Fantastical Beasts of the Bible Part Two: Will the Real Behemoth Please Stand Up?!

You can’t have a conversation about fantastical beasts of the Bible without mentioning the book of Job. The book of Job is home to two of the most famous fantastical beasts in the Bible- Behemoth and Leviathan. Today we’ll talk about Behemoth.

It is useful if we go ahead and identify that there are only three possible conclusions to come to regarding Behemoth:

  1. Behemoth is mythological- not real.
  2. Behemoth is a real animal that exists somewhere on this earth today.
  3. Behemoth is some type of real, but now extinct animal.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s look at our options one by one.

Option 1: Could Behemoth be mythological?

A lot of liberal scholars ascribe to this view and have gone to very great lengths to rationalize it. To (greatly) summarize, this view revolves around the belief that the Bible “borrows” from pagan mythology for the purpose of illustrating and communicating truths. These scholars point to the fact that similar (not exact) creatures are described in pagan myths. Of course, another obvious reason that some scholars prefer this view, is that the possible modern animal candidates for view #2, obviously do not fit the textual description of Behemoth.

However, here are the top three reasons (in my opinion) that this view doesn’t hold water.

  1. The Bible talks about Behemoth like it is a real animal.Job 40:15 states that Job and Behemoth are equally God’s creatures, “Behold now, Behemoth, which I made as well as thee”. Here God says, “Look at Behemoth, which I made just like I made you.” Pretty straightforward. There isn’t any implication in the text that Behemoth is mythological or symbolic of anything. As a matter of fact, every time “behemoth” is mentioned outside of Job 40 it refers to a real animal. The English word “behemoth” is a plural form of the Hebrew “behema”, which can be found 9 times in the Old Testament. It is basically a generic word for “beast”. However, the plural form in which it is used in Hebrew is regarded as a device to “intensify”. For example, “great beast”, “super beast”, or “the noblest and strongest beast”. God considers Behemoth to be a masterpiece. When the Lord first speaks, in Job 39, He describes real animals in order for us to understand important truths about the nature of the world. In the verses following, two more real animals are mentioned. It really doesn’t even make sense that God would be describing all these real animals then suddenly switch to mythological ones. Although hyperbole is used in the description of certain elements of Behemoth (bones made of metal), this is not surprising since the book of Job is poetic in nature. Hyperbole is also used in earlier poems to describe living animals. “Allowing for the use of highly poetic language at times, the book of Job remains realistic throughout. Job was a real person (Ezekiel 14:14,20, James 5:11) who experienced real pain. He challenged a real God that was (and is) alive. Jehovah described real creatures in Job 38 and 39. And so there is no legitimate reason for rejecting behemoth and leviathan as real animals.” (Apologetics Press, Eric Lyons)
  2. The Biblical description of Behemoth is a far cry from its assumed pagan counterparts.

There is nothing called “behemoth” or anything similar in pagan mythology. Marvin Pope, a professor and authority on ancient Ugarit, draws a comparison between Behemoth and “the ferocious Bullock of El” slain by the goddess Anat (Baal’s sister) from ancient Ugarit texts. However, this is not consistent since Behemoth is not described as fierce or predatory, but rather a herbivore who grazes among other animals, lies in the water, leisurely drinking from the river. John Hartley notes in his commentary on Job, “In contrast to mythological thought, Yahweh did not have to defeat Behemoth to gain control over the forces of chaos. Rather Behemoth obeyed him from the first moment of origin.”

3. Last, but certainly not least, the mythological view does not make sense within the context of the lesson that Job is learning.

Here is the context: Job was a wealthy landowner and father who was stripped of everything he had without warning as an ultimate test of his faith. Job is lamenting the injustice that God allows wicked people to prosper while innocent people suffer. Job’s account of undeserved suffering addresses the age old question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Job goes back and forth in poetic dialogue with 3 friends. Finally, God interrupts and “takes Job to court” demanding that Job answer several questions. The questions, however, are rhetorical with the intent of demonstrating to Job how little he actually knows about creation or about the power of God. It is in this context that God mentions His creation, Behemoth. God goes into detailed description of some of His creations, highlighting particularly the glory of two gigantic beasts- Behemoth and Leviathan. The entire point of God’s line of questioning is to demonstrate His unlimited power and to make Job aware of the limitations of his human knowledge. SO, if God points out as demonstration, “Look at all these incredible animals with all of their awesome characteristics that I have created Job- then He lists two animals that are not real at all (they only exist in pagan mythology), what would Job’s response be? Probably something along the lines of, “Lord, what’s Your point? Those last two animals don’t even exist.” If Behemoth isn’t (or wasn’t) real, God’s entire argument collapses.

Option 2: Does any animal on earth today fit the description of Behemoth?

There are really only two options- the elephant, and the hippopotamus- and there are major issues with both.

Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic theologian living from 1225-1274, thought that Behemoth was an elephant. However, most scholars agree that the elephant just doesn’t measure up. Behemoth is described as having incredible strength in its loins and the muscles of its belly, but the elephant is actually most vulnerable in its abdominal region. The elephant’s strength is in its head, neck, and tusks. Also, Behemoth’s tail is compared in strength and length to a cedar. This is most certainly not the description of the wimpy little tail of an elephant.

That leaves us with the most common view noted in most Bible footnotes which is that Behemoth is a hippopotamus. Samuel Bochartus was the first to identify Behemoth as the hippopotamus in his work Hierizoicon in 1663. But when held to the Biblical description, the hippo honestly doesn’t fare much better than the elephant. The King James translates that Behemoth is “chief (ie- largest) of the ways of God”,yet the elephant is twice the size of a hippo. Again, we have the same issue with the tail.

The tail of the hippo measures about 20 inches.

Definitely no comparison to a cedar tree. The cedar tree was the most massive tree known in the old region of Palestine, some growing as tall as 120 feet.

Finally, verse 19 indicates that no man could approach Behemoth with a sword and verse 24 indicates that Behemoth can’t be captured, saying specifically “can anyone capture it by the eyes, or trap it and pierce its nose?” This bit of information really flies in the face of ancient cultural context due to the fact that the Egyptians even had festivals called “Harpooning the Hippopotamus”. Pharaoh’s took particular pride in killing hippos and there are mosaic tiles picturing men spearing hippos from boats. Incidentally, one source notes that a favorite tactic for killing a hippo was to “pierce the nose, causing the animal to breathe through its opened mouth. Following this the fatal blow could be inflicted in the mouth.”

Hippopotamuses and Egyptian hunters from Mart-Jan Paul’s article for Creation.com

The Greek historian, Herodotus, noted that the ancients made javelins from the dried skin of the hippo. It certainly seems that if the hippopotamus was the creature that God had in mind when describing Behemoth, then His example is rendered pointless by the fact that God isn’t the only one who masters this creature.

Option 3:  Behemoth was very much a real animal that lived in Job’s time, yet is extinct today. Can you think of any extinct animals that fit the description of Behemoth?

I certainly can. Behemoth’s attributes perfectly describe more than one species of massive herbivorous dinosaur. The Apatosaur had a massive tail and weighed about 30 tons. The Ultrasaur could reach a height of 18 meters, a length of 30 meters, and weigh 136 tons! The Bible mentions specifically that Behemoth was a “grass eater”. A Nigersaur, found in the Republic of Niger, was 15 meters long and was thought to be a grass eater.

One argument against a gigantic dinosaur is noted with respect to verse 21 which states in the NIV “under the lotus plants it lies”. However, this is an erroneous translation on the part of the NIV. Other translations such as the KJV read “he lieth under the shady trees”. The only lotus that is a tree is the Ziziphus lotus, which grows 2-5 meters tall, but only in dry climates- so it doesn’t fit here. The blue and the white lotus were common ancient Egyptian plants, which is probably why the NIV inserts them, but the key word here is plants- not trees-so these cannot be what is referenced. This verse most likely refers to a species of poplar common to the area that grew on the banks of streams and rivers to a height of several meters. Plenty tall enough for a gargantuan dinosaur to rest under.

We certainly don’t have enough information to know specifically what dinosaur Behemoth could have been, but what IS clear is that a dinosaur much more accurately fits the description of the Behemoth.

How about those tails? Dinosaurs are certainly known for their size and many would dwarf anything that lives today.

So, what holds you back from choosing the most logical of the three options? Is it perhaps, due to the fact that this option is immediately tossed out as impossible because dinosaurs lived billions of years ago before humans existed? Many of you are thinking, “Uh, yeah- and if you are considering this option you’re off your rocker!” Trust me, I get it. But have you ever considered the possibility that your beliefs might not necessarily be “consistent” with your world view?

For example: Many of you would agree with me that evolution is an un-Biblical concept, yet you would also maintain that the earth is billions of years old and dinosaurs lived on the earth before humans. Where is the inconsistency? Well, the verses in Genesis that describe the creation of the earth, plants, animals, etc (that some do not consider a literal account) are identical in literary style to the very next verses that describe the creation of Adam and Eve (which many do consider a literal account). If you don’t consider the former to be a literal account, in order to be consistent in your belief, you have to be open to the view that Adam and Eve were not literal people. You also have to somehow answer the question of how and why the effects of sin were already present in the world (sickness, pain, death, etc) prior to one man actually introducing sin into the world (Romans 5:12). That one’s a biggie! As the famous Dr. Henry Morris said, “Modern Bible scholars, for the most part, have become so conditioned to think in the terms of the long ages of evolutionary geology that it never occurs to them that mankind once lived in the same world with the great animals that are now found only as fossils.”

If you’d like a much more detailed discussion of that particular topic including some pretty compelling extra-biblical evidence that may change the way you think about the possibility of a “young earth”, you can check out my blog post: What in the World Happened Between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2?

Are there any other indications that dinosaurs and people could have lived at the same time? Well, there are some interesting references in ancient literature. Herodotus talks about “serpents” in Arabia that could fly. The Jewish historian, Josephus, writes about some type of “serpent” that could fly in the air during the time of Moses. These descriptions certainly bring to mind pterosaurs.

Besides ancient literature, there are many impossible to explain, amazingly accurate ancient artist depictions of dinosaurs. In the 1920’s, the well respected archaeologist Samuel Hubbard discovered Indian petroglyphs in the Grand Canyon. Among depictions of known animals such as the ibex and the buffalo were- you guessed it- dinosaurs.

Havasupai Canyon panel- note animal on the bottom left. It closely resembles the Edmontosaurus.

Doctors Dennis Smith and Donald Patton unearthed hundreds of figurines depicting a wide variety of known dinosaurs in an excavation in Mexico of the Chupicauro civilization (500 BC- 500 AD).

Of course, neither of these discoveries are without their naysayers. ( I mean, just think of the evolutionary implications if dinosaurs were found to have lived with humans in the past. Talk about a nail in the coffin!) The authenticity of the Havasupai panel cannot be disputed, so the explanations I have read all revolve around the idea that the drawing actually doesn’t look that much like a dinosaur…hmmm. The Chupicauro figurines on the other hand have been accused of being fraudulent. However, when I read the in depth rebuttal of these claims from Dr. Swift, I found his corroborating evidence and testimonies from reputable individuals to be quite impressive. Here’s the link to his report if you’re interested: http://www.bible.ca/tracks/tracks-acambaro.htm#initial

So, who is the real Behemoth? We can’t know for sure. We can logically deduce that Behemoth was at some point in the past a real creature- one that God considered one of His greatest masterpieces. We can logically deduce that no known living animal accurately fits Behemoth’s description. To my mind, the most reasonable conclusion is that Behemoth was a large docile animal, with a large tail- which is now extinct.

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