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408. Job 40:15-24, Behold, Behemoth!
15 “Behold now, Behemoth, which I made as well as you;
He eats grass like an ox.
16 Behold now, his strength in his loins
And his power in the muscles of his belly.
17 He bends his tail like a cedar;
The sinews of his thighs are knit together.
18 His bones are tubes of bronze;
His limbs are like bars of iron.
19 He is the first of the ways of God;
Let his maker bring near his sword.
20 Surely the mountains bring him food,
And all the beasts of the field play there.
21 Under the lotus plants he lies down,
In the covert of the reeds and the marsh.
22 The lotus plants cover him with shade;
The willows of the brook surround him.
23 If a river rages, he is not alarmed;
He is confident, though the Jordan rushes to his mouth.
24 Can anyone capture him when he is on watch,
With barbs can anyone pierce his nose?
Job doesn’t answer the divine invitation to spread out his fury and bring down the proud and evil. Perhaps God doesn’t give him a chance to respond. So God decides to keep on with the survey of interesting creatures in the world in the rest of the chapter and the next. But things are now different in several ways. First, God will not be asking Job as many questions as in Job 38-39. Second, the number of creatures described falls from about ten to one in Job 40 and one in Job 41. Finally, the identity of Behemoth in this chapter and Leviathan in the next are unclear. It seems to be the trend in scholarship to identify Behemoth, for example, with an actual creature in the world, such as the hippopotamus or elephant, but this effort usually runs aground when one realizes that neither of these animals negotiates mountains too easily (verse 20 gives the impression that they spend some time in the mountains). Imagining hippos scaling mountains actually excites the risibilities, which is probably not what the author intended.
I am inclined to see this and the next chapter as describing mythological beasts which God has tamed as part of the process of getting creation “under control” at the very beginning of time. The difficulty with the theory is plain—how can Job “behold Behemoth” if Behemoth was just a creature living in the misty times of yore? But I think God has already made the divine point about Job’s smallness and insignificance with respect both to the natural world (Job 38) and the animal world (Job 39); now God drives home the point with respect to Job’s knowledge of mythological creatures.
We might profitably divide our treatment of Behemoth as follows:
40:15-18 The Strength and Physical Characteristics of Behemoth
40:20-24 Its Home Under the Lotus
40:15-18 The Strength and Physical Characteristics of Behemoth
The word “Behemoth” is actually a plural form of the noun for “cattle/beast” (behemah). Yet all agree that this plural form brings us to the singular character named Behemoth. Job 40:15 is the only place the word “Behemoth” appears in the Bible. The word first appeared in English in Wycliffe’s Bible of 1382; by the time of Milton (1667) its usage was fixed in English speech (“Behemoth biggest born of earth,” Paradise Lost, 7.471), even though it already had appeared figuratively in English in the 16th century (“the Behemoth of Conceit”).
In verse 15 Behemoth is described as one, literally, “whom I made with you.” Most would render this more serviceably as “whom I made as well as you.” So, God isn’t pointing to the same time of creation, but rather a similar created status of Job and Behemoth. We first meet Behemoth as an unimpressive creature: “He eats grass like an ox.” The word for “ox” is the common baqar, used to describe cattle either individually or in groups. “Grass” is chatsir (21x) which, apart from one rendering as “leeks” (Numbers 11:5), is elsewhere translated “grass.” Again, the word is beloved of Isaiah; it appears four times in Isaiah 40:6-8 as it compares grass to the weakness and vulnerability of humans.
We are intrigued so far, and so we want to keep reading. In verse 16 God moves to a description of its strength:
“See, its strength is in its loins; his vigor in the sinews of his belly.”
The sentence explodes with interesting words. “Strength” is the common koach (125x), which appears 21x in Job alone. The word for “loins” here (mothen) is not the same as the “loins” (chalats) Job was told to “gird up” in 38:3 and 40:8; here we have a word which can be rendered as “loins” or “hips” or “waist.”
The second clause echoes the idea of the first. The word rendered “vigor” is on (12x) and may be rendered as “vigor/wealth/strength/virility” in other places. The word for “sinews” is the hapax sharir which has been variously translated as “sinews/muscles/navel/stays.” As a fitness instructor in 2020 might say, 'Well, Behemoth, I see you have great core strength. Maybe spend some time on the lats or glutes now. . .'
We continue to be awed by Behemoth’s strength in verse 17, even if we are not sure what is being said. There is both a tame and racy translation for verse 17. The tame one is:
“He strains/stiffens his tail as a cedar; the sinews of his thigh are closely knit together."
Even though this verse is vintage God (first and last words are verbs), our translation really doesn’t work well. The first verb is chaphets (75x), which means “to delight in” or “be pleased with” or “to wish/desire.” It never means to “stiffen” or “strain.” The tone here is of some kind of delight that Behemoth has with his body. This becomes interesting. The thing in which he delights is something that might be likened to a cedar tree (erez, used many times in I Kings). In the first part of the verse it is called “his tail” (zanab, 11x), and in the second part it is a hapax that looks like “fear” but generally has been rendered “thigh.” Our word for “sinew” is gid (7x), which twice appeared memorably in Genesis 32:32 to describe the sinew or socket of Jacob’s hip that was put out of joint by wrestling with the night visitor.
But now that we have dealt briefly with verbal issues, we ought to get to the second (my) translation. In my judgment, this has nothing to do with stiffening the tail but with taking delight in his penis. It isn’t such a crazy idea to imagine a male creature taking delight in its penis; indeed, it is what continually gets male creatures of lesser strength than Behemoth in trouble in our day. Taking delight in the penis is an indication of the creature’s luxuriating in its maleness and strength. Its core is strong; its penis is erect and firm like the cedar; its thighs and sinews are “knit together.” The verb so translated is the rare (2x) sarag, which appears to mean “to weave together/be interlaced” in Lamentations 1:14. The picture I have in my mind for Behemoth is like the old pictures you see in the Gray’s Anatomy textbook, where muscles and sinews are interlaced in the thigh area.
So, Behemoth eats grass and delights in its strength and maleness. We see his bulging muscles and his bulging other part; we feel that this is a creature to be reckoned with. Verse 18 doesn’t disabuse us of that notion:
“His bones are like pipes/channels of brass; his frame like a bar of iron.”
The eloquence and imaginativeness of the poet is breathtaking. The word for “pipes” is the familiar aphiq (19x), which often describes a brook or ravine or the torrents that flow in these carved out areas, but the picture created here is of the tubes or pipes that constitute Behemoth’s bones. They are strong—brass or bronze strong. His “frame” is his gerem (5x), a difficult word that probably describes the skeleton or larger frame of the body. Our word for “bar” is a hapax; its sound (metil) is like our word “metal.” Not a bad way to remember it.
We have here the description of an impressive creature. It is as solid and strong as anything in the created world. Though it eats grass, it changes that grass into the delightful strength of legs, sinews, penis, bones and frame. We are awed by the description as well as the creature.