The Mysterious ‘Great Sea Creatures’ of Genesis – What Are They?

Today we will talk about one of the most intriguing mysteries of ‘Ma’ase Bereshit’ {מעשה בראשית} – Hebrew for ‘the act of creation’ which took place on the fifth day. What I’m talking about is the creation of ‘the great sea creatures’ as can be found in the Book of Genesis:

“And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.” So God created the great sea creatures 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.” (Genesis 1:20-22)

This is from a new version of the English Bible translation. In the old King James Version (KJV), one will find the term ‘great whales’ to describe the ‘great sea creatures’ and that makes sense, of course.

Both of these English Bible translations were influenced by the German translation that was prepared by Martin Luther in the 16th century. There the German term is ‘große Walfische’ which resembles the English ‘great whales.’

Behemoth and Leviathan by William Blake from 1826

Having said that, there is another meaning to the German term ‘Walfisch’ (singular form of ‘Walfische’) and this the old Latin word ‘cetus’ (‘cete’ in the plural form) which appears in the Old Latin translation of the Bible – Vulgate – and refers to a whale or to some kind of a giant sea creature.

The astronomy fans among you are probably recognized this old Latin word, because of ‘Cetus’ – which is a name of a constellation. In fact, this Latin word comes from the Ancient Greek ‘kêtos’ which means a ‘sea monster’ or ‘very large fish’ and that is the reason one can find this Latin word (cetus) as describing ‘whales’, big sharks’ and ‘giant cuttlefish’ in mediaeval literature and is also the reason why it was chosen to describe the mysterious sea creatures from Genesis.

However, you will be surprised to find out that the original Hebrew does not mention ANYTHING about a ‘whale’ or ‘a sea monster’. In fact, if you ask a native Hebrew speaker “What is the original name of the giant sea creatures from Genesis?”

They will answer: ‘Ha-Taninim Ha-Gedolim’ {התנינים הגדולים} which literally means ‘the big crocodiles’… Yes, while the Bible translations speak about some sort of a ‘huge sea monster’ the original Hebrew speaks about a big crocodile. How have the Bible translations have understood that as ‘huge sea monster?’

Well, the answer will be in the next post…