Leviathan and Behemoth: What Are They?

The book of Job describes two creatures, Behemoth and Leviathan, that have intrigued many people who have made it to the end of Job. But just what are these creatures that God describes to Job? Could they be real animals that were known to Job? Or, were they mythological creatures? This article will examine some of the suggestions that have been made concerning these strange creatures in Job.

Behemoth

All we know of Behemoth is found in Job 40:15-24. Behemoth was created by God and eats grass like an ox. But he is very powerful, with bones of bronze, limbs of iron and a tail like a cedar. He lives in the marshes and rivers and is unafraid of anything. Among all the works of God, it is the first.

Behemoth clearly resembles a hippopotamus. A hippo does not literally have bones and limbs of bronze and iron, but these may simply be a rhetorical expression to describe its power. The tail like a cedar though is challenging since a hippo’s tail is small. However, its identification as a hippo has been the most common view of behemoth through much of history.

But, with the discovery of dinosaurs, has come the thought that Behemoth was actually a dinosaur. Some are inclined to see them as existing with Job. While others would view them as visualized from fossilized bones found in the region.

A third view of Behemoth is that it was a mythological creature. This view will be discussed later in this article.

Leviathan

Leviathan is the second creature mentioned by God. The entire 41st chapter of Job is dedicated to this creature. Leviathan is described as a fierce and untamable beast. He is covered with impenetrable armor and has a mouth full of deadly teeth. And he breathes fire and smoke, churning up the sea like an ink pot. There is nothing on earth that is his equal.

Unlike Behemoth, Leviathan is mentioned elsewhere in the Scripture. Psalm 74:14 refers to the heads of Leviathan, implying a multi-headed beast. Psalm 104:26 describes Leviathan frolicking in the vast sea. And Isaiah 27:1 describes God slaying Leviathan, a coiling serpent and sea monster.

One other possible reference to Leviathan is in Genesis 1:21. This verse begins with God creating the great creatures of the sea. The word translated here as creatures is tannin. Mounce defines this word as “serpent, snake; monster of the deep; can refer to large sea creatures as well as to mythological monsters of chaos opposed to God.” This word is used 15 times in the Old Testament and is most often translated as snake, but sometimes as monster.

It is common to view Leviathan as a crocodile. But some aspects of this creature are hard to reconcile with a crocodile. A multi-headed, fire breathing sea monster does not come close to the description of a crocodile.

Because of this, as in the case of Behemoth, it is common for many today to view Leviathan as a dinosaur or mythological creature rather than an actual animal found at the time of Job. Others, however, hold firmly to the view that Leviathan was actually known to Job and must have been a crocodile, howbeit with exaggerated characteristics.

Rahab

There is a third, and seldom mentioned, creature in Job. But there is little in the way of descriptive information available on Rahab, a creature who shares the name of the woman in Jericho who saved the spies and became an ancestor of David and Jesus.

Rahab is mentioned in Job 26:12 as being cut into parts by God. In Psalm 89:10 God crushes Rahab like one of the slain. And, in Isaiah 51:9, Isaiah attributes to God the cutting up of the sea monster Rahab.

Identification of Rahab is challenging. There are some who understand Rahab to be a poetic name for Egypt. While others see it as synonymous with Leviathan. And, in Jewish folklore, Rahab was a mythical sea-monster, representing the chaos of the sea.  

The Mythological Viewpoint

So, were Behemoth and Leviathan real creatures of Job’s day? Or were they mythological creatures understood by ancient peoples to be real? Somewhat like the creatures on the old maps that had “there be dragons” written at the edge, beyond the known world.

There are many who will argue vehemently that Behemoth and Leviathan were real creatures, although potentially exaggerated some for effect. And it seems their primary rational for this argument concerns their understanding of inerrancy, the truthfulness of the Scriptures. If Behemoth and Leviathan were not real, then the Bible contains error.

Yet, clearly, there are mythological aspects to a fire breathing multi-headed sea serpent like Leviathan. And there are many Jewish sources that ascribe mythical aspects to these two creatures. Among these is 1 Enoch 58:7-8.

“And on the day two monsters were separated one from another, a female monster named Leviathan, to dwell in the abyss of the ocean over the fountains of the waters; and the male is named Behemoth, who occupied with his breast a wasted wilderness named Duidain, on the east of the garden where the elect and righteous dwell . . . “

None of these sources have the authority of the Bible. But they do make it clear that in at least some ancient Jewish thought these creatures were more than hippopotamus and crocodile.

The Author’s Intent

It seems important to me to understand why Behemoth and Leviathan are included here in Job. What was God’s purpose in having them as a part of his response to Job and his friends?

Throughout Job we have seen his friends try to convince Job that he has sinned against God and is being punished. But in response, Job protested his innocence and demanded the opportunity to present his case before God. Finally, in Job 38-41, God responded to Job. But never did God give an explanation for what had happened to Job. Instead he challenged Job concerning his own wisdom and ability. In the end, Job was told that he was not able to understand what God was doing in the trials he just went through. Instead, he just needed to trust God.

Included in God’s grilling of Job are the descriptions of the two creatures, Behemoth and Leviathan. While they are the most fearsome of creatures, yet even they are under God’s control. Whether they are real creatures, or mythological, Job believed they existed. And God used them to demonstrate a point to Job. That God’s wisdom and power far exceed anything that Job could imagine. And that nothing in all of creation is outside God’s control and care.

Does It Matter

In the end, does it matter if Behemoth and Leviathan were real creatures, or only mythological creatures that Job and his audience believed existed? While there are some who would argue that it does matter. I do not believe that it does. What God is saying to Job is true, regardless the reality of these creatures. God is sovereign over all. And his ways are above our ways and our understanding. Sometimes we simply need to trust him, knowing that nothing is beyond him.

The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.

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