Dragons, or dragon-like sea monsters, play an important role in the creation stories of many ancient Near Eastern peoples. In all of these stories, the dragon represents both primeval chaos and the sea, and is slain by a chief god of the sky or storms who thereby brings order to the world. Apparent references to such creatures, either with the term tanin or Leviathan, also occur in the Hebrew Bible. Genesis 1:21 states that “God created the great sea monsters [taninim],” while Psalm 74 states of God, “Thou didst divide the sea by Thy strength: Thou brakest the heads of the dragons [taninim] in the waters. Thou brakest the heads of Leviathan in pieces.” Robert Miller II explains the meaning of these verses:
[T]he dragon-slaying myth is a metaphor trying to say something about the nature of the universe and the political force that kept order on earth. . . . Many societies with dragon imagery—India, the Hurrians [of ancient Syria], Hittites, Israelites—were never seagoing people, so for them the sea was terrifying. The sea is huge, and you don’t know what’s out there, and when it (or she) gets kicked up into a storm, the result is utter chaos.
And that’s what life is for most people: existence on the verge of chaos. The storm god—and your king—fight against that chaos. . . . [A]t the same time, the myth is political propaganda because in every case the human king is the representative of the storm god in his victorious aspect on earth. The king is your guarantee of security. . . .
When Israel says God defeated the dragon, they use this myth in two ways. Most of the time, . . . they are saying, “Whatever you Canaanites mean when you say, ‘Our god defeated the dragon,’ it’s true of our God, not yours.”
The other way biblical authors use the myth is to say to their neighbors, “Your god had to fight this battle against the dragon. You think it’s his greatest accomplishment, whatever that dragon is. For our God, it’s actually nothing at all.” [Thus], at the end of the book of Job (41:1-5), God says about the Leviathan: “Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook or tie down its tongue with a rope? . . . Can you make a pet of it like a bird or put it on a leash for the young women in your house?” To God, the Leviathan is nothing.