top of page

Behemoth In Job: A Bull, Not A Dinosaur

Young Earth Creationists like Ken Ham believe that the Behemoth in Job is a sauropod dinosaur (and thus conclude that man lived with dinosaurs). With the latest in ancient Near-Eastern scholarship, here is an apt translation of the passage:

Please observe Behemoth, which I made along with you. He eats grass like an ox. Now take a look at the strength that he has in his loins, and in the muscles of his abdomen. His penis protrudes stiffly, like cedar; the sinews of his testicles interlink for strength.

(Job 40:15-17)

No sauropod descriptions are given in this verse. The creature mentioned is either bovine (a bull) or a hippopotamus, specifically highlighting its reproductive anatomy. Furthermore, several Jewish apocalyptic books (Enoch, Esdras, and Baruch) showcase Behemoth appearing as one of three monsters, derived from Babylonian mythology:

1. Behemoth (land)

2. Leviathan (sea)

3. Ziz (air)

At the end of time, the monsters will fight each other, before God ultimately kills them and uses them to provide food for the righteous at the heavenly banquet. Specifically look at the Liber Floridus (book of flowers), which is an 11th century medieval encyclopedia where Behemoth makes an appearance as a bovine beast ridden by the antichrist in the book of Revelation. This is stock leviathan imagery of what's served at the banquet during the marriage of the Lamb.

Now with respect to the translation given above, what evidence is there linguistically for "penis" and "testicle"?

First note that as early as Jerome in the 4th century, we find the Latin word "testiculorum" used in the Vulgate:

He setteth up his tail like a cedar, the sinews of his testicles [testiculorum] are wrapped together.

(Job 40:17)

Second, after extensive research into ancient Near-East idioms and studies in ancient languages like Ugaritic, we are able to more fully understand specific euphemisms and nuances of certain Hebrew words.

The following is an excerpt from a recently published scholarly monograph: Playing with Leviathan: Interpretation and Reception of Monsters from the Biblical World

To that end, we will first briefly explore the way God introduces us to the first beast, courtesy of Alter’s translation of 40:15–18:

15 Look, pray: Behemoth, whom I made with you, grass like cattle he eats.

16 Look, pray, the power in his loins, the virile strength ( וְאנֹוֹ ) in his belly’s muscles.

17 He makes his tail stand ( יַחְפֹּץ זְנָבוֹ ; LXX: ἔστησεν οὐρὰν) like a cedar, his balls’ ( פחַ דֲָו ) sinews twine together (Vulg.: nervi testiculorum eius perplexi sunt).

18 His bones are bars of bronze, his limbs like iron rods.

Although Alter subscribes to the common (but debatable) identification of the Behemoth with the hippopotamus, and like other exegetes, tends to allow this identification to drive his exegesis, his comments on the cedar tree reference in verse 17 do raise an important issue for that approach when he observes, “the exiguous tail of the hippopotamus scarcely fits the bill, but in all likelihood, ‘tail’ is a euphemism for a different part of the male animal’s anatomy.”

Although the notion of a euphemism (cf. the “feet” in Exod 4:24) implies that “tail” is the correct translation if not the literal referent, some scholars have argued that the meaning of זׇ נב here, in line with its (“colloquial”) usage in extra-biblical Hebrew, may well denote the “different part” that Alter has in mind in a fairly straightforward way. Thus Robert Gordis, The Book of Job: Commentary, New Translation, and Special Studies, New York 1978, 447, invoking אוֹן at 16b (cf. “virile strength” above).

In the poetic translation of Stephen Mitchell, The Book of Job, New York 1992, 40:17 is rendered: “His penis stiffens like a pine/ his testicles bulge with vigor.” Mitchell justifies his translation in ibid., 126–27, by claiming not only that זנְָבוֹ is a “euphemism” here, as Aquinas’ teacher, Albert the Great recognized (i.e., of Vulg.: “caudam suam”), but also that זנְָבוֹ “stands for the genital member” in the rabbinic work, Tanhuma 10.

HALOT, 274, infers “phallus” as a possible meaning for זׇ נב but offers no examples from the Hebrew Bible.

F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Book of Job II, trans. Francis Bolton, Edinburgh 1866, 359, n. 2, cites a Tg. that understands זׇ נב as “penis” here.

Curiously, DCH: 6: 676, lists פּחַַד v as “penis” with reference to v. 17b. This would presumably leave “tail” as the meaning in 17a.

A third alternative (to be explored further in the next section) is to argue that, in keeping with the reference to its “virile strength” ( וְאנֹוֹ ) in 16b (cf. Gen 49:3; Deut 21:17) and the probable reference to its testicles in 17b (this is well attested here: in Vulg., also Syr., and Tg. Ket. (cf. Lev 21:20 in Tg. Onq.) See also פחַַד VI as “testicle” in DCH 6: 676, and the discussion of the “dual” form in Delitzsch, Job, 359–60), the way in which this nonchalant, yet virile creature stiffens its tail in 17a has phallic connotations.

That a literal tail here has “sexual connotations” is the view of Marvin H. Pope, Job: Introduction, Translation, and Notes (AB), New York 1965, 272, my emphasis. I concur. In his 3rd ed., New York 1973, 323–24, he adds: “The term ‘tail’ is inevitably suggestive of sexual sense in the light of similar euphemisms in several languages.” But “suggestive” is the key term for the Hebrew, not “euphemism.” His introductory remarks on 17a still assume a literal tail.

If there is a reference to the membrum virile of the Behemoth in 17a, regardless of whether this is the result of straightforward denotation, euphemistic denotation, or connotation, what is its significance? Given the interest of the present section, one way of connecting Job 40:17 to the concerns of salvation history present elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible would be to say that this erection of the Behemoth fits well with the explicit references to the phallic aggression of Israel’s enemies found in Ezek 23:20 and 16:26 (see NJB). That an allusion to the kind of fertility religion that is highlighted and denounced in Ezekiel’s imagery has been detected in Job 40:20–21 also merits attention at this point.

Wolfers, who sees in Behemoth and Leviathan, the story of Job/Judah and Assyria, respectively, translates 40:20a and 21a as: “For the hills provide [the Behemoth] his god. . . . Under the thorny lotus he prostitutes himself,” in Deep Things out of Darkness, 371. The medieval interpretation, also present in the Church Fathers (see Manlio Simonetti and Marco Conti [eds.], Job [ACCS], Downers Grove, IL 2006, 208–17), that the beasts symbolize the Devil, could also lead to seeing the portrayal of Behemoth as sexual, thanks in part to the Vulgate, as cited above at 40:17b. See Thomas Aquinas, The Literal Exposition on Job: A Scriptural Commentary Concerning Providence, trans. Anthony Damico, Atlanta, GA 1989, 449–51.

To be clear: my argument here is not that a phallic interpretation is the only, or even the primary, meaning of verse 17 (on which more will be said in the next section); it is simply that the description of the first beast might call for the kind of intertextual sensitivity that will be missed by reading strategies that sever Wisdom literature from the rest of the Hebrew Bible. The intriguing possibility that the reference to the Behemoth “eating grass like an ox” (v. 15) might allude to the bestial behaviour of Babylon’s Nebuchadnezzar that we know from Dan 4:25, 32; 5:21 (or vice versa) should not be rejected a priori.

Seow, Job 1–21, 41, refers to “certain affinities” between Job and Dan 1–6, noting that “the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s madness in Daniel 4 . . . has tantalizing links with the Elihu speeches.” Cf. Northrop Frye, The Great Code. The Bible and Literature, Toronto 2014, 232: “Daniel’s story of Nebuchadnezzar’s turning into a variety of the behemoth is clearly a parallel to Ezekiel’s earlier identification [see Ezek 23:1–8] of the leviathan with the Pharaoh of Egypt.” On the possibility that a “proto-Daniel” could predate and thus be alluded to in an exilic Job, see nn. 27–28 above.

In the previous section, I briefly referred to the discussion concerning whether the reference to the “tail” of the Behemoth in Job 40:17 is a mistranslation or a euphemism for the phallus. My own preference for seeing זׇ נב as a term that has phallic connotations (not denotations) here is three-fold:

(i) this allows us to take זׇ נב as denoting the “tail” in line with its usage elsewhere in Exod 4:4; Judg 15:4, etc.;

(ii) as the common identification of the Behemoth with the hippopotamus is at best conjecture, the in/sufficient size of its tail (or phallus) should not drive our exegesis. The same goes for the elephant preferred by older commentators. While it is a better candidate for the phallic interpretation, the possibility that יחְַפּץֹ in v. 17 means “arches” in the sense of “bending” (rather than NRSV: “makes . . . stiff”)—on which see Pope, Job, 1st ed., 272; 3rd ed., 324—has led, historically, to a focus on its trunk.

(iii) the tail reading, at the level of denotation, allows us to better make sense of the metaphor of the cedar tree.

To elaborate further on the third point, given the fact that the cedar was the largest and most majestic of the trees visible in the promised land (cf. 1 Kgs 4:33), it is likely that the metaphor of Job 40:17 refers to more than just stiffness as we are probably expected to imagine a cedar tree growing in its natural environment. While this certainly befits the tail of a four-footed animal as this may be easily pictured as standing upright when erect, this is at odds with a phallic denotation for the Behemoth as the latter would present us with a far more horizontal image.

Furthermore, this vertical dimension is central to tree symbolism elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible as trees, like temples and mountains, are seen as connecting heaven and earth (see Gen 2–3; 18:4, 8; 21:33; 1 Sam 22:6; 31:13; 1 Kgs 13:14; 19:5; Prov 3:18). It is an intriguing possibility that the parallel that is sometimes drawn between trees and human beings rests on the fact that the heaven-earth connection, as expressed via an “upright posture,” is seen as part of the meaning of the imago Dei. This need not be construed as mere physical resemblance, contra J. Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1, Grand Rapids, MI 2005, 20, n. 19.

Thus when the Israelites arrive at Elim ( אֵילםִ , meaning: gods, mighty men, terebinth trees, temple pilasters) in Num 33:9, we are told that “there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees” there, which Tg. Neof. and Tg. Ps.-J. connect to the twelve tribes and to the seventy wise men of Num 11:16.

That Job is being provoked and encouraged to get up from the ash heap and face the Creator is evident once we connect the request of Job 38:3 and 40:7:

Gird up (pray, נָא ־) your loins like a man (כגְבֶֶר);

I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

With the invitation of 40:15a, 16a:

Look (pray, הִנֵּה־נָא) at Behemoth, which I made just as I made you;

Look (pray, הִנֵּה־נָא), its strength is in its loins.

Here the divine intention is not to intimidate, but to encourage Job, after his demoralized response to the first divine request and speech (see 40:3–5), to see something of his own status and standing in the power of the Behemoth. So while the word for “loins” differs, there is a parallel between the “strength” of Job 40:16a and the strong, virile term גִּבּרֹ that is used instead of אדָָם in 40:7. The movement of the Behemoth’s tail into an upright position in verse 17 is thus humorously and graphically symbolic of the call to stand up and face the Creator.

bottom of page