The Leviathan and The Behemot: Dinosaur, Dialect, or Diety
From the Romans to the Greek to the Kush to the Egyptians, folklore has been handed down from generation to generation. In most cases this folklore transcends any one religion and carries over into the next. Much like the Romans adopting and perverting Greek folklore, so too has most every religion known to exist. Likewise, from most mythology come stories of great, monstrous beasts, like the kraken and Cerberus. Such beasts are the leviathan and the behemot of ancient Hebrew lore. These great creatures are mentioned in the book of Job, which is speculated to be the oldest book of the Bible. Many have chosen to simply write it off as outdated language, while others believe it may be a dinosaur, and still others believe it to have been created to be the king of the fish and animals, created by God on the fifth day. It is also thought to be ancient folklore that has been carried over from before monotheism. Such is the mystery of the leviathan and the behemot.
One question left to the creation myth is the existence of dinosaurs. There is overwhelming proof of these great lumbering beasts, but there is no direct reference to them in the Old Testament. These beasts that once walked the earth millions of years ago have been over looked by many Hebrew scholars. Yet, in the book of Job, there are references to creatures that could have been described dinosaurs. One such reference is that of the Behemot. The Behemot is a creature of great size and power. In Job 40:15 the Behemot is described as eating “grass like an ox.” Later in verse 17 it is said to “bend its tail like a cedar.” The reference to limbs like “bars of iron” gives reference to a gray complexion. Many believe that this is a reference to creatures such as the Brachiosaurus and the Diplodocus (Scott). Much, the same is the true nature of the leviathan. This creature’s curious description leads one to believe that it is no mere reptile. In chapter 41 verse 22-23 God speaks to Job saying “In his neck abides strength and terror dances before him./ The folds of his flesh cleave together, firmly cast upon him and immovable.” God also describes its teeth as being surrounded by terror and the scales of its back are knit as tightly as a seal. Truly this is something far different from any creature today. Research has shown that there is a family of dinosaur, the plesiosaur, that closely matches the description given in chapter 41 of Job. This beast arose during the Triassic period and continued on until going extinct at the close of the Mesozoic era. The most common of the plesiosaur had a small short head and a long limber neck. Characteristic of all these extinct beasts was their broad solid bodies and paddle like legs, much like the mythological Loch Ness monster. These creatures ranged from ten to sixty feet and had interlocking teeth that were well adapted to catching large sea animals for prey. The order of plesiosaur most likely to be related to the Hebrew leviathan was the kronosaur. The kronosaur was the predecessor of today’s alligators and crocodiles. The most unique qualities of this ancient monster were its short neck and its large skull, the largest of which was measured at nine feet (Lycos). Yet, even with this mounting evidence to support the existence of dinosaurs in the Bible, many scholars chose to ignore it.
Unlike many topics in the Bible that are questionable, the topic of the leviathan and the behemot has gone, for the most part, undebated by religious scholars. Many have chosen to write these creatures off as an outdated dialect. Many scholars see the leviathan as no more than a common crocodile, even though the scriptures describe a creature much more massive and monstrous (Smith). The word “leviathan” itself is an unknown word. No longer in use, save its Biblical references, many believe this word to be a part of a dialect that went extinct long ago. There is no literal translation of the word, merely interpretation in reference to the scriptures. Likewise, the word behemot, in the original Hebrew, is no longer in use (Scott). The more common version of the word, behemoth, is still in use and has many applications, but most commonly used to refer to large creatures such as elephants (Smith). The behemot itself has also been written off as a common land animal. According to Smith’s Bible Dictionary, the behemot is no more than a hippopotamus. The basis for this interpretation Is that the leviathan is representative of a crocodile. Crocodiles are often found close to the Nile River, which runs through Egypt and the hippopotamus is the only creature that fits the description of the behemot that is still found the on banks of the Nile. The lack of interest in the obvious contradictions between this rationalization and the scripture is simply astounding. Verse 15 of chapter 40 states that the behemot “eats grass like an ox” and in verse 20 it is said that “the mountains bring him food, and all the beasts of the fields play there. The diet of the hippopotamus consists mainly of reeds and aquatic vegetation and therefore could not graze like the ox nor would it hunt down the animals that live in the mountains. Likewise the reference to the behemot’s tail in verse 17 as being “like a cedar” is ultimately debunked by the fact that the hippopotamus has no tail. How can a creature bend if its tail if its tail does not exist? The only real support of this theory is the reference in verse 21 to the creature shading itself under the lotus plant in the reeds of the marsh, which is not ample evidence to simply write it off as ordinary hippopotamus.
One theory that does have ample support is that of the leviathan and the behemot being ancient relics of past polytheism. The history of these beasts is shadowed in interpretation. What is known biblically is obviously not the entire story. The background of these two monsters is far more curious than the descriptions given to them in Job. Historically the Hebrew nation spawned from a nomadic nation of polytheists. Originally the Hebrew god Yaweh was one among a plethora of gods worshipped by their people. Much like the cities of ancient Greece and Rome had patron gods, so too did each tribe of these peoples. The reason the god of the Hebrews came forward as almighty and omnipotent is that his prophets tended to be more accurate than others, Likewise, this god was far more active in their day to day lives. The belief was that he watched over his followers and became vengeful when he was not appeased. It is in this view that the leviathan and the behemot carried over from polytheism. Like the kraken of Neptune, the leviathan was seen as the guardian of the seas by early Hebrews. As the story goes, a pair of these sea monsters were created on the fifth day as well as the rest of the creatures of the seas. The creature was seen as the king of the fish and was no more than the plaything of God. Together this pair was unequaled in power by any other on the earth and therefore God killed the female to keep them from reproducing and destroying the world. The creature itself is marvelous in construction and is unparalleled in its magnificence. The purpose is that one day, the leviathan will be served as a rare meal to the religious community of the world and its skin shall be stretched across Jerusalem as a shield. Yet, the host of angels that are sent to slaughter the beast will flee in terror. In result God will pit the behemot against the leviathan. The fiercest battle in history will then ensue, but there will be no victor because these two beasts will bring about their own ends (Heritage). This theory may not be quite as farfetched as originally thought. The early Hebrews spent much time in Egypt and the Egyptian polytheism may very well have influenced the Hebrews, especially in the case of the leviathan. In holding with the theory that the leviathan was some sort of crocodile, there was ample evidence to support that the Egyptians had some sort of influence in that the crocodile was the symbol for the country and both it and the python were worshiped as gods(Smith). Whatever the reason the question is still there to be pondered.
Throughout history there have been many unexplained events and much debate ha gone into making some sort of sense out of it all. Such is the story of the leviathan and the behemot. Were they dinosaurs or common animals or were they gods or relics of a long forgotten past? These are all questions that have gone unanswered, conclusively, for centuries. Some day the truth will be revealed and we all shall rejoice.
Bible, Job 40:15-24, 41:1-34. The New Oxford Annotated Bible With The
Apocrypha. Revised standard version. Oxford University Press,
-Jewish Heritage Online Magazine. http://www.jewishheritage.com/topics/
-Scott, Mike, “What Do The Scriptures Say?” http://www.scripturessayCom/q72.html.
-Smith, William, “Behemoth.”, “Leviathan.” Smith’s Bible Dictionary.
Revised edition. Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers.