Questions and Answers: Was the "Behemoth" of Job 40 a Hippopotamus?
Was the “behemoth” of Job 40 a hippopotamus?
When commenting on the behemoth of Job 40:15ff., modern scholars often make a general statement that goes something like this: “Most identify this beast as the hippopotamus.” While it is true that a few similarities do exist between the behemoth and the hippo, some of the descriptive details simply do not fit. For example, God described the behemoth as a creature that “moves his tail like a cedar” (40:17). The hippopotamus, however, hardly could be described—with its little 6-8 inch stubby appendage—as having a stiff or large tail. The tail of the hippo is short and small like that of a pig, and is a mere twig in comparison with a cedar tree. But that fact has not prevented commentators from attempting to avoid the obvious. Some believe that God was comparing the hippo’s tail to a cedar branch, not a cedar tree. Others, like John Hartley, have advocated the view that the tail is being compared to a cedar tree, rather than to a branch, but that God really was referring to the genitals of the hippopotamus (1988, p. 525). However, there is no credible evidence that suggests the Hebrew word for tail (zanab) ever was used euphemistically in Hebrew (e.g., as in regard to reproductive organs). It appears that Hartley and others have rejected the logical rendering of the passage in order to force a comparison between the behemoth and the hippopotamus.
The text also indicates that no man could approach the behemoth with a sword (40:19; cf. 41:10). Yet the hippopotamus was hunted frequently and captured successfully by the Egyptians. Hartley admitted: “Egyptian pharaohs took pride in slaying a hippopotamus. There are numerous pictures in which the pharaoh, hunting a hippopotamus from a papyrus boat, is poised to hurl his harpoon into the animal’s opened mouth, thereby inflicting a fatal blow” (1988, p. 524). Egyptians even celebrated festivals known as “Harpooning the Hippopotamus.” One wonders how anyone could accurately compare the mighty, unseizable behemoth with a hippopotamus? God’s description of the behemoth actually is compatible in every way with the descriptions we have of some of the dinosaurs that roamed the Earth a few thousand years ago.
Hartley, John E (1988), The Book of Job (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).