Behemoth and Leviathan: Figurative or Literal? (Part 1)
[Editor's Note: This article is the first installment in a two-part series. Part II will appear in the June issue of R&R.]
The book of Job is certainly a fascinating book in the canon of Scripture. Though most of the book is written in standard Hebrew metrical verse, it clearly relates actual, historical events in the life of the patriarch Job.1 After a lengthy exchange with his three “friends,” and then the shadowy figure Elihu regarding the reason(s) for Job’s suffering, God finally breaks the silence and speaks directly to Job. Why? Why did God address Job directly in chapters 38-41? In the midst of his extreme suffering, Job needed an attitude adjustment. He said some things that cast God in a questionable light. So, he needed to have his knowledge challenged and be reminded of his finite humanity. He needed to be reminded to Whom the Universe belongs. He needed to be humbled to the extent that he no longer required an explanation or expected God to give account of Himself. After all, God is God, and we are mere humans who deserve nothing from Him (except an eternal hell which we have earned by our own behavior—Romans 6:23). Indeed, so far is He above our ability to grasp much of reality that we could not understand most of His explanations anyway (cf. Isaiah 55:8-9).
The central point of the book of Job concerns the fact that no matter what we face in this life, no matter how intense our suffering and hardship may become, when we genuinely shift our attention to who God is, we are enabled to cope with our suffering and successfully negotiate and survive the onslaughts of life.2 It is against this backdrop and context that God brings to Job’s attention two incredible creatures: Behemoth and Leviathan. Are Behemoth and Leviathan “poetic hyperbole”? Or were they actual dinosaur-like animals that are likely3 now extinct?
Most commentators seemingly refuse to consider the possibility that Behemoth and Leviathan are extinct, dinosaur-like creatures. Most think the hippo and crocodile are being described.4 Many of the English translations reflect this bias. For example, the NIV footnote for “behemoth” reads: “Possibly the hippopotamus or the elephant,” and for “leviathan” it has: “Possibly the crocodile.”5 For “behemoth” the ASV has: “That is, the hippopotamus,” and for “leviathan” it has “That is, the crocodile.”6 In stark contrast, the ESV handles the matter more in keeping with translation rather than interpretation and personal conjecture, where “behemoth” is “A large animal, exact identity unknown” and for “leviathan” “A large sea animal, exact identity unknown.”7
Have the crocodile and the hippopotamus been recognized in antiquity as the ferocious, formidable creatures like those depicted in the book of Job? The historical fact is that humans have hunted, subdued, and killed hippos, elephants, and crocodiles for millennia. An Egyptian painted relief from the tomb of Ti and Ptah-Hotep in Saqqara (5th Dynasty) depicts the ship’s crew harpooning hippopotami.8 Similarly, in Egyptian life the crocodile was easily subdued. Egyptian pharaoh Amenemhat I makes this boast of his hunting prowess: “I hunted the lion and brought back the crocodile (a prisoner).”9 Crocodile hunting on the Nile has been a longstanding activity, as has elephant and rhino hunting.10
Rather than trying to identify these two creatures with existing animals, others suggest that the creatures are purely fictitious, mythological creatures which function as poetic vehicles for God to make His point. They must assume, therefore, that the language is figurative and, hence, use expressions like “poetic hyperbole,” “mythopoeic language,” “hyperbolic intensity,” and “mythological heightening.”11 Consequently, they are forced to deny that the language refers to literal animals. However, observe that poetic language can be used to describe literal animals. If hyperbole is used, some aspect of reality must underlie the exaggeration. There must be a literal characteristic to exaggerate. An analysis of the context helps to dispel the confusion.
CONTEXT: GOD’S ARGUMENT
Consider the contextual flow of the book of Job that elicits the allusions to Behemoth and Leviathan reflected in the following outline:
1-2 Job’s disasters
3-31 Job’s dialogues with his
32-37 Elihu’s speeches
38-41 God’s speeches
42 Job’s deliverance
The allusions to Behemoth and Leviathan occur among the speeches delivered by God to Job. The line of reasoning that God uses is surely decipherable to us. Job had been whining that life is not fair because of the pain and suffering he was enduring (e.g., 7:12-21). He intimated rather firmly that God needed to give account of His handling of the situation (e.g., 10:2). God proceeded to pummel Job with four chapters of rhetorical questions designed to remind Job that he is not in a position to question Deity, nor is God under any moral, legal, or ethical obligation to give account of Himself to Job. The central points with which God presses Job are that he does not understand nor can he control the created order, i.e., his knowledge and power.
God’s initial response to Job (38:1-38) is to spotlight 20 features of the inanimate realm (delineated in Figure 1). Question: Even though the entire section is poetic, are these 20 phenomena real? Indeed, they are. Hence, the presence or absence of figurative language and poetry is not what determines the literalness of the subject matter. Consider, for example, God’s remarks concerning ice and surface freezing: “The waters harden like stone, and the surface of the deep is frozen” (vs. 30). “Waters” is literal H2O. “Harden” is also literal. “Stone,” however, is figurative (simile) and even carries a flag term to help identify it as such: “like.” When water freezes, does it transform into literal stone? No, but its hardened condition is like or reminiscent of stone. “Surface,” “deep,” and “frozen” are all equally literal. In like fashion, all 20 of the features of the inanimate realm to which God alludes are literal phenomena that literally exist on planet Earth. Their description, though expressed in figurative, poetic language, does not obscure the certainty of their literalness.
Next, God directs attention from the inanimate to the animal realm (38:39-41:34), initially parading before Job nine animals (see Figure 2 on p. 52). He alludes to a variety of attributes that characterize these animals, including their food sources, birthing cycles, undomesticated temperament, seeming treatment of their young, suitability for use in human warfare, flying ability and visual acuity, etc. These are the very characteristics that one would expect to be highlighted when alluding to each particular species being discussed. Question: Were/are all nine of these creatures real animals? Do/did they actually exist? Can we sort out the difference between the literal and figurative language used to characterize them? Most certainly. Consider these questions:
Do lions figuratively or literally hunt prey and satisfy the appetite of their young?
Do they figuratively or literally crouch in their dens and lie in wait?
Do young ravens figuratively or literally wander about for food?
Do wild mountain goats figuratively or literally bear young after a literal number of months?
Do their young figuratively or literally grow strong on grain and depart not to return?
Do wild donkeys figuratively or literally dwell in the wilderness and seemingly scorn civilization?
Do they figuratively or literally roam the mountains and search for literal green things to eat?
Was the Aurochs figuratively or literally unable to be harnessed for plowing?
Do ostriches figuratively or literally wave their plumes as part of mating rituals?
Do ostriches figuratively or literally leave their nest of eggs unattended?
Do ostriches have sufficient speed to figuratively or literally outrun a horse?
Do war horses figuratively or literally have manes, snort majestically, paw, and leap? [Note that “leap like the locust” is a figurative expression—but the leaping is literal.]
Do they figuratively or literally face the weapons of warfare undismayed and fearlessly? [Note that “laughs at fear” is figurative.]
Do they figuratively or literally race over the ground with rage?
Do hawks figuratively or literally soar and stretch their wings southerly?
Do eagles figuratively or literally make their nests on high cliffs?
Do eagles figuratively or literally spy their food from afar?
It is self-evident that the reader is fully capable of differentiating between literal and figurative language. It is equally apparent that God referred to actually existing animals with which Job was familiar.
After dazzling Job with the wonders of the inanimate world, and nine creatures of the animal kingdom, but before He presents His final two incomparable, preeminent marvels, God paused to draw conclusions lest Job (or we) miss the point: “Will the faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Let him who reproves God answer it” (Job 40:2, NASB). Job responded: “Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer You? I lay my hand over my mouth. Once I have spoken, but I will not answer; Yes, twice, but I will proceed no further.” Job was sufficiently familiar with the natural phenomena and the identity of the nine animals that he was impacted precisely as God intended. God added: “Would you indeed annul My judgment? Would you condemn Me that you may be justified?” (vs. 8). Job was beginning to realize that he had been out of his league in daring to question God’s management of the Universe. His personal suffering, regardless of its intensity, and even if undeserved, did not merit the demeanor that he manifested toward God. To repeat the point of the narrative: Job lacked adequate knowledge/comprehension and power to question God’s knowledge and power to manage Job’s environment.
Behemoth: The First of God's Ways
But God was not finished with him. To bring His line of reasoning to a grand culmination, God next directs Job’s attention to detailed descriptions of two additional creatures—the most magnificent, matchless spectacles of the animal kingdom. Question: if the first nine animals to which God alluded are real animals, why not Behemoth and Leviathan? And why would the identity of these two animals be so obscure or uncertain compared to the others? Look carefully at Figure 3 on p. 53 to see the way God crafted and sequentially layered His argumentation so as to climax in a superlative pinnacle.
Re-read Job 40:15-24 and answer the following questions regarding Behemoth:
Does Behemoth figuratively or literally eat grass like an ox? [Note that Behemoth is as literal as an ox, but Behemoth is not an ox. The flag word “like” alerts the reader to the presence of a figure of speech. The two may be compared in the behavioral fact that both eat literal grass.]
Does he figuratively or literally have strength in his hips and power in his stomach muscles?
Does Behemoth figuratively or literally move his tail like a tree? [Note, again, that “tail” and “cedar” are literal, and “like” signals a figure of speech.]
Does he possess literal bones and ribs?
Are his bones literally beams of bronze, and his ribs literally bars of iron—or are his bones like beams of bronze and his ribs like iron?
Do the mountains figuratively or literally yield food for him?
Do the beasts of the field figuratively or literally play there?
Does Behemoth figuratively or literally lie under literal lotus trees and in literal reeds and marsh?
Do the literal lotus trees figuratively or literally cover him with their literal shade, and do the literal willows by the literal brook literally or figuratively surround him?
Does the river figuratively or literally rage without disturbing him?
Is he figuratively or literally confident in facing the literal gushing waters of a literal Jordan river?
Does the river figuratively or literally hit him in his eyes? Are his eyes literal?
Do men figuratively or literally seek to pierce his nose with a snare? Is his nose literal?
Read also Job 41:1-10 regarding Leviathan, taking note of the bolded words below—
Can you draw out Leviathan with a hook, or snare his tongue with a line which you lower?
Can you put a reed through his nose, or pierce his jaw with a hook?
Will he make many supplications to you? Will he speak softly to you?
Will he make a covenant with you? Will you take him as a servant forever?
Will you play with him as with a bird, or will you leash him for your maidens?
Will your companions make a banquet of him? Will they apportion him among the merchants?
Can you fill his skin with harpoons, or his head with fishing spears?
Indeed, any hope of overcoming him is in vain; shall one not be overwhelmed at the sight of him?
No one is so fierce that he would dare stir him up.
Observe that every one of the words in bold in this latter passage have a literal import except “servant” and “bird”—and these are flagged in the text by “as” to signal metaphorical imagery.
Observe that the point of God’s argumentation is not served if (1) Behemoth and Leviathan are imaginary animals or (2) they are actual animals, but their prominence is exaggerated, overstated, or misrepresented. The first nine animals that God urged Job to contemplate were known for their mysterious, unique, inexplicable, and independent behaviors—and God did not embellish those attributes or convey them with “mythological heightening” or “hyperbolic intensity.” Next He directs Job’s mind to His most powerful, awesome, formidable, uncontrollable creatures—in keeping with His desire to impress Job with his own feeble inability to operate, manage, understand, explain, or control his surroundings, let alone expect God to give account of Himself. The focus is on size and power. When God ordered Job to “look now at behemoth, which I made along with you,” Job would never have derived from such a forthright statement that Behemoth is imaginary. Indeed, God settled the point that if Behemoth is not real, then Job is not real. If Behemoth is “mythopoeic,” then Job is likewise “mythopoeic.” God made both of them. Since the Bible teaches that Job really lived (Ezekiel 14:14; James 5:11), it undeniably follows that Behemoth was as real, literal, and historical as was Job.
Consider three of Behemoth’s attributes that God chose to highlight: its stomach muscles, its tail, and its bones.
(1) “See now, his strength is in his hips, and his power is in his stomach muscles” (40:16). It is true that elephants and hippopotami have sizable stomach muscles—when compared to other animals living today. However, their stomach muscles do not even begin to compare with the belly muscles of Diplodocus or Amphicoelias, whose massive stomachs were larger than an entire elephant. Seismosaurus, which means “Earthquake Reptile,” was so named because it was large enough that it may actually have shaken the ground as it walked. Looking upward at its underside, alone, would have intimidated humans by its enormity, causing them to feel helpless and fearful in the face of such ponderous muscular power.12
(2) “He moves his tail like a cedar; the sinews of his thighs are tightly knit” (40:17).13 Why did God compare Behemoth’s tail to a cedar tree? To answer that question we must turn to the Bible’s definition of a cedar tree. Were the cedars of the Bible big? They absolutely were, as numerous verses demonstrate.14 These passages accentuate the cedar’s superior attributes of height, strength, stature, and majesty.15 When one examines the farcically tiny tails of the hippo, elephant, rhino, and mammoth, it is immediately evident that these animals are not under consideration. However, even a casual consideration of the tails of the larger dinosaurs—Apatosaurus, Argyrosaurus, Supersaurus, or Seismosaurus (with its prodigious tail designed to defend itself against would-be attackers)—quickly provides ample proof of the animal being described by God. Indeed, why would God call Job’s attention to an appendage of a hippo?16 If He sought to dazzle Job with His creation, would He not spotlight characteristics for which that animal is particularly distinguished? The sauropods are known for their colossal, titanic tails.
Reconstructed front foot of Ultrasauros
(3) “His bones are like beams (tubes—NASB) of bronze, His ribs like bars (rods—NASB) of iron” (40:18). This creature’s skeletal structure was clearly framed to possess exceptional stability and strength. Compared to humans, dinosaurs were gigantic. Whereas a hippo weighs three to four tons, a rhinoceros one to two tons, and an elephant five to seven tons, Argentinosaurus weighed 80-100 tons. Such size necessarily requires a framework of sturdy, brawny bones to accommodate such weight and mass. When one examines the skeletal structure of any of the larger dinosaurs, one is immediately awed by the massive size of all its bones. An Apatosaurus femur alone was as tall as a six-foot man—with a Titanosaur femur even longer.17
Observe that the attributes selected by God to highlight the identity of Behemoth were specifically pinpointed and calculated to accentuate the unique features of this incredible creature, eliciting God’s summary statement of Behemoth: “He is the first of the ways of God” (40:19). The underlying Hebrew word translated “first” refers to size, mass, weight, bulk, force, or strength.18 God challenged Job with his inability to tame, subdue, or control this massive creature (even as Leviathan is noted for its ferocity). Look again at the phrase: “Only He who made him can bring near His sword” (vs. 19). The implication is that humans would have great difficulty bringing down this creature. The reason God directed Job’s attention to Behemoth is obvious: the gargantuan creature was of such stature and strength that only the Creator could control it. In order for God’s argument to make sense or carry any weight with Job, Behemoth must be real and of such imposing, even ominous enormity, and of such immense, powerful proportions that, without hesitation, Job would acknowledge his own helpless, measly condition before God. Neither a hippo nor an elephant would evoke such an admission. A dinosaur would. Consider the comparative chart below (Figure 4).19
Behemoth was apparently some type of dinosaur. In the words of Hebrew lexicographer Benjamin Davidson, this wild beast was “some stupendous quadruped.”20
[to be continued]
1 Job is consistently treated in Scripture as an actual historical personage—by both the prophet Ezekiel (14:14,20) and the New Testament writer James (5:11). See Eric Lyons (2013), “The Historicity of Job,” Reason & Revelation, 33:2-4,8-11, January.
2 See Dave Miller (2015), Why People Suffer (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press).
3 I say “likely” in view of the fact that oceanographers tell us that 95% of the Earth’s oceans remain unexplored by humans. Despite sophisticated satellite radar mapping of the ocean floor, the “contents” of the sea are still largely unknown: “If our questions are: ‘What does it look like down there?’ or: ‘What’s going on down there?’, then the area that has been ‘explored’ is arguably even less than the 0.05% mapped so far at the very highest resolution by sonar”—Jon Copley (2014), “Just How Little Do We Know about the Ocean Floor?” Scientific American, October 9, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/just-how-little-do-we-know-about-the-ocean-floor/. “More than eighty percent of our ocean is unmapped, unobserved, and unexplored”—NOAA (2017), “How Much of the Ocean Have We Explored?” National Ocean Service Web site, October 5, emp. in orig., https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/eutrophication.html.
4 Keep in mind that knowledge of the existence of the dinosaurs in modern times occurred only in the 19th century when bones were discovered and the term “dinosaur” was coined. Hence, one would not expect earlier Bible commentators to associate Behemoth or Leviathan with dinosaurs or dinosaur-like creatures. Their efforts to ascertain the identity of these two animals was limited by their awareness of the extant, contemporaneous animal population. This unnecessary limitation continues to have its residual effects among commentators who do not seem to be able to conceptualize the ancient world of Job’s day.
Now that we know that dinosaurs existed, and that the description of Behemoth fits their physical attributes perfectly, the more perplexing question becomes: “why are commentators insistent on maintaining the belief that the hippo and crocodile are intended?” The only answer this writer can imagine is that many theologians have been adversely influenced by evolutionary propaganda—taught throughout the American public school system now for three generations—that dinosaurs went extinct over 60 million years before humans evolved and, hence, humans did not live contemporaneously with dinosaurs, and no human ever saw a living dinosaur. It is truly tragic when we allow fallible extra-biblical assumptions to trump God’s Word as plainly taught in Scripture. The fact of the matter is that the dating techniques used by evolutionists have been debunked as severely flawed, completely undermining the “deep time” assumptions on which evolutionary theory is constructed. For a concise refutation, see Jeff Miller (2019), “21 Reasons to Believe the Earth is Young,” Reason & Revelation, 39:2-5,8-11, http://apologeticspress.org/apPubPage.aspx?pub=1&issue=1287; see also NASA nuclear engineer Michael Houts (2015), “Assumptions and the Age of the Earth,” Reason & Revelation, 35:26-29,32-34, http://apologeticspress.org/apPubPage.aspx?pub=1&issue=1185.
5 The Holy Bible, New International Version (1978), (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), p. 497.
6 The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments: American Standard Version (1901), (New York: American Bible Society), pp. 590-591, italics in orig. The RSV has “Or the hippopotamus” and “Or the crocodile.” Also the NASB.
7 The Holy Bible English Standard Version (2001), (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles), pp. 534-535.
8 Ferdinand Justi and Morris Jastrow (1905), A History of All Nations from the Earliest Times: Egypt and Western Asia in Antiquity (Philadelphia, PA: Lea Brothers), 1:89, https://archive.org/stream/historyofallnati01andr/historyofallnati01andr_djvu.txt. For additional examples in the tombs of the First Dynasty in the Valley of the Kings, see www.phouka.com/pharaoh/PharoahOutline.doc.
9 G. Maspero (1873), “The Instructions of King Amenemhat to His Son Usertesen I. XIIth Dynasty,” in Records of the Past: Being English Translations of the Assyrian and Egyptian Monuments (London: Samuel Bagster & Sons), 2:14, https://apologetcspress.page.link/RecordsofthePast
10 Sir Samuel Baker (1868), The Nile Tributaries of Abyssinia, and the Sword Hunters of the Hamran Arabs (London: Macmillan), pp. 161ff.,224-225,373ff., https://apologetcspress.page.link/The-Nile-Tributaries-of-Abyssinia.
11 See, for example, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary series, representing conservative scholarship, in which Smick discusses the “mythopoeic language” he thinks characterizes the book (pp. 863ff.), claiming that in the allusions to Behemoth and Leviathan “only mythological terminology is used to present graphic descriptions of the powers of evil such as the Satan in the Prologue”—Elmer Smick (1988), “Job” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 4:1049. See also Gregory Parsons (1981), “Literary Features of the Book of Job,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 138:218-220, July; Elmer Smick (1970), “Mythology and the Book of Job,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 13:106; Elmer Smick (1978), “Another Look at the Mythological Elements in the Book of Job,” Westminster Theological Journal, 40:215ff., Spring; James Williams (1992), “The Theophany of Job,” in Sitting with Job: Selected Studies on the Book of Job, ed. Roy Zuck (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers), p. 367; R. Laird Harris (1992), “The Doctrine of God in the Book of Job,” in Sitting with Job: Selected Studies on the Book of Job, ed. Roy Zuck (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers), p. 165. Also G.R. Driver (1956), Canaanite Myths and Legends (Cleveland, OH: Clark).
12 An interesting side note is seen in the incident in which an elephant flipped a fully-grown mother hippo several feet into the air, showing its superior strength and agility compared to hippopotami—Tara Brady (2013), “Angry Elephant Flips Mother Hippopotamus into the Air with Its Trunk as She Tries to Protect Her Calf,” Daily Mail, November 11, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2500717/Angry-elephant-flips-mother-hippopotamus-air-trunk-tries-protect-calf.html.
13 English translations are fairly uniform in their treatment of the terms “moves,” “tail,” and “cedar”: “Its tail sways like a cedar” (NIV); “He makes his tail stiff like a cedar” (ESV/NRSV); “He moveth his tail like a cedar” (KJV/WEB); “He carries his tail like a cedar” (NAB); “He bends his tail like a cedar” (NASB/YLT); “Its tail is like a cedar tree” (NCV); “He moves his tail like a cedar tree” (NLV); “He moveth his zanav (tail) like a cedar branch” (OJB); “He constraineth his tail as a cedar (His tail standeth up like a cedar)” (WYC). However, the English words “stiff” (ESV/NRSV) and “branch” (OJB) constitute translator interpretation and lack linguistic justification.
14 1 Kings 7:1-3; 2 Kings 19:23; cf. Isaiah 2:13; 37:24; Ezekiel 17:3,22-23; 31:3-5.
15 For more discussion, see Dave Miller (2011), “Behemoth: A Tail Like a Cedar?” Reason & Revelation, 31:122-124, December, http://apologeticspress.org/apPubPage.aspx?pub=1&issue=1010.
16 The whimsical assertion that the appendage being highlighted is the hippo’s sex organ, besides being linguistically indefensible, faces precisely the same hermeneutical obstacle as the hippo’s tail: compared to a dinosaur, a hippo’s sex organ is, at the very least, quaint, if not ludicrous. See Eric Lyons and Kyle Butt (2008), The Dinosaur Delusion (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press), pp. 123-124; John Hartley (1988), The Book of Job (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), p. 525.
17 Amber Jamieson (2016), “World’s Biggest Dinosaur Skeleton Unveiled in New York,” The Guardian, January 14, https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/jan/14/new-species-gigantic-dinosaur-titanosaur-unveiled-new-york. The University of Kansas Geological Survey reported: “The thigh bone of the largest species of Dinosaurs, from Wyoming, was over six feet in length, and weighed, as petrified, over 1100 pounds”—Samuel Williston (1898), “Dinosaurs,” in The University Geological Survey of Kansas, Paleontology (Topeka, KS: J.S. Parks), 4:68. The Argyrosaurus femur pictured on the front cover of this issue of R&R was unearthed in 1924 during the Captain Marshall Field Expedition by C. Harold Riggs in the San Bernardo Hills of Argentina. Specimens of this dinosaur have been found in which the femur is two meters—over six and a half feet long. The femur of an Antarctosaurus giganteus, exhibited at the Museo de Law Plata in La Plata, Argentina, is 2.31 meters—over seven and a half feet long. See Fernando Novas (2009), The Age of Dinosaurs in South America (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press), p. 217.
18 Dave Miller (2008), “The ‘First of the Ways of God,’” Apologetics Press, https://www.apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=9&article=2417&topic=59.
19 The question mark in the chart for the elephant’s stomach muscles flags the fact that elephants are not known for strong stomach muscles. In stark contrast, they have incredibly strong trunks composed of thousands of muscles. Likewise, the other question marks flag the fact that the hippo and elephant attributes are negligible in comparison to a dinosaur.
20 Benjamin Davidson (1848), The Analytical Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1970 reprint), p. 68. Also Hebrew-English Lexicon (no date), (London: Samuel Bagster), p. 32.