The Behemoth in Job 40:15-24
Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
by Bob Burridge ©2014
Job 40:15 mentions a creature referred to as “Behemoth”. Many have wondered what kind of animal is meant. It has been identified with animals ranging from the elephant to the dinosaur.
The context makes specific comparisons to the ox, cedars, bronze, and iron. Misunderstandings of these references have been used to support favorite speculations and theories. A good word study can help us set aside our assumptions, and understand what the Bible actually says about this awesome creature being pointed out to Job.
God was helping Job understand that as a mere creature he was in no position to question the wisdom of God, even in times of great personal suffering. The Lord was impressing upon him how little he knew compared to the infinite and perfect knowledge of God. In chapter 40:15-24 the grandeur of this animal referred to as Behemoth was pointed out to show the amazing design and handiwork of the Creator.
The word “Behemoth” in Job 40:15 is the Hebrew word בְּהֵמוֹת (be-hae-mot, which would be pronounced “beh-HAE-moat”). It is understood in various ways by different scholars. Some say the Hebrew word was derived from an Egyptian word p-ehemau relating to the hippopotamus (which means “river horse”). Others identify it with the rhinoceros or elephant. Still others have suggested that it relates to a mammoth or even a dinosaur. There are also those who say it was a purely mythical creature.
This same word appears in other places in the Bible. In Deuteronomy 28:26, 32:24, Isaiah 18:6, and Habakkuk 2:17 it is translated by the word “beasts”. In those places it is referring simply to animals of the wild with no particular species in mind.
The word in these texts and in Job is in the plural form which is why it is usually translated as “beasts” rather than “beast”. Here in Job the plural word is treated as singular. The reason for that has to do with the point being made in the context. The Behemoth is mentioned as a specially amazing creature in certain ways. God is impressing Job with the magnificence of the things he had created. Here in Job we have an example of a special use of the plural form which is a common feature of the Hebrew language. To show the superlative nature of something it can be expressed in the plural form which is called the “majestic plural”. For example the Hebrew word for “heaven” or “sky” is the majestic plural “shemayim” (שׁמים). Similarly the Hebrew word for “God” is simply “El” (אל), but it is often expressed as the majestic plural “Elohim” (אלהים).
The Job reference could be translated “Behold beasts ..” as a simple plural. However, one particular kind of animal seems to be the object here. If we take this as a majestic plural, the expression in that enhanced form could be translated, “Behold, Beast …”. God was asking him to consider the amazing wonder of this particular animal he had made. Therefore in that context the “majestic plural” fits very well. The context also argues against the “mythical animal” view since it would not have helped Job understand God the Creator’s power and superior knowledge if he was asked to consider an animal that didn’t actually exist.
We do not have a taxonomic dictionary of how specific animals were referred to in the time of Job. They did not have a classification system with formally accepted names for each genus and species as we have today. We can only rely upon the context which determines the meaning of each use of the word. The description of the “Behemoth” in the verses that follow is all we have to go on to figure out what it means in the Job text. The challenge is to properly understand each part of the description.
Job 40:15-24 (the LORD answered Job saying), “Behold, Behemoth, which I made as I made you; he eats grass like an ox. 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. 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. Under the lotus plants he lies, in the shelter of the reeds and in the marsh. For his shade the lotus trees cover him; the willows of the brook surround him. Behold, if the river is turbulent he is not frightened; he is confident though Jordan rushes against his mouth. Can one take him by his eyes, or pierce his nose with a snare?” (ESV)
The descriptions of his diet and body are not given with the same precision we use in modern Biology and Taxonomy. We need to be careful we don’t read more into each comparison than is justified by the text itself.
The animal eats vegetation. This does not mean it eats grass type foods exclusively. For example the hippopotamus of the Nile region eats fish while it is in the water, but when fish are scarce it comes out onto land where it eats various types of vegetation. Its land eating habits would be what most people would commonly observe. That would be why this part of their diet would be mentioned in the text. (See the details in Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible and the commentary by Keil and Delitzsch on this verse).
The Behemoth is very strong and powerful. This description would fit most of the suggested types of animals, but Albert Barnes points out that the elephant is vulnerable in the area of it’s under-belly while the hippopotamus has strong muscles there to protect him. This fits best the description given in verse 16, “… strength in his loins, and his power in the muscles of his belly … .”
One of the most confused points is the description of the tail of the Behemoth. It does not say it looks like a cedar tree, or that it is a big as a cedar. Verse 17 says, “He makes his tail stiff like a cedar; …” (ESV). The King James and ASV translate it, “He moveth his tail like a cedar:” The verb in this phrase (“makes stiff”, or “moveth”) is “kha-phets” (חפץ) which means to “incline toward, bend, or move.” It sometimes takes on the figurative meaning of “to take delight in, favor, or desire”. The comparison to a “cedar” has nothing to do with the “tail’s” size or shape. It has to do with its “rigidity”, the “way it moves” is like the firm cedar. Rather than being just a draping tail, it has the ability to stiffen out like a tree. Dr. Barnes tells us that this best fits the type of tail associated with the hippopotamus of the Nile.
The reference to the creature’s bones and limbs are also made in reference to their strength, not their shape or size.
The attempt to see this as a description of a dinosaur fails to use these descriptions the way they are presented in the text. It is only when the interpreter comes to the text with a preconceived desire to find dinosaurs in the Bible that they could be seen in this description.
Careful commentators and dictionary writers list all the ways this word is used, and caution against forcing one meaning upon any word in every place where it is used. Those dictionaries which give just one meaning for the word are obviously presenting their opinion rather than reporting how the word was actually used elsewhere in Scripture and in the contemporary language. It is the word the Holy Spirit moved the writers to use in conveying what God intended.
Those who have studied the biological peculiarities of the animal described here, and who have examined the remains of animals found in that ancient place and era, usually favor this as a description of the hippopotamus rather than any other proposed animal. The descriptions of the habitat of the Behemoth in verses 21-23 also best fits what we know of the Nile hippopotamus.
There is certainly room for discussion about what specific animal Job was asked to consider. The obvious conclusion is that we cannot use this reference to prove that there were dinosaurs roaming around in the time of the Book of Job. Those who have promoted this interpretation are advised to consider carefully what this portion of God’s word actually says when allowed to speak for itself.
Major References Used:
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (by Kittel)
Brown Driver and Briggs Hebrew Lexicon
Greek -English Lexicon by Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich
John Gill’s commentary on Job
Keil & Delitzsch commentary on Job
Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionary
and several others which all present about the same material
Note: Bible quotations are from the New King James Version unless otherwise noted.