 10:22), made a wailing sound (Micah 1:8), and lived in deserted places (Job 30:29; Jeremiah 9:11) and wilderness sites (Isaiah 43:20). In regards to their habitats, the creatures could be land based or sea based. As for their size, they could be gigantic like the leviathan or small like the “serpent” (Exodus 7:9-10) that Aaron’s rod became when he threw it down before Pharaoh. (The Hebrew word translated in that passage as “serpent” is our word tanniyn.)

While we are tempted to think of tanniym as always being reptilian, Lamentations 4:3 says the creatures would “draw out the breast” and “give suck to their young ones” (K.J.V.). That is a feature of mammals that give birth to live young, unlike reptiles that lay eggs. Perhaps the best way to understand the tanniym is to think that some kinds of them were reptiles and other kinds were mammals.

If the Old Testament’s multifaceted description of tanniym confuses you, welcome to the world of the Bible translator. Some modern translations use the words “jackal” and “jackals” to define the land versions of tanniym, but jackals seem wholly inadequate to have been the tanniym. Even the translators of the King James Version were not consistent in how they translated the word. Yes, they oftentimes went with “dragon” or “dragons,” but in other instances they went with “serpent” (Exodus 7:9-10), “sea monsters” (Lamentations 4:3), “whale” (Job 7:12), or “whales” (Genesis 1:21).

Personally, I think Dr. Henry Morris had the right idea about the word tanniym. In his book, The Biblical Basis for Modern Science, he suggested that the word should always be translated as “dinosaur” (or “dinosaurs”). To explain how the Hebrew language could correctly describe the tanniym in such a wide range of ways, he wrote:

“The fossil record reveals both terrestrial and marine dinosaurs, small and large dinosaurs, dinosaurs of many different characters living in many different environments.”

Of course, to believe that the Bible incorporates dinosaurs into its storyline is to deny the theory of evolution, refute the notion that the earth is billions of years old, and conclude that dinosaurs and humans coexisted not only before the flood of Noah but also after it. It is to believe that the marine and flying dinosaurs were created on day 5 of the creation week, and the land dinosaurs were created on day 6. It is also to believe that two of each kind of flying dinosaur and land dinosaur were aboard the ark and repopulated the post-flood world with dinosaurs (no doubt in less prolific numbers). Frankly, that’s a mental leap that most people — even many professing Christians — aren’t willing to make. But it’s one that I made several years ago, and I have to say that the more I study the Bible, the more I realize that this interpretation fits the scriptural facts better than any other one out there.

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