Dragon legends around the world have been prevalent for generations. Dragons are even mentioned in books of the Old Testament. But were they real creatures or just mythological? The Hebrew word תנין (tannin) has been translated in several ways, but this paper will attempt to show that the term likely refers to both land and sea serpents or dragons. Determining the meaning of tannin requires a close look at the actual Hebrew word and a study of the various contexts in which it appears.
The word dinosaur refers strictly to land animals, but some people often label marine reptiles (e.g., plesiosaurs) and flying reptiles (e.g., pteranodons) as dinosaurs.1 Dinosaur is also a relatively new word, having been coined in 1841 by the famous British scientist Sir Richard Owen.2 Prior to this time, another word was used for large reptilian creatures: dragon. Answers in Genesis has often promoted the idea that many of the characteristics of historical (often considered mythological) dragons actually match those of certain dinosaurs.
The Bible describes a few fascinating creatures that some have classified as dragons. There is Leviathan, the mighty, imperviously scaled sea creature that breathes fire (Job 41).3 Another animal called “behemoth” is described as a plant-eating creature that “moves his tail like a cedar” and whose “bones are like beams of bronze” (Job 40:15–24). Behemoth’s characteristics, along with other descriptions in this passage, often bring to mind the mighty sauropod dinosaurs, such as Brachiosaurus.4
These two creatures are described at length as specific beasts, but there is another Hebrew word used to describe a dragon-like creature: תנין (tannin, pronounced tan-neen), which seems to cover a broad range of reptilian creatures. Two questions about the word tannin must be answered: was it a sea serpent, snake, dragon, dinosaur, or simply a category of animals? And did it live in water, on land, or both?
Not surprisingly, many Bible scholars do not agree that tannin refers to a dragon, and because of this disagreement, many proposed definitions exist. There are at least three plausible reasons why theologians disagree on a definition of tannin.
Let’s take a look at how tannin is defined in various concordances and lexicons. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible defines tannin as “a marine or land monster, i.e. sea-serpent or jackal: dragon, sea monster, serpent, whale.”6 Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon offers the definition “serpent, dragon, sea monster.”7 The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament by Koehler and Baumgartner includes sea-monster, sea-dragon, dragon, serpent, and even crocodile as possible definitions.8 That is a large range of possibilities.
Some people use a rule of interpretation known as the Principle of First Mention (or Reference), which holds that ”when an important word or concept occurs for the first time in the Bible, usually in the Book of Genesis, the context in which it occurs sets the pattern for its primary usage and development all through the rest of Scripture.”9 However, there are problems with this idea when it is adhered to as an absolute.10 The first time tannin appears in Scripture, it is in its plural form (tanninim) and refers to great sea creatures (Genesis 1:21). Yet some later uses of tannin clearly refer to some sort of land animal, as we will demonstrate. So while this principle may be useful in some cases, the word tannin, like most other words, can change meaning depending on the context.
Consider how tannin is translated in Genesis 1:21 NASB: “God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarmed after their kind.” The word tanninim has been rendered “sea monsters” (NASB), “sea creatures” (NKJV, ESV), “whales” (KJV), and “creatures of the sea” (NIV).11 Since the passage references the waters swarming with these creatures, most translators chose to include the word “sea” in their rendering. The description of animals mentioned in Genesis 1 are broad groupings (“birds,” “living creatures” in the water, “cattle, creeping thing and beast of the earth”). In the context of such a listing, it would be more consistent to view tanninim as a general category of creatures rather than a specific kind of animal.
If tannin has a few possible meanings, can we really say for sure that it is always referring to the same creature—some sort of land- or sea-dragon—each time it is used? Yes and no. To better understand this question, it might be helpful to look at the specific biblical descriptions of a tannin. It is important to note that many of these descriptions are found in poetic or prophetic passages of Scripture. So the point of some of the following verses is not necessarily to describe one of these creatures, but to compare an individual or nation to such a beast, often for size and fierceness.
The characteristics of a tannin, as described in Scripture, are helpful in determining what this creature could have been. We learn that a tannin was powerful—so powerful that one, figuratively speaking, needed a “guard” to keep it under control (Job 7:12). And according to Isaiah, it was difficult to kill. In both Isaiah 27:1 and 51:9, it is the Lord who slays the tannin. The Leviathan is described as an incredibly strong creature in Job 41, and it is called a tannin in Isaiah 27:1, so some tanninim were very powerful.
In Deuteronomy 32:33, Moses utilized synonymous parallelism to equate a tannin with a cobra. When Aaron cast his rod before Pharaoh and his servants, it became a tannin (Exodus 7:9), often understood to be some type of snake, as will be shown below. So these beasts can be quite powerful (and presumably large), and they can also be serpentine (and presumably smaller).
Whether or not a tannin lived in the sea, on land, or both is another area of debate. Some passages clearly place these creatures in water. We have already seen that Genesis 1:21 describes them as “sea creatures.” The Bible also speaks of the Lord slaying the “dragon who lives in the sea” (Isaiah 27:1, NASB). Job makes much of tannin, asking, “Am I a sea, or a sea serpent [tannin], that You set a guard over me?” (Job 7:12).
The passages mentioned earlier from Exodus 7:9–12 and Deuteronomy 32:33 reveal that a tannin can also be a land-dwelling creature. In Exodus 7:9–12 Aaron and the Egyptian magicians are able to turn their respective rods into tanninim. Aaron’s rod turning into a tannin mirrored the sign God had earlier given to Moses when his staff was turned into a serpent (Exodus 4:3). The Hebrew word used in this passage is nachash, the same word used for the “serpent” in Genesis 3. Nachash is regularly described as a land animal (e.g., Genesis 49:17; Numbers 21:9; Proverbs 30:19).
Earlier, it was mentioned that Deuteronomy 32:33 equates a tannin with a cobra through the use of poetic parallelism. This same type of parallelism12 is elsewhere used to connect a tannin with a cobra (Heb. pethen). Psalm 91:13 states, “You shall tread upon the lion and the cobra (pethen), the young lion and the serpent (tannin) you shall trample underfoot.” Isaiah 11:8 describes pethen as creatures that live in holes in the ground. The fact that tanninim are linked with land-dwelling snakes, such as nachash and pethen, demonstrates that some tanninim lived on land.
The Bible shows that tanninim made their home in both the land and the sea. This is not to say that they were necessarily amphibious, although some may have been, but that tannin may not refer to just one specific creature, and instead to a diverse category of creatures that had some representatives in the sea and some on land.
One of the trickiest parts of this discussion involves a misunderstanding caused by a very similar looking and similar sounding word in Hebrew: תַנִּים (tannim), which is often translated as “jackals.” Many early English translations of the Bible equated these two terms and rendered tannim as “dragons” instead of “jackals.” Conflating these two separate words has led to a great deal of the difficulty in nailing down a definition for tannin. For example, earlier it was shown that Strong’s concordance listed “jackal” as a meaning of tannin. But this is a result of mixing tannin and tannim.
Tannim is the masculine plural form of the Hebrew word tan, which does not appear in singular form in the Bible. Tan is the Hebrew word for jackal, so tannim would mean “jackals,” and it appears in 15 verses in the Old Testament. On the other hand, tannin is the singular form of the word for dragon or serpent, while the plural is tanninim, and tannin is found in 14 verses in the Old Testament. Under its entry for jackals (תַּן, tan), the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis states, “The form tannîm is not to be confused with tannîn, sea creatures.”13 Many of the most well-respected Hebrew lexicons and wordbooks draw a distinction between tannin and tannim.14
Perhaps the easiest way to see the significant difference between the two words is to examine a handful of verses in which the terms appear.
Psalm 74:13 states, “You divided the sea by Your strength; You broke the heads of the sea serpents (tanninim) in the waters.” Notice the plural form of tannin is used to describe more than one sea serpent. Exodus 7 uses both the singular and plural form of this word.
Then the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, “When Pharaoh speaks to you, saying, ‘Show a miracle for yourselves,’ then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your rod and cast it before Pharaoh, and let it become a serpent [tannin].’” So Moses and Aaron went in to Pharaoh, and they did so, just as the Lord commanded. And Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh and before his servants, and it became a serpent [tannin].
But Pharaoh also called the wise men and the sorcerers; so the magicians of Egypt, they also did in like manner with their enchantments. For every man threw down his rod, and they became serpents [tanninim]. But Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods. (Exodus 7:8–12)
Now consider how the word tannim is used. Isaiah 13:22 states, “The hyenas will howl in their citadels, and jackals [tannim] in their pleasant palaces.” Tannim are frequently mentioned as a picture of judgment on a city or nation, since jackals were often observed to roam abandoned places.15 For example, in reference to Edom (possibly representing other surrounding nations as well), God said, “It shall become a habitation of jackals [tannim]” (Isaiah 34:13). The same phrase or similar wording depicting desolation is used in Isaiah 35:7; Jeremiah 9:11, 10:22, 49:33, and 51:37. With the exception of two disputed verses (discussed below), each occurrence of tannim makes it clear that land animals are in view. For example, Jeremiah 14:6 describes tannim sniffing the wind. Many other passages place them in the same context as ostriches (e.g., Job 30:29; Isaiah 34:13; Micah 1:8), thus identifying tannim as land animals.
In Jeremiah 51, both tannin and tannim are used in close proximity, and the differences between the two creatures being described are readily apparent. The prophet vividly described Babylon’s cruelty toward Jerusalem by writing, “Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon has devoured me, he has crushed me; he has made me an empty vessel, he has swallowed me up like a monster [tannin]; he has filled his stomach with my delicacies, he has spit me out” (Jeremiah 51:34). Just a few verses later, he wrote, “Babylon shall become a heap, a dwelling place for jackals [tannim], an astonishment and a hissing, without an inhabitant” (Jeremiah 51:37). The tannin (v. 34) here seems to refer to a large animal capable of crushing (and so, in this instance, more likely a land-dweller) and devouring a person, although it could also describe a large aquatic or semi-aquatic creature with the same abilities. But this could hardly refer to a jackal. Three verses later we find a picture of the judgment of desolation being decreed for Babylon, and the tannim (jackals) are used to signify such a verdict.
A few objections could be raised against the idea that tannin and tannim are two completely separate words.
These are simply the Aramaic and Hebrew plurals of the same word.
This objection highlights another confusing element in this discussion. Hebrew and Aramaic are very similar in many ways. In fact, certain portions of the Old Testament were written in Aramaic, and the languages share an alphabet. One of the differences between the two involves how a plural is made from the singular form. For a masculine plural in Hebrew an “–im” (ים) suffix is added, while in Aramaic an “–in” (ין) ending is added.
The objection proposes that since tannin and tannim appear to have these suffixes, then perhaps they are simply the Aramaic and Hebrew plurals of tan, respectively. The problem with this claim is that, in context, tannin matches the singular associated verb form, and its plural (tanninim) is used five times in the Old Testament (Genesis 1:21; Exodus 7:12; Deuteronomy 32:33; Psalm 74:13 and 148:7). Even in English Bibles, this distinction is clear from the contexts in which tannin is used. So tannin is not an Aramaic plural of tan. It is a Hebrew singular word that likely refers to a serpent or dragon.
Two verses clearly use tannim to refer to a water creature.
In Ezekiel 29:3 and 32:2, tannim has been translated as a water creature, perhaps a crocodile.16 This would be a strong argument against the idea that tannin and tannim are two distinct words, except for the fact that there is good manuscript evidence to show that the Hebrew word in both passages was originally tannin.
In its entry for tannin, Brown-Driver-Briggs states that it is erroneously used as tannim in Ezekiel 29:3 and 32:2 “by confusion with” the plural of tan, which would be tannim. Also, the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek version of the Old Testament translated more than 200 years before Christ, uses the word δράκοντα (accusative form of δράκων) in Ezekiel 29:3 and δρακων in Ezekiel 32:2. Those without a knowledge of Greek could probably guess that these are the words for “dragon” in Greek. So the translators of the LXX apparently had a copy of the Hebrew Scriptures, which had tannin rather than tannim in these two verses. The NET Bible includes the following translator’s note for Ezekiel 29:3: “Heb ‘jackals,’ but many medieval Hebrew manuscripts read correctly ‘the serpent.’”17 In other words, several Hebrew manuscripts existed in medieval times that used the word tannin rather than tannim. Finally, the Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament also mentions the manuscript differences in the verses in question.18
Tannin is used in Lamentations 4:3 to refer to a mammal, not a serpent.
Lamentations 4:3 states, “Even the jackals [tannin] present their breasts to nurse their young; but the daughter of my people is cruel, like ostriches in the wilderness.” This objection is similar to the previous one, because it appears to provide a counterexample to the position proposed in this article. That is, since the English is rendered as “jackals,” then we should expect the Hebrew word to be tannim, but instead, it is tannin—at least in the copies we currently have available. However, there are a couple of plausible reasons to believe the original was indeed tannim.
While we do not possess the original manuscripts or even the earliest copies, we do have some notes of the people who copied the Hebrew texts used for the translation of the Old Testament. The Masoretes were responsible for copying and preserving the Masoretic text, and they are also the scribes who inserted vowel points into the text (the original Hebrew was a consonantal language) sometime between the fifth and ninth centuries AD.19
While copying the texts, the Masoretes took extreme care to faithfully copy the manuscripts. They refused to make any changes to the manuscripts, but they did write notes in the columns to explain difficulties in the actual texts. They also included what is tantamount to a pronunciation guide, called the Qere (from the Aramaic word meaning “to be read”). In Lamentations 4:3, the Qere states that it should be tannim.20 So the Masoretic scribes copying the Old Testament believed that tannim was the proper word here, but they refused to alter any letter of the text. Furthermore, the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible, completed by Jerome c. 405 AD, renders the word in question as lamiae, the Latin word for “jackals.” Apparently, Jerome was in possession of at least one Hebrew copy with tannim in Lamentations 4:3.
Using tannin here also does not fit the grammar of the sentence, since tannin is in the singular form, but the pronoun (“their”) referring to this word is plural. If the original word were truly tannim, then the plural pronoun would match the plural noun.21 The context of this passage provides another clue that this word should be “jackals” (tannim). In approximately half of the uses of tannim in Scripture, it is used in connection with “ostriches,” just as in this verse.22 Yet tannin is not found elsewhere in connection with ostriches.
While we may not have the necessary textual evidence to reach a decisive conclusion on this point, tannin does not fit the context or the grammar of the sentence. Nor would the statement make any sense, since to the best of our knowledge, serpents or dragons did not nurse their young. Mammals do nurse their young, so “jackals” is a good fit here.
Interestingly, the debate over the meaning of tannin seems to have intensified since the rise of evolutionary ideas. Until evolutionary ideas surfaced in the 1800s, Bible translations such as the King James Version, the Geneva Bible, Wycliffe’s Bible, and even some foreign translations chose the word dragon as the best translation in most of the passages where tannin occurs. The Septuagint often translates tannin as δράκων (drakōn)—the Greek word for dragon.
Many commentators and translators today would not agree with translating tannin as dragon. They opt instead to use words like whale or monster.
Looking at how tannin was translated historically, it is clear that the precise meaning of this word has been uncertain to translators for some time. However, if it is right to distinguish between tannin (serpent, dragon) and tannim (jackals), then we can state with a high degree of certainty that tannin refers to one of several types of creatures (probably reptilian) that could include large sea creatures and other serpentine creatures on land. Could the word encompass dinosaurs too? Perhaps, but a good case for this is not found in Scripture.23
|Biblical Reference||English Translation (NKJV)|
|Genesis 1:21||So God created great sea creatures [tanninim] and every living thing that moves, with which the waters abounded, according to their kind, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.|
|Exodus 7:9||When Pharaoh speaks to you, saying, “Show a miracle for yourselves,” then you shall to Aaron, “Take your rod and cast it before Pharaoh, and let it become a serpent” [tannin].|
|Exodus 7:10||So Moses and Aaron went in to Pharaoh, and they did so, just as the Lord commanded. And Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh and before his servants, and it became a serpent [tannin].|
|Exodus 7:12||For every man threw down his rod, and they became serpents [tanninim]. But Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods.|
|Deuteronomy 32:33||Their wine is the poison of serpents [tanninim], and the cruel venom of cobras.|
|Nehemiah 2:13||And I went out by night through the Valley Gate to the Serpent [tannin] Well and the Refuse Gate, and viewed the walls of Jerusalem which were broken down and its gates which were burned with fire.|
|Job 7:12||Am I a sea, or a sea serpent [tannin], that You set a guard over me?|
|Psalm 74:13||You divided the sea by Your strength; You broke the heads of the sea serpents [tanninim] in the waters.|
|Psalm 91:13||You shall tread upon the lion and the cobra, the young lion and the serpent [tannin] you shall trample underfoot.|
|Psalm 148:7||Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures [tanninim] and all the depths.|
|Isaiah 27:1||In that day the Lord with His severe sword, great and strong, will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan that twisted serpent; and He will slay the reptile [tannin] that is in the sea.24|
|Isaiah 51:9||Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord! Awake as in ancient days, in the generations of old. Are You not the arm that cut Rahab apart, and wounded the serpent [tannin]?|
|Jeremiah 51:34||Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon has devoured me, he has crushed me; he has made me an empty vessel, he has swallowed me up like a monster [tannin]; he has filled his stomach with my delicacies, he has spit me out.|
|Ezekiel 29:3*||Speak, and say, “Thus says the Lord God: ‘Behold, I am against you, O Pharaoh king of Egypt, O great monster [tannim] who lies in the midst of his rivers, who has said, “My River is my own; I have made it for myself.”’”|
|Ezekiel 32:2*||Son of man, take up a lamentation for Pharaoh king of Egypt, and say to him: “You are like a young lion among the nations, and you are like a monster [tannim] in the seas, bursting forth in your rivers, troubling the waters with your feet, and fouling their rivers.”|
* - denotes textual variant. See article for reasons that this should be tannin.
Every use of tannim in the Old Testament
|Biblical Reference||English Translation (NKJV)|
|Job 30:29||I am a brother of jackals [tannim], and a companion of ostriches.|
|Psalm 44:19||But You have severely broken us in the place of jackals [tannim], and covered us with the shadow of death.|
|Isaiah 13:22||The hyenas will howl in their citadels, and jackals [tannim] in their pleasant palaces.|
|Isaiah 34:13||And thorns shall come up in its palaces, nettles and brambles in its fortresses; it shall be a habitation of jackals [tannim], a courtyard for ostriches.|
|Isaiah 35:7||The parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water; in the habitation of jackals [tannim], where each lay, there shall be grass with reeds and rushes.|
|Isaiah 43:20||The beast of the field will honor Me, the jackals [tannim] and the ostriches, because I give waters in the wilderness and rivers in the desert, to give drink to My people, My chosen.|
|Jeremiah 9:11||I will make Jerusalem a heap of ruins, a den of jackals [tannim]. I will make the cities of Judah desolate, without an inhabitant.|
|Jeremiah 10:22||Behold, the noise of the report has come, and a great commotion out of the north country, to make the cities of Judah desolate, a den of jackals [tannim].|
|Jeremiah 14:6||And the wild donkeys stood in the desolate heights; they sniffed at the wind like jackals [tannim]; their eyes failed because there was no grass.|
|Jeremiah 49:33||Hazor shall be a dwelling for jackals [tannim]; a desolation forever; no one shall reside there, nor son of man dwell in it.|
|Jeremiah 51:37||Babylon shall become a heap, a dwelling place for jackals [tannim], an astonishment and a hissing, without an inhabitant.|
|Lamentations 4:3*||Even the jackals [tannin] present their breasts to nurse their young; but the daughter of my people is cruel, like ostriches in the wilderness.|
|Micah 1:8||Therefore I will wail and howl, I will go stripped and naked; I will make a wailing like the jackals [tannim] and a mourning like the ostriches.|
|Malachi 1:3**||But Esau I have hated, and laid waste his mountains and his heritage for the jackals [tannot] of the wilderness.|
* - denotes proposed textual variant. See article for reasons this word should be tannim.
** - denotes the feminine plural form of tan.
Trying to reach a conclusion on exactly what a tannin was and where it lived requires an in-depth look at the original languages and sorting out two words that are often conflated. What should we make of tanninim? It appears that they are a group of serpentine creatures, rather than one specific type, with some living on land and some in the sea. They have often been called dragons, serpents, and monsters—even Leviathan! But did they include what we would call dinosaurs in retrospect, given that such terminology and current classification systems aren’t perfect and haven’t been around very long? Probably not, but it seems possible that some dinosaurs could be classified as the land-dwelling tanninim. Behemoth seems a more likely candidate for at least one type of dinosaur.
Concerning modern translations, the rapid disappearance of any mention of dragons from translations that appeared after the rise of evolutionary ideas is alarming. And it is a good teaching point—Christians need to be careful when permitting the Bible to be interpreted in light of man’s ideas, especially ideas like evolution. The Bible should be used to explain the world on its own terms.
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