‘Behold Now Behemoth’

What was the powerful beast God showed Job? And what was its point? /

I don't understand the Behemoth.

I suppose that's largely the point. "Can one take him by his eyes, or pierce his nose with a snare?" God asks Job (40:24, ESV).

Indeed, God's response to Job undermines Job's demands for more information. Job declares that he's righteous enough and has suffered enough for a divine explanation. God responds by essentially saying, "Look at all the cool animals! They're crazier than you think!"

The answer avoids the question, frustrating readers for millennia. But God consistently refuses to answer questions about the reasons for suffering, especially when people assume they don't "deserve" it. Did the Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices suffer because they were more sinful than other Galileans? No, says Jesus, but unless you repent, you'll perish too (Luke 13). Was the beggar blind from birth because he or his parents sinned? Neither, Jesus says, but I will heal him to display the works of God in him (John 9). Was Job bereaved because he sinned? No; who provides food for the raven? And this: "Behold, Behemoth."

What does that have to do with anything? More than we think at first glance.

"Pointless" Animals

The Behemoth would make a lousy therapy animal. When God places the Behemoth before Job, it's not to make him feel better about losing his property, family, and health. The Behemoth isn't a flannelgraph object lesson on "no pain, no gain." It seems completely unconnected to Job's repeated plea, "Haven't I been righteous?" The Behemoth just lies there: huge, intimidating, lumbering, grazing.

He (along with his similarly awesome, confusing partner, Leviathan) seems like overkill in God's grand nature documentary. God spends all of chapter 38 and 39 talking about the magnificent, mysterious works of creation. He starts with the earth's foundation, the springs of the sea, the dawn, the storehouses of snow and rain, and the star's constellations. He then spends the bulk of his speech showing off animal after animal—lions, ravens, mountain goats, wild donkeys and oxen, ostriches, horses, hawks, and eagles.

Then God pauses and asks Job if he has anything to say. Job wisely keeps his mouth shut.

Rather than offering a conclusion for Job to consider, God goes back to describing more animals!

"Behold [now], Behemoth,
which I made as I made you;
he eats grass like an ox.
Behold, his strength in his loins,
and his power in the muscles of his belly.
He makes his tail stiff like a cedar;
the sinews of his thighs are knit together.
His bones are tubes of bronze,
his limbs like bars of iron.

"He is the first of the works of God;
let him who made him bring near his sword!
For the mountains yield food for him
where all the wild beasts play.
Under the lotus plants he lies,
in the shelter of the reeds and in the marsh.
For his shade the lotus trees cover him;
the willows of the brook surround him.
Behold, if the river is turbulent he is not frightened;
he is confident though Jordan rushes against his mouth.
Can one take him by his eyes,
or pierce his nose with a snare?" (Job 40:15-24, ESV)

There's a continuity in the way God talks about the Behemoth and the way he describes the other animals: They're awesome—and pointless. God never talks about any of the animals in Job in terms of their usefulness to humans. Even the war horse is described merely as untamed, a beast that simply delights in charging. No animal's flesh is described as delicious. No plant's medicinal use is named. No strong beast in Job pulls a plow. (And, as Rob Bell noted in a 2007 sermon, God feels the same way about his human creations; what we can do is irrelevant to God's delight in us.)

"God does not [create these animals] because his creation is oriented to provide what is useful to you," John Chrysostom preached around A.D. 400. "But one may ask, What is their use? We ignore what is the mysterious utility of these monsters [Behemoth and Leviathan], but, if we want to take the risk of an explanation, we may say that they lead toward the knowledge of God."

Bible scholars mostly agree that the break in the animal parade at the end of chapter 39 signals a shift. God is no longer showing off his wisdom ("Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?") but is now showing off his power ("Any hope of subduing it is false," he says of the Leviathan. "The mere sight of it is overpowering.") It's not just that the power of the Behemoth reflects God's power. The Behemoth's weirdness does too. As one commentator put it, the Behemoth "represents God's freedom—his freedom to refuse rules and rationality and principles of utility, even aesthetics."

God displays the Behemoth as a clownish colossus who evokes awe not only by his size and power, but also by the mysterious creation of such an odd-looking creature.

Behold the Hippo

Most study Bibles and commentaries say that the Behemoth is simply a hippo, with some poetic license for the "tail like a cedar." A hippo fits the description as huge and sturdy. A male can be more than 16 feet long and weigh up to 10,000 pounds (it apparently keeps growing its entire 55-year lifespan, though females stop growing around age 25). It does "feed on grass" a lot—more than one percent of its body weight each night, which comes out to about 90 pounds of grass. (By body weight, that's a lot less than other hoofed mammals. But then again, consider the body weight.) The volume of their diet changes the environment around it—hippo paths become channels for water in the wet season, which in turn create lagoons and pools for small fish in dry periods. And those "limbs like rods of iron" can move quickly—on land it can outrun a human.

But is the Behemoth really a hippo? If you're going to talk about a hippo's strength and power, would you really focus on his limbs and belly? It's the jaws that stop us in our tracks, isn't it? Some of the most recent evangelical commentaries on Job say Behemoth wasn't a hippo—it was a supernatural beast. Perhaps it was an embodiment of death that God is declaring his power over. Or maybe it's Wisdom ("first of the works of God" is the same phrase used in Proverbs 8:22).

Those theories can move me into one form of awe and wonder. They prompt questions I'd never considered before. They expand my horizon. They remind me that there's a lot I don't know about the Bible—and there are some questions that don't have easy answers. They can cause me to say, "God's Word is bigger than I thought."

But there's another form of awe and wonder driven not by questioning, but by simply sitting and beholding the reality of what's in front of me. It takes time—which may be why God has extended descriptions of these animals in Job, rather than simply saying "I'm more free than the wild ass, stronger than the lion." He's not using the animals as metaphor—he's using them as art.

I don't understand the Behemoth. But I marvel at the hippo. Starting with those huge jaws.

Biologists have only recently discovered that the jaw isn't just big—it also works as a receiver and amplifier for other hippos' alarm calls. At 115 decibels, hippo "honking" is one of the loudest sounds in the animal world. If we hear it, we're generally hearing it through the air, from what's emitted from the hippo's nostrils. But hippos also vocalize through a special layer of fat near its larynx that's about the same density as the water (it works much the same way as a dolphin's noises do). It hears these calls through both its ears and a special thin section of bone in its jaws—and the difference between the two helps it know how far away the source of the call is (since sound travels at different speeds through air and water). If the sound is something the hippo thinks should be passed on—an alarm bellow, for example—it can repeat it in record time. One biologist found that the hippo game of telephone can travel 8 miles in 4 minutes (120 miles an hour). As Radiolab's Robert Krulwich noted, this hippo "wave" is about four and a half times faster than a human "wave" travels around a sports stadium. Hippos are the only mammals to have amphibious calls.

Those jaws can also open up to 150 degrees. That's especially helpful as males fight for dominance—yawning to show their massive incisors (which can be up to 16 inches long) and canine teeth (which can be 20 inches long). They don't use these teeth for eating, but as they graze, they sharpen rather than dull. Largely thanks to those huge teeth, adult hippos have no predators other than humans. (We've reduced their numbers somewhere between 7 percent and 20 percent decline in the last decade; there are only 125,000 to 148,000 wild hippos left.)

Their bite can cut a crocodile in half. Yes, hippos often use them to attack each other—but they rarely fight to the death. And the wounds hippos do incur while fighting rarely get infected, thanks to a "blood sweat" they secrete. The orange-red liquid is actually made up of two unique acids (we didn't identify them until about seven or eight years ago) that don't just act as antibiotics, but also as an excellent sunscreen.

The "blood sweat" (which is neither) is marvelous at the chemical level. But the excretion hippos are most known for is their, well, excrement. Many similar mammals have dung middens—communal piles of poop that can seem to contain important messages both for the animals and for researchers. Hippos use these too, apparently for territorial markings (though mostly they crap in the water). But their "dung shower" can be frightening. When two bulls meet at a territorial boundary, they stare at each other, then turn tail so that they face away from each other—then they elevate their rears and shoot out what can be an enormous artillery of excrement. Their tail flips back and forth quickly, so that the dung is scattered not just all over each other, but in a seven-foot radius.

The Beholding Mode

To be honest, there are times when I read all of that, and think, "How very interesting. Now I know more about the hippopotamus." And there are times when I read exactly the same information and respond, "The world is a very big world. And our Creator is a very big God." And I don't know what it is that causes my jaw to drop in wonder, as Job's did by the end of God's animal parade. But I do know that much of it has to do with place and posture—it happens more when I consciously move out of "information collecting" mode into Beholding mode.

That's why we've created this little publication, this small Behemoth. We want to stop and behold the wonder of God. We want to look at God's creation, God's history, God's people, and the glorious study of God—theology. In this issue, for example, we excerpt a wonder-filled passage from Karl Barth on God's grace.

We'll also look at the high points of human culture, the creation of human beings who were made to create gloriously like their Creator. Even here wonder eventually points to God:

What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
You have made them a little lower than the angels
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet …
Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Psalm 8:4-9, NIV).

In this issue, for example, we look at one of humankind's great creations, baseball, and the physics of hitting a major league pitch.

In these and future articles, more than anything else, we want to behold. Not exhort, scold, theorize, pontificate, but simply marvel.

Beholding doesn't answer all our questions, any more than it did for Job. But beholding the Behemoth and other divine wonders did at least prompt this response in Job: "Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know." And this: "I repent in dust and ashes."

Wonder has a way of leading to both humility and praise. And if The Behemoth does that for our readers, we've accomplished our purpose.

Ted Olsen is news and online managing editor of Christianity Today and editor of The Behemoth.

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Also in this Issue

Issue 1 / July 24, 2014
  1. Inconceivable Grace

    God’s remarkable response to our impossible situation. /

  2. Cranmer's Beautiful Moment

    The little-known, last-minute act of courage and faith. /

  3. Hitting a Major League Pitch

    Looking at the physics, you'd have to say it can't be done.

  4. Wonder on the Web

    Links to amazing stuff

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