Behemoth and leviathan in the book of Job

Leviathan artwork

Were behemoth and leviathan real animals?

by by Mart-Jan Paul

Behemoth and leviathan, the two enigmatic animals mentioned in the book of Job, are commonly equated with a hippopotamus and a crocodile, respectively. Exegesis of Job 40 and 41 indicates that a hippopotamus and a crocodile are not likely candidates for these enormous creatures described by Job. Neither should behemoth and leviathan be taken as mythological animals. After establishing their identities, I also consider to what degree they symbolize the power of evil, and whether they are connected with Satan (who is mentioned in the first two chapters of the book).

The book of Job, presumably written in the second millennium BC, details the events of the patriarchal Job in the land of Uz. At the end of the book, in God’s speech to Job, two large animals are described. The first animal is described in ten verses (40:15–24) and the second in no less than 34 verses (41:1–34). Several English translations give the Hebrew names rather than a translation: behemoth and leviathan. In the course of history, people have often questioned whether these passages describe actual animals. Various interpretations have moved between the extremes of mythical and realistic explanations. Apocalyptic and early rabbinic Judaism typically represented them from a mythical point of view, where the animals are to play a role in the future. In Christian circles a symbolic explanation or application has been present for a long time. Thomas Aquinas, on the other hand, equated behemoth with an elephant, and leviathan with a whale. Since Samuel Bochartus, in his Hierozoicon (1663), identified behemoth with the hippopotamus and leviathan with the crocodile, this has become the current consensus.

The word ‘behemoth’ is the plural for ‘livestock’ (see Gen. 2:20). This plural form is often used for beasts of the field or woods. Leviathan is mentioned once as denoting a normal sea creature (Psa. 104:26) and three times in a symbolic manner (Job 3:8; Isa. 27:1 and Psa. 74:14). While both words can be used in a variety of ways, several contextual factors in Job 40–41 favour interpreting behemoth and leviathan as two real animals that Job could have witnessed:

  1. The first time the Lord speaks in Job 39 He describes real animals (from which we can glean important truths about the nature of the world and the special place of mankind). In the following verses two more living animals are mentioned, which strengthens the argument that the Lord is referring to real creatures.
  2. Behemoth is not described as a horrible and rapacious animal, as in several creation myths. On the contrary, it is described as a grass-eating animal (Job 40:15). It lies peacefully in the shadow of the river plants (vv. 21–22).
  3. God does not describe past cosmic events in relation to behemoth and leviathan, but rather the appearance and habits of animals that were present. Therefore He is referring to animals that Job observed personally. Both animals are extraordinarily powerful and evoke awe.
  4. It is possible that some poetic licence was employed in the description of the animals, but this does not mean that Job and his friends did not observe real animals.

It is therefore plausible that the two animals indeed were real.

Behemoth (Job 40:15–24)

In chapter 40, God describes an impressive animal. It is the first or most prominent among God’s works. Behemoth apparently is a masterpiece (v. 19). This description is about twice as long as that for the animals in chapter 39. Job is asked to consider behemoth that eats grass like an ox and is therefore some kind of herbivore (v. 15). Job is urged to pay attention to the power of its loins and the strength of its belly muscles (v. 16). A problem with the idea that this description refers to a hippopotamus is that in this animal the loins are not individually visible and neither are the muscles. The hippopotamus is a very thickset animal.

Behemoth can stretch its tail like a cedar. This tree is known for its size and its hard wood, which is very well suited for building. The tail thus should be strong and long. The tail of the hippopotamus has no resemblance to a mighty cedar or cedar branch at all. The short and thick tail is only 35 to 50 cm long; it is broad at its base and has a pointed end. Furthermore, the hippopotamus does not stretch its tail, but lets it hang down and wiggles it. For this reason, the translation ‘to slacken’ has been proposed, but this does not fit with the comparison of the tail to a cedar. The cedar has very long branches of some 10 to 20 m, so restricting the comparison to a cedar branch does not provide a solution.

Although the hippopotamus is impressive, the elephant and the rhinoceros are nevertheless larger. These animals are, together with the hippopotamus, depicted and mentioned on the so-called Black Obelisk. It seems that the hippopotamus is brought forward as a tribute (payment of a vassal), which would seem an unlikely fate for behemoth according to its depiction here. The remainder of verse 19 can be interpreted in two ways: the creature has been given a sword by God, or it is a creature against whom only God can draw His sword. The word ‘sword’ is often taken to indicate the teeth of a hippopotamus because they can grow to lengths of ca. 50 cm and are similar in form to a scimitar (compare Prov. 30:14, and figure 1). If this is the right explanation, it seems strange that the word is used in the singular form. The possibility that the Maker approaches this animal with his sword, because people do not dare to do this, is more in line with verse 24 and with the impossibility for attacking this animal…


image credit: Original artwork based on 1865 engraving by Gustave Doré