Slaying the Dragon: Part 4, Haunts of Foul and Hateful Beasts

The Hebrew word that gets translated as "dragon," "sea monster" or "great sea creature" in the Old Testament is tannin. Both Leviathan and Rahab are tannin.

For example:
Genesis 1.21
So God created the great sea monsters [tannin] and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. (NRSV)
So God created the great creatures of the sea [tannin] and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. (NIV)
Another example:
Job 7.12
Am I the Sea, or the Dragon [tannin], that you set a guard over me? (NRSV)
Am I the sea, or the monster of the deep [tannin], that you put me under guard? (NIV) 
So again, both Leviathan and Rahab are tannin, dragons and monsters of the deep.

And yet, if you look into the word "dragon" in the OT you will stumble upon some confusing translations:
Isaiah 34.13
Thorns shall grow over its strongholds, nettles and thistles in its fortresses. It shall be the haunt of jackals, an abode for ostriches. (NRSV)
And thorns shall come up in her palaces, nettles and brambles in the fortresses thereof: and it shall be an habitation of dragons, and a court for owls. (KJV)

Isaiah 35:7
The burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. (NRSV)
And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water: in the habitation of dragons, where each lay, shall be grass with reeds and rushes. (KJV) 
So how does "dragon" in the King James Version become "jackals" in other translations?

Well, it's because the plural of tannin in the Hebrew (tannim) is the same as the plural for a different animal, jackal. Consequently, when tannim is encountered in the text the translator has to determine which animal--dragon or jackal--is being referred to.

So what do translators do? They tend to look at the ecosystem being described. If the ecosystem is water then the word is translated as "sea monster" or "dragon" (for example: Psalm 74.14). But if the ecosystem is in a desert many translators go with "jackals."

But complicating this picture, and more on this in the next post, is how tannin can also refer to serpents and snakes, animals that are found in deserts.

Regardless, the imagery of tannim--dragons or jackals--in a desolate place is used throughout the OT as imagery for the judgment of God. A "haunt of jackals" or a "habitation of dragons" is a demon-infested place. For example:
Isaiah 13.21-22
But wild animals will lie down there,
and its houses will be full of howling creatures;
there ostriches will live,
and there goat-demons will dance.

Hyenas will cry in its towers,
and jackals [tannim] in the pleasant palaces;
its time is close at hand,
and its days will not be prolonged. (NRSV)
But wild beasts of the desert shall lie there; and their houses shall be full of doleful creatures; and owls shall dwell there, and satyrs shall dance there.

And the wild beasts of the islands shall cry in their desolate houses, and dragons [tannim] in their pleasant palaces: and her time is near to come, and her days shall not be prolonged. (KJV)
But desert creatures will lie there,
jackals will fill her houses;
there the owls will dwell,
and there the wild goats will leap about.

Hyenas will inhabit her strongholds,
jackals [tannim] her luxurious palaces.
Her time is at hand,
and her days will not be prolonged. (NIV)
I've highlighted in this text where the demonic imagery comes from, beyond the reference to jackals and/or dragons. Again, you'll note some translational differences in Isaiah 13.21: Is it goat-demons, satyrs, or wild goats?

This Hebrew word here--saiyer--can be translated as either "male goat" or "devil." It's a word where the devil gets associated with goat imagery. So translators of Isaiah 13.21-22 have to determine what image is being invoked. Is the reference zoological ("wild goat," NIV), mythological ("satyr," KJV) or demonological ("goat-demon," NRSV)?

Whatever it is, it's not good. A haunt of tannim is not a good place to be, goat-demons or not.

All this--haunts of dragons, jackals and goat-demons--is imagery that is used in the book of Revelation to describe Babylon:
Revelation 18.2-3
He called out with a mighty voice,

“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!
It has become a dwelling place of demons,
a haunt of every foul spirit,
a haunt of every foul bird,
a haunt of every foul and hateful beast."
And what's interesting is how this haunt of hateful beasts is described in political and economic terms:
"For all the nations have drunk
of the wine of the wrath of her fornication,
and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her,
and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury.”

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