Here There Be Dragons – Mythical Beasts in the Bible

Here There Be Dragons – Mythical Beasts in the Bible April 24, 2019
Photo by Ron Peters
This house protected by reptilian flame throwers
Nerding Out

I’ll just say it. I like dragons. Yep, I’m that nerdy guy who’s into the fantasy genre: books, movies, art. If it’s about dragons, I’m into it. Now, if you mention dragons in the Bible, most people will immediately think about the dragon in the book of Revelation. However, what many people don’t know is that dragons are mentioned a lot in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament. In fact, familiarity with these references to dragons in the OT will actually help the reader understand the dragon in Revelation even better. In the following blog, we are going to examine these OT occurrences. Then we will use them to explain how the dragon in Revelation functions in its literary context.

The Greek Bible

Your first response to hearing about dragons in the Old Testament is probably, “I don’t remember seeing any dragons.” If you’re reading an English translation, then your memory is correct. In order to catch the dragon references, you have to read the Greek translation of the OT. This version is popularly referred to as the Septuagint or the LXX. This is important because this was the Bible that the early church frequently used. In Greek, dragon is drakōn. In the following, you’ll have to take my word for the fact that this is what you see in the Greek OT (unless, of course, you can read Greek).

Dragons and Serpents

In the OT, dragons are often synonymous with serpents. For example, in Exodus 7:8-13, when Moses throws down his staff, in the Greek version it becomes a drakōn. However, a couple of verses later, in 7:15, God references Moses staff that became a serpent (Greek ophis). In Isaiah 27:1 we read, “On that day God will bring the holy and great and might sword on the fleeing dragon serpent [drakōn ophis)], on the coiling dragon serpent [drakōn ophis], and he will kill the dragon [drakōn].” Similarly, we read in Deuteronomy 32:33, “Their wine is the wrath of dragons and the wrath of incurable asps. Other passages are Job 20:16 and the non-canonical Wisdom of Solomon 16:5, 10. 

Dragons and Water

            Dragons are routinely associated with water in the Old Testament, especially the sea. This is in keeping with the mythologies of Israel’s neighbors, who also frequently reference dragons. You’ll notice that this usage is particularly popular in poetry. The following are my translations from the Greek.

  • Psalm 73:13-14, “You strengthen the sea with your power, you break together the heads of the dragons on the water. You crush together the heads of the dragon, giving it as food to the people of Ethiopia.”
  • Psalm 103:25-26, “This great and wide sea, where there are reptiles that cannot be numbered, small creatures and large, where ships travel, this dragon.”
  • Psalm 148:7, “Praise the Lord from the earth, dragons and all the abyss.”
  • Job 7:12, “Am I the sea or a dragon, which you appoint me to guard?”
  • Job 40:25, “Can you lead dragons with a fishhook?”
  • Amos 9:3, “If they sink from my eyes into the depths of the sea, there I will command the dragon and it will bite them.”
  • Micah 1:8, “There I will make lamentation like dragons and mourn like the daughters of Sirens,” [Here the translation may be appropriating Greek mythology].
  • Ezek 32:2, “You consider yourself a lion in the nations, but you are like a dragon in the seas; you burst forth in your rivers, trouble the waters with your feet, and foul their rivers.”

Dragons and water were closely associated in Hebrew thinking.

Dragons and Wicked Empires

            The third and final way dragons were used in the Old Testament was to symbolize wicked empires. Specifically, they symbolized empires that persecuted Israel. In Jeremiah 50:8 [LXX 27:8] the Babylonian empire is characterized as a dragon. In the next chapter, 51:34 [LXX 28:34], Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon is symbolized by a dragon. Similarly, Egypt is characterized as a dragon in Ezekiel 29:3 and 32:2.

The Genre of Apocalypse

Before we talk about the dragon in Revelation, we need to say something about the genre of the book. Scholars classify Revelation as an apocalypse and place it among writings designated apocalyptic literature. The word apocalypse is a transliteration of a Greek word meaning “revelation.” This refers to the act of uncovering or revealing something that, up until that point, had been hidden, unknown. The two most prominent examples of apocalyptic writing in the Bible are Daniel 7-12 and the book of Revelation. Both were written to people who were suffering as a direct result of their refusal to compromise their faithfulness to God. Apocalyptic writings serve to encourage faithfulness during times of suffering by “pulling back the curtain.” By doing so, they allow the audience to see what’s happening behind the scenes. They can see that there is, in fact, a cosmic battle being waged, at the end of which God will be victorious. Those who remain faithful during these times will be vindicated and rewarded by God. Conversely, those who fought against God and persecuted his people will be punished.

The Dragon in Revelation

So how does this information help us to understand the dragon imagery in Revelation 12-13? We first observe in 12:9 that the dragon is also referred to as “that ancient serpent.” This is consistent with the general pattern of associating dragons with serpents in the Old Testament. Second, in 12:15 when the dragon pursues the woman, we read, “the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood.” Not only is the dragon again referred to as a serpent, it is also associated with water. In 12:18, the dragon takes its stand on the sand of the seashore, continuing this theme. Third, the dragon is closely associated with the first beast in chapter 13. This beast arises out of the sea (more water connection) and in appearance mirrors the dragon. Worship of the beast is worship of the dragon, from whom the beast derives its power (13:4).

The current scholarly consensus is that the author used the beast to symbolize the Roman Empire. Based on OT usage, we would expect the empire to be symbolized by a dragon, like Babylon and Egypt. However, as an apocalypse, Revelation aids its readers by pulling back the curtain so that they can see what’s happening behind the scenes. Rather than characterize Rome as a dragon, Revelation characterizes Rome as a beast that mirrors the dragon. However, Rome is not the true enemy. Rome is an agent of the true enemy, Satan himself, the power at work behind Rome.

Revelation, like other apocalypses such as Daniel, was written to encourage God’s people to be faithful in the face of suffering that is a direct consequence of their faithfulness. At the time Revelation was written, some Christians were tempted to cooperate with Rome. This would have required them to worship in temples dedicated to Rome as a public demonstration of their loyalty. Failure to do so would bring severe consequences. Revelation warns Christians away from this course of action by pulling back the curtain to reveal exactly who they will be worshipping if they do this.

Conclusion

As we can see, Revelation builds upon the audience’s familiarity with biblical imagery. However, it takes what is known and introduces the unknown by adding a new twist to the traditional imagery. Whereas the OT texts use dragon imagery to characterize wicked empires, Revelation goes one step further and reveals who the true dragon is. It is the power at work behind the latest wicked empire to bring suffering to God’s people.

Over course, as my pal demonstrates, not all dragons are bad.

About Ron Peters
Ron Peters is Professor of New Testament at Great Lakes Christian College. He has numerous publications on the New Testament and Greek Language & Linguistics. He is cohost of the After Class Podcast. You can read more about the author here.
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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Faith L Sochay

    What exactly do you think IS the power at work behind the Roman government? You said Satan himself? Who is that? A created being?

  • Faith L Sochay

    Do you personally believe dragons existed somewhere at sometime?

    I do.

  • Tommy Moehlman

    What role does “Bel and the Dragon” and its connection between dragons and idolatry, play out in your analysis of dragons and their reception in the Scriptures? Bel and the Dragon is associated with the Greek additions to Daniel–which could easily be a part of encyclopedia of reception for the implied audience of the book of Revelation.

  • Ron Peters

    Hey Tommy. Good question. I didn’t get into the deurterocanonical material. At first glance, the dragon in Bel and the Dragon seems to be different than the other OT instances. It’s portrayed as a living creature that can be (and is) killed; there’s no water association; there’s no symbolic connection to empires. As you rightly point out, though, it is an object of worship. In that regard, it may have had some influence on Revelation, where the dragon is worshipped by extension when people worship the beast. What do you think?

  • Ron Peters

    I want to believe.

  • Ron Peters

    As to Satan’s origins, since the Bible doesn’t have anything to say about it, I’m not going to speculate. Obviously I hold a different opinion on this than some Christians, who cite passages from Isaiah and Ezekiel as origin material about Satan.

    The challenge of an apocalypse is that it uses evocative imagery to make its point. Is it meant to describe reality in a literal sense? That’s hard to say. On the one hand, Satan is frequently identified as our adversary in scripture. So identifying him as the motivating force behind Rome is consistent with his biblical portrayal. On the other hand, apocalyptic imagery is just that, imagery. It’s not meant to be taken literally. So we have to be careful. I’m not going to use Revelation as a primary source for satanology. However, it’s not problematic for me to think of Satan as the force behind Rome.

  • John Nugent

    You may already know this, Faith, but go pretty far in exploring the nature of Satan in the After Class Podcast, episodes 1.14-20, available at https://afterclass.libsyn.com/

  • Chris

    You refer to the translation appropriating Greek mythology, but surely the Old Testament is as much mythology as any other… whether Greek, Norse, Inuit, native American, Dogon, Chinese, the Mahabarata, Celtic or any others (some might even include the new testament in these).

    There’s no more reason to believe any of them to be factual. All are simply allegorical stories from times long gone. Dragons are no more, or less, mythical than angels, the Devil, or indeed God himself.

  • How is this relevant to anything outside of where it is written? No one should even care about this unless they are a scholar of the Bible or ancient scripture.
    A complete waste of time or is this some kind of strange joke?

  • John Purssey

    Do you think dragons were thought to literally exist, or were they understood symbolically?

    People are still fascinated by dragons today. They are prominent in Game of Thrones.

    I rather like this quote

    http://www.jeremychin.com/repository/hard-truths/0124.jpg

  • Ron Peters

    It depends on what you mean, and what they meant, by dragon. As I pointed out, dragons and serpents were at times used interchangeably. This suggests that, at least at times, a dragon wasn’t necessarily understood as a fire breathing, winged creature. For westerners, our dragon images grow out of Germanic and Norse mythology. Thus, the kind of creatures you see in popular literature such as Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Movies and T.V. like GoT. This wasn’t the universal view of dragons. The Israelite view was probably consistent with their neighbors in the Ancient Near East. A good example of this is seen in the depiction of dragons on the famous Ishtar gate of ancient Babylon (you can Google images of the gate), where the dragons are depicted as creatures with legs and a serpent like head and neck.

    All of this is to say that I don’t think that the fire breathing creatures of popular literature actually existed somewhere in the past. However, since dragon is sometimes just another term for serpent, then yes I do think they existed.

  • Tommy Moehlman

    Do you think those aforementioned differences are superficial on genre grounds? Most of the texts you’ve cited are poetic. I think the motif of slaying the embodiment of idolatry is a suggestive link for the book of Revelation–especially so if the Greek additions to Daniel were circulating what we might call the “canonical” Daniel. The motifs of dragon, idolatry, and Babylon are present in Bel and the dragon in the albeit just in a narrative context. If Bel and the dragon is akind of political satire, I think it also resonates with the Alter-imperial rhetoric of the book of Revelation. To be clear, I am not making a case for dependence. I am more interested in the possibility that the narrative presentations of drakon here fills out/up the dragon symbol in the book of Revelation. The book of Revelation draws upon Roman military propaganda at points in its rhetoric (as argued persuasively by Shane Wood). It doesn’t seem like stretch to me to consider Bel and the Dragon as a possible piece of the puzzle as thinks about the encyclopedia of reception for the first hearers of the apocalypse.

  • Ron Peters

    I agree that it is genre specific and that most of the instances are poetic. This is an important consideration. Usage has to be interpreted based on genre, which means there will be differences. I think your take on Bel and the Dragon and its relationship to Revelation is solid, not so much dependence but growth out of the same soil. Like you said, the Daniel story can help inform the usage in Revelation without arguing for dependence. I appreciate your contribution. Thanks!

  • David Cromie

    Since the so-called ‘bible’ is a syncretically concocted collection of myths, legends, and folklore, derived mostly from pre-existing Pagan examples, what does it matters in the real world if a talking serpent (later punished by loosing its legs!), or a talking donkey are depicted in these (campfire) stories? These myths are no more important or ‘meaningful’ than, say, the Epic of Gilgamesh.

  • David Cromie

    The earliest known ‘bibles’ date from the 4th cent. CE (the Codex Sinaiticus, and the Codex Vaticanus), and a comparison with the KJV, say, illustrates the deletions, additions and omissions apparent in modern versions, thanks mainly to the imaginations of such as the Early church ‘fathers’ who were encouraged by Constantine to supplant the polytheistic traditions of the Romans, in an attempt to stem the disintegration of the Roman Empire. For this reason a biblical canon had to be established which would be foisted on all christians, in what would eventually become the totalitarian Holy Roman Empire, ruled by popes and prelates based in the Vatican. Thus, in theocratic Europe dissent was not to be tolerated under any circumstances.

    After Luther, it was not uncommon to find that the ‘beast on the seven hills’ was depicted by Protestants, not as the Roman Empire, but as the papacy itself. Following the Enlightenment, with the availability of the so-called ‘bible’ in the vernacular (something that was strenuously proscribed by the Vatican previously), together with the rise in literacy, we have thousands of brands of christianity and sects arising, each proclaiming themselves to be to ‘one true’ version of christianity. Is there any such thing as ‘true christianity’? The various versions cannot all be ‘true’, but they can all be false.

    That being the case, if one needs must read the so-called’bible’, then it should only be read as ancient literature, in the same way as one reads the Scandinavian Sagas, or the Brothers Grimm – no hidden messages from a supposed ‘god’ that no one yet has adduced the irrefutable, falsifiable, evidence for, not even Aquinas. Dragons/serpents just add a little colour to the biblical myths, whichever version of the so-called ‘bible’ one picks up to peruse.

  • David Cromie

    If, as the so-called ‘bible’ tells us, the ‘god’ of the the OT is the maker of all that exists (and without it was not made anything that was made), then ‘satan’ is the creature of Yahweh, whether it is a fallen archangel, or of any other substance. That being the case, it is strange that an omnipotent ‘god’ cannot control/overcome it, except in the Apocalypse/second coming, the date of which has been deferred now by nearly two thousand years.

  • Kirk Janowiak

    Your first reference in Psalms should be Psalm 74:13ff and not Psalm 73. (Of course this depends somewhat on which “official” psalter one uses, but I believe few modern versions will have this a Psalm labeled as 73)
    This was an interesting post on language usage in the LXX. How the Hebrew culture viewed the “wild world” was often far different than the way we (comfortable) moderns view it—and their views changed over time as we see such things referenced and described in biblical chronology.

  • Jane Ravenswood

    so, how does it work when your god works with this dragon to corrupt Christians after all nonbelievers are killed and only Christians live under the rulership of JC for a thousand years? Revelations 19-21 and why does your god feel the need to do this “17 For God has put it into their hearts to accomplish his purpose by agreeing to hand over to the beast their royal authority, until God’s words are fulfilled.” Revelation 17

  • Ron Peters

    Thanks for the comment, Kirk. I tried to coordinate my references with both the LXX and modern English translations. I’ll double check them and make corrections if necessary.

  • Ron Peters

    I’m not tracking with your reading of the text. I don’t see anything that indicates that God works with the dragon to corrupt Christians. Regarding the thousand year reign of Christ, while I understand that many Christians interpret this literally, I am not among them. Revelation is an apocalypse. Therefore its imagery isn’t meant to be interpreted literally. Instead, it is evocative. Sometimes the imagery does have real world referents: Beast = Roman Empire; False Prophet = Imperial Cult; Whore = the City of Rome. However, much of the imagery is meant to inspire hope without necessarily referring to literal things. For Christians who were suffering at the hands of the political and economic powers of their time, the image of one day reigning with Christ is meant to inspire hope and encourage them to remain faithful during their time of suffering. The ultimate message is that it is worth it to suffer for a short time now because the end will be so much better. They shouldn’t give in to their oppressors because the time is coming when God will judge them and anyone who aligns with them will fall under the same judgment. Thus, reading the thousand year period as a prediction of literal events that will happen in the future misses the point entirely. It’s not how apocalyptic imagery works.

  • I wish my name was Fred

    Dragons and serpents are generally metaphors for evil spirits or entities. The Leviathan and Twisted Sea serpent are most likely Satan or some other powerful evil being or dominion angel. And there’s Luke 10:19 where Jesus gives the disciples power over the serpents and scorpions, as in evil or unclean spirits.

  • I wish my name was Fred

    Actually, the bible is pretty original if you want to look at it in a mythological sense. Yes the flood story exists in other forms and other examples, but there’s no Moses or Abraham in Babylonian and Greek mythology. The use of the snake in Genesis is a symbolic or metaphoric analogy of the evil spirit tempting Adam and Eve. The bible is very deep, it’s not like other mythology, there are stories under the surface story, generally other types of mythological stories are not like that. But almost every bible story seems to have an underlying meaning. On surface it looks like just a wild story, but there’s meaning there. You have to study the bible and the stories, they’re that way for a reason, it’s a type of encoding that only the believers and educated will see. BTW Adam and Eve are totally original and not borrowed from any other source.

  • Jane Ravenswood

    Ron, I know you aren’t tracking with my reading of the text. You need to refuse to accept what it says because it shows your god in a very poor light.

    Christians all interpret their bible differently, according to their personal hatreds and desires. You all come up with different religions because of this. You each come up with different decisions whether something should be considered literal, metaphor or what should be just ignored because you want to pretend you god didn’t “really” mean what it supposedly wrote/inspired in the bible.

    There is no more reason to accept that Revelation isn’t literal than to claim that the magical resurrection is literal. The author of Revelation states that after satan is locked up in hell “2 He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3 and threw him into the pit, and locked and sealed it over him, so that he would deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be let out for a little while.” So why must satan be released? If we are to believe your bible, this god decrees everything so it is responsible for releasing Satan. We also have this god intentionally controlling people’s minds so they work with Satan: “17 For God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by agreeing to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God will be fulfilled.” Revelation 17

    I’m going to guess that the reason you don’t want to take Revelation literally is because it is ridiculous to modern minds. However, a modern mind didn’t write it, someone who believed in dragons and magic did. Yep, it’s likely that a lot of it is referring to the Roman Empire, but, as you noted, many Christians are sure this will happen literally, in addition to Jesus appearing in the clouds like a flying superhero and Christians flying up to meet him as Jesus and Paul state in your bible. The author of Revelation makes claims about plagues that will torture humanity as a prophecy, just like the plagues in Exodus did the Egyptians. Are you saying that those ridiculous plagues in the OT didn’t happen or were just metaphors?

    Many Christians claim that Revelation is a prophecy; and you don’t. This is not surprising at all. Jesus claims to be coming back within a generation but you know that didn’t happen. There is no “short time” since it’s been over two thousand years since the promise was made. There’s no reason to believe any of Revelation as there is no reason to believe any of the bible’s essential claims about supernatural occurrences.

  • Jane Ravenswood

    Ron, you say you want to believe in dragons and that they existed, but you claim that Revelation should be just taken as metaphor. This seems a little silly. Do you want to take Revelation literally or not?