Spitting Flames

Yes, there are Dragons in the Bible. Christian history is full of them!

I want to paint an image for you. I’d like to describe something to you and allow you the freedom to see whatever it is that comes to your mind. Are you ready? Okay, Picture this: 

There is a large beast whose teeth are surrounded by terror and whose spine is covered in rows of shields joined one to another. It’s skin is impervious and cannot be removed. If it sneezes it brings forth light and its eyes glow like the dawn. Out of it’s mouth pours flames and its nostrils bellow smoke like a boiling pot or burning bush. Its breath alone can kindle coals.

It has unmeasurable strength and the toughest of skin. Iron is like straw in its mouth and no sword or arrow can penetrate its flesh to reach its stone cold heart. When he rises up he strikes fear into the hearts of all who encounter him and he sees everything that is high. 

If you are anything like me, you might be picturing King Arthur and his knights fighting back a large, winged reptile right about now. You can probably envision its fiery breath spewing out from between its razorsharp teeth as it brings terror to those who face it. And you’d be pretty much spot on. But the description I just gave wouldn’t be found in a rehashing of the Arthurian tale, well, at least not in the way I worded it. Because those adjectives I used to describe the aforementioned beast came straight out of the Old Testament, Job to be exact. It was describing a beast known as Leviathan, and it is just but one of the many accounts that the Bible goes on to share about giant monsters that have left horror in their wake. And of course, we know these creatures by a better name, a name the Bible actually goes on to use as well. We know these creatures as dragons.

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As long as there has been some form of communication between people, there has been a good old fashioned monster story and dragons have been around just about as long as any of them. From The Epic of Gigamesh’s Humbaba to our modern paleo famous long neck and one of my personal favorites, Nessie the Loch Ness Monster, the idea of large, reptilian creatures roaming our hillsides and swimming in the depths of our waterways scratch a certain adventurous itch so many of us seem to have. We desire mystery and sometimes uncertainty is far more fun than a definite understanding.

That’s why to me, Dragons are one of the most fun parts of Biblical folklore. And Christian history just so happens to be chalked full of good dragon stories. The Bible is full of contextual clues and even straight out mentions of towering, reptilian creatures. They can be seen literally from Genesis to Revelation and sprinkled everywhere in between. So let’s take a trip back in time to go on a hunt for a few fire breathing serpents. But don’t forget your Armor, because things might just start heating up.

I think it’s fitting to start somewhere we all probably know well. There was once a man who bitterly tried to outrun the call of the Lord. He hopped a boat and began sailing in the opposite direction from where God intended for him to go and minister so God sent a strong storm to rage against their wooden vessel. Once lots were drawn, soon the captain and his crew realized who it was that God was angry at and reluctantly threw him overboard causing the storm to calm.

Of course, if you have ever read the book of Jonah you know what happens next. He was swallowed by a great fish and burped up three days later on the shores of Nineveh, the very city Jonah was attempting to run away from. Funny how God gets his way. But you might be wondering how this has any place in the dragon narrative if our boy, Jonah was swallowed by a great fish? Well, you might not be so surprised to know that the answer to that comes down to translation.

English is a finicky language and quite honestly, translating between Hebrew to greek and then to English can lead to a few…questionable substitutions and the story of Jonah is but one of the places we see this happen. When you look at the words “great fish” our first reaction is “whale” or “shark”. Of course we know biologically that the survival of a human in either of these two creatures for three days is absolutely impossible. And the esophagus of either of them is not large enough to pass a human into. But as to where we often gloss over these details and chalk it up to something we are familiar with, the truth is quite a bit more terrifying once we get a bit deeper than the surface.

The words “great fish” are the words chosen by interpreters based on the Hebrew word, dag godol. Now, follow with me here. If you take the words “dag godol” and translate them to Greek, you get the word, Kétei Megalô, which translates to English as “mega sized Ketos”. At least thirteen other writers are noted for using this same word in reference to a specific creature. Writers by the likes of Homer, Lychophron, and Johannes Moschus to name a few.

The creature, Ketos they described was said to have the head of a dog, a large, coiled body, plumes on its head, and razor sharp teeth. It was said to be able to swallow vessels whole and terrorized the Mediterranean. The dog-headed sea serpent, or Ketos is even depicted in numerous artist’s works throughout Africa, Turkey, Asia, and even Rome. But to top it all off, a painting was found in a roman catacomb that dates back to the first century. In this painting, Jonah is depicted as being thrown to a large sea serpent-like monster with the head of a dog, plumes coming from its neck, and of course, razor sharp teeth.

I’d like to take just a second and backtrack. We talked about Leviathan, which was deemed as a mighty dragon of the sea. But there are a couple other instances in Job as well as a couple of the Apocryphal books that play nicely with the aforementioned creature.

Right before Job describes Leviathan, he speaks of another mighty beast that unlike its aquatic counterpart, actually resided firmly on land. Behemoth, as it was called, was said to have a tail like a cedar tree and bones like iron. The book of Enoch goes on to describe it as the unconquerable monster of the land, residing in the invisible desert, east of the garden of Eden.

It is briefly mentioned that both Leviathan and Behemoth will both finally be slain by the creator at the end of days and their flesh will be served out to the saints with joy. I’ve had both aligator and snake before and I’ve got to say, these creatures are going to make for an interesting meal. This very idea is still celebrated every year in Israel during the feast of Booths.

Oh, and while we are talking about Leviathan snd Behemoth, it’s worth mentioning that according to the Apocrypha, though briefly mentioned in Psalms 50, both of these two creatures are joined by a third beast, named Ziz. Ziz is said to be the beast of the air. Large enough to block out the sun with its wingspan and though his ankles rest on the earth, his head reaches far into the sky. The archetypal depiction of the Native-American thunderbird is what comes to mind. Ziz is almost gryphon-like in appearance and is said to help protect the south from terrible storms. I guess not every dragon-like beast is bad as long as you stay on their good side.

In the Golden Legend, a book we have referenced before here on this show, there are a couple tales of dragon-like beasts I found that are worth exploring. One of those tales involves the offspring of Leviathan and a beast known as the Onachus. The Onachus, a scaly, bison-like, burning beast was said to have mated with the sea loving Leviathan and created the Tarasque.

The Tarasque was a short legged dragon with a head like a lion’s, a body like an ox, and its back covered in turtle shell. It had teeth that were as sharp as swords and the size of horns. But the most unique and quite frankly terrifying part of the Tarasque wasn’t it’s size or even those giant teeth, it was its tail. It’s tail was like that of a scorpion, stinger and all. And it would use that to render its victims lifeless.

The Tarasque terrorized the marshes and waterways of Provence, France. It devastated their landscape and would wait silently in the waters until a passerby or vessel would cross close enough for it to devour them. The king had waged war against the Tarasque going as far as to attack it with catapults and his finest nights to no avail. It continued it’s terror against the city.

That’s where Saint Martha enters the story. Martha, sister to Lazarus and Mary, went and found the beast and tamed it with hymns and prayers. She then took the now tame creature and led it back into the city to show them the mighty power of God.

But the people still feared the monster, despite its more docile behavior so they began to form a mob and killed the creature in the town square. Then Martha proclaimed the gospel and it is said that the city gave their lives to God in that very square. Regretful of what they had done, the town changed its name to Tarascon in remembrance of the miracle Martha performed and to honor the beast they had slain.

Another story from the Golden Legend is that of Saint George. Saint George served as a tribune in the Roman army around the third century, AD. On one eventful day, George was riding by a city named Silene, in the province of Libya. As he road by he noticed a pond on the outskirts of the city and stopped off as he saw a commotion forming on the banks of the water. He soon learned that in this pond lived a dragon. Every day, the people of the city would feed the dragon two sheep to keep it satisfied but after time, it wanted more.

The townsfolk began drawing lots for their children to see who would be fed to the hungry dragon and keep the peace. It did not matter what social status you held, if your lot was drawn, your child was fed to the dragon. But on this particular day, the lot had fallen on none other than the king himself. The princess was being escorted to the pond to become dinner when Saint George rode up.

Obviously, being a knight and a man of valor, he decided this was not to keep going on. These people would no longer suffer at the hands of a dragon. He would do what needed to be done. He would face the dragon and rid this city of its burden once and for all.

About this time the dragon emerged from the murky pond water and charged at the crowd. Saint George mounted his horse, galloped directly at the dragon and speared it, leaving it wounded. He then took the bridle from his horse and mount it around the dragons neck and with the sign of a cross, he tamed the creature and ridded it of its lust for flesh. They paraded the dragon back into the city where, like Martha, Saint George proclaimed the works of God and the town converted to the Christian faith.

There are obviously way more stories of Faith and dragons scattered throughout history than we might first realize; from passing descriptions to all out fantasy novel quality stories and everything in between. Dragons are wise, cunning creatures and are depicted with minds sharper than their teeth and knowledge that passes most human understanding. This I can only assume, is at least in part why Satan has often been depicted as a dragon.

We see this in Genesis where Satan is depicted as a serpent. We see it in Revelation when the dragon is cast down into the pit. Yet despite the association, dragons are not all bad. As we have already seen, sometimes they are simply misunderstood. Some might say they are completely understood, because they are not, nor where they ever real.

Many people claim Leviathan was nothing more than a hippo or Alligator. Behemoth is hypothesized to be an elephant or a boar. The Dragon in the book of Revelation? It was most likely a reference to the constellation, Draco. And many of the other tales are viewed simply as that: just tales passed down to glorify the work of the saints.

The truth is, it doesn’t even matter. The allegory rings true whether we are facing down a cunning, fire breathing serpent or just tackling the monster that stands between us and where we need to be. Life has a way of expressing itself through word and art. Take the Hellmouth for example.

Hellmouth is a common depiction of the final judgement in which people pass into hell through the mouth of a great dragon that consumes them. Though it was inspired by the Saxons, this depiction is still very common in renaissance style artwork.

Our faith is shaped by the visuals in which we adopt. Hell is as real as we make it out to be in our minds and many of us face it like a poltergeist we manifest through our constant fear of being forgotten by God. Dragons are there to represent our darkest challenges and provide for us such a satisfaction and triumphant feeling when we are able to tame such a beast.

You can either slay your fears or your fears can consume you. So what will it be? Will you keep tossing out pieces of you to appease the endless appetite of the beast, or will you charge full speed and face it head on? Either way, the outcome is determined by the picture you paint. So what will you dream up next?

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