Lecture 32: The Identity of Behemoth

Course: The Book of Job

Lecture: The Identity of Behemoth


In this passage, God raises the issue of somebody called “behemoth.” We need to figure out what behemoth is and why God raises up the issue of behemoth. But before we do, let’s go ahead and take a look at the text. Job chapter 40 beginning in verse 15 going through 24: “Look at behemoth, which I made along with you and which feeds on grass like an ox. What strength it has in its loins, what power in the muscles of its belly! Its tail sways like cedar; the sinews of its thighs are close-knit. Its bones are like tubes of bronze, its limbs like rods of iron. It ranks first among the works of God, yet its Maker can approach it with his sword. The hills bring it their produce, and all the wild animals play nearby. Under the lotus plants it lies, hidden among the reeds of the marsh. The lotuses conceal it in their shadow; the poplars by the streams that surround it. A raging river does not alarm it; it is secure, though the Jordan should surge against its mouth. Can anyone capture it by the eyes, or trap it and pierce its nose?”

I. Behemoth is not a Description of a Specific Animal

Here we have behemoth. First of all, what is it? It is often taken to be perhaps the elephant, or perhaps the hippopotamus, or the crocodile, or some other really large animal.

In my opinion, it is not to be identified, however, with any specific animal. The description that God gives of behemoth doesn’t really match anything. It is a
composite of more than one animal. For example, it is said to be a powerful creature that dwells under the lotuses, presumably under a marsh or a lake. You could say that could be a hippopotamus, wouldn’t be an elephant, could be a crocodile. On the other hand, it eats grass, which of course crocodiles don’t do. He lives near a river. However, he takes food from the hills and grazes on grass, which hippopotamuses don’t do. So in that sense, he is kind of like cattle. He also has a gigantic and powerful tail, a tail that is like a tree, which is certainly not true of a hippopotamus or an elephant or something like that. In other words, it has certain features of many different animals, but it is no single animal.

II. Behemoth is Plural of a Hebrew Word, Meaning Beast or Animal

The word “behemoth” is simply the plural of a Hebrew word that means “beast or animal.” The word is [speaks Hebrew] in the singular, “beast, animal,” [speaks Hebrew] is the plural. Of course the description of him and the fact that he is not given a regular name indicates that there is something unusual about this creature. In other places where God is speaking of animals, he says exactly what he means. He says “a wild donkey” or “the lion” or “the eagle” or “the deer.” Here it is something he calls, “behemoth, beasts.” He gives it this plural name, “beasts, behemoth” and it is described in these strange composite terms. So, what is it?

A. In the singular it often refers to a large land animal

In the singular, “behema” the term usually refers to large land animals and often domestic cattle and sheep. There are many, many examples of this throughout the Old Testament. We have the word, “behema” singular, “beast” and it refers to typically cattle, sheep, large domestic animals; but not always domestic animals.

B. In the plural, it may refer to animals in general or specifically to wild animals

In the plural it may refer to animals generally like the whole animal kingdom, or more specifically to wild animals, to beasts that are not domesticated.

C. The plural indicates that it is a composite description

The plural name, “behemoth, beast” indicates that it is not a single species, but it is some kind of a composite animal. Of course this is something that we are familiar with from the Bible. We have a lot of composite animal-like creatures in the Bible, especially again in apocalyptic literature. We can remind ourselves of the Book of Daniel.

D. Composite animals described in Daniel

In the book of Daniel chapter 7, Daniel has a vision of four beasts and here is what he says, Daniel 7:2: “In my vision at night I looked and there before me were four winds of heaven churning up the great sea. Four great beasts, each different from the others, came up from the sea. The first was like a lion and it had the wings of an eagle. I watched until its wings were torn off and it was lifted up from the ground so it stood on two feet like a human being and the mind of a human was given to it. And there before me was a second beast, which looked like a bear. It was raised up on one side and it had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth. It was told, ‘Get up and eat your fill of flesh.’ After that I looked and there before me was another beast, one that looked like a leopard and on its back it had four wings like those of a bird. The beast had four heads and it was given authority to rule. After that in my vision I looked and there before me was a fourth beast, terrifying and frightening and very powerful. It had large iron teeth; it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left. It was different from all the former beasts and it had ten horns.”

We also have composite animals in chapter 8. In chapter 8 he sees a vision of two animals and he says in 8:3: “I looked up and there before me was a ram with two horns standing beside the canal and the horns were long; one horn was longer than the other, but grew up later. I watched as the ram charged toward the west and the north and the south. No animal could stand against it, none could rescue from its power. It did as it pleased. And as I was thinking about this, suddenly a goat with a prominent horn between its eyes came from the west, crossing the whole earth without touching the ground. It came toward the two-horned ram I had seen beside the canal and charged it in great rage.” Then it goes on from that point to talk about the fate of the charging goat.

The point here is, you see in something like Daniel or you see in something like Revelation these composite animal creatures. What are they in Daniel? In Daniel they represent empires. So, we have the empire of Babylon first; then you have the Medo-Persian Empire; the Greek Empires of Alexander and his successors; and then the Roman Empire. They are described as composite animals and the Roman Empire in chapter 7, this monstrous creature, is not identified with any specific animal at all. It is just totally a composite of something that is terrible and frightening and monstrous with its iron teeth, etc.

Why does Daniel present these creatures as composite animals? One reason is, he is trying to describe the characteristics of the empires by comparing them to characteristics of animals. For example, a leopard with four wings would of course be extremely fast. He is not only a leopard, but he has wings. So the speed of Alexander and his armies would be implied. There is another reason as well, that the text will talk about. These empires are composites of many nations and peoples. They are made up of a multitude of cultures. They aren’t unified. We see this especially in the dream of Daniel chapter 2 where Nebuchadnezzar has this dream of this image. At the bottom of the image are legs of iron and feet of iron and clay. The text specifically tells us that this represents the fact that it is not a unified kingdom; it is a kingdom that is composite, that is composed of many nations, many languages, many cultures.

In apocalyptic literature a composite animal represents an empire that sets itself up against the Kingdom of God. It is the idea of the authority of human beings, the power of human beings, over against the Kingdom of God.

E. Behemoth is a metaphor for evil that is against God

What we have in behemoth is in my opinion a metaphor describing the nature of evil and power in the world. It is worldly power, it is worldly evil, it is worldly domination. You have the kings of the earth, you have all the different nations and tribes and languages. You have all kinds of authority structures, all kinds of armies. You have powerful and rich people in all of these kingdoms. You have poor and weak people in all these kingdoms. But it does not represent any kingdom specifically. It represents the power structures that dominate human existence.

It is something, I believe, that Paul would call “the principalities and powers.” In one sense it is a supernatural thing, it is above this world. In another sense, it is the powers that dwell within this world, it is the powers that dominate this world. When you are reading Paul, it is kind of hard sometimes to tell, is he talking about angelic beings, or is he talking about human rulers and kings and governors, etc.? I think that is basically what we have in behemoth, that he is this powerful composite being who represents, so to speak, the way the world works, with all of its power structures – those who are at the top and those who are at the bottom – and all the suffering and all the oppression that goes along with it. The fact that they are described as animals, behemoth, beasts, kind of brings in the element of chaos and destruction that we have in the animal kingdom. Of course, when God was describing the animal kingdom, he gave a great deal of attention to the chaotic powers that are there, the predators and the prey, etc. and the animals that have no wisdom like the ostrich.

Here again, when God is describing the powers of the world as “behemoth” what he is saying is, it is beast-like, it is animal-like in its lack of order, its lack of control. Let’s put it real simply: You look down at the earth and you see all these nations fighting each other, all the war, all the bloodshed, all the oppression and you think, “Obviously they are just totally out of control.” Calling the power structures of the world “behemoth” kind of again brings that out. It is chaos, it is power, it is oppression.

F. God says that no one can put an end to oppression and bring about utopia except God

What does God say to Job about this? He simply says that it is very powerful and then in verse 24 he says: “Can anyone capture it by the eyes or trap it and pierce its nose?” What is he saying there? He is saying, no one can bring this under control. No one can put an end to all the oppression that exists in the world. No one can bring about what in our terms we would call Utopia, an end of war, an end of bloodshed, an end of chaos, an end of all the strife that goes on among the powers and principalities of this world. No one can handle it. No one can change it. No one can fix it.

But there is of course an implication here. The implication is that God and God alone can fix it. He doesn’t go into any detail about it because he is going to give much more attention to Leviathan. But the implication here is yes, there is injustice and power and disorder in the world. Job cannot handle it. Job can’t fix it. But God can and God will.

There is one more thing about behemoth we will look at, but we will do that in our next lecture when we consider what it means that behemoth is the beginning of the ways of God.

Question: Could behemoth be a representation of a mythological animal from the Ancient Near East?

Dr. Garrett: I think he is related to Ancient Near Eastern mythological animals. We have seen a couple of references to Rahab in Job. Of course, earlier we have seen references to Leviathan. In the Ancient Near East they certainly did have notions of these chaos monsters. They do not have a specific chaos monster called “behemoth.” That purely is Hebrew. But the idea of such a creature is in keeping with Ancient Near Eastern thinking generally.

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