The Bible might not be the first place you’d think to look for dragons, but they are there. In fact, the Bible begins and ends with dragons. The Hebrew word for dragon is tannin (plural tanninim). These are terrifying sea dragons conquerable only by God. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew between 13th and 2nd centuries BCE. There was no English version until 1611 by special command of King James. This translation came via the Greek and Latin translations of the Hebrew. The translators didn’t always get it right.
In the beginning…
The first dragons in the Bible are on the very first page where God’s creation of heaven and earth is described. The tanninim were created on the fifth day along with all the other living creatures of earth (Genesis 1:21). But tanninim was translated as whale. Perhaps the translators didn’t like the idea of God creating such evil creatures as dragons. In the Revised Standard Version of the Bible (1952), tanninim is translated as “sea monsters”. It should be dragons.
So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.
Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, Genesis 1:21.
The most vivid and detailed description of the biblical sea dragon is contained in Job 41. This is a particular tannin called Leviathan. A vast, fire-breathing creature with limbs and possibly more than one head, his body is protected by scales that are impenetrable to weapons. He has terrible teeth. Light shines from his eyes. His breath is so hot it can kindle coals and make the sea boil.
Out of his mouth go burning lamps, and sparks of fire leap out.
Out of his nostrils goeth smoke, as out of a seething pot or caldron.
His breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth out of his mouth.
King James Bible, Job 41: 19–21
Dragon of the Apocalypse
As the Bible begins with the creation of the dragon, it ends with its defeat. By the time the New Testament was written (1st Century CE), dragon symbolism had become straightforward. In the final book of the Bible, Revelation, the dragon is explicitly described as a manifestation of Satan. It describes a series of cryptic visions that Saint John had. In one vision, he saw a red dragon with seven heads and ten horns.
The dragon was waiting for a woman to give birth so that he could eat the baby, but she escaped. Then archangel Michael and his angels waged war on the dragon and cast it out of Heaven. It was bound in chains, and cast into the bottomless pit for a thousand years.
And there was a war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels,
And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.
And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan…
King James Bible, Revelation 12:7–9
Missing Dragon Story
There is another dragon story in the Bible, or at least there was. It is a story called Bel and the Dragon. This tells how the prophet Daniel (of the lions’ den fame) convinced Cyrus, the King of Persia, that the dragon he worshipped was just an earthly creature not a god. Daniel said he would kill the dragon “without sword or staff”. He made cakes from a mixture of pitch, fat and hair which sound disgusting, but when he offered them to the tame dragon, it ate them. The cakes were ignited inside the dragon (presumably by the fire that dragons breathe) and the dragon exploded. Cyrus was convinced, and converted to Daniel’s Jewish faith.
This story is one of the Apocrypha which were removed from the King James Bible in the 1600s. It can still be found in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles.
Then Daniel took pitch, and fat, and haire, and did seethe them together, and made lumpes thereof:
this hee put in the Dragon’s mouth, and so the Dragon burst in sunder :
and Daniel said, Lo, these are the gods ye worship.
Apocrypha, King James Bible 1611
There are other dragons mentioned in the King James Bible. In complete contrast to Leviathan, these are land creatures living in desolate, desert wildernesses. This is the result of another mistranslation. The Hebrew word for these creatures is written as tannim, which the translators misread as a plural of tannin. In fact tannim is the plural of the word for jackal. So these creatures aren’t dragons at all, but wild dogs. This misunderstanding has been corrected in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible and the desert dragons have been replaced with jackals.
- Leviathan: http://www.artsycraftsy.com/rackham/rackham_leviathan.html
- Revelation dragon: http://bodley30.bodley.ox.ac.uk:8180/luna/servlet/s/a1362d
- Daniel: http://www.soniahalliday.com/category-view3.php?pri=FR272-8-13.jpg
- Paul Mankowski, S.J., Pontifical Biblical Institute,Rome. Personal communication 2001
- Bel and the Dragon Chapter 1 (Original 1611 KJV Bible)