Identifying the Behemoth and Leviathan

A friend directed me to a blog post called, “Identifying Behemoth and Leviathan in the Book of Job,” and I thought this would be a great topic to address further. It’s great because it confronts a potential divide between science and religion. The post was written by Peter Krol, who serves with a college ministry called Disciple Makers, and trains others to study the Bible. I agree with much of what he writes, and in this instance, while I agree with his main argument, I disagree with several of his points, and thought it would be a fun topic to build on.

The main conflict here is whether or not the behemoth and leviathan are extinct dinosaurs and marine reptiles, or if they’re ordinary modern creatures- like elephants, hippos or crocodiles- or completely mythological. These are important distinctions because the description of these creatures is so amazing, and the implications defy modern scientific thought.

One of Krol’s points is that it doesn’t really matter what these creatures are; what matters to him is the point of the text, and I find that commendable. That’s obviously vital. He examines the book of Job, chapters 38 through 42, and what he sees is a Godly man, very wealthy and successful, with a wonderful family and blessed by God, come to complete and utter ruin. His children die, his friends accuse and deserted him, he suffers from a painful disease at the hand of Satan, and his wife urges him to curse God and die. Job is angry at God and attempts to justify himself. Eventually God speaks to him and sets him in his place, reminding Job that God himself created the heavens and earth in all their splendor, and that it was he who cares for the wild animals and changes the seasons, and that he made the mighty behemoth and leviathan to be among his greatest works.

All this leads Krol to conclude that God’s speech was about whether Job had the right to be angry at his suffering, accuse God of wrongdoing, justify himself, and end his life of suffering. Krol says that the behemoth and leviathan demonstrate that it’s ridiculous for Job to think such thoughts. God alone has complete control over creation, suffering and evil, and once Job realizes this, he humbles himself before God, repents, and eventually is blessed with twice as much the wealth and fortune as he had previously.

But Krol makes the point that the behemoth and leviathan represent supernatural suffering and evil in Job’s life, and that only God could stand up to them and bring them to an end. I don’t know if he’s right, but I do take issue as to whether or not it really matters what kind of creatures the behemoth and leviathan are. And I think he realizes that because he finally concludes they’re hippos and crocodiles.

I don’t think we can simply dismiss what these creatures are and turn them into an allegory or metaphor just to explain a Biblical concept. If we believe that the Bible is God’s word- as Krol does- then we have to accept it in its entirety, and that includes taking it for what it’s meant to be. Did God intend for the identification of these creatures to be irrelevant? If so, then why did he waste time describing them with such vivid detail? Just so we’d know that he’s all powerful? I think there’s much more to it than that.

I think the identification of these creatures is important because it has a real impact on the text and its meaning and understanding, and it has an impact on the reliability of Scripture as God’s Word.

Some want to take the description of these creatures as poetic exaggeration or an allegory. If these creatures are an elephant (or hippo) and crocodile, then this goes well beyond poetic exaggeration. It’s one thing to exaggerate the size of a fish you caught on your latest fishing trip to impress your friends, but what purpose does it serve for God to use unfounded exaggerations? He compares the tail of an elephant to that of a swaying cedar… that’s quite an exaggeration. And he says the crocodile breathes fire… really? It’s one thing to say that the fish you caught was five feet long when it was only 8 inches, but an elephant’s tail is thin and short, maybe 22-25 inches long (and a hippo is even shorter at 13-19 inches), compared to a full-grown cedar tree 120 to 180 feet long. That’s quite an exaggeration! And, in case you’re unfamiliar with crocodiles, they don’t breathe fire! Few of the descriptions in Job would cause one to think of an elephant or hippo. Surely God could have used accurate descriptions if he was describing modern animals we’re familiar with while making the same point Krol described. Further, God didn’t exaggerate any of the other animals he described earlier, such as the lion (Job 38:39), raven (Job 38:41), mountain goat (Job 39:1-4), wild donkey (Job 39:5-8), wild ox (Job 39:9-12), ostrich (Job 39:13-18), stork (Job 39:13), horse (Job 39:19-25), hawk (job 39:26), or eagle (Job 39:27-30). So why suddenly change course and exaggerate a hippo or croc in great detail? It doesn’t make much sense.

Another point is that, if the behemoth were an elephant or hippo, there are Hebrew words for these animals that likely would have been used. But keep in mind that the word “dinosaur” wasn’t used until it was coined by Sir Richard Owen in 1841. That explains why the word behemoth was used to describe a dinosaur.

Okay, so maybe God was speaking of a mythological creature. Surely such a description of a mythological beast would show Job that only God can overcome suffering and evil, right? Maybe, but I think this would be problematic to Scripture. Suppose a friend began boasting about their strength and said they have the strength of a minotaur, wings of a dragon and a unicorn horn… would that convince you of their prowess? More than likely you’d laugh or question their sanity. You might have been okay had they claimed to have the strength of a bear, quickness of a gazelle, and the sting of a bee, but resorting to mythological creatures isn’t helpful. Further, why would God entertain the thought of mythological creatures that might draw worship, which he abhors? It just doesn’t make any sense.

I think the explanation that makes the most sense is also the most controversial. Why couldn’t the behemoth be a dinosaur (similar to an Apatasaurus)? And why couldn’t the leviathan be an extinct marine reptile (such as a Mosasaur)? The description of the behemoth in Job fits perfectly with what we consider to be a Saurischian dinosaur. It has strength in its loins, powerful muscles in its belly, a tail that sways like a cedar, bones like tubes of bronze; it even hides in the marsh among the reeds, and raging rivers don’t alarm it. In fact this animal reminds me of the legendary Mokele-mbembe, a creature resembling a Saurischian dinosaur that lives in the Congo River basin. The name Mokele-mbembe even means, “one who stops the flow of rivers”, which aptly mirrors the description found in Job 40:23.

“Look at Behemoth, which I made along with you and which feeds on grass like an ox. What strength it has in its loins, what power in the muscles of its belly! Its tail sways like a cedar; the sinews of its thighs are close-knit. Its bones are tubes of bronze, its limbs like rods of iron. It ranks first among the works of God,  yet its Maker can approach it with his sword.  The hills bring it their produce, and all the wild animals play nearby. Under the lotus plants it lies, hidden among the reeds in the marsh.  The lotuses conceal it in their shadow; the poplars by the stream surround it. A raging river does not alarm it; it is secure, though the Jordan should surge against its mouth. Can anyone capture it by the eyes, or trap it and pierce its nose?”

And if the leviathan is an extinct marine reptile, then that would fit very well with the description found in Job 41. It has a double coat of armor that can’t be pierced by arrows, lance, spears, darts or javelins, a chest hard as rock with undersides like jagged potsherds. The only part of the description that’s confusing are the flames darting from its mouth. Surely that can’t be! But why not? If the creature being described was a Mosasaur, they’re now extinct, so we can’t observe them in their natural habitat and determine that they didn’t breathe fire. Perhaps they did have flames darting from their mouth and smoke trailing from their nostrils. That’s not impossible. We know electric eels can shock with 600 volts of electricity. And bombardier beetles can eject hot noxious chemicals at predators. So who’s to say that many of our legendary descriptions of fire-breathing dragons didn’t come from once living animals that have since gone extinct? It may sound incredible, but I think it’s the most reasonable explanation.

I think there are several reasons why some are reluctant to accept that the behemoth and leviathan are a dinosaur and extinct marine reptile. And that’s because it’s contrary to the scientific consensus, which is the accepted way of thinking in academia. According to “science”, dinosaurs supposedly went extinct 65 million years ago; therefore it’s impossible for the behemoth or leviathan to be extinct reptiles. And to think otherwise is unacceptable. If there’s a conflict between the scientific consensus and Scripture, then we need to reinterpret Scripture in deference to science. But the problem with such thinking is that it elevates science over scripture, as if science were an infallible god, even worthy of worship. This kind of scientism rejects the idea that man and dinosaurs lived together, and there’s no good reason for Christians to buy into that myth.

Unfortunately, if one wants to remain respectable in the eyes of the world, they must conform to that way of thinking, and I think that’s why many conclude that the behemoth and leviathan are modern animals. It’s a fear of man that won’t allow them to accept the most logical conclusion. Perhaps they don’t want to go against the consensus and be looked down upon. But they certainly don’t realize that the scientific consensus could be wrong. Science hasn’t proven that dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago.

Besides the book of Job, there’s plenty of evidence suggesting dinosaurs and man have lived at the same time; evidence such as soft tissue and blood cells being found in the oldest known fossils. There’s also plenty of artwork around the world with dinosaurs, long before dinosaurs were rediscovered. One example is the tomb of Bishop Bell at the Carlisle Cathedral in the UK, and on it are brass behemoths that look like dinosaurs.

Needless to say, I do think that identifying the behemoth and leviathan as a dinosaur and marine reptile is important. Doing so lends credibility to the passage in Job, and it also lends credibility to the rest of Scripture, such as the creation account and Noah’s flood as described in Genesis. And missing this opportunity only serves to elevate science over Scripture.

And just for the fun of it, here’s a video of an elephant’s tail:

And here’s a hippo tail (well, maybe a little more than just a tail):

And how about one of the biggest crocodiles ever captured:

4 thoughts on “Identifying the Behemoth and Leviathan

  1. Jonathan, thanks for engaging with the article. I really appreciate your desire to understand the text and honor the Lord, even above any presumptuous “scientific consensus.” I am with you on that, brother! The Scripture, not science, holds final authority.

    I thought it might be helpful to clarify that, like you, I am quite certain Behemoth and Leviathan are not a hippo and crocodile. I’m not sure how you determined I “finally conclude” this, but I apologize for any lack of clarity on my part.

    I think these creatures could be dinosaurs; I don’t rule that out. I think it more likely, however, that they’re “mythological” – that is, that God is tapping into common ancient near eastern legends of the most ferocious and unstoppable forces in the universe. I don’t think this diminishes the argument’s force at all. If I said, “I’m more terrible than Smaug and more ferocious than a basilisk,” I believe most people would realize that I’m reaching for something even bigger and badder than you’ve ever experienced or could possibly experience. Such poetic drama doesn’t necessarily bring one’s sanity into question.

    Regardless, my chief argument is simply that the particular identification is beside the point the text is making. The question “How does God use these creatures in this speech?” is more important than “What exactly are these creatures?” In God’s first speech (Job 38-39), he hits the wildest and most ferocious creatures in creation. In his second speech (Job 40-41), he goes even bigger and explodes what Job thought he knew about the nature of good and evil. Job 40:9-14 sets up the key questions that guide the rest of the second speech. “Are you angry at your suffering, Job? Can you do anything to stop it?”

    I’d be interested in any further thoughts you have, especially if you get to consider another article that covers the literary train of thought between God’s two speeches to Job:

    • Peter, thanks for your response. In retrospect, I should have clarified your position prior to posting my article. In your closing response you had said, “Paul must have realized there was something bigger than hippos and crocodiles.” And I took this to mean that you believed them to be hippos and crocodiles even though Paul meant for them to be something bigger.

      But taking them to be mythological creatures makes me very uneasy because that seems to go against God’s character. It’s my fear that using mythological creatures would promote worship, and God’s first command is to have no other gods before him. I find it difficult to believe that God would legitimize mythological creatures in order to show how great he is, especially when there are better alternatives- alternatives that are real and authentic. In fact, if these creatures were a dinosaur and marine reptile, then the problem is solved. We know that these creatures did exist at one time, but the problem is that secular science has convinced many that they didn’t live at the same time as humans. However, if we reject that premise, then we don’t have to resort to mythological creatures.

      And to some degree I agree with you that using a mythological creature wouldn’t necessarily bring into question God’s sanity- unless those listening didn’t believe in those mythological creatures. Any society that doesn’t believe in them might very well question what type of god we’re worshiping.

      More to your point, though, I do agree that God intended something much more than us knowing the identity of these creatures with 100% clarity. We certainly don’t need to know their identity in order to understand God’s intent, but I do think a correct identification lends credibility to the entirety of Scripture.

      God bless, and I will gladly take a look at the other article you linked to.

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