Friday, 26 July 2013

Behemoth and Leviathan - dinosaurs or hippo & croc?


Bible translations of the Reformation period translated the almost untameable creature of Job 39:9-10 as a ‘unicorn’, a purely mythological creature.  We now know this Hebrew word to have been either the extinct aurochs, which was the grandfather of most cattle, or another wild bull.  This creature was hunted to extinction but once roamed in large numbers across the Mediterranean.  The reason for this laughable mistranslation by the Reformers was because of a previous mistranslation; the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament used the word ‘monokeros’ which means single-horned.  This prompted Jerome to interpret this as a rhinoceros, when producing the Latin Vulgate.  But, whilst it is easy to shake our heads at the silliness of these prior interpretations, there are two other creatures from these final chapters of Job which are subjected to equally fanciful interpretations – the behemoth and the leviathan.
Puritan commentator, Matthew Poole, notes that ‘very learned men take the leviathan to be the crocodile, and the behemoth to be a creature called the hippopotamus, which may seem fitly to be joined with the crocodile, both being very well known to Job and his friends, as being frequent in the adjacent parts, both amphibious, living and preying both in the water and upon the land, and both being creatures of great bulk and strength.’
Notable Presbyterian historian and commentator, Barnes, confirms that this fits perfectly with the historical evidence: ‘These two animals, as being Egyptian wonders, are everywhere mentioned together by ancient writers’.
I agree with this interpretation but many other Evangelicals take this either to mean fictitious creatures or dinosaurs.  Several points of confusion are typically raised against the interpretation proposed by this article but I believe they are easily resolved.


Firstly, many say that the tail of the behemoth of Job 40 is said to be like a cedar tree, but that a hippo’s tail is clearly not that big.  But the word in verse 17 for ‘moves’ his tail like a cedar tree is not recognised as the correct translation by the majority of Biblical scholars.  The NET Bible translation notes, though they do not agree that this refers to a hippo, nevertheless recognise the meaning of this word: ‘The verb חָפַץ (khafats) occurs only here. It may have the meaning “to make stiff; to make taut” (Arabic). The LXX and the Syriac versions support this with “erects.”’  Seeing as the context, from verse 16, is primarily talking about this animal’s loins, we automatically get a clue as to where this is going.
The ESV Study Bible notes conclude, ‘“Tail” is a common euphemism for phallus.  It is to be so interpreted in this verse, considering the description of the anatomy of the animal.  Potency is often associated with procreative power.  In the medieval period, Behemoth was conceived as a symbol of sensuality’.  Likewise, ‘sinews’ of the following sentence was translated as ‘testicles’ in ancient versions such as the Latin and the Jewish Targum.
Therefore this does not refer to a massive tail swaying around, the size of an enormous tree, but simply refers to the prowess and potency of the ever-notoriously dangerous hippo.  

The NET notes further rebut that this could be a hippo with the second argument: ‘the location of such an animal [the hippo] is Egypt and not Palestine.’  Immediately, this argument fails, as Job was certainly familiar with the ostrich, spoken of in chapter 39, verse 13, and this bird is also native to Africa, but no one questions how Job would have been familiar it.
In fact, the hippo’
s location in Egypt is actually evidence for the behemoth being a hippo.  Strong’s Lexicon tells us that the word here is ‘really a singular of Egyptian derivation: a water ox, that is, the hippopotamus or Nile horse’.  Interestingly, in Italian, the hippo is called the ‘sea ox’ and we derive our English word, ‘hippopotamus’, from the Greek words for ‘river horse’. 
Furthermore, Job could easily have been familiar with animals from Egypt.  In Job 40:15, God says, ‘Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox (KJV).’  Poole says of the Hebrew here that it could just as readily mean near to you, ‘
i.e. in a place not far from thee, to wit, in the river Nile, where the hippopotamus, as well as the crocodile, doth principally abide.’  According to Dr. Gill’s commentary, the great French Protestant scholar of Oriental languages, Bochart, ‘interprets it of the river horse, [taking] the meaning of this phrase to be that it was a creature in Job's neighbourhood, an inhabitant of the river Nile in Egypt, to which Arabia joined…which is testified by many writers.’
Job was ‘
the greatest of all the men of the east’, according to verse 3 of chapter 1; he surely would have had knowledge of the world from the River Nile to the Mesopotamian plain. 


Well then, what is the leviathan?  The Reformation Study Bible notes not only make a terrible mistake by suggesting that behemoth and leviathan are the same creature, but they also rely on Pagan distortions of this animal to deduce its real identity: ‘Canaanite literature describes the goddess Anat overcoming a…seven-headed “Leviathan.”’  They thus conclude that both the behemoth and the leviathan are purely symbolic.  Yet God says that He ‘made’ them and calls Job to ‘see’ them performing certain actions.  I do not think there is any need to shroud the leviathan with a sense of mystery simply because the Canaanites wrote about a fictitious one with seven heads.  Hinduism depicts beings with several heads, as do other mythologies, but this does not mean Christians should refuse to recognise the existence of the real animals they distort in their minds.  After all, the context of the previous two chapters shows God discussing lions, oxen, donkeys, ostriches, eagles etc., all of which would have been animals Job was relatively familiar with.
Strong’s Lexicon, again, defines the word ‘leviathan’ as ‘a serpent (especially the crocodile or some other large sea monster); figuratively the constellation of the dragon’.  Barnes scrutinises the description given in Job 41 to confirm the true identity: ‘the description suits no animal but the crocodile or alligator; and it is not necessary to seek elsewhere. The crocodile is a natural inhabitant of the Nile, and other Asiatic and African rivers. It is a creature of enormous voracity and strength, as well as fleetness in swimming. He will attack the largest animals, and even men, with the most daring impetuosity. In proportion to his size he has the largest mouth of all monsters. The upper jaw is armed with forty sharp strong teeth, and the under jaw with thirty-eight. He is clothed with such a coat of mail as cannot be pierced, and can in every direction resist a musket-ball.’
Furthermore, Keil and Delitzschs’ commentary lays out the substantial argument for this word being a crocodile from the testimony of the near-Eastern languages.
Dr. Gill concludes with the testimony of the 1st century Jewish natural historian, Pliny: ‘Could the crocodile be established as the “leviathan”, and the behemoth as the river horse, the transition from the one to the other would appear very easy; since, as Pliny says, there is a sort of a kindred between them, being of the same river, the river Nile, and so may be thought to be better known to Job’.
Nevertheless, some still devise fantastical ideas in their minds in order to justify the notion of these two animals being dinosaurs.  The Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon exemplifies this with its definition of the word Leviathan: ‘Some think this to be a crocodile but from the description…this is patently absurd. It appears to be a large fire breathing animal of some sort. Just as the bombardier beetle has an explosion producing mechanism, so the great sea dragon may have an explosive producing mechanism to enable it to be a real fire breathing dragon.’
Your eyes didn’t deceive you; you just read an actual attempt by scholars to insist that the description of a crocodile, here, was ‘absurd’ and then go on to present the alternate theory of a ‘real fire-breathing dragon’.  This reads more like an example for the definition for ‘irony’.
The reason many Christians feel they must resort to this unnecessarily complicated, far-fetched interpretation is because the leviathan and behemoth are described as performing very plausible actions and yet the leviathan is then said to have sparks and flames shooting from its mouth and smoke ascending from its nostrils (Job 41:18-21).  Automatically, imagery of dragons breathing fire, imagery taken from Pagan mythology, is conjured to the mind, but is this really what is being described?
God begins this description of the leviathan thus: ‘His snorting releases flashes of light; his eyes are like the rays of the dawn (ISV).’  Again, Dr. Gill, who was himself a brilliant linguistic scholar and historian, observes that ‘The eyes of the crocodile were, with the Egyptians, an hieroglyphic of the morning: wherefore this seems better to agree with the crocodile’.  It must be noted that, so far, the evidence connecting the crocodile to the River Nile and, thus, to the hippo and to the text of Job 40-41, is overwhelming.

The breathing of fire and the smoke from the nostrils is clearly figurative and this should not come as a surprise.  Figurative language is clearly used numerous times in these chapters; just look at how many times the words ‘as’ and ‘like’ are used in chapter 41 alone.  The figurative is used for the hippo also in chapter 40, verse 18, where its ‘
bones are tubes of bronze’.  This is a definite statement and is only shown to be symbolic by the fact that its limbs are ‘like bars of iron’.  So too, the figurative language in the context of chapter 41 determines that the crocodile here does not actually breathe fire, but merely ‘his snorting releases flashes of light’.  The great German theologian, Professor Lange, among others, notes Bochart’s interpretation: ‘[W]hen the crocodile turned toward the sun with open jaws is excited to sneezing, the water and slime gushing from his mouth glisten brilliantly in the sunbeams.’  Gill further quotes Pliny’s early Jewish understanding of this ‘flash of light’: ‘it throws out showers and floods of water, as Pliny relates; which, by means of the rays of the sun, as in a rainbow, appear bright and glittering’.
Therefore, it seems clear that these verses refer to the crocodile creating a great, bright spectacle by casting up a large quantity of water droplets against the dawn’s light and so it appears to shoot out a great cloud of light from its nose.

I must conclude that the behemoth is a hippo and the leviathan, a crocodile.  The context of Scripture and the plentiful historical data leave me with no other reasonable option.  In these chapters of Job, it is clear that God discusses animals which are easier to tame and those that tremendously difficult to tame.  The point is not to describe a couple of dinosaurs but to show that whilst mankind can tame various animals, only an almighty and sovereign God can tame rebellious mankind.

Job 40:12-14 
Look on everyone who is proud and bring him low

and tread down the wicked where they stand.
 Hide them all in the dust together;
bind their faces in the world below.
Then will I also acknowledge to you
that your own right hand can save you.