Behemoth, the Biblical Monster

Among the strange sights and entities described in the Christian Bible, two creatures have always stood out among historians and theologians for their colorful descriptions: the Leviathan and the Behemoth.

The Behemoth is first mentioned in the Book of Job, where God uses its description to illustrate the immense power of God to Jacob. According to the New King James Version of the Bible, in Job Chapter 40, verses 15 through 24:

Behemoth and Leviathan
The painting “Behemoth and Leviathan”

“Look now at the Behemoth, which I made along with you; He eats grass like an ox. See now, his strength is in his hips, And his power is in his stomach muscles. He moves his tail like a cedar; The sinews of his thighs are tightly knit. His bones are like beams of bronze, His ribs like bars of iron. He is the first of the ways of God; Only He who made him can bring near His sword.

“Surely the mountains yield food for him, And all the beasts of the field play there. He lies under the lotus trees, In a covert of reeds and marsh. The lotus trees cover him with their shade, The willows by the brook surround him. Indeed the river may rage, Yet he is not disturbed; He is confidant, though the Jordan gushes into his mouth, Though he takes it in his eyes, Or one pierces his nose with a snare.”

Compared to the later description of the Leviathan, which God describes as a massive, powerful and almost apocalyptic sea monster, the Behemoth sounds more like a massive beast of burden. The name “Behemoth” itself has been viewed as possibly a derivative of the Egyptian word for “water ox,” a possibly Assyrian word meaning “monster,” or an intensified plural form of the Hebrew word behe-mah’, meaning “beast” or “wild animal,” and could also mean “great beast” or “huge beast.” There are even a number of Bible versions that use the word “hippopotamus” in the text or footnotes to identify the creature.

A hippopotamus

In particular, the hippo is the animal most often assumed to be the Behemoth. It certainly meets the descriptions of being “tall and sturdy” with a “tail like cedar.” The hippo can eat more than one percent of its body weight in grass each night, which is the equivalent of 90 pounds of grass. Eating this much grass can also affect the environment around the hippos, as “hippo paths” can channel water during the wet season, creating pools for small fish and lagoons during the wet season. And despite their size, hippos can outrun humans on land.

Part of what confuses Biblical scholars about the Behemoth is what purpose it serves in the context of Job. God’s description of the two creatures is obviously him relating his immense and awe-inspiring power to Job, but the Behemoth seems like a strange choice, especially compared to the other animal the Leviathan.

The Leviathan is described as being massive, fire-breathing, impervious against weaponry, and having no other rivals on Earth. It is also referenced later in the book of Psalm and Isaiah as a creature that God has both killed in the past and will kill again during the deliverance of Israel. And while the Leviathan and Behemoth could be argued as selected by God to represent sea and land animals respectively, the use of Behemoth if it is in fact a hippo seems almost underwhelming by comparison.

Artist’s depiction of an apatosaurus

However, some Biblical scholars and Creationists argue that the Behemoth was in actuality a dinosaur, such as apatosaurus or diplodocus. There is some merit to the possibility of Behemoth actually being a dinosaur, as no animal, even the hippo, totally meets the physical description given by God. For example, Behemoth is described as having a “tail like a cedar,” whereas hippos only have very small tails. Dinosaurs such as apatosaurus on the other hand generally had very long tails.

If Behemoth were a now-extinct dinosaur, then it would explain why no modern animal can be definitively labelled as the Behemoth. This is the same argument made for the Leviathan being a dinosaur such as mosasaurus,  as dinosaurs were both incredibly massive creatures and apparently wiped out by an extinction-level event.

Regardless of what the creature actually is, the description of Behemoth causes many Biblical scholars to wonder, why did God select the Behemoth to make his point to Job?

The answer is that God wanted to select two animals which, for all intents and purposes, were invincible or incapable of being killed by man and could only be killed by man. By using such an analogy, God is explaining that only he can kill such creatures, and if his power is so great then man has no right criticizing God.


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