The first speech of the Lord drew Job’s attention to God’s constant wisdom, power, and care for creation. Job feels abandoned by God, but the Lord’s survey of his providential care for even the most isolated of animals showed Job that he was wrong in assuming God was no longer watching over him. This leads Job to retract his “lawsuit” against the Creator-
Then Job answered the Lord and said:
“Behold, I am of small account;
what shall I answer you?
I lay my hand on my mouth.
I have spoken once, and I will not answer;
twice, but I will proceed no further.” (40:3-5)
Job may be ready to drop his case, but God is not. In 40:6 the Lord once again addresses Job “out of the whirlwind.” This second speech begins with a direct challenge to Job. Can Job save himself by defeating the wicked and proud?
Look on everyone who is proud and bring him low
and tread down the wicked where they stand.
Hide them all in the dust together;
bind their faces in the world below.
Then will I also acknowledge to you
that your own right hand can save you. (40:12-14)
After this opening challenge, the Lord’s speech takes an unusual turn (at least to my ears). God asks Job about two creatures, Behemoth and Leviathan. But these creatures are very different from the animals mentioned in the first speech. Instead of conventional names (like “donkey” or “ostrich”), these creatures have unusual names. Behemoth is the plural form of the term “beast,” so we might think of it as the “Beast of Beasts” (my wonderful mentor Phil Roberts, with whom I first studied Job, loved to look at me and say “Behemoth” with great relish in class!). And Leviathan means “twisting serpent.” Again, not the typical sorts of names for creatures in standard zoology.
What are we to make of these creatures? Some readers look at the descriptions of the immense size and power of Behemoth and Leviathan and conclude that they must have been dinosaurs. One theory suggests that Job’s story took place before the Flood, when (it is argued) dinosaurs still roamed the earth, but that most of them perished in the flood and the few survivors died shortly after the Flood. While I think there are many serious problems with this theory, there is one fatal objection to it that stands out above all the others. Whatever we are to make of these creatures, it is clear that in the time of Isaiah, just seven centuries before the coming of Christ, Leviathan still existed – and awaited the future judgment of God.
In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea. (Isaiah 27:1)
So what are we to make of Behemoth and Leviathan?
The first rule of interpretation is to ask, “What did this text mean to its original readers?” So our first task should be to determine if creatures described in these terms had some special meaning to ancient people. And the evidence is clear that these descriptions did indeed have a specific resonance for the ancient world, in a manner not very different from the way we conceive of powerful forces even in our own day.
If I asked you what animal represented Russia, or China, or America, you would immediately respond with the bear, the dragon, and the eagle (or if Benjamin Franklin had his way, the turkey!). Cultures have long used animals to depict national powers (like the vision of four animals/empires in Daniel 7:1-8). And cultures have also used various creatures to symbolize abstract concepts, like wisdom (the owl), memory (the elephant), or college basketball excellence (the Wildcat!).
In the ancient world, creatures were also used to depict concepts like chaos and evil. And it just so happens that two animals used for this very purpose were the hippopotamus and the crocodile. Hippos may seem fat and friendly, but they were (and are) one of the most deadly creatures on the planet. Crocs also have a well-deserved fierce reputation. They were the perfect creatures for ancient people to use as symbols of the danger found in a chaotic world.
You can see examples of this in ancient Egyptian statues and inscriptions. In that country’s mythology, Seth was the god of disorder and violence, the murderer of his brother, Osiris. Osiris’s son, Horus, sought revenge against Seth. Sometimes this was pictured in terms of Horus slaying Seth as a crocodile.
Other times, this conflict against chaos and evil was pictured in terms of Horus hunting Seth the hippopotamus. Both of these examples show how ancient cultures used animals to represent powerful abstract concepts, especially in connection with disorder and evil.
And that is how I would suggest we understand Behemoth and Leviathan in Job. I think these creatures are rooted in real animals (possibly the hippopotamus and crocodile). But they are far more than that, which is why the descriptions far surpass conventional zoology. They are the hippo and the croc “on steroids,” so to speak. And in my view, the ancient readers of Job would have immediately connected them with the concepts of chaos and evil.
In fact, some very old commentators (like Thomas Aquinas) understood them to be metaphors for the devil himself. Aquinas thought that the actual creatures this symbolism was based upon were the elephant and the whale, but that the ultimate referent was the devil. Given John’s use of the images of a great beast from the sea and the land to illustrate the powers in alliance with the dragon/Satan in Revelation 12-13, this interpretation makes a lot of sense.
It especially makes sense when you consider how the Lord introduced these creatures. Remember, the second speech begins with God challenging Job to “tread down the wicked” (40:12). Can Job control the forces of disorder and evil? No. But Someone can.
And that is the point of this second speech. God can control Behemoth – it is just another one of God’s creatures (40:15, 19). The “Beast of Beasts” is beyond the power of man to contain, but not the Creator. And God can control Leviathan – why, he could put a leash on him for little girls to play with (41:1-5)! He is a terror to man, but not to the One who can say, “Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine” (41:11).
What the Lord is ultimately asking Job is whether he will trust God to limit and contain the chaos and evil in the world. Now, we as the readers know that this is precisely what God has been doing all along in this book. The Accuser could not do anything without God’s permission, and the Lord placed strict limits on his destructive power (Job 1:12; 2:6). But Job was not privy to this. He assumes that God is the one ripping away at him like a hippo or a croc-
Surely now God has worn me out;
he has made desolate all my company.
And he has shriveled me up,
which is a witness against me,
and my leanness has risen up against me;
it testifies to my face.
He has torn me in his wrath and hated me;
he has gnashed his teeth at me;
my adversary sharpens his eyes against me. (Job 16:7-9)
But this is not true. Job does indeed have an adversary, but it is not God. And what God is saying to him in this second speech is that there are limits on what the evil one can do, and that Job needs to place his trust in the only one who can ultimately defeat this evil power.
But is God worthy of this trust? That’s the question Job must answer, and that you and I must answer.