The book of Job has fascinated ancient and modern readers.
Using a lengthy poetic story, it teaches about God and Satan, about good and evil, about “bad things” being used by God to accomplish His perfect will in the lives of good people. While its message is clear, it contains mysteries for any who study it.
Job is the only biblical book to open with a conversation between God and Satan. It climaxes with the longest speeches of God recorded in the Bible, and they are directed to a single human, Job. God describes Job as “a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil.” But God permits Satan to remove Job’s wealth, destroy his family, and ruin his health. Job then receives bad council from his wife and friends. Job wants to ask God why he is suffering, but God does not answer directly. Instead He uses object lessons from the physical world to teach Job and us about the relationship between humans and their Creator.
Many of the illustrations God uses as He addresses Job are familiar to us: wind, rain, snow, a horse’s strength, a hawk’s ability to fly. Some, like ostrich behaviors (which we discussed in a previous article), require observations and thought for us to even begin to grasp them. Bible scholars and scientists alike must admit that they do not completely understand some of what God describes.
At the conclusion of Job’s instruction, God describes two animals: the behemoth and the leviathan. Unsure what animals were being described, translators did not supply modern animal names, as they did for many animal references in the Bible. Instead, they transliterated the names by writing out the Hebrew sounds with English letters. This article deals with questions the behemoth engenders, and the next article will deal with the leviathan.
Although it is not found outside of Job in the Authorized Version of the Scriptures, the word behemoth is used in other passages. It often serves as an adjective, meaning “big,” or “a larger one.” Behemoth cattle, for example, are oxen—when compared to smaller sheep and goats. But in the closing ten verses of Job 40, the word is used as a noun, the name for a specific kind of animal. God’s description of a behemoth compares its vegetarian diet to that of an ox, so Job was not to be considering an ox.
The behemoth is called “the chief of the ways of God,” probably meaning that it is the largest (land) animal that God made. He lives along streams or in swamps; his bones are compared to brass and iron; he rests in the shade of trees, and is not afraid of snares or what the elements can do to him. So which animal is a behemoth? While Bible translators can transliterate, commentators feel compelled to identify the behemoth. Some have suggested the elephant—the only animal they were familiar with that comes close to the size description. While the commentary may be good doctrinally, its author has probably reached an uninformed and inaccurate conclusion. Elephants live in dry areas and go to water only to drink or for a cooling dip. They do not generally live in swamps or streams.
Some commentators suggest the hippopotamus. He lives in water, but God says the behemoth “moveth his tail like a cedar.” Elephants and hippos have tails better compared to ropes than to cedar trees. Some have suggested the tail description refers to the elephant’s trunk. That is confusing the animal’s ends. The suppleness of the elephant’s trunk and the stiffness of cedar trees appears to belie the comparison.
Permit a brief side note. Many commentators (and their supporters) cite that Job is a poetical book, and thus these kinds of discrepancies from observable facts are acceptable. Poetic language has its forms and uses, virtually all of which can be found in the book of Job. Poetic language also has limits. It is easy to claim “poetry” to justify a person’s opinion when it contradicts a direct reading. In this case, however, one must remember Who is speaking and His purpose in referring to the behemoth. More on that later.
Another suggestion for the behemoth is a large sauropod dinosaur. Sauropods were long-necked, four-legged herbivores. They had strong bones and their thick tails could easily be compared to a cedar tree. They were quite possibly swamp dwellers and their size and strength would have made snares useless. A sauropod-behemoth seems to fit the description better than an elephant or hippo.
For some people, the problem with the behemoth being a sauropod is timing. God says: “Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee.” God is referring to an animal He created at the same time He made man, and He expects Job to be familiar with the animal. Scientists have repeatedly contended that dinosaurs died off long before man came along. Based on their evolutionary timeline, Job and a sauropod-behemoth could not be contemporaries. Since elephants and hippos are contemporary with humans, many argue that these animals are the only logical choices to be behemoths.
When did Job live? The book itself gives little help in answering that question. The people and places referred to in Job are not mentioned in other datable passages, and many are unknown to history. A reference to the Law would permit us to date Job after Moses. But the book does not refer to the Mosaic Law, suggesting it was written before Moses went to Mount Sinai. Although there are some cultural references in Job, they do not help to pinpoint his time period.
A number of Christians explain dinosaur fossils using the Gap Theory (a time gap between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 in which there was a dinosaur- filled creation). This offers a time for dinosaurs without humans, which many Christians of the past found a compelling argument for the Gap Theory. For Job to be contemporary with Gap Theory dinosaurs, he, his family, and friends would have to be pre-Adamic humans. This contradicts so many Scripture passages, it is beyond possibility.
Today, many Christians are comfortable assuming that the vast majority of the fossils we find in the earth today are the result of the universal Flood described in Genesis. Since there are abundant sauropod dinosaur fossils, this suggests they were antediluvian animals. Thus, some scholars have suggested Job was also antediluvian (living before the Flood).
Occasionally one hears the claim that Job is the oldest book in the Bible. Frequently this is based on Job being antediluvian, even though some who take this position still insist on a behemoth being an elephant or hippo.
Job living before the Flood presents other problems. Who wrote the book of Job? There is no evidence within the book that Job wrote it. It would appear that Job did not know of the God and Satan conversations that open and set the scene of the book. If antediluvian Job wrote the book, did Noah have to take a copy of it into the Ark?
Most of what Moses describes in Genesis happened centuries before he was born. Genesis is true because of God-breathed inspiration, not because of it being an eye-witness account. That could equally be applied to the book of Job. It is quite possible God used another human instrument to pen the book regarding something that happened far previously. Moses and Solomon have been suggested, but without substantial grounds. It is possible, however, that Job and behemoths were antediluvian and the book was written by an inspired, unknown author in the postdiluvian era. Thus the book of Job could have been written before Moses penned Genesis, making it the oldest book in the Bible.
A Patriarchal Period Job
Job living during the postdiluvian patriarchal period, roughly between the Flood and the Exodus, would explain the absence of references to the Law and to other known people and places. But how could Job be familiar with a sauropod-behemoth in the patriarchal period? It has been suggested that Job dug up and assembled dinosaur fossils and knew descriptions of dinosaurs which had been handed down through Noah’s family. Job being familiar with extinct behemoths is a weak explanation. It is not in keeping with the illustrations God is using as He tells Job to consider various parts of nature.
Wanting Job to be a postdiluvian character, but not a paleontologist supports elephant or hippo behemoths. But is that necessary? These positions presuppose that all dinosaurs became extinct during the Flood. Just because the only dinosaurs we know are ones that died and were fossilized during the Flood does not mean all dinosaurs died at that time.
To some, the suggestion of postdiluvian dinosaurs conflicts with their presuppositions of Genesis. Noah was told to take representatives of every kind of animal that God brought to the Ark. Many people do not have a problem with elephants and hippos coming to the Ark—but they assume that some dinosaurs, like many of the sauropods, are too big for the Ark. Some consider the fierce, toothy dinosaurs as too dangerous to be on the Ark. Others assert that since the postdiluvian world would be different, dinosaurs would not fit in after the waters receded. They assume that God led only animals appropriate for the postdiluvian earth to the Ark’s door.
Modern scale replicas of the Ark have laid to rest the idea that the boat was not able to hold large dinosaurs. Genesis seems to indicate that all the kinds of land animals God created were represented on the Ark. One can only guess how many sauropod-like dinosaurs would be on the Ark. There were likely not many, nor were they necessarily mature, super-large ones.
Even with lions and tigers and bears, and scores of other dangerous animals aboard, the Ark’s inhabitants survived the year-long voyage. Also, remember that many of us get our impression of how dinosaurs lived from films produced for theatrical excitement, not to reflect reality.
If sauropods and other dinosaurs were represented on the Ark, why are they not alive today? Like the dodo and scores of other animals, they became extinct. It is possible that during the patriarchal period there were large sauropod-behemoths that were familiar to Job. As the earth entered its postdiluvian patterns, conditions for sauropod survival were not met and, naturally, they died out.
Assuming that sauropod-behemoths and Job were postdiluvian contemporaries fits within the parameters of Scripture and within the physical/historic factors we can bring to bear on behemoth identity. Therefore, insisting that a behemoth is an elephant or hippo is unnecessary.
God instructs Job to “behold now behemoth” and then uses ten verses to describe this mighty animal. God is not suggesting that Job use his imagination to mentally construct such an animal. Nor is God ascribing characteristics to an animal that does not have them. To do so would weaken God’s arguments. Job could legitimately question if God had really done all the things He claimed to have done in the preceding chapters if God had started making things up at the end of His lecture.
Was Job an antediluvian or a postdiluvian character? Does it matter? The meaning of the book is the same, no matter when Job lived. If the message hinged on when Job lived, God would not have left it a mystery. More concerning are the Bible interpreters who feel they must bend what Scriptures say about the behemoth to make it describe an elephant or a hippo.
We will investigate more of God’s purpose in this extended object lesson as we consider His final example, the leviathan, in the next article.
William Pinkston teaches science at Bob Jones Academy in Greenville, South Carolina. He is a member of Faith FPC.