Behemoth, the Hippo, & Egyptian Pehemu

From Issue: R&R – March 2021

Most commentators today seemingly refuse to consider even the possibility that the Behemoth of Job 40:15-24 refers to an extinct dinosaur. They appear to have bought into the notion that humans and dinosaurs never lived together and thus suggest that the hippopotamus is being described. One effort to substantiate this identification is the claim that the Hebrew word for “behemoth” corresponds linguistically to the Egyptian word pehemu which, it is further claimed, is the word for “water ox.” Following the publication of Bochart’s Hierozoicon in 1663, which identified Behemoth with the hippopotamus, Paul Ernst Jablonski (1693-1757), German Reformed theologian and orientalist, proposed a connection between the Hebrew word “behemoth” and the Egyptian language, using the alleged connection to support the contention that Behemoth is the hippo. According to an article in Jewish Encyclopedia by Professor of Rabbinical Literature and Philosophy at the University of Chicago, Emil Hirsch, it was Jablonski who, “to make it correspond exactly with that animal, compared an Egyptian form, ‘p-ehe-mu’ (= ‘water-ox’), which, however, does not exist.”1 In other words, the term pehemu was fabricated by Jablonoski. Jablonski’s viewpoint has been repeated by others, including Hebrew lexicographer William Gesenius as well as Hebraist Franz Delitsch. However, in his Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon, Gesenius added this admission: “It is true that the word so compounded is not now found in the remains of the Coptic language.”2 Likewise Delitsch adds to his discussion of the signification this remark: “an instance in favour of this is still wanting.”3

Meanwhile, in their prestigious Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon, Koehler, et al. note that the connection “develops from non-attested Eg[yptian] pehe-mau.”4 Specifically critical of Jablonski’s work on the subject, Cheyne declares: “The view of Budde, Ewald, and most recent critics, that Behemoth is a Hebraized form of p-ehe-mou, ‘water-ox,’ is a mere fancy…. The derivation of Behemoth from a falsely imagined Egyptian word (which, by the way, leaves the final letter of Behemoth unaccounted for) is not the only specimen of Jablonski’s misdirected acuteness.”5 He then offers an extensive evaluation of the misconception. Budde also credits Jablonski for the Egyptian connection,6 and even Ewald’s allusion is tentative when he says “Behemoth appears to be the Hebrew form of the Egyptian name for the hippopotamus.”7 William Drake asserts the same view, but prefaces the assertion with “probably.”8 A.R. Fausset has “seems to be.”9

Challenges to the Egyptian derivation came as early as 1752 when Leonard Chappelow, Professor of Arabic at the University of Cambridge from 1720 to his death in 1768, insisted: “We need not with Bochart and others have recourse to the Egyptian names…as if the sound of behemoth was of Egyptian original; for the same termination is both masculine and feminine singular in Hebrew.”10 In the commentary on Job in the International Critical and Exegetical Commentary series, written by S.R. Driver and George Gray, additional issue is taken with the Egyptian derivation theory: “No more satisfactory etymology has been suggested [other than Hebrew—DM]; it would not have been surprising to find here an Egyptian term; but the known Egyptian term for the hippopotamus (rert) has no resemblance to behemah: and there is no evidence that the often cited p-ehe-mou ever existed.”11

English churchman, linguist, and editor of the Speaker’s Commentary on the Bible, F.C. Cook likewise concluded that Jablonski’s Egyptian derivation postulation is “open to grave, and indeed insuperable objection.”12 Cheyne adds “there is no philological basis for this opinion.”13 Indeed, according to distinguished professor of Old Testament John Hartley, “the suggested derivation…has never been substantiated.”14

In an article written by A.K. Eyma on the Egyptology Forum website titled “Egyptian Loan-Words in English,” “behemoth” is listed under the category “Debatable or Speculative Loans,” with the following commentary:

Used to denote a colossal animal (and hence sometimes figuratively for a colossal military or political apparatus); is a direct loan of Hebrew b:hemot (behemoth), used in Job 40:15 for some kind of very large animal. In form the word is the plural of Hebrew b:hemah “beast,” “animal,” so likely the plural serves here as a so-called ‘plural of dignity’, comparable to the Hebrew Elohim (God) and the term ilanu in the Amarna Letters. In that case behemoth just means “very great beast”. However, many scholars have suggested that it is a loan of AE p3-iH-mw (pa-ihe-mu, *pe-ehe-maw) meaning “the water-ox.” In that case the final Hebrew form would merely have been influenced by the native and similar looking behemah, so a sort of popular etymology being done on the Egyptian loan-word. I’m not convinced until someone shows me an Ancient Egyptian text mentioning a pehemu (used for example to refer to a hippopotamus). The plain Hebrew explanation seems straightforward enough to me.15


 Neither the etymology of the word “behemoth” nor the physical description of Behemoth provided by God Himself in Job 40 match the hippopotamus. So why the continued resistance to the idea that this beast, described by God thousands of years ago, was a dinosaur?


1 Emil Hirsch (1906), “Leviathan and Behemoth,” Jewish Encyclopedia, ed. Emil G. Hirsch, Kaufmann Kohler, Solomon Schechter, Isaac Broydé, 8:36, emp. added,

2 William Gesenius (1847), Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1979 reprint), p. 105, emp. added.

3 Franz Delitsch (1869), Biblical Commentary on the Book of Job, trans. Francis Bolton (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark), second edition, p. 358, emp. added.

4 L. Koehler, W. Baumgartner, M.E.J. Richardson, & J.J. Stamm (1994-2000), The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, electronic edition), p. 112, emp. added.

5 Thomas Kelly Cheyne (1897), “The Book of Job and its Latest Commentator, Part II,” The Expositor, 6[1]:30, July, emp. added.

6 D. Karl Budde (1896), Das Buch Hiob (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht), p. 244.

7 Georg Ewald (1882), Commentary on the Book of Job (London: Williams & Norgate), p. 322, emp. added.

8 William Drake (1863), “Behemoth” in A Dictionary of the Bible, ed. William Smith (London: John Murray), p. 182.

9 Robert Jamieson, A.R. Fausset, and David Brown (no date), A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), p. 343.

10 Leonard Chappelow (1752), A Commentary on the Book of Job (Cambridge: J. Bentham), pp. 546-547.

11 S.R. Driver and George Gray (1921), A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Job (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons), p. 326, emp. added.

12 F.C. Cook, ed. (1875), The Holy Bible: Job-Song of Solomon (New York: Scribner, Armstrong & Co.), 4:140.

13 T.K. Cheyne (1899), “Behemoth and Leviathan” in Encyclopaedia Biblica, ed. T.K. Cheyne and J. Sutherland Black (Toronto: George N. Morang & Co.), 1:519.

14 John Hartley (1988), The Book of Job (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), p. 523. See also E.A. Budge (1920), An Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary (London: John Murray), 1:243-245,382,428,530,531,539; 2:827,832,839,873,877,882.

15 A.K. Eyma (2007), “Egyptian Loan-Words in English,” Egyptology Forum,, emp. added.


A copied sheet of paper

REPRODUCTION & DISCLAIMERS: We are happy to grant permission for this article to be reproduced in part or in its entirety, as long as our stipulations are observed.

Reproduction Stipulations→