Behemoth: A Scholarly Overview
The book of Job raises many questions (why is Job, a righteous man, allowed to suffer so greatly?), but one that has baffled many scholars is the identity of the mysterious creature known as Behemoth in Job 40:15.
But what is this great mysterious creature, Behemoth? The identification of Behemoth is widely disputed amongst biblical scholars as can be seen by their varied interpretations.
After showing Job the wonders of his creation in chapters 38–39, God speaks to him a second time and continues to challenge him by telling him to exercise justice in the world. God is dealing with the issue of justice since Job has called into question God’s justice (Job 40:8) and has frequently asked to be allowed to have a trial with God (Job 9:16, 13:3). God accuses Job of discrediting his justice in trying to justify himself and has crossed the line in some of the things that he has said. So, God challenges Job to exercise some power in the world and demonstrate that he can govern like God (Job 40:9), he does this by asking him to consider whether he can control the great and powerful creature Behemoth:
Behold, Behemoth, which I made as I made you; he eats grass like an ox (Job 40:15).
But what is this great mysterious creature, Behemoth? The identification of Behemoth is widely disputed amongst biblical scholars as can be seen by their varied interpretations:
- A real earthly creature (hippopotamus or elephant)1
- A mythical creature2
- An earthly creature who also represents a spiritual force3
There is another option that is not argued for by commentators, namely that Behemoth was a real creature that is now extinct. In order to correctly identify the creature known as Behemoth, it is necessary not only to pay close attention to all the details in the text about him but to keep in mind our presuppositions about the history of the world as this will impact our interpretation.
Behemoth: Real or Mythical?
In Job 40:15, God tells Job to “Behold, Behemoth,” calling him to take notice of this creature. The Hebrew word bĕhēmôt (בְּהֵמוֹת) is the plural form of bĕhēmâ (בְּהֵמָה), a generic word used to describe the domesticated “beasts/livestock” of the earth that God created on day six of creation week (Genesis 1:24) and that went onto the ark and then came out of the ark (Genesis 6:20, 9:10).4 In verse 15, the plural form bĕhēmôt5 refers to a single creature but uses the plural of majesty. Scholars recognise that this implies a “super beast”6 or “the beast par excellence.”7 What is clear, from v.15, is that Behemoth and Job have one thing in common: they are both creatures of God. The words “which I made as I made you” work “against the view that “behemoth” is a mythical creature.”8 A real earthly creature is clearly in view, as Konkel rightly recognizes in his commentary on Job:
It would destroy the point of the poet to move from the world of the Creator to the mythic world, for the message from God was directed to the world in which Job lived.9
In his first speech, God uses real animals and birds (lion, Job 38:39; mountain goats, Job 39:1; donkey, Job 39:5; wild ox, Job 39:9; ostrich, Job 39:13; horse, Job 39:19; locust, Job 39:20; hawk, Job 39:26 and an eagle, Job 39:27) to come to an important conclusion regarding creation and man’s place in it. Similarly, in his second speech, God uses another real creature, Behemoth, in order to intensify the power of his message to Job. God even draws Job’s attention to the fact that Behemoth “eats grass like an ox” (or cattle, bāqār). This could hardly be said of a mythical creature. Furthermore, the mythical beasts of other ancient Near Eastern accounts were terrible and predatory in nature, but in contrast, Behemoth is described as an herbivore (Job 40:15, 20) that lays down peacefully under the plants of the river (Job 40:20–21).10 The text makes it clear that Behemoth is a real earthly creature as it is presented as something that people knew about through observing creation. Although Behemoth is a real earthly creature, he is not like any other creature alive today in God’s creation.
This massive and powerful description of Behemoth has led many commentators to rightly acknowledge that he must be a real earthly creature.
The description of Behemoth’s body in verses 16–18 is lengthy and detailed and is significant in helping to identify this massive creature:
Behold, his strength in his loins, and his power in the muscles of his belly. He makes his tail stiff like a cedar; the sinews of his thighs are knit together. His bones are tubes of bronze, his limbs like bars of iron (Job 40:16–18).
This massive and powerful description of Behemoth has led many commentators to rightly acknowledge that he must be a real earthly creature. However, for commentators who reject the mythic interpretation of Behemoth, the unanimously accepted position seems to be the hippopotamus.11 This is also the interpretation offered in the footnotes of several modern Bible translations (NIV, NASB, OJB). Older Bibles such as the 1599 Geneva Bible say that Behemoth “is thought to be the elephant, or some other, which is unknown.”12 But does the hippopotamus (or elephant) match the description given of Behemoth? There are several reasons why the hippopotamus interpretation does not work. The description in verse 17 of Behemoth’s tail is important for understanding this creature.
He makes his tail stiff13 like a cedar. (ESV)
He bends his tail like a cedar. (NASB)
Its tail sways like a cedar. (NIV)
He moves his tail like a cedar. (NKJV)
In verse 17, God compares Behemoth’s “tail” (zānāb) to a cedar tree. Cedar trees were of great size (2 Kings 19:23) and a symbol of power (Ezekiel 17:22–24, 31:1–18). The word zānāb is used elsewhere in the Old Testament to refer to the end or base of something (Exodus 4:4; Judges 15:4; Isaiah 7:4); so, it cannot refer to the trunk of an elephant.14 The description of Behemoth’s tail does not even remotely fit with the hippopotamus. The average height of a cedar tree is around 30–40 meters, while the average size of an adult male hippopotamus tail is around 56 cm. The hippopotamus also spends most of its day in the deep water, but Behemoth spends his day sheltered by the lotus tree in the marsh (Job 40:21–22). In order to get around the problem of the description of Behemoth’s tail, some scholars have suggested that the tail is a euphemism for the hippopotamus phallus.15 This does not work either as the dominant theme in the description of Behemoth’s body (loins, belly muscles, tail, thigh, bones, and limbs) is meant to convey its massive power and strength, not its mating features—and still, the size doesn’t work.16 . It is not only the tail of Behemoth that rules out it being a hippopotamus but the overall bodily description “supersedes any normal creature.”17 At least any normal creature that is recognizable to us today.
The fact that Behemoth is the “first” or “beginning” (rēʾšît, רֵאשִׁית) amongst the works of God tells us that he is a creature made by God to be the “mightiest of the animals.”
Finally, the prominence of Behemoth is described in verses 19–20 and again provides evidence that this is a real earthly creature:
He is the first of the works of God; let him who made him bring near his sword! For the mountains yield food for him where all the wild beasts play (Job 40:19–20).
In his second speech, God is getting Job to consider his relationship to Behemoth. Only God can approach and master the great beast that is Behemoth as he is Lord of both creation and the moral realm. Unlike God, Job does not have the power to control a world full of injustice.
What Then Is Behemoth?
If Behemoth is not a mythical monster and not a real earthly creature such as a hippopotamus (or Elephant), then what could he be? Biblical creationists have long argued that Behemoth is a creature that is now extinct, but known to Job when he was alive, possibly a sauropod dinosaur (possibly Dicraeosaurus, Brachytrachelopan). Why then do most if not all evangelical scholars who have written commentaries on Job not understand Behemoth this way? The reason is quite simple, the vast majority (if not all) commentators on the book of Job have been influenced by long ages of evolutionary geology and so in their minds, the creatures that we now know as dinosaurs never lived together with man at the same time but died out 66 million years ago and now are only found in the fossil record. Commentators are not even thinking about the possibility of interpreting Behemoth as an extinct animal, such as a dinosaur. For example, in his commentary on Job, theistic evolutionist, Tremper Longman III comments on Job 40:15:
The view advocated by so-called young-earth creationists that Behemoth and Leviathan are dinosaurs is preposterous. The author would have had no knowledge of dinosaurs. This view is an over literalistic reading of Job.20
It is only preposterous to Longman because he has already embraced an evolutionary view of the world and rejected the biblical account of creation as being historical.21 Longman rightly rejects Behemoth as being a hippopotamus, but he argues that the “best understanding is that Behemoth and Leviathan are not real creatures, but rather represent the ultimate in land animals and sea creatures respectively.”22 For Longman, Behemoth is an “imaginary creature.”23 But how does Longman know that the author of Job had no knowledge of creatures that we now call dinosaurs? He can only say this because of his evolutionary presuppositions that he reads into the text.
In his recent commentary on Job, influential apologist and scholar Dr. Michael Brown believes that Behemoth is an earthly creature that also represents a spiritual power.24 Brown acknowledges the interpretation by creationists of Behemoth as a dinosaur, but says it is generally “dismissed out of hand by everyone who is not in that camp.”25 However, the reason Brown struggles with Behemoth being a dinosaur is because of his belief in an old earth:26
The massive problem, of course, remains the issue of the age of the earth (Longman states that, “The idea that dinosaurs and human beings existed at the same time…is supported by neither science or scripture”), since virtually all but young earth creationists (which do include a surprising number of highly educated scientists) believe that dinosaurs were extinct millions of years before people appeared on the earth, and thus completely unknown to humanity before the last two hundred years when the first fossil bones were discovered. 27
Brown’s argument is problematic for several reasons. First, the biblical account of creation tells us that man was created alongside the land animals (dinosaurs) on day six (Genesis 1:24‒28; cf. Exodus 20:11). The global flood in Genesis 6–8 would account for most of the fossil record, which includes the dinosaurs. Then after the flood, two of every kind of land animal (including dinosaurs) came off the ark (Genesis 8:17–19) and lived alongside man until they either died or were hunted out of existence. There is plenty of evidence from all around the world that people in ancient cultures, in their art and pottery, knew about what scientists today would call dinosaurs.28 The discovery of red blood cells and blood vessels in a dinosaur femur and soft tissue in a dinosaur bone also strongly suggests that dinosaurs did not go extinct 66 million years ago.29 Given that dinosaurs were rediscovered by scientists in the 19th century and the word dinosaur was not invented until 1841, we should not expect the author of Job to have used the word dinosaur.
The reason that the majority of scientists do not accept biblical creation is not because of the evidence—everyone has the same evidence to examine—but it does not fit the naturalistic worldview they have imbibed.
Second, there is a theological problem for accepting the evolutionary assumption that dinosaurs became extinct (meaning there was death) before man ever lived on earth: the existence of death before Adam sinned is a huge theological problem. The Bible teaches that death of any kind (human, animal, etc.) came about as the result of Adam’s disobedience (Genesis 2:17; Romans 5:12, 8:20–22). If the death of living creatures in nature, such as animals, is not evil, as many OEC argue, then why does God call us to show kindness to animals (Exodus 23:12; Proverbs 12:10; Jonah 4:11)? If animals were suffering, dying, and killing each other in God’s “very good” world (Genesis 1:31), then this would not reflect well on his character and render his creation “not very good.”
Finally, the claim (i.e., “virtually all scientists believe dinosaurs went extinct millions of years before people appeared on the earth”) implicates problems with other important Christian doctrine and biblical miracles. For example, most scientists do not believe in the virgin birth, the resurrection, or the miracles of Jesus in the New Testament. Yet would Dr. Brown abandon his belief in these vital doctrines until scientists were persuaded of the truth by “scientific testing and evidence”? I seriously doubt he would. He accepts these because they are clearly taught in Scripture. The reason that the majority of scientists do not accept biblical creation is not because of the evidence—everyone has the same evidence to examine—but it does not fit the naturalistic worldview they have imbibed (cf. Romans 1:18–20; 2 Peter 3:3–5). Even though it is true that the majority of scientists (who start with naturalistic assumptions) do not believe dinosaurs lived with man, it does not follow that we should simply accept what the majority of those scientists believe (simple appeal to majority opinion would undermine Jesus’ own teaching—see Matthew 7:13–14). These reasons should give pause to any Christians to readily accept the conclusions of evolutionary scientists regarding the history of the world.
The description of Behemoth in Job 40 is clearly not a mythical monster, and no other living creature alive fits its description. It must be an extinct creature. The only reason not to see Behemoth as a dinosaur is if you have already accepted an evolutionary timeframe of the world that is contradicted by history, science, and, most importantly, the Word of God.