Leviathans, unicorns, dragons and pygargs inhabit the Bible. And part of the delight in studying Biblical animals is simply identifying what they are. The path to an identification can be just as challenging and enchanting as the identification of some mysterious artifact excavated from some ancient city.
BAR readers may want to use their detective skills to try to identify one of the most enigmatic creatures of the Bible—the Behemoth. This great animal is mentioned only once in the Bible, but the passage provides several very good clues:
Take now behemoth, whom I made as I did you;
He eats grass, like the cattle.
His strength is in his loins,
His might in the muscles of his belly.
He makes his tail stand up like a cedar;
The sinews of his thighs are knit together.
His bones are like tubes of bronze,
His limbs like iron rods.
He is the first of God’s works;
Only his Maker can draw the sword against him.
The mountains yield him produce;
All the beasts of the field play there.
He lies down beneath the lotuses,
In the cover of the swamp reeds.
The lotuses embower him in shade;
The willows of the brook surround him.
He can restrain the river from its rushing;
He is confident the stream will gush at his command.
Can he be taken by his eyes?
Can his nose be pierced by hooks?
Can you draw out Leviathan by a fishhook?
Can you press down his tongue by a rope?
Can you put a ring through his nose,
Or pierce his jaw with a barb?
Will he plead with you at length?
Will he speak soft words to you?
Will he make an agreement with you
To be taken as your lifelong slave?
Will you play with him like a bird,
And tie him down for your girls?
Shall traders traffic in him?
Will he be divided up among merchants?
Can you kill his skin with darts
Or his head with fish-spears?
Lay a hand on him,
And you will never think of battle again.
(Job 40:15–32) Jewish Publication Society, 1980
So what is this great creature which is probably a ruminant, has tremendous visceral strength, swings his tail around like a cedar tree, lollygags in the shade, blocks the rushing river, and has a notable nose?
An elephant? Surely, elephants once lived in Israel. Part of an extinct elephant (Elephas trogamtherium) was found during the excavation of bridge footings at the Jordan River’s Daughters of Jacob Bridge in the Upper Galilee. The find, which was made during the British mandate, has been carbon-dated to the Paleolithic. Also, Pharaoh Thutmose III rode tame elephants on hunting expeditions along the Levantine coast, and elephant ivory is recorded as being a trade item in the region during the Biblical era. And who would not agree that the great pachyderm is big, powerful and has a peculiar nose?
But the hippopotamus also has an impressive nose. Furthermore, the modern Hebrew name for this river horse is Behemoth. The ancient Egyptians knew the hippo as p-ehe-mau which is quite similar to be-he-moth. Also, among the artifacts found in Pesach Bar-Adon’s Treasure Cave were five sickle-shaped objects made of hippopotamus ivory. Obviously, ancient Israel hosted this critter, too.
The water buffalo is another contender for the title of “behemoth.” It certainly eats grass like cattle; And this feisty creature can eat, drink and poke his nose through snares just as well as any of the other animals suggested. The water buffalo also fits the name “behemoth” rather well, particularly if the name is closely related to behemah, the Hebrew generic name for domestic animals.
Then, too, all of Israel has not been put through the archaeologist’s sifter, and nobody knows if someone won’t some day find the remains of a rhinoceros, or unusual antelope, or some other monstrous animal, and say “Behold the behemoth!”